Donald and the Dead Weight

by Cinzia Croce

Donald Trump owes Jeb Bush an apology. After mocking him for his “low energy” at a time when the country needs spirit, Trump has selected a veritable cadaver to be his vice president — and just like that, the Trump Train has been derailed. It is still possible to put it  back on track, but it is severely damaged. Instead of barreling to the finish lines, Trump and his dead weight — sorry, running mate — may straggle across it.


A few hours after Trump confirmed his selection via Twitter, Mike Pence made his first media appearance, on Fox’s Sean Hannity Show. He delivered a respectful, albeit extremely laid back, performance — laid back to the point that I frequently wondered if he had pulse. Pence was a little shaky addressing Trump’s controversies, such as the temporary ban on Muslim migration, which he had previously denounced as “offensive and unconstitutional.” The next day, both Trump and Pence appeared together for the formal introduction of the ticket. It was a no-frills event — one that did not even include any signage featuring both candidates’ last names. Pence delivered the standard conservative stump speech with the requisite homages to Ronald Reagan and nods to fiscal discipline, strong defense and traditional values. He showed some signs of energy — but one can imagine fast-paced, mile-a-minute New Yorker Trump pushing Pence to pick up his pace a little.

But the real problem was written all over Trump’s face. He came across like a trapped man, and for the first time since the night he lost the Iowa Caucuses, he looked unhappy. The only time he seemed to enjoy himself was while dancing on the grave of the failed #NeverTrump effort, which failed to force a floor vote to plunge the convention into chaos. This, combined with Trump’s admission that he chose Pence to unify the party, lends credence to the speculation that the ticket was a backroom deal. The GOP establishment would deliver a drama-free convention, a united party, and donors with open checkbooks — and in return, they’d get their man on the ticket. But Trump has never struck me as the type of personality that is willing to accept a situation not to his liking for very long. He is an intelligent man, and must know that the GOP establishment is not interested in helping him get elected. All they care about is maintaining their majorities in Congress. Their hope is that once Trump is gone, they put the populist wave that swept through the primaries behind them — and go back to their old, comfortable ways. I would not be surprised at all if Trump is already plotting ways to dump Pence after Cleveland.


The GOP’s Choice: To Lead, Or to Cheerlead?

By Cinzia Croce

Just like the employer who is convinced that what’s really necessary to boost workforce morale is a motivational speaker rather than a wage increase, the GOP establishment is convinced that just one more pep talk about the need to be ‘optimistic’ and to ‘not give into fear’ is just what is needed to rein in the recalcitrant base that won’t let go of their infatuation with Trump.  In a gorgeous Capitol Hill committee room with several American flags serving as background, Speaker Paul Ryan delivered a speech about the state of American politics before an audience filled with young interns — after all: there is nothing more uplifting than speaking to young people, for they are our future! His blue eyes sparkling more than usual and his voice was filled with the eagerness of a young lover, Ryan spoke about the American founding ideals, the need for civility, and his desire for politics to be an aspirational battle of ideas.

In other words: the same drivel that the Republican consultant class finds irresistible but falls on deaf ears outside the Beltway.


It was the same speech that Jeb! delivered during his “joyful tortoise” phase of his campaign, when the brightest Republican political strategists concluded that the best way to defeat Trump was to ignore him. After months of talking about his hopeful vision for America and millions of dollars in advertising touting his conservative record as Florida governor, Jeb languished at the bottom of the polls, as the voters just didn’t seem interested in ‘optimism.’ Eventually, the tortoise campaign found its final resting place on the beaches of South Carolina.

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The Trumpening

By Alex Knepper

The outcome in New Hampshire could not have been more favorable to Donald Trump: Chris Christie’s operatic kamikaze mission against Marco Rubio succeeded in spectacular fashion, humiliating the boy wonder for a second time by reducing him to a fifth-place finish in a state where just one week ago he had dreamed — plausibly — of finishing in second. But that is not all: John Kasich, roughly matching Jon Huntsman’s 2012 total, was the one to snag Rubio’s prize — and he will find himself utterly incapable of capitalizing on it. And because God has a sense of humor, Ted Cruz was able to block Jeb Bush from even claiming a spot in the Top 3.

