Is Donald Trump rising, or is rest of Republican field sinking?

GOP Washington veterans are wondering if the Trump phenomenon is the result of faults in other candidates as much as any innate appeal of Donald Trump himself.

Richard Shiro/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the TD Convention Center, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015, in Greenville, S.C.

Is Donald Trump rising? Or is he just standing there while the rest of the GOP field sinks?

That’s a question that some GOP Washington veterans are beginning to ask as they watch The Donald seize control of the Republican race. They’re wondering if the Trump phenomenon is the result of faults in other candidates as much as any innate appeal of Mr. Trump himself.

They’re crossing their fingers and hoping that Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, or some other candidate acceptable to the old guard will sputter into life. But they’re no longer sure that will happen. Maybe that’s their real fear: not that Trump will win, but that they’re increasingly losing control over the Republican Party’s direction.

Publisher William Kristol at the right-leaning Weekly Standard raised this issue earlier this week. He wondered if 2016 will be 1988 all over again, when Democrats fumbled a good chance to win the White House by nominating an uninspiring Michael Dukakis.

“It may be that the lesson of the Trump surge – like that of the shorter-lived Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann boomlets in 2011 – is that the rest of the field isn’t what it should be,” Mr. Kristol wrote.

Kristol’s answer: Maybe the historically large GOP field should expand further. Perhaps House Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan should enter the race, or Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

But Kristol’s not the only one talking about this issue. Rich Lowry of the conservative National Review writes that Trump’s rise is due in part to the rest of the field having "failed." They constitute a vacuum, he writes in a Politico column.

“There’s 17 candidates and there’s nothing on. Except Donald Trump,” according to Mr. Lowry.

The Washington Post’s right-leaning blogger Jennifer Rubin blames the situation on inaction. GOP candidates and interest groups should act more forcefully to spread the word that Trump’s not a real conservative, she says.

What’s going on here? Is there a whiff of panic in the air? Perhaps. That may be due to the fact that what’s sometimes called the establishment wing of the GOP dissects the polls like everybody else. They’re noticing that Trump’s support comes from across the Republican spectrum and from all demographic groups. It’s shallow, but wide. That means it’s stable enough to persist, probably for months, according to New York Times polling experts.

Second, this may be about Mr. Bush in particular. He’s struggling. His strategic plan had called for him to be the front-runner at this point in the race. It was supposed to boil down to a Jeb and a non-Jeb. Instead, it’s Trump and non-Trump.

Bush may have an impressive campaign, but “he has so far barely warmed up an ember among voters,” writes Lowry in the Politico column.

But primarily, this could be about the party’s soul. For decades, Republican presidential candidates have emphasized low taxes, fiscal rectitude, and foreign policy strength. Trump has said little about taxes, mused about the virtues of single-payer health care, and centered his run (so far) on tough anti-immigration policies.

Whose party is it anyway? The longtime establishment is worried that Trump’s rhetoric may ensure it’s the redoubt of only angry whites.

Republicans need to be the party of economic growth or they are “superfluous,” writes venerable right-leaning columnist George Will.

“If in November 2016, the fragments of an ever smaller and more homogenous GOP might be picked up with tweezers, Trump, having taken his act elsewhere, will look back over his shoulder at the wreckage he wrought and say: ‘Oh, never mind,’ ” writes Mr. Will.

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