Romney’s Game

Mitt Romney is trying to be president.

When Mitt Romney took the stage yesterday at the University of Utah to inveigh against Donald Trump, there was a widely shared sense (if my Twitter feed is any indication) that he was making a noble attempt at saving his party, and perhaps the country, from self-destruction. Selflessly exposing himself to a fresh set of volleys from Trump, Romney sought to awaken his party to the danger ahead if it continued to allow Trump to strut all the way to the nomination. And you know what? It was nice to see him. No longer a political candidate, he seemed more like our cuddly, rich grandpa. Guys! Listen to grandpa!

This narrative wasn’t making sense to me. Surely, Romney must know that by coming out of hiding to attack Trump for his indecorousness, he would only put in clearer relief the contrast that Trump wants to make anyway: The old-style party establishment wants Trump to play nice, but Trump is here to shake the place up and tell it like it is. Romney’s displeasure with Trump is about as impactful to Trump voters as McCain’s disdain. Hey, let’s find out if Taft will go after him! Romney must be aware of this, and few politicians are as hyper-self-aware as he is. And he’s not an idiot.

Now think about how Romney’s hits against Trump were almost entirely about style, tone, and tactics. Don’t say “ban all Muslims,” you see, because that upsets potential allies. Never mind that it’s also just awful. But he did have a litany of policy and character hits against another front-runner, Hillary Clinton. In a speech ostensibly designed to convince people not to back Trump (which I don’t think it actually was, really), the person Romney was really attacking the most viciously was Hillary Clinton.

He also didn’t suggest one candidate to support over Trump. Instead, he urged people to vote strategically so that the remaining three candidates score disparate wins in their most favorable respective states. But that’s not a recipe for defeating Trump. At best, it’s a strategy to thin the delegate spread, and maybe, just maybe, deny Trump a majority and force a brokered convention.

Finally, he never even made a glancing reference to the fact that he sought and won Trump’s endorsement in 2012, that he praised him every which way in their joint appearances. To lend genuine credence to his argument that Trump had to be stopped, he could have at least acknowledged his own past association, to chalk it up to the needs of a different time and circumstance, acknowledge that it’s a little awkward now, but assert that this conviction is too important to allow the 2012 endorsement to stop him from saying what needs to be said. I mean, anything would have helped. But he said absolutely nothing about it.

So let’s add this up. He formally attacks the GOP frontrunner as unacceptable, knowing that doing so only solidifies said frontrunner’s support. He attacks the likely Democratic nominee with far more heat than he does the ostensible target of the larger speech. He eschews an endorsement of an alternative to Trump, but instead advocates for a strategy that would result in a brokered convention. And he pretends his previous bonhomie with Trump never happened.

Romney is trying to be president. What he’s hoping, I think, is that he can use his elder-statesman, above-the-fray status to nudge forward a process that ends with a desperate party drafting him at the convention. He may also, in fact, really hate Donald Trump, but that is incidental. Romney delivered what was more or less a campaign speech mainly for the benefit of the general electorate. He’s positioning himself as the sane, wise, dignified leader, contrasting with Trump on style as a candidate, but more importantly to him, contrasting with Clinton on substance as a president.

You know he must be kicking himself for not running this time around. I don’t think there’s much else that drives Romney, other than his family, than his need to be president. I don’t mean to imply this is an evil or shallow need. I think it may be very deeply felt that he’s supposed to be president to help save/heal/improve the country.

He must also know that this gambit has very little chance of success. But if it fails, he loses nothing. He remains where he is, and we remember that he tried to warn us. But if it works, he gets one more shot at the White House. He wouldn’t need to be vetted again, he’s known and largely respected by the electorate. He’d be seen as a safe, known, comfortable choice by many. And I have no doubt that he thinks he can beat Clinton.

He’s wrong, of course.

So don’t give Romney too much credit. Rather than sticking his neck out for the sake of his country, he’s quietly and slyly placing his hat into the ring, and hoping we don’t notice. Hey, who threw that hat in?

