Tomorrow is Super Tuesday.
No matter what happens, Republicans are in chaos. Even with clarity.
Here’s why. Let’s start at the beginning.
First, we have the distractions. Last year we had seventeen candidates for president. Zero probability is, in such cases, an abstract. But as close to zero as possible were George Pataki and Lindsey Graham and Jim Gilmore. Hovering in the 1 percent or less range were Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry. These are not statements against these men, the probabilities based on all sorts of factors relating to viability, such as political base, donors, endorsements, competition from similar candidates, and, most of all, persona. In other words, these candidates were not consigned to oblivion because, say, they took on Donald Trump.
Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum were in that same 1 percent or less range. Rand Paul was a bit higher, but it became apparent that his father Ron Paul was determined to sabotage the son’s campaign. Carly Fiorina’s chances were even higher, but not high. Yet, due in part to the stupid Republican National Committee debate protocols, which supposedly required deference to network rules, the debate deck was stacked against Carly, and also against the Republican Party’s need to avoid debates that impair the party’s prospects in November.
The simple reasons why Jeb Bush and Scott Walker had little chance for the nomination eluded the perennially-off pundits. Jeb was trying for a dynasty that no one wanted. And Scott Walker wasn’t ready for prime time. Still, presumed kingmakers of enormous wealth naively backed Bush, and misguided major conservative donors imprudently bet their chips on the inadequate Walker. Bush raised the discussion to nostalgia about the George W. Bush Administration, not a subject currently helpful to the Republican Party’s electoral prospects. And Walker was one of several candidates who sucked up money, endorsements, energy, and oxygen.
Christie and Kasich were higher-up on the scale, given Christie’s bravado and Kasich’s pitch, a bit different, but still distant. In contrast, Ben Carson’s odds grew, with his initial exposure, and his excellent direct mail donor base. But as he continued in debates to answer questions that were not asked, it became (and is) clear that if winning the nomination is Carson’s objective, he should suspend his campaign. Perhaps he has something else in mind. Large direct mail donor lists have a way of morphing into permanent organizations.
That leaves us then with Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and the man the other candidates conveniently blame for their own shortcomings, Donald Trump. We are expected to believe that absent Donald Trump and the consequent angry rebellion, there would have been, for example, a groundswell for a third President Bush.
Cruz has brains and money and organization and a loyal core support. But Sen. Cruz is trying to recover from a series of errors. First, no one on his campaign had the smarts and rapport to make him more likable. Second, Cruz repeatedly kissed up to Trump last year and, in the process, legitimized him; the anti-Establishment Cruz drank the Establishment Kool-Aid and believed Trump would collapse, and Outsider Cruz also believed that he would inherit the angry rebels. Third, Cruz allowed his campaign functionaries to engage in tactics that enabled Trump, Rubio, and now others to question his ethics, hurting his credibility, especially among the evangelicals who should prefer him.
This is, of course, the fourth point, the misreading of the evangelical vote.
Cruz felt, especially after Huckabee and Santorum left the race, and with Carson’s momentum gone, that he would have a clear plurality of the evangelical vote. But evangelical voters (and many of their “leaders”) have repudiated a generation of their concerns to instead vote, simply, for “the best CEO.”
And Rubio, like Cruz, also seemed to lack someone to work with him, to slow down his delivery, enable him to speak thoughtfully, not reflexively, and try, one way or another, to age him rather quickly. The end result of letting Rubio be Rubio was his debate meltdown pre-New Hampshire that almost ended his candidacy. Rubio, an intelligent as well as articulate man, was on autopilot, his glibness reduced to robo-talk. To his credit, Rubio took responsibility and has improved, still a bit too scripted and slick. But will anyone on his team help him?
Rubio has taken to insulting Trump and, in the process, has gained a lot of press. Of course Rubio has to win Florida March 15, but he also has to be ahead of Cruz in some states tomorrow.