With Rubio deflated and Kasich a poor fit for the state, Mr. Bush may win 2nd place in South Carolina — especially since he is finally wising up and bringing George W. Bush, beloved among the GOP base, to campaign for him. But even a strong second-place finish would be too little, too late for the unhappy warrior. And this result would only further muddle the prospects for the ‘establishment lane,’ besides. A relatively strong Iowa finish by Rubio, a relatively strong New Hampshire finish by Kasich, and a relatively strong South Carolina finish by Bush all amount to this: Donald Trump steamrolling the competition. (As for Ted Cruz, he is likely to meet the same fate as the last two ‘winners’ of Iowa.)


I am writing all of this not because I like it, but because it is true. One week ago, I endorsed the conventional wisdom that we had a three-man race on our hands. The race is now effectively over. Let’s be blunt: Rubio had his shot to consolidate the center-right against Trump, and he blew it. Some will be tempted to blame Christie for spoiling a beautiful opportunity, but we should really be thanking him for doing us the favor of quickly exposing Rubio for the empty suit he’s always been. Why the Republican ‘establishment’ ever tried to convince the center-right to rally around a hiding-in-plain-sight religious-rightist with no legislative accomplishments or policy heft is utterly mystifying. Since last autumn, conservative pundits have been trying to force Rubio down people’s throats — maybe out of envy toward Obama, who knows? — but they somehow forgot that he had competitors who weren’t going to just passively let that happen. The long-prophesied Rubio surge finally — finally — arrived, and it took just five days for an able prosecutor to snuff it out. (Maybe they should have tried to force Christie down people’s throats instead?)

Given these dynamics, Trump is probably unstoppable. He is dominating the polls in every state that will vote over the next month, and he will only gain momentum from New Hampshire. There seems to be nothing he could possibly say that could alienate his current supporters.

As for the other personality-cult leader who triumphed last night: it is truly the height of chutzpah to declare that SuperPAC money corrupts our democracy on a night in which neither of the winners have SuperPACs, the second-place Republican finisher pulled it off via retail politicking, and the $100,000,000 man placed a distant fourth. Disciples of St. Bernie should enjoy the week in which their candidate leads the delegate count, because the race is about to shift to the South, and they will have to face the reality that not everyone in America is a white bourgeois-type aspiring to imitate the Swedes.

Jeb Finally Does Something Right – But Is It Too Late?

By Alex Knepper

It only took him a year, but Jeb Bush has finally figured out that it’s not actually possible to make the public forget he’s a member of the Bush family. Someone in his life seems to have managed to convince him in 2014 that the public was clamoring for a presidential candidate who was patently embarrassed by his family name and history, and little seemed to change even after he won his first major applause line of the campaign — that moment when he stood up to Donald Trump to declare forcefully that his brother kept us safe. The desire to be one’s own man is, of course, admirable — but Bush was always going to stand or fall as a legacy candidate. That is: if he was going to win, he was going to win as a Bush.

United States President George W. Bush talks to senior citizens

Now, at the 11th hour, Jeb has finally invited George W. Bush to both cut a television advertisement for him — and, more still: to hit the campaign trail with him in South Carolina — the state in which W. himself rebounded from a stinging, embarrassing loss at the hands of John McCain.

With W. speaking for him, we can guarantee Jeb won’t need to ask anyone to clap. Here’s the thing: although his image has been slowly improving since leaving office — perhaps due to his wise decision to remain largely absent from public sight — George W. Bush isn’t at all popular among the general public. But he’s very popular among Republican primary voters, most of whom voted for the man twice, and consider him ‘one of them,’ especially insofar as he is despised by liberals and blamed by Obama for the mess he inherited. Millions of Republicans long for a vindication of George W. Bush, and for a way to find pride in his legacy.

Standing up for George W. Bush is, paradoxically enough, ‘anti-establishment’ in its own sense. Jeb has spent the entire campaign tacitly endorsing the conventional wisdom that his family background is anathema to victory. If that were truly the case — if his family background were truly toxic — then he was doomed from the start. He was never going to fool the public into believing he wasn’t ‘really’ a dynastic candidate. He should have made the gamble to make use of his family’s legacy sooner, but now it’s his one remaining card. In this strangest of elections, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that George W. Bush, of all people, can put Jeb back in the conversation. One just wonders now if might not be too late.


