Last spring and well into summer, no one could have predicted that this is where we would stand with less than two weeks to the Iowa caucuses.
In the most recent NBC News/Survey Monkey national poll, Donald Trump leads at 38 percent, followed by Ted Cruz at 21 percent. Together, the two men account for an impressive 59 percent of the GOP electorate, and should either of them falter, the other is best positioned to pick up his opponent's support.
Marco Rubio, the best remaining option for the party establishment, is barely afloat at 11 percent. Jeb Bush is drowning at 4 percent. So even though no actual votes have been cast yet, it's getting hard to envision a series of events that does not produce either Cruz or Trump as the party nominee.
And it's not just about -- or even mainly about -- the poll numbers. Say what you will about Cruz and Trump as potential general-election candidates or as president; they reflect the angry mood of the Republican base more accurately than anybody else in the field, and that mood shows no sign of breaking.
In fact, rather than try to challenge it, even the supposed moderate candidates -- Rubio, Bush and Chris Christie -- have chosen to surrender to it. They too are now campaigning in dark, apocalyptic tones, trying to tap into conservative alienation. As Rubio sympathized to a group of Iowa voters over the weekend, “We sometimes feel like strangers in our own nation,” and I think that's a pretty accurate summation of what the party faithful is feeling.
But if that's the winning message, Trump and Cruz will always be more adept and shameless about spreading it. It's their native turf, and I just don't see anybody else in the race capable of competing with them.
David Brooks, writing in The New York Times, reflects the growing sense of panic among what he calls "the Republican governing class." He complains that part of them have joined "the Surrender Caucus, sitting sullenly on their stools resigned to the likelihood that their team is going to get crushed. Some are thinking of jumping ship to the Trump campaign with an alacrity that would make rats admire and applaud."
"Rarely has a party so passively accepted its own self-destruction," Brooks writes. "Sure, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are now riding high in some meaningless head-to-head polls against Hillary Clinton, but the odds are the nomination of either would lead to a party-decimating general election."
To avoid that calamity, Brooks calls for the establishment to pool its remaining influence around one mainstream alternative to Trump and Cruz, with a more mainstream campaign message as well:
"Years ago, reform conservatives were proposing a Sam’s Club Republicanism, which would actually provide concrete policy ideas to help the working class, like wage subsidies, a higher earned-income tax credit, increased child tax credits, subsidies for people who wanted to move in search of work and exemption of the first $20,000 in earnings from the Medicaid payroll tax. This would be a conservatism that emphasized social mobility at the bottom, not cutting taxes at the top.
Maybe it’s time a center-right movement actually offered that agenda."
I'm sorry, but as a short-term proposition that's laughable. With voting about to commence and passions high, it is much too late for "reform conservatives" to attempt to sell such a message to primary voters. That window slammed shut a long time ago.
Put another way, it is also much too early for that message. The 59 percent of the party backing Cruz and Trump have convinced themselves that they not only constitute a majority of the party but a majority of the country as well. Yes, at one level they may feel like "strangers in their own land," but at another they do not accept that they live in a country that has twice elected Barack Obama to the White House. They still see Obama as an aberration, as evidence of the failure and even betrayal of the craven GOP establishment rather than an indication of what the country really is.
No change is possible until they are given one last chance to test that thesis, this time with a champion finally willing to give the American people a stark choice. In Hillary Clinton, they would have a Democratic opponent who personifies a generation of GOP frustrations, which makes it even better. They demand a day of reckoning, one way or the other, and they're correct in believing that Cruz and Trump are the two candidates most able to provide it.