And now we have Donald Trump who might carry enough states tomorrow to make his nomination not a certainty, but highly probable. For too long the front-runner has behaved as if he is down and out. If it isn’t broken, why fix it? But at some point he needs to get briefed and show some growth. The answer yesterday on the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke — his inability to disavow in a mini-second, showed not that he is a bigot or insensitive or even a bad listener, or tired. It’s quite simple — his staff clearly does not prepare a list of obvious questions with quick automatic answers.
Yet, with his recent Mussolini quote and his raucous treatment of hecklers, Trump’s inexplicable and double-down response on the KKK/Duke question raises the most troubling questions among his doubters. Consider the context — for absolutely no reason, he raised the specter of repressive defamation and libel laws that would undo a half century of jurisprudence following the 1964 N.Y. Times vs. Sullivan ruling that allowed free speech to flourish, as it required malice to sustain a defamation suit, the reckless disregard for the truth. There was no reason for Trump even to get into this issue; it may be raw meat for the crowds that don’t like the media, but even if you could change the law, the beneficiary would be the very politicians that Trump says he is challenging.
This is yet another reason why Trump needs someone with the presence and judgment to guide him. Like many public figures, he probably resents what can be said about him, but that’s what America is also about. We are not England, where the law is different, or other countries that jail dissenters. And the reality is that in our three branches of government, there is no conceivable way the First Amendment will be turned on its face.
One can say there are problems with some police officers in America, and how they approach and arrest young black men. But that does not mean endorsing a war against cops, or the Black Lives Matter movement. Here, there is nuance. Yet, when it comes to the KKK, immediate condemnation is a throwaway line.
We are so close to Super Tuesday that Trump’s egregious statements may not have dramatic impact. We don’t know. But he is engaging in self-destructive actions, some of which raise moral questions. There is a vast number of angry voters, but very few are sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke. When the Anti-Defamation League asked Trump to reject this support, the ADL was handing him softballs to hit out of the park.
In taking on Trump, right now, Cruz is more damaged goods than Rubio. Cruz continues to speak to a national television audience as if he were speaking to a group of young hardcore conservative nerds. I suppose if Cruz wins Texas tomorrow that gives him a new lease. Certainly an unlikely loss in his home state could effectively doom his prospects.
As for Chris Christie; much goes to Christie’s stomach, but in recent days a lot has gone to his head. Remember that four years ago there was a gauntlet for president for Christie who said he was not ready to run. So, a few days ago, when Rubio reportedly left a voice mail seeking Christie’s support and telling him he had a future in the party, Christie went ballistic at this presumption. Recall this is the same Christie who went overboard praising President Barack Obama for merely doing his job during recovery from Hurricane Sandy. And months earlier Christie gave the keynote address at the 2012 convention that nominated Mitt Romney. But instead of talking about Romney, Christie talked about himself.
Christie sees himself as a possible running mate with Donald Trump. But remember, Sarah Palin endorsed in Iowa, and she now may be in an undisclosed secure location. Christie already is acting like the vice-presidential nominee, taking the low road against Trump’s opponents. Christie is too much like Trump to run with him. Christie fails to recognize that Trump is the consummate dealmaker. He has already said he does not want an outsider, and what better insider than a former Congressional leader and current governor from an important electoral state, Ohio’s Kasich.
Trump prides himself as the quintessential dealmaker. If he were the nominee, it is unlikely that he would select Marco Rubio as his running mate. But imagine Trump doing so, saying with a straight face: “I’m a deal-maker. And the best deal I can make, and it was a hard one for me and for Marco, was to bring him aboard because he represents the new generation. I’ve learned just how smart Marco is. I’ve gotten to know him.” (And he’s from the electorally important Florida.)
On foreign policy the Republicans now present a confused front. Rubio seems too intent on war. Cruz remains more cautious, more in line with both reality and the general electorate, even the Republican electorate. Trump comes across as the great patriot concerned with the self-interest of the U.S. But with the nomination unsettled, why would foreign policy guru Robert Kagan, an enthused interventionist, associated with neoconservatives, endorse Hillary Clinton? This seems to suggest his assumption that Trump will be the nominee, and something more disturbing, that he has affinity for Obama lackey Hillary, of Benghazi fame, to prosecute foreign policy.