Oh, look at that. Is that my hat? Well, if you insist.

Suckered by Chris Christie

I’m a sucker. I used to think that there was some modicum of integrity within Chris Christie. Yes, his brand was based on bluster and boorishness, and yes, he played the game of politics and sacrificed principles when necessary. But I always presumed that there was something honest underneath it all, something true, a genuine desire to do right by people, even if I utterly disagreed with his priorities or positions.
Remember how he defended his appointment of a Muslim judge, when his fellow Republicans attacked him? Remember his moving story of a friend’s struggle with addiction? Remember his heartfelt praise of President Obama during Hurricane Sandy? They bespoke, to me, a man who, despite the bombast and machinations, had some ethical foundation, some kind of true heart.

No. He’s revealed himself as a complete phoney, a liar, probably a severe sociopath. Anyone who can speak the words he spoke today about Donald Trump cannot be trusted, cannot be believed, and cannot possibly have anyone’s best interests in mind other than his own. He praised Donald Trump today with the same sincerity and gravity that he displayed in his previous flashes of humanity. But there’s no way he believed a word of what he said today.

I have to assume, then, that everything else he’s ever said was equally full of shit. Anyone who can ape sincerity that convincingly is dangerous and possibly sick.

I’ve been naive. I’ll never believe him again. No one should. Not even Donald Trump.

Trump Can’t Be Stopped by Shaming His Voters

Photo by Evan Guest (CC BY 2.0)
The editorial board of the Washington Post wants to stop Trump from getting the Republican nomination, citing Trump’s lies, threats, lack of an actual agenda, lack of experience, admiration for Putin, and the fact that “he wants the United States to commit war crimes.” Where do they turn?

Certainly there are Republican leaders who understand all this: people such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.); former president George W. Bush and former presidential nominees Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney; and governors, senators and community leaders across the country. … If Mr. Trump is to be stopped, now is the time for leaders of conscience to say they will not and cannot support him and to do what they can to stop him. We understand that Mr. Trump would seek to use this to his benefit, and that he might succeed. But what is the choice? Is the Republican Party truly not going to resist its own debasement?

It would be hard to find a clearer example of how this primary race has been so utterly misunderstood by the political and journalistic class. In the past, these so-called “leaders of conscience” (please) have thrived off of what I described in my previous post as the decades-long project of cultivating a Republican electorate of fanatical ignoramuses. The very men the Post wants taking action to stop Trump are the same who benefited (to greater and lesser degrees) from the fomenting of rage and fear and the celebration of idiocy, the radiation of which Trump is now photosynthesizing. These men and their operations created the Trump candidacy. Trump is their baby.

And the idea that these old-timers could now step in and somehow shame and tut-tut the mob into making a more noble or self-sacrificing choice of candidate is laughable. These men represent much of what the Trump electorate is gleefully rejecting. These voters don’t want another Dole-Romney figure. They want a Mussolini-Barnum figure.

A poll out today for Florida shows Trump about to clobber Rubio, ostensibly the candidate to whom “leaders of conscience” should be directing support. Trump is not going to be stopped at the polls. Electorally, this is over.

Which points to the sole way these party patriarchs could stop Trump from getting the nomination, and it won’t happen. The Republican Party is not a part of the government (nor it the Democratic). It is a private organization that fosters and supports candidates for political office. The party could, if it so chose, simply change its rules, or suspend them entirely, and decide by fiat that, nope, we’re not nominating Trump. Somewhere in a smoke-filled room (or whatever sketchy place powerful people meet these days) these besuited, old white dudes could gather and decide to pull the plug on the primaries, and enact some alternative means of choosing someone else. It will never happen, and it would be a disaster of a wholly different sort. But that’s all they’ve got.

So Trump it is, and may whatever god you believe in have mercy on your soul.

