Rubio’s exit and the GOP’s spoiled buffet

Republican presidential candidates listen to the U.S. national anthem before a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston on Feb. 25.
Republican presidential candidates listen to the U.S. national anthem before a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston on Feb. 25. AP

Remember the euphoria with which the race for the Republican presidential nomination began? Such a buffet of political talent! Governors and ex-governors galore!

By Tuesday those high spirits had deflated to a mewling plea for some indication – any indication – whether the party’s aghast traditionalists would have to make up with Donald Trump, make nice with Ted Cruz or make plans for bedlam at the convention.

“Clarity” was a wish they kept uttering, a word I kept hearing. It made them sound like fog-enveloped travelers or stuffed-up flu sufferers waiting for the Sudafed to kick in.

But Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Illinois and Missouri weren’t at all certain to bring relief, not even with Marco Rubio’s devastating loss to Trump in Florida and suspension of his campaign. It was a mesmerizing development, given how long many Republican leaders and pundits clung to their forecasts of his eventual transcendence, which was like Godot: right around the bend, coming at any minute, just a matter of waiting, waiting, waiting …

Florida significantly bolstered Trump’s lead and showed that the turmoil of recent days – and the violence at his rallies – didn’t scare off his fans. But it didn’t cinch things for him.

And beneath, behind and beyond Tuesday’s results is a knot of calculations, compromises and capitulations that demonstrate what a mean season this turned into for many Republicans, who traveled a surreal arc from such hope back in August and September to such despondency in mid-March.

They look across the aisle and see a probable Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, who is so personally flawed, politically clumsy and out of sync with this anti-establishment moment that she’s ripe for defeat. Then they look at their own contest and see an outcome that might well ensure her victory.

Without doubt, John Kasich would be her fiercest rival, but even a victory in Ohio wouldn’t likely translate into his party’s nomination.

With Rubio gone, Kasich could do well enough in the states ahead to prevent Trump from getting a majority of delegates. He can’t do well enough to get a majority himself.

There are Republican traditionalists rooting for Trump over Cruz, and the thinking of some goes like this: Neither candidate can win the presidency. But while Cruz has almost no crossover appeal beyond committed Republicans, Trump might draw enough independents, blue-collar Democrats and new voters to buoy Republicans in tight Senate races there.

He'll embarrass the party and roil the country but maybe not cost Republicans key congressional races. Besides which, he scrambles all rules and all precedents so thoroughly that you never know.

Victory isn’t unthinkable, and better a Republican who’s allergic to caution, oblivious to actual information and altogether dangerous than a Democrat who'll dole out all the administration jobs to her party.

Republican traditionalists who prefer Cruz are no more ebullient in their outlooks.

“Cruz is a disaster for the party,” one of them told me. “Trump is a disaster for the country.”

”If Cruz is the nominee, we get wiped out,” he added, with a resigned voice. “And we rebuild.”

The party needs that anyway.

In fact, a few Republican traditionalists have insisted to me that a Cruz nomination and subsequent defeat would have a long-term upside. It would put to rest the stubborn argument, promoted by Cruz and others on the party’s far right, that the GOP has lost presidential elections over recent decades because nominees like Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney weren’t conservative enough.

This is Cruz-serving hogwash: If anything, those nominees weren’t sufficiently moderate. A Cruz wipeout would prove as much.

Whatever the case, he has moved assertively over recent days to send a message to Republican leaders who have long loathed him that a partnership is still possible – that love could yet bloom! The talk of Trump’s culpability for his menacing rallies has given Cruz a new opening and fresh cause to encourage supporters of other candidates to take the Cruz plunge.

“Come on in,” he said at a rally in North Carolina on Sunday. “The water’s fine.”

Sounds like something someone in “Jaws” blurted out right before the shark made an appetizer of her ankle. The water’s fine only if the alternative is the River Trump, a bloody churn of piranhas and Palins.

Like I said, what a journey. Republicans started out with what they thought was a feast of possibilities. Now they’re poised to be eaten alive.