From the beginning, following the Republican presidential primary campaign closely has been a source of great concern. While Iowa caucus day offered a glimmer of hope that there might still be a chance a real conservative (gasp!) politician could win the nomination in the end, it’s pretty much all been downhill since that night. I really do fear that this race, and the general election to follow, will not end well.
I realize that, on the Democrat side, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are saying all kinds of ridiculous leftist things, and a large portion of their voters are embracing outright socialism. There’s plenty of room for criticism there, but I don’t really expect anything better from the liberals/Democrats, so I’m not going to spend much time worrying about them now. On the other hand, in the past I would have thought better of Republicans and conservatives, looking to them to behave much more sensibly and responsibly, but that is clearly not happening right now. Instead, the voters in New Hampshire turned out in large numbers to award a dominant victory to the most unqualified, uncouth, and unconservative “Republican” candidate in my memory. Donald Trump continually lowers the levels of civility and discourse in the campaign to the point where, considering his willingness to use profanity and repeat vulgar comments about his opponents, perhaps stations covering debates or his other appearances might want to start airing them with a 5-second delay. Of course, when not denying having said anything wrong in the first place, Trump now says that he’ll clean up his language from now on. We’ll have to see how long that pledge actually lasts, because he did promise on national television that he wouldn't file a lawsuit questioning Ted Cruz’ eligibility for the presidency but has since threatened on multiple occasions to do just that.
Frustratingly, despite all of Trump’s flaws and all of the reasons he should not be the Republican nominee, most of the other candidates have not directed much of their attention to making a case against him. This has allowed him to basically coast along as the front-running center of attention, largely able to define his own image through his rallies, media coverage, tweets, and so on. There have been some exceptions, as Jeb Bush has been a consistent Trump critic, and, after a long time treating Trump with kid gloves, Ted Cruz finally began pointing out his deficiencies in the last few weeks, although he still seemed extremely reluctant to do so on the debate stage. Perhaps some of Trump’s opponents want to minimize potential alienation of Trump’s supporters so that those people will be more likely to still vote for them if they win the nomination. Or maybe they are afraid that Trump’s next move to test the boundaries of his political invulnerability might involve actually trying out on one of them his theory that he could shoot someone in public without losing votes. (I’m joking about the last reason -- mostly.) Some analysts have written that it hasn’t yet been in the interests of most of the candidates to take on Donald Trump, suggesting that they have had more reason to concern themselves with others against whom they might be more likely to gain an advantage or that it might even help them to have Trump defeating certain of their rivals at this point. I’m no expert in running political campaigns, so perhaps this is correct in some practical way, but I find it difficult to believe that it is a good idea for anyone aiming higher than second place not to challenge the person who’s had big leads in the polls for many months. The voting has already started, and it seems that the leader after just a few states often becomes very difficult to overcome. Furthermore, I suppose I’m asking too much, but I think that these people seeking to be the leader of our country should understand that it is an urgent matter more important than their own personal goals to make sure that Donald Trump is not designated the supposed representative of Republican and conservative ideas, whether he would end up running a losing general election campaign that hands control of the presidency once again to Democrats, or if he would ultimately be doing irresponsible things in the White House himself if he should actually somehow win.
It is especially exasperating that, while Mr. Trump has been spared much of the criticism he would deserve, there has been no shortage of attacks among the other Republican candidates and the groups supporting them. I did not appreciate all of the infighting that took place in the primaries in 2012, and I was afraid going into the race this time that it was likely to happen again. I don’t see how it can be helpful to the Republican Party or the conservative movement for a field of generally successful and respected candidates to enter the presidential race only to spend the better part of a year having their accomplishments, opinions, actions, and character minimized, called into question, or attacked by those on their own side. Isn’t it difficult enough for Republicans to win a Presidential election without helping the opposition by damaging the image of the eventual nominee in the eyes of the public during the primaries and handing the Democrats plenty of quotes and avenues of attack to build upon in their quest to defeat the Republican candidate? Of course the primary competitors should point out differences of opinion they have about the ways to address various issues, and sometimes (see above) an opponent will merit outright criticism. However, we seem to have an environment where, even amongst those who basically agree on most matters, harsh criticisms are flung over things large and small in great number, often becoming exaggerated, generalized negative characterizations of the candidates. Defeating one’s rivals is paramount, even if it involves tearing down colleagues and friends, possibly with partial or misleading references to their records. Oddly to me, it even seems that the willingness and ability to attack your opponents vigorously and well is seen by some to be a necessary qualification for a nominee, and someone considered lacking in this area is deemed too weak to be the party’s choice.
