Op-ed: Where is the Republican establishment?

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Wednesday, January 13, 2016 4:12pm
  • Opinion

The establishment features prominently in the GOP presidential race. It is what Donald Trump and Ted Cruz rail against. It is hated by a significant portion of the Republican electorate. It is a ready term of abuse.

The establishment is a matter of obsession, but is almost nowhere to be seen, as its initial choice, Jeb Bush, languishes in the polls, and Trump and Cruz rise essentially untouched.

The establishment isn’t what it used to be. As Jay Cost of The Weekly Standard points out, the party once was a well-defined hierarchical organization in each state and chose presidential candidates without regard to public opinion. It had the power to nix candidates who clearly had the most popular support in favor of its preferred alternatives — for example, blocking Teddy Roosevelt’s nomination in 1912 to stick with incumbent president William Howard Taft.

That establishment is long gone, replaced by a loose, informal network that has the power to influence, but not to decide, in the era of primaries and caucuses. There are no longer party bosses, and even the formal chairman of the party is diminished, thanks partly to the strictures of campaign-finance reform. A paraphrase of the old Henry Kissinger gibe about Europe is apt: Who do I call when I want to get the Republican establishment on the phone?

Which isn’t to say that the Republican establishment doesn’t exist. It is, roughly speaking, made up of current officeholders, prominent former officeholders, consultants and lobbyists, donors and business groups like the Chamber of Commerce.

It is a large group of people that doesn’t get together for regular meetings to decide what to do, nor does it walk in lockstep. But there is a default toward highly conventional political judgments, a distaste for social issues and support for comprehensive immigration reform. It tends to talk to itself, and disdain a populist, working-class politics. It can be terminally unimaginative and out of touch.

With its reputation so toxic, there has never been a better time to be anti-establishment. Inveighing against it is an effective rallying cry, at the same time that the establishment itself doesn’t pack much punch. Since the establishment is ill-defined, it can be used as an all-purpose cudgel. Marco Rubio, who defeated a sitting Republican governor in his Florida Senate primary in 2010 and ran against his own mentor and the presumed establishment choice in this presidential race (Jeb Bush), is now considered a dastardly tool of the establishment by those who oppose him.

The establishment hasn’t been in a position to impose a candidate on the party on a long time. But if it coalesces around a standard-bearer, it gives him the tools — chiefly money and endorsements — to persuade enough of the Republican electorate to nominate him. The establishment pick might get upset by an insurgent in a key state — think John McCain in New Hampshire in 2000 or Newt Gingrich in South Carolina in 2012 — but grinds him down with superior resources.

This time the establishment, at least a large complement of its donors, picked Bush, who turned out not to have the strength to scare competitors out of the race or to maintain a dominant position in the race.

Now the establishment is at sea, dazed and confused by the rise of Trump and powerless to stop him or, for the moment, even to influence the race. Some donors are afraid of being called a loser by Trump if they organize an effort against him. Others calculate that if they try to hurt Trump now, it will only help Cruz, who they worry might be as or more unelectable. And there is no clear alternative to Trump or Cruz, with other top candidates splitting support roughly evenly in New Hampshire.

Rarely has an establishment been so reviled and such a nonfactor. 2016 might be the year it goes down without a fight.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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