(Credit: Newscom)

Do Republicans deserve to lose? Consider the state of play as we write this in late January, just days from the first GOP nominating contests.
The Republican frontrunner is a longtime liberal whose worldview might best be described as an amalgam of pop-culture progressivism and vulgar nationalism. His campaign rallies are orgies of self-absorption, dominated by juvenile insults of those who criticize him and endless boasting about his poll numbers. He’s a narcissist and a huckster, an opportunist who not only failed to join conserv­atives in the big fights about the size and scope of government over the past several decades but, to the extent he was even aware of such battles, was often funding the other side, with a long list of contributions to the liberals most responsible for the dire state of affairs in the country, including likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
In short, he’s an opposition researcher’s dream. But Republicans have spent tens of millions of dollars on political advertising this cycle and virtually none of it has targeted Donald Trump. He is poised to glide into the early-state contests having largely avoided the kind of sustained paid-media attacks that bring down candidates with far fewer vulnerabilities.
Where is that money going? Much of it has been spent to attack Marco Rubio — more than $22 million since December 1, according to a Republican source who tracks campaign spending. Rubio defeated incumbent governor Charlie Crist for the Senate in 2010 as an antiestablishment, Tea Party candidate in Florida and won praise from across the GOP as the future of the Republican party and the face of modern conservatism. “You want conservative purity,” said Rush Limbaugh on September 7, 2011. “I’ll give it to you: Marco Rubio, who is someday going to be president of the United States.” Limbaugh was at least half right. Over his time in Congress, Rubio has earned a 98 percent rating from the American Conservative Union.
His one moment of apostasy, if you want to call it that, came on immigration. But even there Rubio’s position at its core was very close to those held by other conservatives: Sean Hannity called for a “pathway to citizenship” after the 2012 elections, and Ted Cruz favored a pathway to legalization or at least repeatedly made that argument. Even Trump, whose rise is often attributed to his restrictionist immigration views, in 2013 pronounced himself open to “amnesty” after the border was secured.
So here we are. The Republican frontrunner, a non­conservative longtime Democrat, is waltzing into GOP nominating contests largely untouched by GOP paid media. And the candidate long viewed as the party’s brightest hope for the future has been the subject of relentless negative ads.
Who is to blame? Virtually everyone.
First, the establishment. That descriptor has been so widely used this cycle as to render it virtually meaningless. Tea Party darling Marco Rubio is widely seen as competing in the “establishment lane” of the GOP primary. Trump supporters have labeled as “establishment” groups that were founded to challenge the Republican establishment — Club for Growth and Heritage Action, to name just two. And now Ted Cruz is accusing Trump himself of representing the Republican establishment.
But there is an actual establishment — risk-averse Republican donors and consultants, mercenary GOP-leaning lobbyists, and feckless congressional leadership. And this establishment deserves considerable blame for the current state of affairs. There are dozens of examples. But the origins of the fight over government funding and Obama­care from 2013 are instructive.
On July 17 of that year, Senator Mike Lee gave a speech on the Senate floor. The White House was calling for a delay in the implementation of two key elements of Obama­care— the employer mandate and verification of eligibility for subsidies on health care exchanges. Lee’s argument was simple: If the Obama administration cannot implement the law, Congress shouldn’t fund it. He proposed a big fight on a big issue, one where public opinion was squarely on the side of Republicans. It was a fight Republicans could win even if they lost. By elevating the issue and highlighting the deep problems with Obama­care, Republicans could at least force Democrats to retrench and vigorously defend it. And if Republicans stuck together, perhaps they could pick off a few wavering Democrats up for reelection in 2014.
Lee drafted a letter with Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and circulated it among their colleagues in the Senate. One after another they signed it — conservatives and moderates alike—and even two members of Senate GOP leadership. And then, suddenly, everything changed. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell didn’t want the fight and enlisted his deputies to kill the effort. Within days, five signatories asked for their names to be removed, and the whole thing collapsed.