Trump Will Be the Nominee and the GOP (Unfortunately) Will Be Fine

Donald Trump will be the presidential nominee of the Republican Party. I thought this months ago, and today it’s blindingly obvious. What baffles me is that this is only now dawning on the political class. He was written off as a joke when he entered the race (and in the case of Huffington Post, officially written off as a joke), but even then I knew he’d have some solid base of support. How could I have been so prophetic, when I usually screw these things up? Because the horrible things he said, his history of conspiracy mongering, his perceived independence from the establishment, and his grotesque bravado were the prime ingredients for the perfect contemporary right-wing candidate.

The GOP has been cultivating the Trump electorate for generations now. You can draw a direct line from Nixon’s “silent majority,” through Reagan’s sunny obliviousness, through George W. Bush’s flippant swagger, through rabid anti-intellectualism of Sarah Palin, right to the substanceless jingoistic braggadocio of Donald Trump. For decades, the Republican Party has succeeded by intentionally fostering an electorate of fanatical ignoramuses, and now this their harvest.

So each time the pundit class declared that the latest offense to decency vomited up by Trump would finally – finally! – sink his candidacy, I thought, no, this will only solidify his current base of support, and probably attract more. And that’s what happened every time. It just shows how utterly out of touch the political class is when they think that the contemporary GOP electorate would be, say, horrified at someone who disparaged Mexicans, Muslims, women, or the disabled, or that they’d recoil at someone who dissed John McCain – the GOP base hates John McCain! Where have you people been?

So here we are, with Trump having racked up three huge primary victories in a row, and folks are still scrambling to figure out how Trump is ultimately beaten. Sorry, folks. This is your guy. Cruz can’t beat him, because there’s too much overlap in their supporters, and Trump’s foundation is granite-solid by now. Cruz’s best hope is that he can peel some of Trump’s people off, but he’s going to need a lot of very strong pick-axes to do that. So no dice. Rubio has very little overlap with the Trump base, so his only hope is to sop up what’s left of the drop-outs’ support, and convince voters of Kasich’s lack of viability. I don’t think he can do it in time, not by a long shot. I presume when he loses the nomination, though, he’ll declare victory anyway.

Oh, and apparently Kasich could maybe possibly beat Trump in Ohio. That’s about as meaningful as Howard Dean’s post-dropout victory in Vermont in 2004.

There’s also a lot of talk about how Trump’s ascension means the end of the GOP. The splintering among the Republican Party’s constituencies, they say, is irreparable and will lead to a total overhaul of the party.

Please.

First of all, this is what was said about the GOP after they lost so badly in 2008. “GOP in exile” and whatnot. Did they rejigger their party as they licked their wounds? No. They steeled themselves (and Steele’d themselves), and if anything became even more resolute in their increasingly extreme positions.

Second of all, while the GOP has a real problem when it comes to the presidency right now, owing as much to demographics and the Electoral College as their to their own madness, in congressional districts and statehouses they are doing just fine. More than fine. Because stupidly complacent moderates and liberals skip midterm and off-year elections, the most extreme corners of the Republican Party control state legislatures, city councils, school boards, and, oh yes, Congress. So maybe the White House is a tougher climb for the GOP right now, they are otherwise sitting very, very pretty.

So to sum up, Trump will be the nominee of the Republican Party because he is exactly what the GOP has been training its electorate to want. And while it may cost them the White House (or at least I really, really hope so), it’s only going to strengthen their determination and tighten their grip on every other aspect of government they control. And that’s where the real problem is.

Malleable

Photo credit: DonkeyHotey via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Former President Jimmy Carter would take Trump over Cruz, and so would I. Jimmy says:

The reason is, Trump has proven already he’s completely malleable. I don’t think he has any fixed (positions) he’d go the White House and fight for. On the other hand, Ted Cruz is not malleable. He has far right-wing policies he’d pursue if he became president.

This is exactly the point I’ve been making about Trump vs. Cruz, but President Carter put it perfectly. Trump is malleable. He pretends to have an ideological agenda, but it’s all show. He just wants to win the big popularity contest and get the job. He may be terrible at it if he gets it, but he won’t be guided by some absurd belief that the creator of the universe must be placated through government fiat. The only supreme being he cares about is himself, and he’ll do whatever he has to do to keep things running to his satisfaction.