Is Marco Rubio Still Overrated?

By Alex Knepper

For many months, the pundit class tried to force a narrative into existence to make Marco Rubio the front-running ‘establishment lane’ candidate, and perhaps even simply the front-runner, full-stop. There’s no doubt that Sen. Rubio did what he needed to do in Iowa, coming closer to Donald Trump than Trump came to Ted Cruz, but there are a number of obstacles to Rubio consolidating ‘establishment’ support in a timely manner that the over-excitable chattering classes seem to think.

New Hampshire jealously guards its ‘first-in-the-nation’ role, and rarely cares what Iowa has to say. It is usually the case that New Hampshire takes a maybe-mischievous enjoyment in rebuking Iowa. Despite the strange confluence of events that have marked Sen. Rubio as an ‘establishment’ candidate, he is really not a typical ‘establishment’ candidate: besides making his mark by defeating ex-Gov. Charlie Crist in the 2010 Senate primaries, he has toyed with support for granting Constitutional rights to fetuses, endorsed Mike Huckabee for president in 2008 despite there being minimal incentive to do so, has called for a new Constitutional convention, stridently opposes same-sex marriage, and has refused to say how old the Earth is, on the grounds that he’s “not a scientist, man.” Keeping in line with the GOP’s typical delusions about youth and minority outreach, we are supposed to believe that since he’s slightly darker than Mitt Romney, under the age of 50, and listens to hip-hop, millennials and black voters are suddenly going to be interested in the same old Reaganite platform. Putting an old, losing message in a young, brown person’s mouth isn’t sufficient.

Cruz winning Iowa was undoubtedly a blow to Donald Trump, although Trump is still the prohibitive favorite to win New Hampshire by double-digits. But thanks to his Iowa victory, Cruz has earned a ticket to at least the SEC primaries, where he will have to contend with Trump for a significant share of the same voters. Yet, we should not be so sure that Rubio will have the ‘establishment’ lane to himself by then: New Hampshire independents are showing a strong preference for John Kasich, and there is no sign of that changing. Rubio has been in a traffic jam with Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie for months. If Kasich defeats Rubio in New Hampshire, he too will have earned a ticket through February. It is also possible that even Jeb Bush will stay in through South Carolina, a state in which he continues to over-perform his national polls and in which he has invested a large amount of money. Purely out of pride he may decide to fight on his home turf in Florida, too, rather than cede that to his former protege. Rubio may have the ‘establishment lane’ to himself by March, but his momentum could be severely undercut by likely losses to Trump in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, where Trump also has a commanding lead — and for failing to have fully consolidated the Kasich-Bush vote by then (Christie should be gone by South Carolina). If Trump manages to win Florida, too, which is more than possible, given recent polling (and the likely burst of momentum he could earn from wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina), Cruz might be too weakened to pose a serious threat to him after that, anyway. Only at that point would we have a Rubio-Trump race on our hands, and it’s not clear Rubio would be the favorite in that match-up.

Some of the betting markets now peg Rubio as the likely nominee. I think the edge is still with Trump, whose ability to win a quarter of the vote among a two-thirds Evangelical electorate — despite having no significant ground game and being a thrice-married, irreligious, vulgar New York City billionaire who has kissed a drag-laden Rudy Giuliani, was once ‘roasted’ on Comedy Central by Snoop Dogg, and once tackled Vince MacMahon and shaved his head — is actually extremely impressive. He overcame that which did in Rudy Giuliani in 2008. Marco Rubio is racking up Congressional endorsements and earning the support of new big-money donors, but if we’ve learned anything so far in this cycle, it’s that having Wall Street backers, Congressional cheerleaders, and a traditional pedigree might actually be liabilities.

Rubio has done everything he needs to do so far, but the rest of February poses more challenges than the mainstream media, which has underestimated Trump all along, is willing to concede. We should not let our desire for ‘normalcy’ — that is: for this election cycle to closely resemble the cycles of the past several decades — deceive us into thinking that this cycle has suddenly become ‘normal’ simply because Marco Rubio managed to come in a strong third in Iowa.

