Friday, March 4th, 2016
By Reed Galen
Quote by a Smart Person: “It is now life and not art that requires the willing suspension of disbelief.” Lionel Trilling
Welcome to the American Singularity.
Whew. That was quite a day. We started with Governor Mitt Romney, elder statesman of the GOP laying out an 18-minute indictment of the current Republican frontrunner. We ended with a debate that featured, among other things, more screaming, a phallus joke and a grown-up John Kasich.
Governor Romney is an honorable man and a stalwart for his party. I believe his speech yesterday, in addition to being one more piece of the Establishment’s last stand, was well-organized, well-constructed and well delivered. However, it may not have changed any minds. If you believe that Donald Trump is a con man, Romney backed up your beliefs. If you’re madder than hell at the establishment, Romney represented one more example of the donor class trying to undercut what real voters want.
Yin and Yang
Watching Romney’s speech yesterday morning and Trump’s follow-on response were excellent illustrations of where we are as a party, as a political system and as a country. Romney’s presentation was prosecutorial. As if standing before a grand jury, he laid out, logically, almost dispassionately, his case for the People vs. Donald J. Trump. It was a good performance, better than many we saw from Romney four years ago. But it lacked passion and a forward-looking vision for the country generally and voters specifically.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, was everything it should have been. Angry, flailing and lacking coherence, his response to Romney’s remarks was a microcosm of Trump’s campaign to date. When fully engaged (or enraged), Trump can’t control his stream of consciousness. Instead of his own cogent refutation of Romney’s attacks, The Donald discussed how his beautiful rug was ruined while host a Romney fundraiser in the rain. But to expect any more or any less from a Trumpian performance is a fool’s errand. He’s found himself at the head of the pack because he’s unprogrammed and willing to say what’s on his mind. He’s the bizarro-Romney.
When political science professors discuss the 2016 campaign in years to come, they’ll have to decide whether they want to even show a clip of last night’s GOP debate in Detroit. We had Little Marco and Big Donald. We had unencumbered screaming. We can only hope that independent voters decided not to watch because these things are devolving quickly into a real-life version of Political Street Fighter.
Ted Cruz and John Kasich had the best nights on stage. Cruz was able to recapture a good deal of his debating skills. He’s good at this stuff and he’s able to articulate his messages in a way that comes across as compelling. Kasich, too, on a smaller stage, intentionally chose to stay out of the dumpster fire to his right and speak to what he’d do as president, why’d he do it and how his experience will inform his time in office.
Marco Rubio served as a claymore mine against Donald Trump. He repeatedly attacked Donald on Trump University and his myriad flip-flops and out-of-left-field statements. But for Rubio this was not a great night. He disappeared often and for too long. He was clearly weary and likely sick – his voice nearly shot. And ironically, he actually played Chris Christie’s role of a few weeks ago: some of the jabs landed on Trump but in the process Rubio missed the opportunity to make the case for his own candidacy.
And that’s ultimately the issue: Trump’s opponents rightly attack him on the multitude of issues that make him unelectable. But they a) don’t make a compelling enough case for themselves and b) draw Trump voters to their side. If we believe there is any fungibility within the Republican primary electorate who has yet to vote, it is most likely among the Cruz-Rubio-Kasich triad.
The Road Goes on Forever (or to Cleveland)
The next 10 days will be the most consequential in the race to date. We say that every week but this time it’s likely true. Between tomorrow and Tuesday, nine states will hold primaries or caucuses. If the Establishment’s Alamo-like defense against Trump is effective, we’ll start to see it in these next contests. The strategy, though unspoken, has clearly shifted from pushing Rubio or Kasich or Cruz past 1237 delegates. Now, the campaigns and the apparatus is trying to build a road to Cleveland as fast as they can.
And because this campaign has been first and foremost about the drama and pathos of politics, on March 15th two candidates, Marco Rubio (Florida) and John Kasich (Ohio) must defend their home states. Cruz did so in Texas last week and so received his ticket to ride. If Rubio and/or Kasich cannot hold serve on their turf, their campaigns will be hobbled beyond repair. And almost as much as his own personality, Trump has been the beneficiary of circumstance. The inability of the establishment to coalesce and the unwillingness of other candidates to get out of the race accrues singularly to Trump’s benefit.
But if we do head toward the first truly brokered convention in generations, America’s political right may be riven beyond repair. The Establishment, sensing their last chance, will trade a major fracture in conservative America to prevent Trump from being the party’s nominee. We’re beyond rationality. We’re even beyond the “Trump will lose to Hillary” argument. It is a fight not for the heart and soul of the Republican party, because truly what is that anyway. But the establishment sees the barbarians and the gate: this is no less than a fight for what the establishment sees as its existence and the existence of the system that has been assiduously created over the last forty or fifty years. The bulwarks are being built around the Beltway. The only question now is if they’ll hold.
Post Script - The Process Wins Out
At the end of last night's debate, the Fox News moderators asked the candidates whether they would support the chosen nominee of the Republican Party. To a person, they each agreed that they would. After weeks of attacking Trump, both Rubio and Cruz agreed they would support him. Kasich said he would too, but he's not been as baldly aggressive toward the blond-ish billionaire.
The "loyalty" pledge, the narrowed debate schedule, the primary election setup, all of it was designed in one way or another to shorten the primary season and bring a winner early. And what did that desire achieve? Donald Trump on the precipice of being the GOP nominee. A party, a system, an individual, none of them can control the process of picking an American President. That's why I named this column the American Singularity - everything, every last thing, gets sucked into its event horizon. We're just along for the bumpy, bumpy, ride.