Just days before the Iowa caucuses, political professionals and intellectual elites who form two pillars of the modern Republican coalition have concluded the race for their party’s nomination has come down to two unpalatable options: On one side is a populist billionaire who appeals to an angry, nativist segment of the GOP’s base. On the other, a rigid ideologue trying to tap into a vein of conservatism that feels left behind, both politically and economically.
After losing two straight presidential contests with nominees who failed to thrill conservative voters, this year’s choice between Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas seems firmly in the hands of the vocal activist class. Party and intellectual elites feel as if they are watching, helplessly, from the sidelines.
While the activist class contemplates its options, the choice between Trump and Cruz has exposed another rift, this one between those very Republicans who find their influence so diminished. It is a rift between pragmatism and ideology, one that threatens to scar the Republican Party for years to come. In a sense, it is a debate over which candidate would damage the party less.
On the pragmatic side of the growing chasm sit the political professionals interested first and foremost in winning elections. Many strategists, consultants and ad makers who once saw Trump as little more than a side show can no longer deny his seemingly entrenched stay atop the polls. They also cannot help but see Trump’s strength in early general election polling, in which he runs even with or only slightly behind the Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Clinton’s own political struggles and Trump’s success in exploiting the electorate’s anger make Trump a viable, if not terribly strong, general election contender. In conversations with many of the same strategists who once dismissed the notion that Trump could be the Republican nominee, talk now turns quickly to his prospects against a wounded Clinton.
Cruz, on the other hand, has veered so far to the right that his nomination, they believe, would cause a voter exodus that would harm the party’s candidates up and down the ballot, ensuring a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate and — in the most extreme projections — a Democratic House.
On the other side sit the intellectual elites, those concerned more with the ideological identity of the Republican Party. While Cruz’s personality and approach may not fit perfectly with their wishes, his positions adhere with most, if not all, of the Republican platform.
Trump does not fit the conservative mold, to put it mildly. He has been both for and against amnesty for undocumented immigrants, for and against major health care reform, and for and against abortion rights. His foreign policy, such as it is, is informed by Sunday morning political talk shows, he has said. His political donations have gone as often to Democrats as to Republicans.
To nominate Trump, many intellectuals believe, would be to abandon any coherent vision of conservatism — and to entrust the conservative party to a candidate who has seemingly made it his business to insult just about every voting bloc to whom Republicans must appeal in the future.
Both factions have made their fears of a ticket led by Trump or Cruz clear in recent weeks, fears that amount to a grudging acceptance of one candidate because the other would cause too much damage.
Political professionals, in the forms of pragmatic Republicans such as former Sen. Bob Dole and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, have warned strongly against nominating Cruz, while offering at least limited praise to Trump. They are willing to accept Trump, inconsistent as he may be, because they believe he would do less damage to the thousands of other Republicans running for other offices this year.
Conservatives who fill newspaper opinion pages have lambasted Trump: National Review dedicated its most recent issue to pages of scathing attacks on his record (Indeed, loud efforts by some in the political class to organize an anti-Trump campaign have fallen flat, while Trump’s most consistent critics have been opinion leaders like George Will and Charles Krauthammer). They are willing to accept Cruz, politically dangerous as he might be, to preserve the GOP’s ideological foundation.
The twin conclusions drawn by both factions explain why groups such as the Republican National Committee — which exists, after all, to win elections, not to enforce conservatism among its elected officials — have softened its tone on Trump, and why intellectuals, the guardians of conservative ideology, have more often embraced Cruz.
In the short run, the decision is in the hands of voters who are furious at Washington, even at those leaders within their own party. But the consequences of their choice will reverberate in the long run: Cruz could cost the party many of its hard-won electoral victories from the last several cycles. Trump could leave the party brand in tatters, its image among crucial minority constituencies even more damaged than it already is.
Neither option is appealing to the political and intellectual elites who make up two legs of the modern Republican coalition. But both increasingly worry the choice is no longer theirs to make.