5 Takeaways From Iowa

By Alex Knepper

1.  Despite Pundits’ Nail-Biting, Hillary’s Sitting Pretty

In the wee hours of the morning, Hillary Clinton eked out a win in the Iowa caucuses. As far as redemption stories go, Hillary will take what she can get: Iowa delivered her a humiliating third-place finish in 2008, behind not only Barack Obama but also John Edwards. Caucuses are public spectacles, often subject to arcane and eyebrow-raising rules, and tend to amplify the roles of activism and electioneering, encouraging the extremes of each party. Hillary won vanishingly few caucuses against Barack Obama in 2008. Iowa and New Hampshire are demographically very well-tailored to Bernie Sanders — if he was going to demonstrate that he could pose a serious threat to Clinton, he would have needed a full head of steam from both Iowa and New Hampshire, heading into South Carolina. Tonight’s results indicate that Hillary’s upcoming Southern firewall remains secure. If Bernie can’t overcome Hillary in a lily-white caucus state, what chance does he stand in a much more demographically diverse primary state?

2. The GOP Establishment Exhales

John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie surely will opt to remain in the race through the New Hampshire primaries just for the sake of closure. But Marco Rubio’s not-totally-unexpected over-performance last night made it abundantly clear who is the one capable of snuffing out the Trump/Cruz cyclone. The worst-case scenario for the GOP ‘establishment’ would have been a Trump victory, which would have knocked Cruz out of contention, prompting anti-establishment voters to consolidate behind Trump. But with an Iowa victory under his belt, we can expect Cruz to remain in the race through at least Super Tuesday, allowing an ascendant Rubio to consolidate the non-Trump/Cruz vote. We have a three-man race on our hands.


3. All the Celebrity In the World Can’t Beat a Good Ground Game

Trump’s frenzied rallies and celebrity-driven media dominance was not enough to overcome the entrenched network of Reaganite activists and Evangelical die-hards represented by the likes of kingmakers such as Rep. Steve King and Bob Vander Plaats. That a thrice-married New York City billionaire and reality TV star who has been subject to a Comedy Central roast and once flirted with Rudy Giuliani in drag on national television was able to capture a fourth of the vote of the Republican ‘heartland’ is a rather remarkable feat — but we see that even total media dominance cannot serve as a substitute for talking to voter after voter after voter, in diners, farms, and town halls.

4. What’s the Meaning of a Big Turnout?

Last night’s record turnout would have been expected to benefit Trump and Sanders, according to the conventional wisdom — but it turned out that new voters followed a lot of the same patterns as the old voters. Despite a massive turnout, the conventional choices — Clinton and Cruz — ultimately prevailed. A flood of new voters does not necessarily translate into unexpected or less-conventional outcomes.

5. Money and Endorsements Are Overrated

How much bluster did we hear from surrogates for Jeb Bush and Chris Christie about how they might over-perform, thanks to their plugged-in connections to Iowa’s movers and shakers? All of that amounted to a whole lot of nothing. The rise of technology and 24/7 social media have rendered a lot of the old networks increasingly obsolete. Jeb Bush decided to run a campaign in 2016 straight out of 2006 — and it showed.

How Trump Put Reaganism On Death-Watch

By Alex Knepper

The indispensable Sean Trende of has repeatedly challenged my belief that Trump is the product of a base in revolt by pointing out that a surprisingly large portion of his support comes from self-described ‘moderate’ Republicans. The idea that Trump was attracting disproportionate support from supposedly moderate people made little sense to me, but I was not sure how to account for it. One popular argument used to be that Trump’s success across all Republican factions was due mostly to his name ID and media domination. But Jeb Bush and Chris Christie for a very long time had much higher name ID than Ben Carson — and Carson was still frequently tying or defeating the former candidates among Republicans overall. Among conservatives, a less-covered, less-known conservative could beat more-covered, more-known ‘center-right’ candidates, so we would expect at least that these supposed ‘moderates’ would disproportionately break for Bush and Christie. But no: they liked Trump as much as anyone else.

