Historically, a dominant adversary faces multiple fronts. Whether Emperor Napoleon or Fuhrer Hitler, Governor Romney or Senator Clinton, or every game of Risk ever played, when one person held far too much power, his or her opponents had either an unspoken or blaring agreement to enact the balance of power doctrine; the weaker sides gang up on the stronger foe in order to level the field.
And yet, in recent weeks, while Donald Trump continues to dominate the polls, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich have attacked each other. Cruz gets hit on national security. Rubio gets hit on his absenteeism. Christie, Kasich, and Bush get hit on their moderate records. And these are just one area for each; the onslaughts have been thorough. The establishment lane is crowded, and each of these candidates want to stick out their elbows just a bit further.
But at what cost? Does it really make sense to eat your young when a vulture with a combover flies overhead ready to lap up the whole family?
In other words: what are they thinking?! Here are potential answers:
1. They’re gun-shy. Trump has eviscerated, embarrassed, and enfeebled every candidate who has vociferously opposed his candidacy. While all candidates have, at one point or another, pointed out their disagreements with him, only candidates like Perry, Jindal, Graham, and Pataki really called out his divisive, counterproductive bravado. The fate of each was their dismemberment at the hands of the guy who has dominated every news cycle since July. You can’t drown out the guy with all the microphones in his face. Our remaining contenders all worry about meeting the same fate, and they hope that Trump meets his demise either due to someone else’s hands, or his own.
Which brings us to…
2. They’re still holding out hope for something to bring him down. At this point, it’d be more like divine intervention, but it’s still the safest path for any single candidate. If they don’t risk anything but still get a weakened Trump, that’s ideal.
But that only explains why they’ve laid off Trump. Why attack each other?
That much is obvious. Each candidate wants to be the clear alternative when only a few contenders remain. In the meantime, they’ll tear each other apart in the hopes that they’re the most attractive substitute candidate when it comes time to make final voting decisions.
3. Lastly, it’s exceedingly easy to attack fellow politicians. They all have records. If they’re a legislator, they’ve cast hundreds of votes, many of which were complicated and can be spun to make the senator look weak or unconservative. If they’re a governor, they’ve had even more responsibility, often needing to work with a state legislature that had other plans or, frequently, needing to improvise to win over a diverse state rather than a party in Washington that often gives them their orders. These established candidates have records a mile long. That’s a lot of ammunition.
Of course, that ammunition is currently being used to shoot the establishment in its own foot. Trump is not only holding his national lead steady, but even in New Hampshire, just four weeks from its primary and the only moderate state of the opening three, his 30 points maintain dominance over the field as the establishment limits each other to 10 to 12 percent each.
I still think Trump loses to Cruz in Iowa, which will dent his New Hampshire numbers and allow him to be caught, but even that scenario requires one of the establishment candidates to surge. Rubio remains the most likely, but it’ll be really hard to really take off with the likes of Chris Christie clinging to the landing gear. Pretty soon, if Rubio continues to look strongest for a long run against Trump and Cruz, the governors will start launching “Obama II” missiles at the first term Senator. Rubio can be weakened by such salvos, but the governors all have popularity ceilings of their own.
And all the while, the vulture screams overhead, talons at the ready, blonde combover blowing in the breeze.