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As Trump Solidifies Lead, GOP Establishment Struggles To Redefine Message


One new poll out today shows Donald Trump leading the Republican presidential field about 10 points up on a cluster of three rivals - Ben Carson, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Still absent from the top-tier of GOP hopefuls are Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich, three stalwarts of the Republican establishment. And it's that last idea - the poor showing of the Republican establishment in this prolonged primary season - that we're going to hear about now from Mark McKinnon. He used to be chief media strategist for President George W. Bush. And Mark McKinnon, welcome to the program once again.


SIEGEL: What ails the Republican establishment?

MCKINNON: The establishment ails the Republican Party right now. The one clear message we're getting across the board is that voters are fed up with everything they've seen before, and they want something completely different. And there's nothing more completely different than Donald Trump.

SIEGEL: Jeb Bush - according to NBC News, if you add up what all the Republican presidential campaigns and their PACs have spent, he has spent almost as much as all the others combined. He averages around 5 percent in the polls. Is that Jeb Bush's weakness as a candidate, or is it a weakness about something more institutional?

MCKINNON: There's just very little return on media dollars anymore in politics because people just don't believe political advertising. They're just demanding authenticity and something that they think is real, and they know that advertising is not real. So those are - you might as well just burn that money. It'd be a better investment.

SIEGEL: In his case, it's almost $30 million that you're saying has been burned.

MCKINNON: It is, and as you noted in that report, Trump has spent almost nothing. In fact, he spent zero dollars on television.

SIEGEL: I heard this analysis recently. Tell me if you agree with it. It's that Democrats and liberals have a narrative about what's going on in the country. There's too much inequality. We need more robust government. Diversity is good. And rightwing Republicans have a narrative too. There's too much government, too much political correctness. But mainline Republicans who used to, you know, personify management, business-efficient government, they just don't have a story to tell. Do you agree with that?

MCKINNON: Well, not entirely. And I think narratives are forming and developed, and it's absolutely true that they best candidates tell the best stories and have a clear narrative. But it's - we're two months out, and those narratives are just coalescing now. And I think you could get a Chris Christie or a Marco Rubio or somebody - I mean, they have interesting, compelling stories to tell. They're not fully formed yet, but once they start winning primaries, they will become formed.

SIEGEL: I've heard liberals and Democrats remark that the GOP leadership is getting what it deserves because when irresponsible comments and when the bulls-in-the-china-shops were helping win seats for the GOP, it was great; it was OK. Now those people are leading the Republican presidential field, and it's not so great for the establishment. Do you see any wisdom to that?

MCKINNON: I guess the ultimate wisdom that I would suggest is simply that there is Trump phenomenon and that is real, and that people want something different.

SIEGEL: Well, talk about that something different. Does it have to be an anti-Wall Street something different? Does it have to...

MCKINNON: Absolutely. I think the Republican - but listen; I was attracted to George W. Bush initially because he had a clear and compelling message about compassionate conservatism. And there hasn't been anybody since then, really, who's articulated a clear narrative about what the Republican Party stands for. People keep talking about Ronald Reagan. We can't run a campaign from 1984. We've got to reinvent, you know, what this party's all about that is relevant to the present and to the future, not the past.

SIEGEL: Part of the reason that Donald Trump remains so far ahead of his rivals is that there're so many rivals, and there are so many of them dividing up the vote. Clearly somebody could say, OK, guys whom the Republican establishment looks kindly on, let's get behind one of these people, and let's get some of these other guys out of the race. Who would those people be? Does the Republican National Committee or the big state party chair - do they have any authority anymore in the party?

MCKINNON: They don't. I mean, there's a mythology that there's actually somebody that controls the establishment. There are no smoke-filled rooms anymore where people control the outcome. And so you're right. Donald Trump is blessed by a full and diverse field that spread out, and nobody can consolidate it or at least hasn't so far. And so he benefits from that chaos. But I think what's likely to happen is that somebody will emerge through Iowa, New Hampshire and then go in to South Carolina, and that'll start consolidating behind an establishment candidate.

SIEGEL: Mark McKinnon, thanks for talking with us.

MCKINNON: Kick it hard, Robert. Thanks.

SIEGEL: Mark McKinnon, former adviser to President George W. Bush, is a cofounder of the bipartisan group No Labels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.