I have come to a different conclusion: that ‘moderate’ Republicans since Reagan’s presidency have never really been ‘moderates’ at all. Many if not most of them really are basically secular people who, just as much as self-described conservatives, have understood Reaganism — a mixture of pro-business and libertarian economics, religious advocacy, and a muscular foreign policy, with a nice helping of civic mythology — to be the foundation of the modern Republican Party. They call themselves ‘moderate’ because they de-emphasize issues like abortion, religion in public life, and same-sex marriage. They score only two out of three on the Reagan test, and they know it. Lest we forget beneath the recent torrent of positive coverage about homosexuality and feminism: the Religious Right was prominent and influential in the 1990s and through the early 2000s, during the ‘culture war.’ In polls, many secular Republicans will sooner identify as ‘moderate’ than ‘conservative,’ and ‘somewhat conservative’ sooner than ‘very conservative.’ But they are still tethered in Reaganism’s assumptions and attitudes.


There’s little that’s ‘moderate’ about the modern Republican Party in the sense we ordinarily take that word. The truly centrist wing of the party abandoned it little by little in the 90s and the 00s, recognizing it was not welcome any longer — and now we can count their numbers in Congress using our hands. They were replaced by Jacksonian former Democrats, especially from the South, and Evangelicals new to politics. Reagan pushed out the old guard of moderate establishmentarians and brought in the populists. Reagan was not a populist himself, but he found room for them and promised them that his agenda would make them freer and more prosperous — and that it would take our down their enemies at home and abroad. And they accepted that.

Trump understood all this, but he also understood further: he wrote in his Art of the Deal that Reagan was a smooth talker who never delivered the goods. And he’s right: Reagan didn’t. Big Government kept growing. Christianity kept receding. ‘Reaganomics’ boosted growth, but, decades on, is no longer effective. Nobody feels freer for having elected Republicans. Even the revered Reagan could not reverse the intrinsic logic of liberal democracy. And what is worse: it turns out Reaganism is not actually very good at winning presidential elections. The nation as a whole was willing to send Reagan to Washington as a response to the excesses of liberalism in the 60s and 70s, but Reaganism as a positive ideology has never since been very popular, and Republicans have only won the popular vote once since Reagan’s vice-president was elected in 1988 — and even that was during wartime, three years after the only attack on the American homeland since Pearl Harbor.

About a quarter-century after the publication of Trump’s book, the many political children Reagan fathered have caught on to the fact that two Bushes, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, John Boehner, and others have repeatedly failed to deliver the goods — and are revolting. Many of them are intent on doubling-down on Reaganism and want to nominate a Reaganite with a radical temperament: Ted Cruz. Sen. Cruz, while taking on the ‘establishment,’ is still saying basically the same things conservatives have been saying for 40 years. But Trump is doing something different: he is implying their decades of ineffectiveness are the direct result of their dogmatic attachment to right-wing ideology. Siding mindlessly with elite business interests inevitably leads to acceptance or tolerance of policies like amnesty, unfettered free trade, and ‘political correctness.’ Hence Trump’s Sanders-like attacks on Cruz’s loans from Goldman-Sachs and his game-playing during the 2013-2014 immigration reform debate. Trump suggests, in essence: ‘The aim is not to be a good disciple of someone else’s belief system, but to deliver the goods to the people. The deals we should be making are deals where we get something we really want — not where we get only scraps while in the big picture our country keeps going to hell.’ It seems there are more people open to this message than who are receptive to Cruz’s message that what we really need is someone who really means it. Trump’s shrewdness beats Cruz’s sincerity. Reaganism as a doctrine is now in question.

Trump’s attacks against his opponents, from Jeb Bush to Rich Lowry to Charles Krauthammer, are basically all the same, which is why they’ve all worked: ‘Why should you listen to them? They’re the same people who want to make a deal on amnesty. They’re the same people who want you to shut your mouth about Islam while more Americans die. They don’t want to admit that, so they criticize my tone, just like people criticize yours when you’ve tried to talk about these things honestly and have been called a bigot and a racist. We’re not bigots or racists. We’re good people who are going through hard times and nobody seems to care. I’m not gonna put up with the old guard’s crap anymore, and neither should you. And the beauty of me is: I’m very rich. Unlike these other guys you’ve elected, I cannot be bought. I already have everything. I do not need anything they could give me, and I’m gonna change things. If you need proof, look at what’s happened already.’

It seems the only way Trump can now lose the nomination is if his supporters fail to show up to vote. He made an audacious decision to make a play for the most alienated factions of the Republican Party. But even if he loses, there is no going back: the post-Trump Republican Party is not going to look like it did in May 2015.