After the New Hampshire debate, during which an extended exchange with Chris Christie was seen to have resulted in a serious mistake and political damage for Marco Rubio, I was struck again by the absurdity of some of the conduct and thinking involved in the race. I read that Christie was very pleased by what happened in the debate, as he felt he had accomplished his goal of taking down Rubio, to whom he referred as the “anointed one,” even though Rubio had only recently been gaining some momentum for and from his strong third-place finish in Iowa. So, we have a situation where, rather than convincing everyone of the superior merits of his own candidacy or pointing out the reasons voters should choose a Republican in November (although he may believe he also did these things,) the acknowledged main aim of one (or more) of the candidates was to basically destroy the chances of a fellow Republican contender (in particular, one seen by many to have the potential to be a successful spokesperson for many conservative ideas)? Well, if Republicans devote much of their energy to thinking of and treating each other this way, is it any wonder they aren’t more successful in defeating Democrats? (By the way, am I the only one to think it might have been nice for Christie to employ at least some of his tough prosecutorial debating tactics against Trump, instead??) Governor Christie suspended his campaign after finishing sixth in New Hampshire, but, hey, at least Rubio had a very disappointing result there, too, right? Quite a victory -- for Donald Trump’s chances, as the number and strength of his competitors dwindles, and for the Democrats who can just sit back and watch the Republicans do their dirty work for them.
As the focus of the race turned to the next primary in South Carolina, commentators pointed out that campaigning there has usually tended to get tougher and nastier, which is a pretty scary thought considering the way things have already been going. With that in mind, I was quite apprehensive about watching the latest debate Saturday night. Adding to the gloom of the week was the terrible news that the great conservative Justice Antonin Scalia had died, which is very sad and also throws the balance of the Supreme Court and the likely fate of laws on many issues into question going forward. The importance of trying to make sure a conservative president, rather than Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders, is the one to fill this and future potential vacancies was discussed in the debate, and voters should (but, alas, may not) weigh this topic heavily when making their decisions.
I’m not sure what to think about the way the debate, as a whole, went this weekend. I would say that an angry Donald Trump seemed to be the most prominent feature of the event, which got more and more out of hand as the evening went on. At least Trump finally faced more challenges from the others this time, but many of these were prompted by Trump saying even more outrageous things than usual and being particularly insulting to his competitors, whom he kept interrupting, at times rather randomly. In other words, he went so far that they really had no choice but to respond. Among other gems, Trump again defended his use of private eminent domain, said that he thinks Planned Parenthood does some “wonderful things” for women’s health, accused President George W. Bush of lying to “get us into” the war in Iraq while knowing that there were no weapons of mass destruction there, and, to top it all off, practically blamed Bush for the September 11 terrorist attacks that happened during his ”reign.” (Does this choice of words indicate that Trump sees the presidency as some sort of kingship?) None of this is really new, and Trump even took some of these forays into the world of Democrat Bush Derangement Syndrome in one of the early debates last year, but the volume and frequency of these rather un-Republican statements seemed to be increased. The big question remains whether any of this will actually make a difference to the voters. Will those supporting him be bothered by it, especially enough to make them switch to another candidate or at least stay home during the primaries? So far, they’ve stuck with Trump no matter what, often even increasing their support when he says and does things that would seem beyond fatal for any other candidate. I can only hope it will be different this time, when more people are expected to be paying serious attention, but I’m not holding my breath.
As for the other candidates, I thought that they did fairly well, especially since, in addition to answering questions, they had to deal with the loose cannon at center stage. I thought that Jeb Bush was able to hold his own against Donald Trump while defending his brother and pointing out some of Trump’s troublesome past statements. He also made a few other good points, but I’m not sure he’ll be able to make his way back into serious contention for the nomination. I was a little worried for Marco Rubio, as many said he needed a “comeback” performance after the problems in the last debate, but I thought that he was very strong throughout the evening on many issues, including his contributions to the conversation in defense of President Bush regarding Iraq and 9/11. Ted Cruz was also solid, and I do appreciate the way he is able to remain calm even when under fire on stage. Unfortunately from my perspective, there were a couple of verbal skirmishes between Cruz and Rubio, and a few things were said that I wish were not. The two Senators seem to me to be our strongest options right now, and I would prefer for their strengths, rather than any perceived shortcomings, to remain the focus, especially at these high-profile events. John Kasich has seemed more energized the last couple of debates, and I’m sure his second-place finish in New Hampshire gave him a boost of confidence. I’m not sure how his more moderate-sounding rhetoric, defense of his Medicaid expansion in Ohio, and expression of an intent to pursue comprehensive immigration reform early in his administration will play out in the campaign, though. While they don’t make him my preferred candidate, I do have to sympathize with his call for a more civil Republican primary process. It would certainly be nice if, as he suggested, the candidates could avoid attacking each other and just tell us what they are for , but that’s not likely to happen any time soon.
So, we have another week before the Republican primary in South Carolina. The results there could be crucially important in determining the way the race turns out. If Donald Trump, who has had a big lead in the polls there, has another victory, even after his latest displays of unsteady temper, crassness, and a tendency to think like liberals, it may be yet another sign that voters are determined to make the colossal mistake of nominating a completely unfit person for the presidency. The other Republican campaigns should dial way back on attacking each other and focus on doing whatever they can to convince any persuadable voters not to go down that road. Most importantly, I would implore the members of the public to come back to their senses and stop giving their support to someone so dangerously undeserving. It’s not completely too late to turn around now, but that time is fast approaching.