Monday, September 21, 2015

After Donald and Before Carly

I have been channeling my inner Trump, and thinking big (very big) and bold (even bolder than big) to make a simple prediction. The Donald is done, even if he doesn’t know it yet.  And, summoning from the depths my latent Republican self, I can say, it’s going to be great.  Because the GOP has top people-the very top of top, ready to be our next President.  You could get vertigo from all that toppiness.

A little premature?  Perhaps, but it is now possible, and even probable, that, at the last GOP debate, Carly Fiorina threw enough cold water on Trump to cause all his beautiful ugliness to start melting.  His numbers are down to a still-leading 24% in the latest CNN poll, and Carly’s have shot up from a previously infinitesimal level to 15%.  Remember, she was in the “kiddie debate” only a few weeks ago.  She’s now second.  Carson drops to 3rd, with 14%, Rubio, who was moving towards the irrelevant, is now at 11%, Bush at 9%, Cruz and Huck at 6%, Paul at 4%,  Christie, Kasich and Santorum at 3%, 2%, and 1% respectively.  Scott Walker’s candidacy seems to have completely vanished.  Something is clearly happening inside the seething mass that it the GOP electorate, and it is worth looking at.

It starts with Trump.  What happens if Trump is really a goner?  Where does his support go?

Well, that’s a lot harder than it looks, because no one quite grasps who Trump’s supporters really are and why they like him.  He seems to do well with Tea Party types and born-agains, but has very high negatives—40% of Republicans disapprove of him and nearly 60% of the entire sample.  His unique appeal, in an atomized field, means his negatives aren’t as relevant—as long as he wants to, he will be in every debate, and continue have an outsize impact.

That leaves the GOP establishment in a tough spot.  This wasn’t what they planned.  They had an unpopular incumbent in office, and a controversial presumed Democratic nominee that they would investigate through the election.  The original field laid out quite well for them—Cruz, Paul, and Huck would appeal to their three distinct constituencies, but eventually drop out while doing no damage.  Carson and Fiorina would show minorities and women this was a different kind of GOP.  Walker might be a Veep (blue-collar appeal+union buster) and Rubio, or preferably, Bush, would waltz to victory. If everything went right, the really sticky issues that had led Romney to veer farther right than he was comfortable with would be worked out early, and the nominee, and the party, would appear conservative but reasonable, big tent, competent, ready to govern from day one. 

Trump scrambled that.  First he put immigration, front and center, and kicked open the door to loud and often offensive “tougher than thou” bidding.  Second,  and quite possibly more dangerous to the GOP, he has advanced a rather unusual idea that is making the Establishment nuts—you don’t need to be a politician to be a President—in fact, you don't need any governing experience at all.  Add up Trump, Carson, and Fiorina’s numbers and you break 50%--and it was 50% when it was just Trump and Carson.  After more than 6 ½ years of relentless anti-government rhetoric, a good part of it directed at someone they called inexperienced and unqualified, more than half the GOP primary voters are apparently prepared to nominate someone with absolutely no experience. 

The challenge for the party operatives is to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again and return to the mainstream candidates with as little further damage as possible.  But the peculiar structure of the debates, and the bizarre math of having 50% already spoken for, means that the rest of the candidates are now fighting over smaller and smaller pieces of the pie.  Each couple of percent, rather than just being seen as a rounding error, may be the key to staying in.  CNN’s breaking of its own qualifying rule, and making Fiorina the 11th debater, is just going to complicate things further.  If you are floating around in the single digits, you need attention, and the best way to get that is to do something extreme.  So, we have competitions to see who can be the most insulting to minorities, who can be the most theocratic, the most bellicose, etc.  Even Kasich, Mr. Reasonable, after apparently making the grievous error on Wednesday of saying he would have to abide by the Iran agreement, by the weekend had essentially reversed himself by calling for the “nuclear option” in the Senate to oppose it.

All of that is going on with Trump still in. The GOP is holding its breath, hoping his numbers drop (perhaps even below Fiorina’s) and then his ego will lead him to make an exit.  But they really are stumped—there seems no cohesive institutional strategy, beyond nearly everyone (including cooperative debate moderators) bashing Trump.  And there are a lot of unpleasant possibilities here.  Trump could survive; while Fiorina did a fabulous job of wounding the dragon, he’s not quite dead yet. That could mean a more of the same drama through the primaries and possibly into a contentious convention.  And the Trump/Fiorina faceoff has obscured three rather fascinating developments. 

The first is just how much Trump has exposed Jeb Bush.  Whatever Jeb’s good qualities are, his personality is strictly in a minor key.  Nominating Jeb would appeal to the party professional—electable, good governor, moderate temperament while nonetheless conservative, speaks Spanish, will deliver to the Party, its special interests, and its contributors when elected. Perfect, except for the one essential—he seems to excite no one else.

The second is the complete collapse of Scott Walker’s candidacy.  Only a month ago, Walker was considered a real contender, and was leading in Iowa.  It has all evaporated. There were some who thought that Trump was drawing from Walker, and when he dropped out, Walker would gain strength. But Walker has been an awful candidate—unprepared, undistinguished in debates, flailing.  He’s left to grasping at straws right now—he cancelled two major addresses to try to shore up his support in Iowa, and fallen back on his only calling card—an even more radical anti-labor agenda, which would effectively end collective bargaining.  It comes at an absolutely terrible time for him—as the Establishment frantically looks for alternatives to Trump and Carson (and possibly even Fiorina) Walker is showing himself to be a small-timer with a big mouth.  It is possible he could recover—but the more likely result is that his extremely wealthy backers, who have profited from his Governorship, will realize he’s not ready, and tell him to stand down.   

Finally, Ted Cruz.  Ted is only at 5-6% nationally, but Ted is playing a very smart long game.  See how he quietly supports Trump on controversial issues.  Go back and view him again at the last debate—watch his body language as he squared up to the camera (not his fellow debaters) and delivered polished and prepared hard-right answers to every problem.  Cruz is promising one thing—an absolutely uncompromising approach to governing.  Elect Ted Cruz, and you will get a ruthlessly conservative approach—every detail will be tended to, even the smallest hint of Obama-ness will be eradicated—in Winston Churchill’s word about a enemy of similar import, every stain of his infected, corroding fingers will be sponged and purged and, if need be, blasted from the surface of the earth.”  Cruz’s path to the nomination might be a difficult one, but he’s a viable candidate for several reasons: a) he’s not beholden to the GOP establishment at all—he has his financial backers and therefore isn’t answerable, b) his support is probably irreducible—if you like Ted’s brand, you like it, and c) he may pick up substantial support if Trump drops out—Cruz’s favorability rating among Republicans is actually quite high, and if a significant portion of Trump’s support is coming from the “mad as hell” contingent, Cruz is their man.  

If you want weird, you start from 15 and begin subtracting.  Take out Trump, Walker, Huck (who is never going to break into double digits) the fringe candidate Paul, the unloved Governors Christie and Kasich.  Someone named Bush whispers in Jeb’s ear this Fall that he should consider withdrawing before embarrassing himself. Also out, the Breakfast Club of Santorum, Graham, Jindal, and Pataki.

That leaves you Carson, Fiorina, Cruz, and Rubio.   

I know, it’s impossible.  But it would be big.  Really big. As for top?  I can feel the vertigo coming.

September 12, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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