According to pundits like Charles Krauthammer, the GOP presidential candidates represent the “strongest field of Republican candidates in 35 years,” saddled only by the “rodeo clown,” Donald Trump. But how could that possibly be true if the rodeo clown is leading the race?
Were it a field full of heavyweights, Trump’s candidacy would never have gotten off the ground. The establishment’s favored candidates are too shaky and insipid to excite rank-and-file Republicans, leaving a large hole that Trump’s decisive and unapologetic personality has filled.
It would appear that the party is moving towards yet another weak nominee in the mold of Dole, McCain, and Romney. The candidates who made the biggest impression at last week’s debate are the ones most likely to be blocked by the GOP establishment, while the candidates it is most likely to settle on, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, made little to no impression at all.
By that measure, it is not a strong field but a bland one. It foreshadows another depressing scenario in the general election in which conservatives at best reluctantly support a nominee foisted upon them by the establishment. Of its two favorites, Walker is trying the hardest to appeal to conservative Republicans, but it is doubtful that those efforts will dispel the ambivalence.
Ironically, Ted Cruz, the candidate the establishment was at one time most apt to dismiss as an over-the-top extremist, now receives some guarded praise from its voices, as they recoil in horror from Trump. Cruz possesses the very sober qualities they find so lacking in Trump, so it is harder for them to treat him contemptuously. When Trump fades, Cruz could scoop up a lot of his supporters and emerge as the compelling conservative alternative to the establishment’s pick.
The reason Trump hasn’t faded yet lies in the establishment’s hyperactive hostility, which has made him seem more conservative than he actually is. By attacking him on the politically correct grounds of race and gender, they have made Trump appear sympathetic in the eyes of conservatives. Even the harrumphing over his refusal to rule out an independent run feeds into that impression, as conservatives care less and less about loyalty to a party that isn’t loyal to them. If they mistakenly assume Trump shares all the politics of a Tea Partier, that is because the establishment has treated him like one.
The irony is that on many issues Trump is the very liberal Republican the establishment usually supports or makes excuses for. He takes almost no interest in the social issues, a quality the establishment encourages in it candidates, and adopts a largely pragmatic approach to the other ones. For Cruz, making America great again means restoring constitutional principles to the federal government. For Trump, it means replacing liberal schemes like Obamacare with something “terrific,” which means moving from big-government Democratic policies to big-government Republican ones.
Instead of highlighting his odd praise for the single-payer system in Canada and Scotland at the debate, Trump’s critics stigmatized him as a sexist for not bowing to the fatuous gender politics of the moment. Learning that feminists dislike Trump only makes his conservative supporters cleave to him more. Trump’s warning about the folly of a quibbling political correctness at a time of national decline was music to their ears.
If this is the strongest GOP field in decades, how is it that the debate aftermath revolved around such trivialities? That so much time was spent divining the meaning of Trump’s asides, both during and after the debate, provides a measure of the weakness of the presumed favorites. Normally, such a large audience for a debate would suggest formidable frontrunners. But it is clear from the post-debate polls that the audience ignored Walker and Bush and tuned in to hear Trump and the others. That can’t bode well for the general election.
Whatever problems Hillary Clinton is suffering today in her party, those problems will vanish once she is nominated. The Democratic rank-and-file will unambiguously back her. A similar level of enthusiasm will not accompany the GOP establishment’s nominee, which means that once again the GOP will be fighting with one arm tied behind its back.
The paucity of Democratic debates is taken in some quarters as a bad sign. But from the standpoint of the party’s unity, it is a good one. It means the Democrats have less to debate. Ideologically scattered and struggling to find a formidable candidate, the GOP has too much to debate. The first one, for all the self-congratulatory talk it generated about the strength of the field, didn’t get the party any closer to finding a strong candidate. If anything, it explained why Trump has so easily risen to the top.