The GOP now falls back on its hope that Rubio can convert his third-place performance in Iowa to a leap into second place in New Hampshire next week, and, eventually, to outright victory in some future primary. But that won't happen unless Cruz inexplicably fails to capitalize on his come-from-behind Iowa victory, and Trump somehow collapses after a perfectly respectable second-place finish there. Until then, everything we've seen for months suggests Republican voters want to deny the Republican establishment a victory. That's exactly what they did in Iowa, and they did it because the establishment decided, through years and years of fecklessness, to let them.
When Republican insiders and donors started warming up to Donald Trump in recent weeks, it was one of the more widely reported political developments in a while. And why not? As the Washington Post's Dana Milbank wrote recently, "That soft flapping sound you hear is the Grand Old Party waving the flag of surrender to Trump. Party elites ... are acquiescing to the once inconceivable."
This wasn't just the result of polling results; the Republican establishment had come up with a plan. Here's how it would work:
Step 1. Help Trump dispatch Ted Cruz in Iowa.
Step 2. Watch Cruz fade after he loses his must-win state.
Step 3. Move closer to a one-on-one matchup, pitting Trump against an establishment-friendly rival (almost certainly Marco Rubio).
Step 4. Consolidate support behind the establishment-friendly rival, while Trump hits his ceiling.
Step 5. Sit back, pop the champagne, and wait for all the #thepartydecides tweets.
The plan, we now know, didn't work. The Republican establishment made a conscious choice -- Cruz must be stopped, quickly -- and the Texas senator foiled the gambit. Iowa's six-term GOP governor said Cruz was the one candidate who must lose, and a plurality of Hawkeye State Republicans backed him anyway.
So why is the New York Times' David Brooks, who's been in a full-blown panic over the direction of his party, suddenly breathing a sigh of relief?
"What happened in Iowa was that some version of normalcy returned to the G.O.P. race," the center-right columnist wrote overnight with an almost audible exhale. "The precedents of history have not been rendered irrelevant."
I think this helps capture the attitudes of Republican elites this morning. I also think it's misguided.
Look, I realize we're all supposed to play along with the idea that Rubio has "momentum" because he finished third, just like everyone expected. I also realize we're not supposed to notice that Hillary Clinton's first-place finish should be seen as bad news while Rubio's third-place finish must be considered a triumph.
But the fact remains that Cruz came from behind to win a key contest, which should give him a boost heading into the next round. Just as importantly, he and Trump combined for 52% of the vote. (Add Ben Carson to the mix, and the trio captured 61% of the vote.)
"Some version of normalcy returned to the G.O.P. race"? Perhaps, though that sounds an awful lot like wishful thinking. Following Cruz's victory, and the demise of the establishment's convoluted plan, it appears Republicans are confronted with less normalcy and more chaos.
The overnight piece from the New Republic's Brian Beutler rings true.
Quite right. The assumption this morning seems to be that Trump's veil of inevitability has been pierced and his long-awaited decline has begun. That's possible, of course, but it's also possible he'll win New Hampshire, where polls have shown him dominating for months, with relative ease. Cruz has been in the mix for second place in the Granite State, and it's hard to imagine how an Iowa victory makes this less possible.
What's more, the GOP's sigh-of-relief crowd continues to work from the assumption that as candidates like Ben Carson, Rand Paul, and others eventually leave the stage, their supporters will gravitate towards the establishment favorite. I've seen no evidence that suggests such a scenario is likely.
Maybe Rubio, riding a wave of media hype, will succeed in his 3-2-1 blueprint, but Cruz winning Iowa doesn't make such a scenario more likely. It does the opposite.
Republican elites and pundits must be careful not to blindly accept the hype they're pushing so aggressively, even if it makes them feel better.