Thursday, March 3, 2016

Needing a Bigger Boat

Super Tuesday is now in the rear view mirror, we have a debate this evening, and chaos reigns supreme.  As the stunned Brady said in “Jaws” after getting a first glimpse “you’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

The Republicans have brought out Mitt Romney. 

This is not a knock on Romney, who would make a far better President than any candidate, current or in deep freeze, in this cycle.  The problem is that he’s the wrong weapon.  I doubt that there’s a single Trump voter who cares in the least about what Mitt Romney has to say, and I would hazard a guess that there are few Cruz voters who would care either. 

But the choice of Romney to carry this particular message tells you that the GOP still doesn’t understand that the nature of the Trump challenge is more visceral than it is ideological. Trump supporters show some commonalities, but aren’t easily pigeonholed—he can actually claim some level of support across the spectrum.  That is why, in part, that appeals from conservative writers and talk show hosts, as well as the candidates themselves, who claim Trump isn’t a conservative are probably missing the point.  The voters choosing Trump don’t care whether he has a perfect rating from the American Conservative Union—because they probably don’t either. They don’t want some bloodless apparatchik offering a sermon. And, they aren’t looking for Romney-style Six Sigma governance.  They are tired of process arguments.  They don’t care if the factory floor is messy. They can live with manufacturing defects. 

Trump voters are looking for a little muscle, at home and abroad.  They are tired of waiting and of coddling people who they don’t think deserve it.  The “don’t deserve it” groups are far-ranging, but idiosyncratic. Trump voters aren’t Paul Ryan entitlement reform folk.  They aren’t looking for position papers written by conservative think-tanks.  Donald Trump, in the words of MASH’S Colonel Potter, is “meatball surgery”, and that’s the kind they want done to the political system.  In their minds, you don’t worry about how the scar might look when the patient is bleeding to death. 

If the appeal to intellect doesn’t work, what does that leave you?  Perhaps Trump will go too far, even by Trump standards.  The KKK flap didn’t help—it might very well have cost him some “late decider” votes on Super Tuesday.  Perhaps tonight’s debate will move the needle—Trump is going to be attacked from all sides—including by the moderators—and he really does lack any sophisticated knowledge of domestic or foreign policy.  Perhaps one of the three remaining candidates, Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich, can emerge as a credible one-on-one threat.  Perhaps all this institutional rejection by prominent Republicans will actually begin to have an impact.  Perhaps the enormous amount of money about to be spent on anti-Trump ads will have an effect.  Perhaps, as some Republicans have been pushing for the last few days, Cruz and Rubio will form a fusion ticket.  And if all else fails, perhaps Rubio and Kasich will win their own states, and between the three of them they will amass enough delegates to block Trump in the first round of the convention. 

That is a lot of perhapses.  But the dynamic may not be right—in large part because not only does the GOP not have the right message to reach Trump voters, but they don’t have the right candidates.  Rubio is regressing towards childhood.  Kasich just isn’t competitive in a sufficient number of states and clearly not part of the Trump vibe.  Cruz is a very effective regional candidate—but his “SEC’ strategy fell somewhat short on Super Tuesday—he should be dominating in the South.  And the three of them are still squabbling amongst themselves, with Rubio complaining Kasich cost him Virginia and Cruz still the same snide, disagreeable person he’s always been.

There are a lot of smart people who have done this math far better than I can.  Some are mentally preparing to hold their ears and tepidly support Trump (there’s a school of thought among Congressional Republicans that Donald is so lacking in basic knowledge that he can be led to sign on to anything they propose) or to hold their noses and back Cruz, on the theory that he’s least a down-the-line conservative that will deliver policy victories for them.  Capitulation rather than resistance. 

But, there is real fear as well.  Go too far with the anti-Donald trope, and you may alienate too much of his constituency. Grab the nomination at the convention through tricks and rules, and he could run as a third party.  And, should he survive those, send him into the General Election after splattering him with mud, and you could kill off multiple wrong birds with one stone: You might permanently alienate a great many voters with the manifest ugliness of some of the worst of his rhetoric, cause a tremendous amount of down-ballot damage, and blow an opportunity to pick off an incredibly vulnerable Democratic candidate.

Fun times.  Next up, tonight’s debate.  Then, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maine on Saturday.  Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, and Mississippi on March 8th, and, on Judgment Day, May 15th, Florida, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina, and Missouri.

Those, round-the-clock criticism, and hundreds of millions of dollars in advertisements will be enough to bring down the Great White?

Maybe—or maybe we need an even bigger boat.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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