If the prospect of “Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump” hasn’t already begun to spook some members of the GOP leadership, it’s just a matter of time.
The latest polling shows Trump holding strong at about 20 points ahead of his nearest competitor — 36 percent to 16 percent for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has passed Dr. Ben Carson. There is evidence of Trump Panic and Trump Talking Points being drafted for people who don’t buy what Trump is selling, but who might have to become Trump apologists.
Last week The Washington Post reported on a GOP memo circulating among congressional candidates about “how to stay afloat if Trump becomes the nominee.”
There’s a delicate balance here. Those courting GOP voters know Trump has made a connection. They are advised to pass through the Trump cafeteria of mostly extreme issues — such as immigration, border security, deportation and Muslim registries — and be careful about what they put on their plates.
Nobody in the Idaho congressional delegation has pledged support for Trump this side of the July 2016 nominating convention. Rep. Raul Labrador is still backing Sen. Rand Paul. Rep. Mike Simpson hasn’t decided which candidate he is backing — but says it won’t be Trump. Sen. Jim Risch has endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio, and his counterpart, Sen. Mike Crapo, says he is not endorsing anyone before the March 8 presidential primary in Idaho.
It seems unthinkable that any of them would withhold support for Trump if he’s the GOP nominee in the general election. As Crapo put it in a statement, “It is imperative that Republicans recapture the White House, especially in light of complaints that the Executive Branch is exerting too much authority through executive orders and other agency rulemaking.” A Crapo spokesman said Trump has come up at town meetings, where Crapo has noted that Trump has “said things that people are feeling.”
But that feeling may be numbness for the 64 percent of Republicans who scatter their support among all the other candidates. To them, Trump’s rise remains one of the most puzzling, remarkable and frustrating developments in recent political history. Once-promising candidates with big names and limited promise — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal among them — have been shown the side of the road. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush repeatedly has been outfitted with very expensive tires and gained no traction.
The rest of the field and much of the country seems to be waiting for Trump to really blow it one of these days — perhaps at the next GOP debate, on Dec. 15. Or between then and the Feb. 1 Iowa Caucuses or the Feb. 9 New Hampshire Primary. Or the Feb. 20 Nevada Caucuses or the Feb. 27 South Carolina Primary.
Saying “relax, it’s early,” these people remain convinced Trump has endless opportunities ahead to self-destruct:
▪ He will do something so outlandish that he will fade.
▪ He will get beaten in the early contests and lose interest.
▪ He will discover his polling numbers will never grow beyond where they are now.
I’ve got news for these people. Trump has had six months to see his support fade and it hasn’t happened. Instead, his brash-with-cash brand is on top.
People like to bring up what was going on in December 2011, when Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee were polling well heading into the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. Every one of these men became footnotes.
But none had the lead Trump assumed early in the summer and has never relinquished. None had Trump’s money, instant name recognition and can’t-look-away style. The rest of the field seems content to take its place on the deck of some boring barge while Trump circles and taunts them from his flashy, fast-moving cigarette boat.
The establishment money fears a Trump candidacy would be a disaster for Republicans in the general election, yet we’ve seen no evidence of a foolproof Dump Trump strategy. The lack of a Trump Card may be the reason why Trump Panic is starting to set in.
Robert Ehlert is the Statesman’s editorial page editor. Reach him at 377-6437 or follow @IDS_HelloIdaho.