Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. This sound aphorism may have a less pithy political corollary: Never attribute to strategy what can be explained by emotion.
Only this truth can help us understand why Republican officials have started saying they prefer Donald Trump to Sen. Ted Cruz as their presidential nominee. Congressional Republicans would supposedly come out ahead with Trump because he would be a stronger nominee and a more cooperative president.
These arguments are so weak that they can be understood only as rationalizations for a passionate hatred of Cruz felt by Republicans whom he has challenged. I’m a friend of Cruz, but you need not be one to see that anger is leading the officials to make a mistake — or, rather, three of them.
First, these Republicans are wrong to be sure that either Trump or Cruz will be the nominee. The conventional wisdom about the Republican primaries has repeatedly and rapidly changed. Originally Jeb Bush was said to be the favorite; then Marco Rubio; then we heard that “it’s going to be a Cruz-Rubio race”; then a Cruz-Trump one. The currently rising theory is that Trump will prevail.
Given the poor track record, maybe it’s time to let primary voters in a few states weigh in before making confident predictions, or endorsement decisions based on them. If Cruz wins Iowa and Trump wins New Hampshire, there will still be plenty of Republicans, especially relatively moderate ones, who don’t like either man, thus leaving space for other candidates. The “establishment lane” will likely be clearer after New Hampshire. Winnowing will take place, too, if Trump wins both states; Cruz could well be among the winnowed.
Second, it is not at all clear that Trump would make a stronger general-election candidate. Some Republicans say he has more potential than Cruz among white voters without college degrees. Maybe so. But Trump could also do worse among college-educated whites and among nonwhites. What little evidence we have suggests he would be a weaker candidate overall: He’s doing a bit worse than Cruz in head-to-head polling matchups with Hillary Clinton, and much worse in polls that measure whether voters view the candidates favorably or unfavorably.
Some Republicans believe a Trump loss would not hurt their congressional candidates as much as a Cruz loss, because voters will see Trump as his own man while viewing Cruz as a symbol of the party. Dream on. Any nominee will be the de facto leader of the party.
Third, it’s likely that congressional Republicans would find it easier to work with Cruz than Trump in the White House. Cruz’s Senate colleagues think he has been selfish rather than principled when he has picked fights with them. But his self-interest as president would point him toward passing conservative legislation — replacing Obamacare, for example, something that Cruz and congressional Republicans have said mostly the same things about for several years. Trump would be much less predictable.
It is true that on some issues Trump would be more likely than Cruz to be a team player. Trump favors ethanol subsidies, for instance, and Cruz opposes them. So some Iowa Republicans, including Gov. Terry Branstad, are trashing Cruz. The Republicans criticizing Cruz, in other words, are going a long way toward proving that his criticism of them — that they are self-indulgent, parochial and uninterested in conservative principle — is correct.
Will they come to their senses in time? Another adage comes to mind: You can’t reason people out of a view that they didn’t reason themselves into.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may send him e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.