Ted Cruz’s Win in Wisconsin Proves No One Can Unify the GOP

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GOP Presidential Candidate Ted Cruz Holds Wisconsin Primary Night Gathering In Milwaukee
Cruz celebrates his Wisconsin win. Photo: Scott Olson/2016 Getty Images

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: Cruz’s and Sanders’s victories in Wisconsin, and anti-LGBT legislation in Mississippi and North Carolina.

Donald Trump was handily defeated by Ted Cruz in the Wisconsin primary last night. Can Cruz’s victory mainly be attributed to big spending by stop-Trump super-pacs and the Trump campaign’s recent calamities, or is Cruz connecting with voters?
I’d vote for the former. Trump has said that he could win elections even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue. He came close to testing that theory by defending his campaign manager’s assault of a female reporter, taking multiple abortion stands, and adopting a policy on nukes that seems to have been gleaned from Dr. Strangelove. The #NeverTrump forces in Wisconsin, led by the state’s powerful local conservative-talk-show stars, capitalized on every blunder. But the notion that there’s a mass movement within the national GOP for Cruz either among Republican potentates or within the grassroots is a fantasy. Cruz appeals to the hard-core right and Evangelicals and that’s it. This is likely to become more evident than ever as the primary moves on to New York and Pennsylvania.

Remember the constant refrain that Trump can’t clear 50 percent in any state? Well, Cruz didn’t either in Wisconsin, just as John Kasich failed to do so in his single win in his home state of Ohio. The simple truth confirmed once more by Wisconsin is that no one can. A contested convention in which the various camps conduct trench warfare to win over, steal, or bribe unbound delegates seems near-certain. And then what happens? This has been the week of the Paul Ryan scenario, in which the Speaker of the House, a true-red conservative acceptable to many factions of the party and backed by the Koch brothers’ clout and cash, magnanimously overcomes his professed reluctance to a presidential draft and rides to the rescue.

Dream on. If that happens, there will be a wholesale revolt by the grassroots. Trump and Cruz are favored by the vast majority of the Republican electorate; they collectively racked up 83 percent of the Wisconsin vote. There will be those riots Trump has promised, and there could be a third-party bid just large enough to assure defeat in November (if it wasn’t assured already).

Two things that are indisputable about Paul Ryan: He is not stupid, and he is very ambitious. Both of these facts make it highly unlikely that he’d accept a suicide mission in Cleveland. He would never risk alienating Trump and Cruz supporters by grabbing the brass ring out of their hands — it’s why he’s been so reluctant to criticize Trump by name. His clear path to victory in 2020 is to stand back and let the party implode in 2016 so that he, an unsullied friend to all, can pick up the pieces. The one potential wrinkle in this plan is that Ryan is chairman of the convention itself. Will he be able to keep order, stay out of the crossfire, and maintain neutrality when presiding over that free-for-all? With all due respect to Game of Thrones, the Cleveland show is going be the television event of the year.

Bernie Sanders’s victory in Wisconsin is his sixth in a row, and though he’s beaten Hillary Clinton in seven of the last eight primaries or caucuses, he still trails significantly in the delegate count. How much do his recent wins matter?
Short of an act of God, the delegate math just isn’t there for Sanders to wrest the nomination from Clinton. But his Wisconsin victory once again proves that he is at his strongest in states where the Democratic electorate is as white as the GOP’s nationwide. What Sanders is doing and can keep doing is force Clinton to address his signature issues and keep weakening her in the process by calling attention to her inability to plausibly pose as a populist and her overall deficiencies as a candidate. She is now openly exasperated by Sanders’s campaign. And she keeps making astonishing errors that will tamp down some Democrats’ enthusiasm for her in November: Her outrageous claim that Nancy Reagan was a quiet AIDS advocate (later retracted) was as big a disaster as Trump’s call for the punishment of women who have abortions (also retracted). 

Given the chaotic state of the GOP, however, none of Clinton’s weaknesses may matter. Polls show that Kasich is the Republican with the best bet of beating her: He got 14 percent of the vote in Wisconsin and has zero chance of getting the nomination. With either Trump or Cruz coming out of a chaotic convention as an opponent, meanwhile, Clinton could probably shoot someone in front of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue and still win.

The governors of North Carolina and Mississippi have now signed legislation effectively limiting gay rights in their states, and putting them in conflict with companies that could provide jobs there. Is there any reason to think these governors will resist corporate pressure to roll back those laws — as happened last year in Indiana and Arkansas, and in Georgia last month
I don’t know, but it certainly should be tested. PayPal’s strong, immediate action in North Carolina — canceling a previously announced $3.6 million global operations hub there — should set a standard for other corporations in dealing with any state that writes bigotry into law. The Charlotte-based Bank of America, a notorious bad player in the mortgage bubble that helped bring down the economy in 2008, has a chance to wipe some tarnish from its image by moving jobs out of North Carolina in protest. The National Basketball Association can carry through on its threat to move the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte. And perhaps the Clintons might stand up and call for their pals at the Arkansas-based Tyson Foods to rethink their footprint in Mississippi, where it is one of the largest private-sector employers.

Another issue raised by the Republican push for “religious liberty” laws is whether a similar policy will be enforced at the party’s convention. As we know, the presidential candidates wimped out and refused to oppose the Secret Service edict that guns be banned in Quicken Loans Arena — even though all three contenders want to crack down on “gun-free zones” elsewhere. Will they now back down from protecting “religious liberty” in Cleveland? Surely the Republican National Committee should grant Christian vendors who are offended by homosexuality or same-sex marriage the right to refuse to serve any gay conventioneer. To do otherwise would be another instance of GOP hypocrisy and another good reason for the party’s base to riot in Cleveland.