I’m not saying he’ll reveal himself to be a closet liberal (though one never knows), but that he’ll roll with it. He won’t embark on crusades, he’ll cut deals. He’ll allow himself to be influenced, he’ll feel the political winds, and he’ll probably try to get a few things done. It’ll be pragmatism and ego, not zealotry. (And, with Cruz, also ego.)

This is why I used to half-jokingly tout Mitt Romney for president, at least for the GOP nomination. Yes he was poised to be the most likely to be able to defeat President Obama, but it was a more palatable thought than a Gingrich or a Santorum getting the nomination and then somehow winning the White House. Romney wasn’t just “moderate,” he was, like Trump, malleable. He’d want to get things done. If it meant chucking Republican dogma or snubbing Tea Party dumbasses, then so be it. If the political tides shifted in a particular direction, he’d have leaned into them in order to keep things stable.

Cruz is not malleable (except his god damn smug pompous shit-eating fucking ass-face). He’s a fanatic. Trump is a salesman, Cruz is a maniac. If I have to choose, I’ll take the salesman.

 

Trump is Exactly What We Wanted

Photo credit: Tony Webster via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
I was not a Trump skeptic when he entered the race. I didn’t know how far he’d get, but I knew he’d be a big factor, and as he plowed ahead and stayed on top, I was also not one of those who thought he’d implode. His support, I believed, was rock solid, with a floor that other candidates couldn’t match. But I don’t think I could ever really articulate why he would do, and has done, so well.

Then I read this interview with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin at Huffington Post by Howard Fineman, and it all made sense. Fineman writes:

Trump deploys fame for fame’s sake; taps into populist expressions of fear, hatred and resentment and shows a knack for picking fights and a braggart’s focus on the horse race. All of which allow him to play into — and exploit — every media weakness and bad habit in a chase for audience and numbers.

And Goodwin tells him:

Do we know, at this point, about his modus operandi in business? Do we know how he treated his staff? Do we know what kind of leader he was when he was building his business? I mean, I don’t know the answers to these things.

All I know is that, when I see him now, it’s like his past is not being used by the media to tell us who the guy really is.

This all rings more truthfully to me than the idea that Trump is some kind of political savant. I do think he’s probably smarter than his competition in a number of meaningful ways, but a better and broader explanation of his success is that his shtick happens to align perfectly with the way the news media produces content today.

The media and Trump are equally obsessed with horse race poll numbers. The current news paradigm is to churn out content with every tiny, potentially interesting development, and Trump practically gives off spores of content fodder. The news media delights in conflict, especially personal conflict, and the potential for controversy or the possibility of offenses given. Again, Trump provides and provides. And I assume that this is half because he’s playing all of us, and half because it’s just what he is. We the audience demand vapid, garbage content, and Trump gives us exactly what we want.

Here’s a subject that Fineman and Kearns don’t cover: the electorate to which Trump is appealing. It’s hard to imagine a Democrat-Trump, some leftward counterpart that has Trump’s bravado but fights for social and economic justice. No, Political Trump is a product custom made for an electorate stoked into rage and fear and happy ignorance by the very party that now fears the Trump takeover. The GOP primary electorate has been primed for a candidate like Trump, whether the party knew it or not. They’ve been fomenting paranoia about Obama, minorities, women, “religious freedom,” Iran, Muslims, and whatever else you can think of, and they’re shocked that perhaps some chest-thumping candidate might swoop in and, confidently and joyously, embody those paranoias.

Trump is a man of our times. Goodwin in the interview with Fineman says that deeply researched print journalism is what could have better exposed and explained someone like Trump, “because [of] the way sentences work.” There’s something kind of perfect for that. In an age of clumsy tweets and Facebook memes, the antithesis of whatever it is Trump is, might be “the sentence.”

