Well, in the last week or so, there have definitely been quite a few noteworthy developments in the Republican presidential primary race. These recent events have led me to a couple of conclusions, one definite and the other hopefully premature. First, I can at least say that the apprehension I’ve felt about the contest for many months was not unwarranted. That’s small consolation, though, because, if I were a stock character in a comic strip or cartoon right now, I’d be the person walking around with a sign proclaiming that “The End is Near!” Things do not look at all good for those of us horrified by the prospect of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee, and I’m almost to the point of resigned despair. Even though only four states have voted so far, it seems that a result other than a Trump victory will require a near-miraculous turnaround -- picture, for example, your favorite baseball team being down 15-0 after the first few innings while facing an opponent with a pitching staff on a winning streak and an approaching rainstorm that threatens to cut the game short. While it’s possible your team could pull out an improbable win as long as the game continues, it’s certainly not something you can expect is likely to happen.
Why has my pessimism increased so much as February has gone on? Donald Trump, who, to my mind, no sensible person would consider a suitable president for one second, has now won three primary/caucus elections in a row, all by very large margins. According to polls, he did very well in those states among many different subsets of the electorate, including people describing themselves as evangelical or even as “very conservative”. Now, in some of those cases, if the voters are not playing games with the data collectors to make their guy look even more widely appealing than he (bizarrely) is, I think they are rather confused in their self-perceptions -- there is nothing “very conservative” about Mr. Trump. In Nevada, Trump’s percentage of the vote was up to 46%, which was not only more than his two closest competitors (Senators Rubio and Cruz) received together, but was also getting perilously close to the 50% mark. I understand that Nevada has a rather chaotic and unusual caucus process and does seem like a state particularly suited to support a TV-star/casino businessman with a rather glitzy persona, but these numbers are still very troubling.
How long will we be able to even cling for minimal comfort to the notion that a majority of the primary voters want someone other than Trump, so that, in theory at least, another candidate could win if this majority were to consolidate its support behind one non-Trump choice? Donald Trump has been leading in the polls in many of the upcoming states already, and it seems that candidates who win early primaries usually gain even more support in later contests, as voters may be influenced to prefer the frontrunner by the positive coverage of him winning and giving victory speeches, may want to get on the bandwagon of the likely winner, or may think it’s in the best interest of their party for the general election if the eventual nominee has early and convincing support in the primaries. It is also not necessarily the case that everyone who prefers another candidate now is also actually against Trump. Some may have him as a second choice or be just fine with him being the nominee, so he would most likely gain some of the votes if the field should narrow at some point. Add to these factors the apparently immovable support many of Trump’s fans have for him, as they are not deterred from championing him no matter what he says or does, and the unfortunate tendency the other candidates have had to largely avoid confronting or criticizing Trump while beating up on each other regularly, and it has seemed difficult to feel very confident that things in the race will change dramatically enough for a candidate other than Trump to have much of a realistic chance to win the nomination.
None of this means that I think anyone should give up the effort to secure a real conservative, or at least authentically Republican, nominee. To the contrary, I hope that everyone who thinks this is important will do whatever they can to make it happen until the nomination is officially decided.
So, when I watched Thursday night’s debate in Texas, I was pleasantly surprised to see Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz make a concerted effort to challenge Donald Trump. Cruz stepped up the criticisms he’s been making the last few weeks, pointing out that Trump is hardly the best candidate for Republicans to send up against Hillary Clinton in the fall, since he has shared many of the same liberal positions and even donated to the Clinton Foundation. Rubio, who hadn’t really taken Trump on very much before, went after him on a multitude of topics, pointing out that, while a major theme of Trump’s campaign has been toughness on immigration and bringing back American jobs, Trump had hired illegal workers to build his Trump Tower in the past and now brings in foreign workers on visas for his resort in Florida instead of hiring Americans. He also brought up the complaints and lawsuits against Trump University and the bankruptcies Trump’s companies have been through. On health care, Rubio kept pressing Trump to explain his plan, which not only demonstrated that Trump really doesn’t have one other than removing “lines around the states” to promote competition, but also allowed Rubio to zing Trump for repeating himself over and over again, something that hurt Rubio in New Hampshire and that Trump was still using against him. On issue after issue, from Trump’s statement that he’d be “neutral” in the Israel/Palestinian conflict to his praise for the work of Planned Parenthood, Trump faced criticism from both sides, and at one point he even complained that the moderators were asking him too many questions, quite the opposite of most candidates who practically beg for more time to speak. As an added bonus for me, the amount of attention Senators Rubio and Cruz gave to taking on Donald Trump also meant that they took somewhat of a break from their recent battles with each other, with only a couple of remarks pointing out conflicts between them.