It was a profile in cowardice. There were others: the fiscal cliff, the Export-Import Bank, the farm bill, the transportation reauthorization, the recent omnibus. Senate Republicans even quietly removed Paul Ryan’s entitlement reforms from their most recent budget proposal, despite the fact that every senator up in 2016 has voted in favor of them before.
Perhaps it didn’t make sense to engage on all of these fights, with Barack Obama still sitting comfortably in the White House. But was it too much to have a real battle on just one of them? To think strategically? To challenge the White House with something other than press releases?
The roots of our current discontent lie here. And conservatives are right to be angry. But the establishment does not shoulder the blame alone. As one conservative strategist told us: “Leadership is to blame for never identifying any hill worth dying on,” but critics of the establishment “are to blame for only being interested in dying.”
To put it another way: If the establishment is responsible for the conditions that led to Donald Trump, many critics of the establishment are responsible for making him the frontrunner. Since Trump entered the race, these voices — on television, on talk radio, in Congress, even in the Republican presidential field — amplified his craziness. They rationalized his vulgarity, explained away his insults, ignored his lies, even celebrated his ignorance.
Mock a war hero? Trump isn’t politically correct! Ban every Muslim? The man has a point! Embrace a Russian dictator who kills his political opponents and journalists? Trump being Trump! Belittle the looks of a female opponent? He’ll be tough on Hillary! Ridicule a reporter with a disability? Finally someone who stands up to the liberal media! Nuclear triad? Hezbollah versus Hamas? Quds Force or the Kurds? He’ll hire people who know these things!
Some of those who have championed Trump have become true believers. Rush Limbaugh said last week that the rise of Trump means “nationalism and populism have overtaken conservatism in terms of appeal.” For others, he was a means to an end. Mark Levin, who was more a Trump defender than a Trump booster, has become a harsh critic, accusing Trump of practicing “crony capitalism” and “taking the low road” in his attacks on Ted Cruz. Last week, Levin tweeted: “Based on what you’ve observed today & the last few days, do you believe Trump’s a reliably solid conservative?”
Cruz himself praised Trump for months despite the fact that they were rivals. “He’s bold and brash, and he’s willing to speak the truth. And he’s taking on the Washington cartel,” Cruz proclaimed in an interview on Hannity last July. But now, with the first Republican nominating contests just days away, Cruz is making the polar opposite critique. “Donald Trump said just yesterday that the problem with me is that I wouldn’t go to Washington to make a deal and go along to get along with the Democrats,” Cruz said. “If you’re looking for someone who’s a dealmaker, who’ll capitulate even more to the Democrats, who’ll give in to Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi, then perhaps Donald Trump is your man.”
Did Cruz badly misjudge Trump? Or did he know all along that he was boosting an unprincipled dealmaker? If it’s the former, what does that say about Cruz’s judgment? If it’s the latter, what does it say about Cruz’s scruples?
There’s much to like about Cruz. He’s smart, he’s articulate, he’s a nimble debater, and he’s made clear time and again that he doesn’t care at all what the New York Times editorial board thinks of him.
There may be even more to like about Marco Rubio. He is among the best communicators in American politics. He is an instinctive, visceral conservative who doesn’t need a focus group to understand how to speak to conservatives. But his appeal isn’t limited to Republicans. Rubio all along has looked like the strongest general election candidate in the Republican field — the only conserv­ative who has a chance, at least, to put in play states that haven’t been competitive in recent presidential elections.
Rubio is currently third in national polling at 11.6 percent of the GOP primary vote, well behind Trump (34.8) and Cruz (18.8). Current polling puts him third in Iowa, fourth in New Hampshire, and third in South Carolina. Given the length of the coming delegate contest, the suddenly harsh attacks between Trump and Cruz, and the volatility of the Republican primary electorate, it would be foolish to write off any candidate, much less one as talented as Rubio.
But if the polls stay as they are and if Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee, then Republicans surely deserve their fate. And that would be a shame. Because Democrats — whose seven years of activist government at home and weakness abroad have left the country in crisis, and who will nominate either an avowed socialist or a failed secretary of state under investigation for mishandling classified information, a woman who is one of the least trusted public figures in America — surely don’t deserve to win.