‘Twas the Night Before Iowa (Which Probably Won’t Matter)

2012 GOP Iowa Caucus winner, President Rick Santorum. Um.
Here’s what I think of the state of the race on the night before the Iowa caucuses.

The polls right now for Iowa are more or less meaningless. Yes, Clinton and Trump are both up a little in the final pre-Iowa poll, but it doesn’t really matter. Save for the poor bastards in single digits, the Iowa caucuses are one of the least predictable “elections” in modern politics. For candidates within a few points of each other in polling, everything can hang on innumerable (and entirely banal) factors: Will it rain? Is there snow? Are people too busy? Are babysitters available? Are there enough cars and vans to bring people to caucus sites? Do enough people give enough of a damn about who becomes the nominee to show up, or is everyone pretty content with whoever winds up winning? Did we call enough people? Did we knock on enough doors? Did we know on too many doors, and call too many people, and become annoying?

Hell, if it’s really close for the Democrats, it could all come down to which campaign has been nicest to O’Malley, as his utter lack of viability in just about every caucus site means his few voters will have to go with a second choice. The candidate O’Malley’s voters like better could decide the whole night.

I was in the Hillary Clinton war room for the 2008 caucuses, and hopes were pretty high. I think the prevailing sentiment was that we would place a strong 2nd (behind Edwards, I thought), but alas, we were trounced by Obama and edged out by Edwards to land at 3rd. Remember the Democratic race in 2004? Wasn’t Howard Dean supposed to win that with Gephardt close behind? They came in 3rd and 4th.

So forget the polls as far as the top tier candidates are concerned. For Clinton/Sanders and Trump/Cruz, this is up in the air.

So while I won’t predict any winners, I will predict this: Iowa won’t really matter. Let’s say Sanders does win, and by a meaningful margin. He could take that momentum, build on his support in New Hampshire, and win big there, too. A rocket-launch to the nomination, right?

Look, it’ll totally suck for Clinton if she loses both Iowa and New Hampshire, and Hillary Death Watch will be on full alert. But I can’t for the life of me foresee a scenario where Sanders takes these wins and turns them into victories in South Carolina, Nevada, and the big states for Super Tuesday. Does anyone really think Sanders can win in South Carolina, where the African American vote is the whole ballgame? Or in California? Or New York? It’s possible, of course, but at this point it seems absurd to think so.

I think Iowa is slightly less meaningless for the Republicans, only because a decisive win by Trump could indeed begin the end of the race, for it would certainly catapult him to an even larger victory in New Hampshire than he is already likely to enjoy. I am skeptical, though, of a Trump win in Iowa, simply because I suspect his on-the-ground operation won’t match the religious fervor of Cruz’s supporters. And if Cruz does win, it’s no big news, it’s more or less expected, so the race remains one between him and Trump, and we trudge on. Nothing in the race’s dynamics change as a result of a Cruz victory.

Iowa’s greatest impact will likely be to begin the weeding out of the also-rans. The bottom half of the Democratic candidates more or less lopped themselves off after Iowa in 2008. I can’t see any reason for folks like Fiorina, Santorum, or Huckabee to trudge on once they get shellacked in Iowa. (And I suspect Huckabee is readying to endorse Trump after Iowa, and so a Cruz victory could be heavily dampened by a key establishment-evangelical nod like that.) Alas, Iowa losses likely won’t deter Kasich, Bush, or Christie, who have their hopes pinned on New Hampshire. And Rand Paul seems to be running for something other than the GOP’s presidential nomination, so who knows.

On the Democrats’ side, O’Malley will stay in the race as long as he technically is able. Why? Bernie or Hillary could get hit by a bus or something, and he wants to be ready to fill a spot just in case.

What do I know? A year or so ago, I certainly thought Cruz would be one of the main contenders for the GOP nod, but I also thought Rand Paul would be his main competition. I could be entirely full of it.

But that’s never stopped anyone from making predictions before. And I think at this point in my career, I’ve learned at least something. I can’t wait to find out!