The attempt to catch up to Trump did not end with the conclusion of the debate, either. Since then, Cruz has kept making his points about the need for a conservative nominee to contrast with the Democrats and about Trump’s weak position in general election polling so far, and Rubio has cranked up his assault on Trump, not only attacking his record on illegal immigrants, bankruptcy, etc. and calling him a “con man” who isn’t really the person he’s presented to voters, but also sort of taking a page from Trump’s book to make fun of him for his Twitter misspellings, rattled behavior backstage at the debate, and pretty much anything else available.
As someone who has been passionately anti-Trump from the beginning, I am glad that his opponents aren’t going to just quietly give up and concede the nomination to him at this point and have instead stepped up their efforts against him and even tried some dramatically new tactics. I do, of course, have to wonder with exasperation why everyone didn’t make some of these obvious points (Trump is a liberal with a spotty record even on things like business and immigration that are supposed to be his strengths) months and months ago, and why they didn't feel it was imperative until recently to make the case that he should not be the conservative Republican standard-bearer. But it’s better now than never, so I can only hope that it’s not too late to stop Trump’s momentum and prevent him from winning the nomination. I’m not getting my hopes up, though, and I do have a couple of new thoughts and concerns related to the events of the last few days.
Even though it seemed pretty clear to me that Donald Trump had a tough night in the last debate, who knows how it will be perceived by his supporters and the general public. Trump did get in a couple of good lines and later claimed that polls showed him winning the debate. (I don’t know if he made that up completely or if these polls were conducted at Trump campaign headquarters...) As we’ve seen before, Trump’s fans are usually not swayed by anything said against or by him. Some people may be hoping that making him appear as less of the dominant strong “alpha male” on the stage might start to weaken the devotion of his voters, but they may just dig in even more firmly when they see their guy under attack. As for other viewers who may still be undecided or even newly tuning in to the campaign, will all of the criticism aimed at Trump have registered and made them unlikely to support him, or could it be possible that they might either have tuned out the unruly portions of the debate or have actually felt some sympathy for the candidate facing so much fire? If I had to speculate, I would say that I wouldn’t count on the new flood of criticism aimed at Trump pulling more than a few casual supporters away from him, but I’d think we could hope a number of late-deciding voters in upcoming states who might otherwise have chosen to go with Trump will have reason to make a different selection instead.
Based on what happened at the debate, I’d offer a couple of suggestions to Donald Trump’s opponents for future events. While it’s good that that they didn’t let his responses or interruptions distract them from making their intended points against him, I think they shouldn’t have allowed some of the things he said to go unanswered. They could have briefly addressed these things and then continued with the case they intended to make. For instance, Trump said multiple times that the other men on the stage had never hired anyone. Surely this isn’t true, since they have obviously at least hired staff for their various campaigns. Also, Trump claimed that Ted Cruz should apologize for criticizing Trump’s sister’s judicial rulings and suggested that Samuel Alito had agreed with her about one of the cases in question (by “signing the same bill!”) I really wish Cruz would have begun his answer by, first, pointing out that judges don’t sign bills, but also briefly explaining why Trump’s sister’s opinion was objectionable and why Alito’s was not the same. Also, while I’ve read some commentary from people who felt Wolf Blitzer cut the confrontational debate exchanges too short and thereby helped bail Trump out, I disagree. Once there have been a couple of back and forth statements and rebuttals, it’s really best to move on to the next question. Continued, often repetitive, arguing about the same point is not pretty or likely to influence viewers in a good way, I think, and the other participants on the stage do deserve some time to speak, as well. Plus, it’s nice to have some substance in these debates, and it would be nice to have as much time to actually discuss policy and viewpoints as possible, which leads into my last related comment. Both at the debates and in general, I’d advise those challenging Trump not to let him become their sole focus, but to also make sure they are prepared to highlight and defend their own messages every chance they get. At one point, Senator Rubio was asked about the ongoing conflict between Apple and the FBI. I’ve seen him discuss the issue in multiple interviews, and I thought the question that was posed to him mischaracterized what he’s said. While the answer he gave was OK and reflected some newer developments in the case, I thought he could have done a clearer job of explaining what his position has been and is on the matter, and I wondered if perhaps he might have been so much in “anti-Trump” mode that he had a tough time switching his attention to something else. For the campaigns as a whole going forward, it’s always important to make the case for one’s own candidacy. Telling people why they shouldn’t vote for Donald Trump is important, but giving them reasons to vote for you is necessary, too.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am generally against inter-party negativity and attacks. In the case of Donald Trump, however, it seems to me that someone whose views really make him more suited to being a Democrat or an Independent has chosen instead to seek the Republican nomination and has also been particularly destructive in doing so, attacking not only his opponents in this race, but also previous Republican candidates, former President George W. Bush, and positions widely held by Republicans. For these reasons, I think that treating Trump more as one would a general-election opponent in order to prevent the defeat or destruction of the Republican Party and the conservative movement as we know them is justified. However, that does not mean that we should completely take an “anything goes” approach in going after the frontrunner. Attacking his record of unsound liberal positions, outrageous statements, and not always stellar business results is great, as are hammering home the points that he really doesn’t have detailed policies to offer the public or a very good understanding of many of the things he would need to deal with as president. Anything at all relating to issues, policies, and record is fair game. I realize that more measured criticism hasn’t worked to this point, and the use of more personal jabs and insults seems to draw greater media coverage that could help get the message out to a larger number of people, but I think considerable caution should be exercised in this regard. After all, the unpleasant vulgar and insulting tendencies Trump has displayed throughout his campaign are part of the reason many of us consider Trump undeserving of the nomination or the presidency. If others stoop to his level, and I’m not saying that they have gotten to that point so far, it would make it difficult to make that argument against him or to feel great about the alternative candidates. Since Trump is the one who started taking the tone of the race in a petty and negative direction, I don’t think giving him a little of his own medicine is unfair, but I hope his opponents will be careful not to cross the line into becoming mini-Trumps themselves.
