Expect the GOP Establishment to Start Looking at the Bright Side of Trump

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Donald Trump celebrates his victory at a New Hampshire primary.
A winner wins.Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Po/2016 The Washington Post

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: dissecting the results of the GOP and Democratic primaries in New Hampshire.

Donald Trump’s win in New Hampshire — and the primary’s reshuffling of the party’s Establishment candidates — signals what one political reporter has described as “the growing chasm between the Republican Party’s leaders and its voters.” Is it just a matter of time, as some commentators think, until GOP leaders come around?
Even before Trump’s first win, some Republican Establishment figures were starting to come around to him, telling themselves, as Bob Dole put it, that he’d “probably work with Congress” because “he’s got the right personality and he’s kind of a deal-maker.” Plus, he had the advantage of not being the universally loathed Ted Cruz. Then came Trump’s second-place finish in Iowa. Suddenly he could be branded a loser — a paper tiger who would only attract fans, not actual voters. Rubio, who came in third in Iowa, was widely seen to be on the verge of surging (again), and GOP leaders (encouraged by the usual assortment of pundits and number-crunching analysts) began telling themselves (again) that Trump was in his death throes, thereby freeing the party at last to unify around the marvelous Marco. And so William Kristol, one of the contributors to the special and spectacularly ineffectual stop-Trump issue of National Review, offered this prediction of the Republican primary results five days before New Hampshire voters went to the polls: Rubio 25 percent, Cruz 22, Trump 19, Kasich 17. If there could be a more graphic illustration of the chasm between these supposed conservative leaders and their own voters, I can’t think of it. 

My guess is that these same types — including the opportunistic Kristol, no doubt — will start to shift back into Neville Chamberlain mode and look at the bright side of Trump again. Trump has the nativist, angry base of America’s white-male political party propelling him, and what power does the Establishment have to counter that? Fox News (along with its star, Megyn Kelly) has proved as impotent against Trump as National Review. Super-pacs, whether under the sway of the Koch brothers or Karl Rove, haven’t laid a glove on him. The religious right, typified by Jerry Falwell Jr., is happy to be in bed with a devil who lives large in the gilded manner of a megachurch television preacher. And the old neocon guard has proved all bark and no bite. Paris and San Bernardino were supposed to turn this into a national-security election, but the two most pugnacious avatars of Bush-Cheney 9/11-ism, Chris Christie and the Sheldon Adelson–favored Rubio, have no political gains to show for their hawkishness, and neither, of course, does Jeb!, who proudly listed Paul Wolfowitz among others of the Kristol bent on his foreign-policy team. Trump, by contrast, has been winning votes by advertising his opposition to the Iraq War nearly as much as Bernie Sanders has.

The central problems for the GOP Establishment remain even more basic. Most of the big money on its side is being spent on the circular firing squad that’s crippling its own candidates. Besides, you can’t fight something with nothing. Who is its candidate to take down Trump? Jeb!? The Times-endorsed John Kasich? (Revealingly enough, Fox News cut away from Kasich’s second-place victory speech midway Tuesday night — a defensible call, given that his actual vote total was well below half of Trump’s, even though he seemed to speak twice as long.) None of these guys are speaking the same language as a Republican base that has no problem with a candidate wielding the word pussy and that until recently preferred Ben Carson, a man who literally cannot find his way on to a debate stage, to all of the Establishment alternatives.

No doubt we will soon hear of scenarios by which Rubio can somehow stage a comeback. Not only is he the favorite of disheartened Christie, Jeb!, Rick Perry, and Scott Walker (remember him?) backers, but the media have routinely cast him as the on-the-cusp front-runner for months, with the adjective talented routinely affixed to his name for no apparent reason other than that he is brilliant at using a boyish grin and double talk (or, in his case, quadruple talk) to camouflage hard-right views only marginally different from those of the menacing Cruz. On Saturday, the same day as his fateful debate appearance, both the Times and Wall Street Journal gave major play to news stories charting Rubio’s upward arc.

Well, that was then. Rubio is no more likely to escape the video of his catastrophic Saturday night massacre than Edmund Muskie did his (alleged) tearing up during the 1972 New Hampshire primary, Michael Dukakis did his photo op in a tank, Howard Dean did his scream, or Perry did “Oops!” The only stock that is rising for Rubio is his status as a national laughingstock. It was particularly ill-advised of him to attack Joe Biden at one point in the debate: America knows Joe Biden, and Rubio is no Joe Biden. He’s the new Dan Quayle.

