In the aftermath of Donald Trump's victory in the Nevada caucus, an addendum to my NRO piece yesterday arguing that a smaller field was no guarantee of a Trump defeat:
Some seem to think that all it takes to defeat Trump is a game of musical chairs. It's clear why the partisans of individual candidates would like every other non-Trump to drop out. It's also clear why defenders of the status quo might argue that a dropout sweepstakes is all the GOP needs right now; by making the Trump phenomenon be about personality rather than policy, they get to ward off a discussion of the broader forces driving Trump's rise and, implicitly, what policy steps might be taken to address these forces. (For the record: not all proponents of winnowing the field are partisans of other candidates or fear policy reform. In fact, many proponents of reform have been major critics of Trump.)
Winnowing the field may indeed hurt Trump, but the calculus is more complex than some winnowers might admit. The fact that Trump reaches across many sectors of the GOP coalition makes it harder to predict exactly where supporters of various candidates will go if they do drop out.
If it's the case that policy concerns have in part driven the rise of Trump, non-Trumps will have to think about how to speak to those concerns for both the short and the long term. In the short term, policy innovation could help strengthen the coalitions of various non-Trump candidates. In the long term, policy reform might be even more important. As Henry Olsen and James C. Capretta noted today, Republicans will need many of Trump's supporters if they hope to win in November. Therefore, they'll have to find a way of keeping his supporters within the GOP coalition after the primary.
Now, I have argued that it's possible to accommodate populist tendencies without sacrificing key conservative principles; Olsen and Capretta's discussion seems to be suggesting something along those lines, too. That possibility remains open to any of the Republican candidates still running. A Republican party that reaches out to both the aspirational and the struggling could forge a workable governing majority. But it will take policy reform to do that (whether you call it reform conservatism, populist conservatism, libertarian populism, or something else).
Trump has staked a major claim on the current insurgent populism. This is one of the reasons why his rivals, if they want to supplant him, will have to offer more specific plans if they hope gain some of that populist energy for themselves. In order to prove that their electoral "product" is better, the non-Trumps might need to explain how their specific policies address populist concerns. If his opponents start getting into the weeds of policy in order to appeal to the populist insurgency, Trump himself will be forced to become more specific in his own policy message. Such a policy-oriented discussion would likely change the trajectory of the campaign, though it's hard to say exactly how. That change may strengthen Trump's candidacy and make him a stronger general-election contender, but it may also strengthen the standing of one or more of his rivals for both the primary and the general.
If any of the non-Trumps hope to gain traction, there are better things they can do than complain about how everyone else should drop out. They could call for breaking up the big banks or slashing the number of H-1B visas or trade reforms that honor market principles and shore up the working class. They could forthrightly attack the poison of identity politics and offer explicit, in-depth discussions about how their tax policies will help the average family.
Without embracing policy reform, Trump's rivals may find that, when the music ends, The Donald is the last one left with a chair.