On that note, I’ll make a couple of comments specifically about Senator Rubio. From what I’ve seen over the last few days, he’s been pretty effective at bashing Donald Trump while still seeming fairly good humored, but I’m a little worried about his new tactics anyway, for a couple of reasons. Much of his material about Trump is amusing, and most of it is fairly harmless. Especially since Trump likes to call people “dumb,” I don’t think it’s wrong to point out spelling mistakes in things he sends out on Twitter, and, while making fun of his tan is rather irrelevant, that itself is not a terrible thing to say. Still, a few of the things Rubio has said at his recent rallies have made me rather uncomfortable, including an age-related remark and some comments inspired by Trump having recently said he’d like to have punched a protester in the face. I can see criticizing Trump for having said something threatening like that, but Rubio’s comments instead seemed to mock Trump because he wouldn’t actually follow through on hitting someone. I understand that the overall point of Rubio’s Trump monologue was to show that Trump is not really the guy he purports to be, so this was presumably intended as a way to say that Trump only talks tough, but I think it kind of implied that we should prefer it if our candidates actually did go around assaulting protesters, and I don’t think that’s good. So, I just would advise Senator Rubio to really think about some of these things before including them in his public comments, and I do hope he’ll turn the personal insults down at least a few notches. He may be aiming for the humor of a late-night talk show host rather than the mean-spirited bullying we’ve often seen from Donald Trump, but I think he may have started down a dangerous path. (Please don’t give in to the Dark Side, Senator!) Just last Thursday, one of his campaign e-mails reiterated that he wants to run a positive campaign with integrity, and I very much want to believe him, so I’d hate to see him do things he might regret in the long run or have a tough time explaining to his four lovely children. Besides all of that, I wonder how voters will react to the “new” Marco Rubio. The old, mainly positive and optimistic version pretty much won me over and seemed to be having some success gaining the support of late-deciding voters recently. Will Rubio be able to add the votes of some people who appreciate the new aggressiveness he’s showing or who might otherwise have chosen Trump without sacrificing any of the support he’d have had before? We’ll have to see, but he definitely should make sure to keep promoting his own policy ideas and good qualities in addition to pointing out the flaws and problematic positions of the candidate everyone is chasing.
Of course, I must note that Mr. Trump has not been sitting idly by the last few days. In addition to hitting back at his opponents, he has also been collecting endorsements from prominent Republican elected officials, including the somewhat moderate New Jersey Governor and former presidential candidate Chris Christie and, depressingly, conservative Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Before Christie left the race a few weeks ago, he had less than positive things to say about a Trump nomination, so it is interesting that he made such a quick decision to jump on board with Trump. As for Sessions, I still cannot see how anyone who really believes in conservatism can prefer to support Trump, and his decision to publicly do so must have been like a dagger to the heart of Ted Cruz, who has heaped Sessions with praise during his campaign. (I feel for you Senator Cruz. You deserve better.) Why are these politicians choosing to endorse Trump now? It’s bad enough that there’s been talk that, rather than trying to help someone else win, some Republican officials have been resigning themselves to the notion of Trump becoming the party’s nominee, but now these endorsers are actually trying to speed up the process of making that terrible outcome a reality. Why on earth do they want to do that?? Sigh... People really do seem to have gone crazy.
Super Tuesday is almost here, and those primaries and caucuses will tell us a lot about the future of this race. If Donald Trump dominates in most (or even -- shudder -- all) of the states, especially if he gets fairly large percentages of the votes, it may show us that he’s probably going to continue to do so and will be extremely difficult to stop from claiming the nomination. If his percentages seem to be a little lower than in recent polls or in the last couple of states, maybe, just maybe, the ramped up movement to stop him will have had some effect, and we can hope that a continuation of the effort can eventually wear down his support to the point where another preferable candidate can defeat him. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for some hint of good news on Tuesday night, but I still fear the worst.