And down the stretch they come. News and notes from the GOP circus:
THE BIG DEBATE
The five remaining candidates face off in a debate in Houston tonight. It’s a big one for Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, the two candidates with the strongest arguments as the anti-Trump (although John Kasich is still lingering!). The non-Trump campaigns have been reduced to an ignominious whining routine of insisting that the other guy drop out. You drop out, no you drop out. Given that Trump seems to have a visceral appeal based on strength and authority, projecting weakness in this way is a disaster — the sort of meek entitlement that doomed Jeb Bush. To be clear, the phony alpha posturing that Trump dishes out actually seems like a nasty trait in a commander in chief — but it’s quite popular among GOP base voters. If Cruz or Rubio want to win, they’re going to have to be aggressive, not just in sniping at each other but in taking down the frontrunner.
I’d expect Cruz to go hard against Trump on his wishy-washy positions on abortion, which remain a potential weak spot for Trump for late-deciding voters in the Southern states voting on March 1 (particularly the evangelical crowd Cruz needs to snag away from Trump). Meanwhile, Rubio has started attacking Trump for being insufficiently anti-Obamacare and expressing insufficient fealty to the interests of Israel. Greg Sargent at the Washington Post expresses skepticism that Rubio’s arguments — standard-issue Republican orthodoxy — will work against Trump, who constantly thumbs his nose at GOP orthodoxy.
RUBIO—THE ANTI-DIPLOMACY CANDIDATE
Most pundits are dismissing Rubio’s attack that Trump is an insufficient Zionist cheerleader as weak tea, politically. Daniel Larison at the American Conservative adds that it’s not much of a policy argument either, and that it reveals Rubio’s commitment to conflict:
Rubio’s criticism is unintentionally revealing in another way. He says that “there is no such thing as an honest broker,” and in this case that’s true. The U.S. hasn’t been an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians for decades, and has overwhelmingly favored one side in the conflict all along. Rubio thinks that’s a good thing that needs to be maintained. Trump is at least paying lip service to the idea that securing a peace settlement requires some pretense of even-handedness. It doesn’t follow from this that Trump would actually do anything to pursue such a settlement or that he would have any success in negotiating one if he did, but it reminds us that Rubio has absolutely no interest in it and sees even the slightest rhetorical nod in favor of negotiating peace as something to be denounced.
Nevada is a state that Donald Trump has polled well in for some time, so there’s no reason to read too much into it, but one thing we saw is that as the field winnows, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the anti-Trump candidates pick up all their votes. Trump’s ceiling moves up as there are less candidates to choose from. Because Trump is so buffoonish and strange, it’s easy to miss trends that are actually quite familiar. In presidential primary elections, as the field narrows, the one who typically gains the most is the frontrunner. That’s clearly Trump.
It is almost certainly true that Rubio is broadly acceptable to a larger swath of the party. But as much as Trump opponents would like to comfort themselves claiming that there is a clear majority block of anti-Trump voters (they never mention that by this logic, the anti-Rubio block or the anti-Cruz block is much larger) — the truth is that even if additional candidates drop out, their votes would split in unpredictable ways, and many of them would go to Trump. It’s not as simple as Trump v. anti-Trump. Check out this polling from North Carolina:
Trump stands to gain a significant amount of support from every single candidate that might drop out. In many cases, Trump would actually gain more support than Rubio and/or Cruz.
As Trump himself has pointed out:
A number of the pundits said, “Well, if a couple of the other candidates dropped out, if you add their scores together it’s going to equal Trump.” But these geniuses — they don’t understand that as people drop out I’m going to get a lot of those votes also. You don’t just add them together.
One sign that consolidation around the frontrunner hasn’t happened yet: Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight points out: “The average state poll conducted since South Carolina has Trump at 30.7%.” In other words, so far in the polling, he’s holding steady rather than building up support as you would expect a frontrunner to do at this point (of course, that’s still enough to dominate a split field).
But here’s one sign of consolidation: Trump is finally getting endorsements from GOP lawmakers. U.S. Reps Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York endorsed Trump yesterday. Hunter told Politico, “We don’t need a policy wonk as president. We need a leader as president. I’m in, and I’ve been in.” Collins said Trump “has both the guts and the fortitude” to be president.
THE SAD, SAD TALE OF JEB BUSH
Recommended longform for political junkies: Politico looks at the hundred-million-dollar-plus catastrophe that was the Jeb Bush campaign. In general I think that structural factors matter more than individual campaign strategy decisions and the tendency in any campaign post mortem is to retroactively assign blame. In a zero sum game like politics, we assume that all the decisions made by a winning campaign were brilliant and all the decisions made by a losing campaign were dumb. That’s silly. Just for fun, though, here’s a juicy what-if:
David Kochel, the early-state strategist initially hired to serve as campaign manager, and senior adviser Trent Wisecup, a protégé of Murphy’s, suggested that Bush challenge Trump to a one-hour, live televised debate on birthright citizenship, perhaps on “The O’Reilly Factor.” The Fox News host, they argued, supports birthright citizenship, and his show would offer a high-profile platform for Bush to demonstrate his policy knowledge and articulate his more unifying message, bringing the contrast between himself and Trump into sharper relief.
But Bradshaw, the most senior figure in the operation, and campaign manager Danny Diaz couldn’t be convinced it was a risk worth taking, according to high-level campaign staff.