29 January 2016

Is Sassy Senator Sasse the only Republican with the guts to take on Trump?


Will Donald Trump suffer for boycotting last night’s Fox News debate? There’s at least one precedent that isn’t good for him. George H W Bush won an unexpected victory in the Iowa caucus of 1980 after Ronald Reagan had skipped the equivalent encounter of that year. Iowans do not like to be taken for granted and Trump’s objection to Megyn Kelly’s track record of tough questions was about the worst excuse imaginable for someone who has been repeatedly accused of misogyny.

Trump only has a 6.8% lead in the latest Iowa polling. If second-placed Ted Cruz does triumph in Monday’s contest it may be a combination of Trump’s boycott and the Texan senator’s superior ground operation that provides the explanation.

At one point last night, however, I wondered if Trump might have made the right decision – at least tactically. The Fox News team – Bret Baier, Chris Wallace and Ms Kelly herself – gave the Republican candidates a tough grilling, combining video evidence and pinpoint questioning. Rubio was put on the spot about his see-sawing positions on immigration and looked decidedly uncomfortable trying to respond. Christie was asked about the “Bridgegate” scandal in New Jersey that saw some of his closest advisers resign. Cruz was pointedly quizzed about his unpopularity amongst other Republican senators – and looked petty when he complained about the questioning. Trump wouldn’t have escaped such scrutiny and as the frontrunner may have received the lion’s share of it – both from the moderators and from his onstage rivals. The new “Trump Questions” website lists his many flip-flops for which he’s never been properly held accountable.

One Republican politician who is trying to hold Mr Trump accountable is the freshman senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse. Over the last few days he has repeatedly asked the billionaire hotelier to explain why he once supported government paying for all healthcare“hated the concept of guns”once supported a $6 trillion tax hike… and (gloves off) had bragged about multiple affairs.

Senator Sasse hasn’t endorsed any rival candidate but this week has been to Iowa to campaign alongside Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina. “Anyone But Trump” seems to be his message to the Republican base.

It’s not clear that the relatively unknown Sasse will have any impact on the Trump juggernaut but – like the National Review and Weekly Standard – he is at least trying to slow it. The same cannot be said of other Republican leaders like George W Bush, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. It reminds me of the refusal of Labour’s big beasts – Gordon Brown and Neil Kinnock, for example – to actively campaign to stop Jeremy Corbyn taking control of Britain’s Labour Party.

Perhaps they are afraid that Trump will win and their intervention will be pointless – as interventions by Brown, Kinnock and Ed Miliband would have been in the case of Corbyn? Perhaps they do not want to face a barrage of counter-attacks from Trump – he’s never afraid to kick back at his critics and in vulgar style? Perhaps they fear an intervention will be counter-productive and only give Trump more publicity? There is certainly a risk that Trump will draw energy from attacks from what many conservative activists see as a discredited establishment.

Personally, however, I think the GOP establishment can’t stand aside and continue to do so little. Trump’s opinion poll position isn’t weakening yet and they need to do something – and soon. At the very least they must encourage the electable candidates to end the circular firing squads against each other. More money is being spent attacking Marco Rubio than attacking Trump. $22m at the last count.  Unless the field thins dramatically after New Hampshire and one mainstream candidate emerges to stop Trump – and Cruz – the Republicans risk losing the White House, the Senate, the Supreme Court and even the House of Representatives to the Democrats. They also risk losing the support of Hispanics and other fast-growing minorities for a generation if they nominate Donald Let’s-Make-America-Hate-Again Trump.

Tim Montgomerie is a columnist for The Times, a Senior Fellow at Legatum Institute and co-founder of the new website The Good Right. His “reform of capitalism” report for the Legatum Institute was published on 4th November.