Does the Republican Establishment Want Clinton to Win?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Last week Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) appeared on Trevor Noah’s Daily Show to explain his endorsement of Ted Cruz, a man for whom Graham has repeatedly expressed contempt:

Graham compared the choice between Trump and Cruz to being shot in the head or poisoned, but hinted that there might be an antidote:

Donald is like being shot in the head. You might find an antidote to poisoning, I don’t know, but maybe there’s time.

This got me thinking–what could the antidote be? I have a theory that it might be Hillary Clinton. Far-fetched? Perhaps, but hear me out.

Ted Cruz cannot realistically win on the first ballot.  He’s nowhere close to meeting his projections:

Republicans vs Target Late March

The much-derided Bernie Sanders is currently at 92% of his target. Cruz is 40 points worse. It’s not happening.  That said, while Donald Trump is close to on-target for a first ballot nomination, he’s not quite there. This means that Graham’s support for Cruz is not about actually ensuring that Cruz wins the nomination–it’s about preventing Trump from receiving enough support for a first ballot win. This is why Graham is backing Cruz rather than Kasich–clearly Graham would rather have Kasich as the nominee (they’re much closer to one another politically than either is to Cruz), but Graham knows that the candidate with the best chance of peeling away enough Trump voters to deny Trump a first ballot win is Cruz. Trump’s supporters are anti-establishment, and they are more likely to be drawn away by Cruz than by an establishment figure like Kasich.

So let’s say that Trump comes in just shy of 1,237 delegates. What happens then? On the second ballot, none of the delegates have to stay with their first choice picks. This means not only that Trump’s delegates don’t have to stay with him, but that Cruz’s don’t either. The establishment can use the second ballot and subsequent ballots to build support for someone they actually like. We already know that the republican establishment is infiltrating Trump’s delegates with anti-Trump republicans so that if a second ballot happens, many Trump delegates may defect. But they don’t have to defect to Cruz–they could go to Kasich, or a defunct candidate like Rubio, or a non-candidate like Romney. They could even go to Lindsey Graham himself. This may be what Graham means by “antidote”. Cruz will also have to police his own delegates to ensure they don’t go missing. Once a first ballot happens and no one has a majority, the group with the best organization will prevail, and that’s often the establishment. From what I’ve heard, Cruz has a pretty strong organization, but it’s by no means a foregone conclusion he prevails.

But what happens if the republicans nominate Cruz or someone from the establishment instead of Trump? Even if Trump doesn’t get a majority, he is certain to come close, and his fans will be very cross if he is not the nominee. In The Art of the Deal, Trump lists 11 guiding principles for deal-making, which he calls “elements of the deal”. The eighth element of the deal is “fight back”–always hit back against critics and adversaries, even if it looks bad. For Trump fighting back is about deterrence. If adversaries know that you will hit back, they are less likely to hit you in the first place. The presidential race is the most high-profile deal Trump has tried to make. If the party hits him on national television and he does not hit back, the eighth element of the deal is irredeemably compromised. If Trump is denied the nomination when he leads in the delegate count by so much, his principles indicate that he has to run as an independent. Perhaps in anticipation of this, Trump recently revoked his promise to support the eventual republican nominee. Those who read The Art of the Deal knew not to take that promise seriously–the fifth element of the deal is “use your leverage”. Trump is threatening to run independently to frighten the party into nominating him, and if he doesn’t follow through on that threat, he damages his leverage in all future negotiations, both public and private sector.

The only way Trump could avoid running as an independent if he doesn’t get the nomination is if the Republican Party bribes him with something large enough that he can credibly claim to have gotten something for giving up his leverage. Can you think of any bribes that would be big enough for Donald Trump? None come to my mind. They could try to nominate someone attractive to Trump’s supporters, but Trump has run his campaign like a personality cult:

I alone can fix this problem. His supporters want him, not merely someone who shares his views. And besides, Trump’s views are anathema to the establishment anyway.

Does the republican establishment really believe that Donald Trump is going to go away quietly? The last time a major party convention got contentious was the democratic convention in 1968. That year, incumbent President Lyndon Johnson withdrew from consideration in March 1968–quite late in the election cycle. The democrats quickly tried to replace him, but collapsed into infighting. The democratic establishment backed Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the anti-war left was split between Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, and Robert F. Kennedy (who was killed during the race), and racist democrats angered by LBJ’s support for civil rights legislation rallied behind George Wallace. Yes, that George Wallace:

The anti-war left was unable to consolidate support behind one candidate, allowing the establishment to prevail with Humphrey. But Wallace’s people would not get in line, and neither would Wallace. He chose to run as an independent, stealing white working class votes away from Humphrey in the general election. Wallace took states in the south and in the north he flipped states to Nixon:

It is entirely consistent with everything we know about Donald Trump for him to do the very same thing to the Republican Party in 2016, giving Hillary Clinton the election. We know that Trump has long harbored an affection for Clinton and likely does not mind this outcome. The Clintons went to Trump’s wedding:

And Trump is on the record praising Clinton:

The republican establishment knows this–their super PACs run attack ads accusing him of being a closet democrat:

It is very likely that if Trump is not the nominee, he runs as an independent, and if he runs as an independent, the democratic nominee (which is likely to be Clinton) wins. So by choosing to endorse Cruz to attempt to deny Trump the nomination, the republican establishment is implicitly saying that they would rather see Clinton win than Trump.

Why would they prefer Clinton? On economic policy, Clinton is arguably closer to the republican establishment than Trump or Cruz is. The democratic and republican establishments are both closer to each other than either is to its own anti-establishment wing. The wealthy donors that support establishment politics have a core set of goals that both party establishments defend:

  • Both support NAFTA
  • Both support TPP
  • Both support immigration reform
  • Both support foreign aid
  • Both oppose a financial transaction tax
  • Both oppose single payer healthcare
  • Both oppose tuition free college
  • Both oppose a carbon tax
  • Both oppose a $15 minimum wage

Bernie Sanders’ left egalitarians want to do many of the things these establishments oppose, while Trump and Cruz’s right nationalists don’t want to do many of the things the establishments support. The republican establishment cares more about its core economic agenda than it does social issues. It cannot stomach a right nationalist government that opposes free trade and immigration. The wealthy people who support the republican establishment are big beneficiaries of free trade and immigration. It would not be unreasonable for these people to conclude that Clinton meets their ideological needs more than Trump or Cruz does, and it would not be unreasonable for republicans in congress to conclude that they’d rather work with a President Clinton than a President Trump or Cruz. Clinton may play for the other team, but at least she’s in the league.

Of course, if this is their attitude, they could never admit it publicly. The republican base has moved far to the right and would never forgive them for preferring Clinton to Trump and Cruz. So if the GOP establishment wants Clinton, it has to mask this by supporting the candidates who will bring about the convention bloodbath that clears the path for her rather than support her openly. The support has to be implicit rather than explicit.

That said, I don’t want to get carried away here–let’s remember Hanlon’s Razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

It’s entirely possible that Lindsey Graham and the republicans don’t realize that failing to nominate Trump is highly likely to produce a George Wallace situation that gives the election to Hillary Clinton. The fact that they are still trying to block Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination indicates that at least some of the leadership still delusively thinks it is possible for an anti-Trump republican to be elected president in 2016. So we may just be dealing with tactical incompetence on a grand scale here. But both alternatives should make ordinary folks uncomfortable–the Republican Party establishment either wants Clinton to win or is too incompetent to see that its strategy leads directly toward that.