When a rooster gets its head cut off, it can still run around the barnyard for a few seconds. This, as scientists know, is because the neural network in the spinal cord is pre-programmed to direct the muscles in frequently used movement patterns such as running. And as political scientists and pundits should know, this explains why the Republican rooster is running around the party barnyard these days cocka-doodle-dooing "Trump is better than Cruz!" despite -- or rather because of -- having lost its head.
When the Republican rooster still had its head, and we're talking only a few weeks ago, it was cocka-doodle-dooing about how Rubio or Bush or Kasich or even Christie -- Somebody Please! -- was going to knock off the front runners and walk the Grand Old Party back into the White House. But no more. And so it has come down to the Merely Awful versus the Truly Awful for the GOP.
This has happened for reasons both obvious and no longer particularly surprising.
To riff off a great Robert Hunter/Grateful Dead lyric, if you plant ice you're gonna harvest wind, and Republicans have done a textbook job of just that by refusing to learn the lessons from crushing defeats in 2008 and 2012, indulging in the magical thinking that has long pervaded the American conservative movement, and perfecting ignorance and hate as messages as its drift to the right morphed into a full-blown gallop and the party's base came to be dominated by Bible thumpers and angry white men -- and sometimes Bible thumping angry white men.
Both Trump and Cruz are nativist demagogues and sure losers should they get the Republican nomination, but back-on-their-heels party establishmentarians have been doing another kind of walk -- a frog walk -- toward Trump because they are first and foremost cowards who couldn't take a principled stand if their heinies -- or country and party -- depended on it. They have never spoken out about the party's appalling antipathy toward minorities, women and the poor. No one should be surprised that they are surrendering pretty much without a fight, and that while they view Cruz as a noxious pariah, the bigger problem for them in the long run is that he's a threat to the comity of the barnyard.
And so you have the sad sight of Senator Orrin Hatch, a party éminence grise, its longest serving senator and, lest we liberals forget, Senator Ted Kennedy's longtime ally, saying that "I've come around a little bit on Trump."
Then there is Bob Dole, who tepidly allows that Trump has "got the right personality and he’s kind of a deal-maker."
"If it came down to Trump or Cruz, there is no question I'd vote for Trump," fellow career philanderer Rudy Giuliani opines. "As a party, we'd have a better chance of winning with him, and I think a lot of Republicans look at it that way."
"Cruz isn't a good guy, and he'd be impossible as President," said New York Representative Peter King. "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."
Note that Hatch, Dole, Giuliani, and King are all moderates by contemporary standards, and while they damn Trump with faint praise, they refuse to call him out on his policy excesses. And so it's not about the best candidate or even the most electable one, but about maintaining what clout they have left while protecting the barnyard. Long story short, Trump would not cause long-lasting damage to the barnyard, while Cruz would.
"You can coach Donald," helpfully explains former GOP operative Charles Black. "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.' "
Conservative intellectuals are not so sanguine, which prompted the National Review to publish a symposium of mini-essays last week titled "Against Trump" in which big names made the case that they really didn't have a clue about why he is so popular (hint: it's because he's not really a conservative, he's a fricking populist) while trying to protect their corner of the barnyard. And how craptastic that one of the National Review contributors was Bill Kristol, whose hard-on for Sarah Palin greased her path to the vice presidential nomination and coronation as the Queen of White Rage, and now Donald Trump's best buddy as he shows signs of running away from the field in that state's February 1 caucus.
The moderates' surrender is even more dismaying when you consider that the early caucus and primary states -- Iowa and New Hampshire chief among them -- rarely pick the eventual winner and, at best, winnow down the field.
But you know things are really bad in the barnyard when Mister Plain Vanilla aka David Brooks of The New York Times, laments that:
"Members of the Republican governing class are like cowering freshmen at halftime of a high school football game. Some are part of 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. 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 [defeat]."
If nothing else, Republicans have been expert at backlash politics, so it's kind of ironic in a schadenfreudey way that they are now garment-rending victims of their own game.