No, Really, They Are All Trumps

John Scalzi has a good post of observations about the Trump-demagogue situation, echoing the drum I’ve been beating for a while about the existing GOP electorate:

Trump has been leading the GOP polls almost without interruption for months. He’s not an outlier. He’s there for a reason. The reason is that the GOP has made space in their party for race-baiting xenophobic religious bigots, and has done so for years by conscious and intentional strategy. Trump did not bring his supporters into the GOP. They were already there.

And he rightly laments this state of affairs:

Right now, in the United States, the leading candidate for president of one of the two major political parties — the leader by a substantial margin — is openly talking about denying an entire class of people their fundamental Constitutional and human rights, and being cheered for it. It’s not right, it’s bigoted and hateful, and yes, it absolutely is dangerous.

But here’s the thing. The GOP has been doing this for years, generations even, and at the establishment level. It’s not always Muslims, of course. For the past 20 years or so it’s been a lot about gays. Not barring them from entering the country, but denying them constitutional rights to marry and be as they are without discrimination or harassment. An entire class of people. Right now, the GOP literally boasts of its ability to obstruct African Americans (especially poor ones) from voting at all. An entire class of people. They go to the cruelest, most cynical, most desperate lengths to make sure that women have no say whatsoever in whether their body will be used to produce another human body. An entire class of people.

Shift your perspective just slightly, and it becomes not just about one or two unfavored groups, but the superiority of one: Christians. The right kind of Christians, of course. Rather than bellowing about the rights that some group or other does not deserve, they maintain that there are special rights that only Christians deserve. The right to flout the law, to assertively deny others’ rights because they think their religion tells them to, and even the freedom to reject responsibility for the ransacking and despoiling of the planet because the Bible says it’s okay. These are bedrock principles of the Republican Party.

So I wish the political-journalistic establishment would spare us all the shock over Trump’s version of this. The Republican Party is explicitly devoted to taking the humanity away from entire classes of people, and asserting the superiority of rich, white, male Christians. They are all Trumps.

They Are All Trumps

Today, the political world is aghast because Trump said that “for now,” Muslims should be barred from entering the country.

That’s awful, of course. But let’s remember that mere days ago, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and other “mainstream” Republican candidates were saying that the U.S. should only help the Christians among the Syrian refugees. This is not only a no-Muslims policy, it’s a Christians-only policy.

How is this less awful than what Trump is saying today? If anything, it’s worse. It’s not only saying that one group is on the outs, it’s saying that there is only one group of people worthy of compassion at a time of utterly desperate need.

(And this doesn’t even begin to address the lunacy of Lindsey Graham, who Dave Weigel at the Post just referred to as a “moderate,” who is maniacally obsessed with total war with large swathes of the Islamic world.)

Jeb, Cruz, Rubio, they all like to contrast themselves with Trump to show themselves as somehow above his demagoguery. But be it on this issue, or on many, many others such as women’s rights, LGBT rights, and even acceptance of scientific facts of existential importance, when it comes to what they themselves say they believe, they are all Trumps. They just suck at it.

I always believed that Trump would be a real contender for the nomination, even when the press laughed him off. Every time he’s said something awful, about Mexicans, Muslims, women, it’s presumed that it will be the beginning of the end for him, and every time I’ve said, actually, no, this is exactly what the GOP electorate wants to hear. And every time, he’s solidified his base and built on it. The only recent exception is Ted Cruz topping a new poll in Iowa (for whatever Iowa polls are worth), and let’s be honest, Ted Cruz is Trump with an elected office and a smarmier face.

Trump is the GOP. He may not be what the plutocrats who bankroll the party want the GOP to be, he may not be what the Family Research Council wants the GOP to be, but it is what it is. These other candidates are just as cynical, just as backward, just as eager to feed off of the fear and hate of the electorate. They’re just not nearly as good at it.

Except Cruz. He’s really good at it. Watch out for that bastard.