The Thursday night Republican debate came as a distinct relief. In terms of substance, there were claims and assertions with which one could agree or disagree, but we will reserve comment on those for a later blog. At least, however, the debate presented four serious adults avoiding personal insults and discussing serious issues. One can only wish that the earlier debates had been conducted similarly.
Donald Trump, in particular, appeared determined to seem more “presidential” and, to a degree, he succeeded. On the other hand, one episode of relatively good behavior is hardly sufficient to erase the indelible image created by his lengthy record of intemperate outbursts and fanciful misstatements. A quaff of Trump Lite should not lull Republican leaders into thinking that Trump is someone they could survive and deal with after all. The debate did not alter our own assessment of Trump or the other participants and we doubt that the hearts and minds of many voters were changed. That, however, will be revealed by polls over the next few days and, more importantly, the next round of primaries on the 15th.
Prior to the debate, the only developments that had seemed at all positive to us had been the comprehensive indictment of Trump delivered by Mitt Romney, the belated organizing of well-funded PACs to oppose Trump, and the relatively strong showing of John Kasich in the Michigan primary. Those were at best straws in the wind, but for the moment, they gave some hope that the GOP might yet find a way to break the toxic fever of Trumpism.
We thought that the Romney speech was terrific and for those who missed it, you may watch the speech or read the transcript here. It was the best speech we recalled Romney having given, including those we heard while living in Massachusetts during his time as Governor. It occurred to us that had Romney spoken as clearly and persuasively in 2012, we now might well be discussing his reelection campaign.
One aspect of Romney’s speech was enumeration of various Trump business failures, including not only Trump University but numerous Trump products that were launched with great fanfare only to disappear from sight: steaks, vodka, water, wine, an airline and a magazine. At his press conference after the Michigan primary on the 8th, Trump made a great show of displaying his various products, seeking to rebut Romney by demonstrating their continued existence. Indeed, and as various observers noted, the press conference took on the nature of an infomercial. The very next day, however, numerous press reports demonstrated that Trump had created a virtual Potemkin village of his wares. (See, e.g. NPR. “Trump Doesn’t Own Most of the Products He Pitched Last Night.”) The steaks, for example had been marketed for a short time through Sharper Image but are no longer, and the beef on display at the press conference was obtained from a local butcher named, ironically enough, Bush Brothers. Trump proclaimed that he had sold the airline in a deal that he described a “great” without, of course, mentioning its terms. (A New York Times article at the time of the sale said that what Trump received from it was simply relief from some, but not all, of the debt he had guaranteed in buying it.) By now, the campaign of any other candidate would have been deluged with questions underscoring the fraudulent nature of the Trump infomercial, but in this case, the media probably has not bothered, realizing that they would be unlikely to get answers and that, in any event, Trump supporters would pay no attention.
For example, a New York Times story following Romney’s speech was headlined “Rank and File Republicans tell Party Elites: We’re Sticking with Donald Trump.” It quoted a one-time Romney supporter:
In interviews, even lifelong Republicans who cast a ballot for Mr. Romney four years ago rebelled against his message and plan. “I personally am disgusted by it — I think it’s disgraceful,” said Lola Butler, 71, a retiree from Mandeville, La., who voted for Mr. Romney in 2012. “You’re telling me who to vote for and who not to vote for? Please.” “There’s nothing short of Trump shooting my daughter in the street and my grandchildren — there is nothing and nobody that’s going to dissuade me from voting for Trump,” Ms. Butler said.
At this point, a good deal has been written in attempting to analyze or psychoanalyze Trump supporters. Without attempting to plunge deeply into that discussion, it seems obvious that for a variety of reasons, such folks are angry and fearful about their individual circumstances and the condition of the country. Those feelings are not difficult to understand, but what the rest of us do find difficult to grasp is why and how they have been led to believe that Donald Trump would be successful in addressing their concerns. In our view he is utterly lacking in the intellect, experience, temperament and character required for that task. The four horsemen of the Trump Apocalypse are ignorance, vulgarity, bigotry and mendacity. Trump supporters may attempt to overlook or excuse those qualities, but their presence in a billionaire does not magically convert them into virtues.
All that being the case, the question remains as to what is to be done. As we write, the March 15 primaries are nearly upon us and may be decisive. If Trump should win in Ohio and Florida, he may well be unstoppable. Rubio’s position in Florida, at least prior to the Thursday debate, appeared to be relatively weak and deteriorating. On March 9 in The Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin urged Rubio to quit the race before the March 15 primary and to endorse Cruz. Rubin is a generally sensible conservative with whom we often agree and sometimes quote, but in this instance we believe that she was wrong. Less than three weeks ago, Rubin herself had accused Cruz of going from bad to worse and pointed to “evidence Cruz lacks an innate sense of integrity.” In any case, there is no likelihood that Rubio will follow Rubin’s advice.
In Ohio, a Kasich victory is by no means certain, but his position seems considerably stronger than Rubio’s. If Kasich does win Ohio, he will presumably continue indefinitely in hopes of playing a major role at a contested convention and, conceivably, even emerging as the nominee. A contested convention rejecting Trump would be a very difficult task, one roadblock being a rule that a nominee must have won a majority of delegates in primaries in at least eight states. While that rule can be changed, the process would doubtless be a bloody one. Nevertheless, we believe that a contested convention may be the only mode of salvation for the party and perhaps the country.
A number of observers would rule out a contested convention on the grounds that it would divide the party so deeply as to guarantee a Democratic succession in the fall. Perhaps that is so, but in our view it is a risk that must be taken. And if it should result in the election of Hillary Clinton, that would be less calamitous for the party and the country than placing Donald Trump in the White House.
If Trump should win in both Michigan and Florida on the 15th, his position is likely to be so strong that the notion of a contested convention will be moot. In that case we would urge that attention and effort immediately be turned to the nomination of an independent candidate. Michael Gerson, writing in The Washington Post on March 3, described such an option:
Support a center-right, third-party candidate for president who would represent a civil rights Republicanism and hold the core message of the party in trust for better days. This approach would depend on finding a strong candidate who is willing to engage in an important but (given the history of such efforts) losing effort. A Mitt Romney candidacy would smack too much of an establishment bent on revenge. In contrast, Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana, would carry a winsome, disciplined, conservative message. Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice would stand for everything Trump does not — gravity, dignity, character and serious moral purpose.
The option envisioned by Gerson was essentially a one-off effort that assumed that, after losing the November election, the party would pull itself together and would again see better days. A more radical possibility would be the dissolution of the Republican party altogether and its replacement by an entirely new party. In our previous blog, we noted that Larry Sabato had noted a historical precedent for such a development in the collapse of the Whig Party and rise of the Republican Party its place. Sabato has now returned to the subject, providing a more extensive history of the death of the Whigs and the rise of the Republicans, by Michael F. Holt of the University of Virginia. Interested readers can find it here. We doubt that we shall witness a similar development, but a little history never hurt anyone.