Many Americans were no doubt unpleasantly surprised to see Donald Trump fill his administration with Swamp hires, let the Swamp set his legislative priorities, appoint Swamp-friendly judicial nominees, and make Swamp-approved primary endorsements. But they should have seen it coming.
Way back at the height of the 2016 Republican primary, there were more than a few establishment Republicans speaking openly about how they preferred Trump to Ted Cruz for one simple reason: because Trump’s grasp of conservative issues and principles lacked any real depth or firm conviction, it would be much easier to them to steer him in more, shall we say, comfortable directions.
While that view was not universally held among the Swamp GOP, it was very real, publicly expressed… and ultimately proven right. Below I have compiled a few examples, which are worth revisiting in light of how Trump’s presidency turned out, and especially before deciding whether to give him another chance in 2024.
The developing feeling among House Republicans? Donald Trump is preferable to Ted Cruz.
“If you look at Trump’s actual policies, they’re pretty thin. There’s not a lot of meat there,” says one Republican member in Ryan’s inner circle, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the two front-runners as leadership has carefully avoided doing all week. If Trump were to get the nomination, he would “be looking to answer the question: ‘Where’s the beef?’ And we will have that for him,” says the member.
The member says he believes that, when it comes down to it, “almost all of the candidates would subscribe to” the conservative agenda he and the rest of leadership are hoping to advance.
Except, that is, for Cruz.
“Look at the Senate. He hasn’t been a team player. He’s always been his own person with his own aspirations and his own vision, only concerned with where he wants to go. And, you know, for us, we want to work closely with the president. And with Cruz, there’s a question of whether that could happen.”
“Cruz has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way in D.C., whereas Trump hasn’t, and Trump up until this year was pretty much a player,” said Craig Shirley, a longtime GOP strategist and charter member of the establishment. “Ultimately, the Washington establishment deep down — although they find Trump tacky or distasteful — they think that they ultimately can work with him. Deep down, a lot of people think it is an act.”
There is ample reason for Republican insiders to feel more affinity to the real estate mogul than to the brash Texas tea party senator. As Shirley noted, Washington has spent decades doing business with Trump, if not personally begging him for checks.
But, mainly, the reason that Republican leaders are moving toward Trump has nothing to do with him. They viscerally, unashamedly loathe Cruz.
“Nobody likes him.” It’s a line Trump has used several times to describe Cruz, but it’s also a quote attributed to GOP greybeard Bob Dole that was published Wednesday by The New York Times (of all places). Another former Republican Senate majority leader, Trent Lott (R-Miss.), said the same day that he, too, would take Trump over Cruz. That came a day after Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, the longest-serving governor in the nation, broke his longstanding neutrality to encourage caucus-goers to vote against the Texas senator. That, in turn, came a week after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, said there were “issues” over whether Cruz was even eligible for the presidency — putting McCain philosophically in cahoots with Trump, a man who not too long ago mocked his war service.
Yet many members of the Republican influence apparatus, especially lobbyists and political strategists, say they could work with Trump as the party’s standard-bearer, believing that he would be open to listening to them and cutting deals, and would not try to take over the party.
“He’s got the right personality and he’s kind of a deal-maker,” said Bob Dole, the former Republican senator and 1996 presidential candidate.
Of course, this willingness to accommodate Trump is driven in part by the fact that few among the Republican professional class believe he would win a general election. In their minds, it would be better to effectively rent the party to Trump for four months this fall, through the general election, than risk turning it over Cruz for at least four years, as either the president or the next-in-line leader for the 2020 nomination.
And, even if Trump somehow found his way into the White House, the longtime Washington hands envision him operating as a pragmatist, leaving their power unchecked.
“We can live with Trump,” said Richard F. Hohlt, a veteran lobbyist, reflecting the sentiment of his colleagues at last week’s meeting of the Republican National Committee in Charleston, South Carolina. “Do they all love Trump? No. But there’s a feeling that he is not going to layer over the party or install his own person. Whereas Cruz will have his own people there.”
If Cruz were the party’s nominee, said Charles R. Black Jr., a lobbyist who has worked on numerous Republican presidential campaigns, “what would happen is a lot of the elected leaders and party elders would try to sit down and try to help Cruz run a better campaign, but he may not listen. Trump is another matter.”
“You can coach Donald,” Black said. “If he got nominated he’d be scared to death. That’s the point he would call people in the party and say, ‘I just want to talk to you.'”
Trump is also a recognizable type in the political world. A wealthy businessman, he has given money to donation-hungry candidates for decades, often welcoming the supplicants to his Manhattan office. He has also employed a small stable of lobbyists in Washington, such as Black, and in state capitals to promote his real estate and casino empire. He has had large law and lobbying firms on retainer.
“Between Trump and Cruz, it’s not even close,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a longtime House moderate who has not endorsed a candidate. “Cruz isn’t a good guy, and he’d be impossible as president. People don’t trust him. And regardless of what your concern is with Trump, he’s pragmatic enough to get something done. I also don’t see malice in Trump like I see with Cruz.”
Trump fired back Thursday at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, saying that Cruz was “slimy” and unpopular in the Senate, whereas he would be able to “get things done.”
“I can tell you, they like me, those guys,” Trump said. “And there’s nothing wrong with that, folks. We’ve got to make deals. We don’t want to sign executive orders. We want to make good deals.”
Yet among some in the GOP, there’s a sense that the extreme rhetoric that has fueled Trump’s campaign — including the comments about immigrants and his call to temporarily bar Muslim foreigners from entering the United States — is just talk. In a general election, they believe, he could say something different.
“With Trump, hey, it’s just a deal,” said Alex Castellanos, a longtime Republican strategist. “The primary’s one deal, that’s done. If he were to be the nominee, the next deal’s a general [election]. You can see him saying, ‘We had to do what we had to do to win the primary, but now’s the general, and we’ve got to beat Hillary.’ You can see him pivot on a dime.
Enough with the excuses. Let’s try competence and conservatism next time.