After his victory over Hillary Clinton Tuesday night — in which he poached voters from the demographic groups who supported Clinton in 2008 — Bernie Sanders mentioned that he had “the feeling that the kitchen sink is coming pretty soon” from the Clinton camp. What comes along with the kitchen sink? 
The kitchen sink was already being thrown at Sanders before Tuesday’s vote — by the Hillary enforcer David Brock and by Bill Clinton. Their collective ploys have included casting aspersions on Sanders’s health and ethics and purporting that he was a tool of Wall Street because he (like most, if not all, of his peers) received money from the Democratic Party’s own Senate Campaign Committee, which had some financial-sector donors. It’s clear that none of this worked — or will work — and that such tactics will mainly serve to antagonize the young Sanders loyalists whose enthusiasm Clinton will desperately need if she makes it to November. Gloria Steinem’s and Madeleine Albright’s ridicule of Sanders’s supporters was arguably an even bigger disaster. 

The inept and panicking Clinton campaign doesn’t need more of the kitchen sink. It needs, among other things, a message that is more inspiring than a liberal version of Jeb!’s ill-fated slogan “Jeb Can Fix It.” Pragmatism is not a cause to rally voters, whatever its merits as a governing strategy. The cliché that you campaign in poetry and govern in prose, like many clichés, happens to be true.

It’s also true that Clinton’s concession speech Tuesday night found her at her best — it was lucid, passionate, and feisty — while Sanders’s attenuated victory address, a recycling of his stump speech, had the laundry-list wonkiness one tends to associate with Clinton. Her cause is not hopeless. But her campaign often seems to be. To take just one example: She still can’t answer any question involving her and her husband’s personal fortune. Her lame explanation for taking $675,000 for Goldman Sachs speaking engagements (“That’s what they offered”) shows that nothing has changed since she talked about being “dead broke” during her book tour 20 months ago. She is no sooner going to get away with keeping the texts of those speeches private than Mitt Romney was going to get away with refusing to release his tax returns. But rather than lance the boil, she will likely let it fester for weeks or even months. 

Now racial politics are going to enter the fray as Sanders prepares to face African-American voters, theoretically Hillary loyalists, for the first time, in South Carolina and primary states beyond. Might the Clinton campaign misplay the race card as it did in 2008 so that even this natural political advantage is squandered? Based on what we’ve seen thus far, such self-immolation can’t be ruled out.

In an interview this week with the Financial Times, Michael Bloomberg confirmed recent speculation that he’s exploring a run for president. Should his increased eagerness to float this idea be taken to mean that he doesn’t think Clinton will be the Democratic nominee?
No, he knows no more about who is going to be the Democratic nominee than anyone else. What it does mean is that he has a lot of highly paid experts on his payroll, including pollsters, who are telling him what he wants to hear: America wants you! But third-party candidates don’t win the presidency in America. Bloomberg, whose views on guns and abortion are anathema to conservatives and whose Wall Street advocacy is anathema to liberals, has zero chance of becoming America’s first Jewish president.

A Bloomberg run nonetheless remains a perennial fantasy of a certain strain of centrism in the media-political Establishment — exemplified by some of the more self-righteous “bipartisan” op-ed columnists, by the naïve civic initiatives of Howard Schultz of Starbucks (who sought to ameliorate racial conflict by having baristas scroll “race together” on coffee cups), and by the why-can’t-we-all-get-along pablum peddled by the MSNBC talk show Morning Joe. This crowd will see a path for Bloomberg to the White House as surely as it is already detecting a surge for Kasich, whose relative civility (as measured against the low bar of Trump, Cruz, Fiorina, et al) was spun by some MSNBC talking heads on Tuesday night into a political miracle and whose postelection speech was broadcast in full by that liberal network even after Fox gave him the hook. Let’s remember that Kasich essentially lived in New Hampshire for months and still got barely 16 percent of the vote in a state that could not be more favorable for his brand of antique Republican conservatism. He is no more going to get the GOP nomination than a Bloomberg third-party ticket will carry states west or south of New York.