Recent primary trends suggest that undecided voters have broken more in favor of Rubio than, say, Cruz or Trump. Now that Jeb is gone, with his substantial anti-Rubio advertising, Rubio can rise (“Right to Rise” as Jeb would say) a bit more. But in some states votes are cast early by mail, and those are Trump votes.
The clueless pundits on CNN and Fox don’t understand polling. They will point out that a candidate has done better than his poll numbers, when the explanation is simple — you add to each candidate’s poll numbers a share of the undecided vote. Holding all factors constant, which now is the exception rather than the rule, undecided votes break in the same proportion as decided votes. But Rubio has been doing better in several states, and a late surge challenges that otherwise predictable distribution.
The story is going about that the Koch brothers are raising funds toward Rubio and much more for an anti-Trump effort. This much we know. The Koch operation erred in its early enthusiasm for Scott Walker. And its vast conglomerate did not grasp the Trump phenomenon and failed to use its influence to steer the candidates toward the issues and rhetoric that win elections. So, we cannot say with certainty that any effort against Trump will be effectively prosecuted.
Indeed, for months the attacks on Trump have not only been too little and too late, but so poorly conceived and pursued, that they have made Trump stronger. The same can be said with the National Review omnibus attack which, as I predicted at the time, exemplified — for voters — the Establishment. Don’t be surprised if Trump makes the Kochs an issue, which helps him among angry Republican voters, because the Kochs have not effectively and pre-emptively established a positive image for themselves and their good work; and also, and for the reason too, making the Kochs a punching bag helps Trump in a general election. Here’s a billionaire worth between $3 and $10 billion, attacking two brothers, each of whom is worth $40+ billion, and they have an undeserved sinister image that they inexplicably never countered.
The major internal hurdle for Trump is that no one in his campaign will stand up to him. And standing up means at least briefing and preparing him. Let’s be real. Trump is not for the KKK or David Duke. But he has no Q&A enforced on him. It’s time to stop winging it. That’s why Trump said Jerusalem should not be the capital of Israel, that he would “talk to Bibi.” He did not know that Israel’s position on this is not negotiable, just as he did not know about the Triad. This is not esoteric stuff, the province of nerdy Hugh Hewitt.
Trump now blames his terrible David Duke/KKK response to Jake Tapper on a faulty earpiece. Actually, that sounds at least plausible, given that his offensive and troubling response contradicted his past repudiation of Duke, and his past anti-Duke statements. But why didn’t Trump clarify the question then, or say he was having trouble hearing, or resolve the bad earpiece issue, or immediately deal with the controversy once it broke? In each instance, a proactive staff in control of the situation would have put out the fire, certainly not leave the story out there. But there is no one around Trump to take charge and stand up to the candidate. Where are the adults in a Trump campaign? Is this how President Trump would function? Even this morning one of Trump’s robotic talking head surrogates, Scottie Nell Hughes, was saying “David” (meaning David Duke) did not endorse Trump, as if that is the issue, or the press is at fault. Would anyone even think of referring to Hitler as “Adolph” or Mussolini as “Benito”?
Trump is not really neutral between U.S. ally Israel and the Palestinians who have thrown in their lot with Hamas. But Trump is so unprepared that he spontaneously talks about how he would be neutral as a dealmaker. A serious briefing would have informed Trump that the rap against George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State Jim Baker, and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry is precisely their “even-handed” approach. “Even-handed” are code words for Screwing Israel. The U.S. can’t be an honest broker because we have an ally. We back Israel and should say so. That would end the nonsense of constantly undercutting Israel and effectively delaying a peaceful settlement. (Memo to Donald Trump: If you will not read Michael Oren’s book, have him brief you.)
All that brings us to November. Many Republicans are unsure what Trump would do if he were elected. But they know what Hillary would do. So, most of them would likely back Trump over Hillary. But maybe not, if the last week is any indication of what his general election campaign will be about.
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