If Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee for president, blame Ronald Reagan.
Or at least, blame Establishment Republicans – i.e. the people who control the party system, the fundraising, and, once upon a time, the elections. They’re the ones dutifully following Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment: “’Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
Until last week, when Trump and Ted Cruz started negative ads in Iowa, not one major party figure, including the candidates, had stepped forward to say, in effect, that the emperor has no clothes. That means not just tit-for-tat name-calling but sustained, effective arguments — in paid advertising as well as at the debates — to counter some of the positions Trump has staked out.
I should note that I’m neither a supporter nor detractor of Donald Trump. I am, however, opposed to any candidate becoming political road kill simply because he or she was afraid of offending the supporters of a political juggernaut.
Lessons from Minnesota’s past
I’ve had my own experiences with both sides of the conundrum Republican officials now face. In 1998, as communications director of the Norm Coleman campaign for governor, I fumed when Coleman refused to engage candidate Jesse Ventura directly, even when, in debates, Ventura would admit his ignorance of government.
Though Ventura wasn’t a Republican, the leaders of the Coleman campaign — including some well-paid consultants and pollsters — insisted that taking down the wrestler would alienate the affections of his supporters who, they believed, would return to the GOP fold on voting day.
But allowing Ventura to control the microphone only reinforced his message that Coleman and Hubert Humphrey were career politicians with no real sense of the everyday citizen. Coleman lost to Ventura by three percentage points — 56,363 votes — and I remain convinced that had he challenged Ventura the outcome would have been different.
It was a lesson I had learned four years earlier. In 1994, Gov. Arne Carlson, who had been denied the endorsement of his own Republican party, faced Alan Quist in a primary.
Quist was a staunch social conservative who won national fame for a 30-hour lecture he gave as a state representative about the evils of sex. He said that women were genetically predisposed to subservience, and edited a children’s educational series that postulated that dinosaurs lived alongside humans until the 12th century.
What’s not to criticize?
All of it, according to some Republican Party activists and Carlson supporters — many of whom were and continue to be bold-faced names in the party. They strenuously objected when the Carlson campaign and the candidate himself pointed out and occasionally mocked the absurdity of Quist’s positions.
Despite the repeated protests from some corners of the GOP, the campaign stayed with the plan of attack, and Carlson won the primary with 60 percent of the vote. I’m convinced that failure to call out Quist would have led to Carlson’s defeat.
Out of fighting shape?
Which brings us to Donald J. Trump. Perhaps, faced with Trump’s unflagging dominance in the race, his opponents may shake off their fears of offending the Trump supporter who, it would appear, doesn’t mind being offended.
Party stalwarts could follow some of the suggestions found in this widely circulated New York Times commentary by former Bush administration official Peter Wehner, an exception who proves the rule of complacency among establishment figures.
Wehner offers some of the less effective arguments being used against Trump: that he is inexperienced, that he is crude and even cruel. But Whener also exposes weaknesses that could have been more effectively exploited, like Trump’s embrace of Vladimir Putin; or his unsuitability to be entrusted with access to the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
Because Trump has had a relatively easy time staying on top, the party and the GOP candidates — including Trump himself — may also soon realize they’re out of fighting shape for the battle that is sure to come in the general election.
The part of the Republican establishment that is anti-Donald Trump should make him earn the nomination. What have they got to lose?