Quotes of the day

Call it the Republican establishment’s nightmare scenario.

The GOP establishment, confronted by a recalcitrant electorate that refuses to leave Donald Trump, is being forced to take a fresh look at Ted Cruz, a man with grassroots strength in key early primary states and few friends in Washington…

A small and growing number of Republicans allied with the establishment — the force long thought to quickly consolidate against a surging Cruz bid — are coming to terms with the idea that he may be palatable in an election cycle where Trump has pushed the envelope well beyond what they considered acceptable.

“Oh God, yes,” said Ed Rogers, a top Republican lobbyist, when asked if he’d prefer Cruz. “Compared to Trump, he’s OK.”…

“If you talk to my peers around town, collectively it’s an appreciation the guy is smart as hell,” explained a senior Washington Republican who is backing another candidate. “He can be a more acceptable alternative to Trump, if it comes to that.”

***

After a slew of new polls over the past 48 hours, including from our latest NBC/WSJ poll, here is the unmistakable conclusion with seven weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are your co-front-runners in the Republican race. And that is a potential nightmare scenario for the GOP establishment — because it might be able to sink one of these candidates but probably not both…

Last week, we called Cruz your “invisible GOP frontrunner.” But this week, we’re now confident enough to say this: He might have the easiest path to the GOP nomination. Think about it — he wins Iowa, he wins South Carolina (an Iowa win would maybe make him the frontrunner there), and he’s set up for success in the March 1 “SEC Primary” states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. (Yes, we know Oklahoma is Big 12 country, but it has a lot in common, politically, with those other states.) And we’ll say it again: Cruz wouldn’t have this easier path without Donald Trump.

***

***

Regardless of what you think of Cruz – and plenty of good Republicans in Washington, particularly his colleagues in the Senate, don’t like him – his Republican credentials and commitment to the conservative cause cannot be questioned. Cruz’s financial contributors are Republicans, his key personnel and organizers are Republicans and his supporters are mostly people who tend to reliably vote in GOP primaries. Not to mention, Cruz won a tough primary and was overwhelmingly elected in Texas, an anchor Republican state…

I’ve always thought the 2016 Republican primary race would eventually come down to a frontrunner vs. a challenger. I’ve thought that challenger could be Cruz, but I never thought the frontrunner would be Trump. I still don’t. A new but very real question is if Cruz can gain enough support to become the frontrunner, while some other candidate plays the role of challenger. Could Chris Christie, Marco Rubio or even Jeb Bush or John Kasich become the consensus “stop Cruz” candidate? Note: Despite his standing in the polls, I discount the notion that Ben Carson will be either the frontrunner or the challenger. He can’t seem to string together four complete sentences that make him sound like a credible figure who could be president. Despite his campaign’s good fundraising and people, their candidate cannot be fixed.

Anyway, pretty soon Republicans are going to start acting like Republicans and gravitating toward authentic, serious Republican candidates. I don’t see how Trump can disrupt that natural migration and avoid losing in the early primary states. You can bet he will try, but he just doesn’t have the bona fides to be the person Republicans want as their leader. The only question is when the voters will move their support, and who they will move it to.

***

David Brady and Douglas Rivers of the Hoover Institution say the demographics of Trump voters suggest they might not show up at the caucuses after all. Trump supporters are largely older, less wealthy, and less educated. Half of his voters have a high-school diploma, but just 19 percent have a college degree. Just over a third earn less than $50,000, while 11 percent make six figures or more. As pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson pointed out at NRO last week: “There is plenty of data to suggest that Trump voters are less likely to vote than others.”

Indeed, a poll taken by two Iowa academics last month for WHO TV found that among voters who have voted in at least one primary for congressional or state offices since 2006 (a clear sign that someone is likely to attend a caucus), Trump registered 10 to 15 points lower than in the three polls of Iowa Republicans who were in the field around the same time…

Donald Trump’s big talk, braggadocio, and boldness have carried him far. But “gravity” — the wearing off of his freshness, the cumulative weight of his excesses, and voters taking a closer look at him before they actually cast a ballot — might well bring Trump down to earth, as Cruz recently suggested in a speech to a group of donors. Even Superman became weak and vulnerable when exposed to kryptonite, and in Trump’s case, the equivalent could be exposure to a political environment in which his 91 percent name ID is “trumped” by voters’ decision to finally compare him with other lesser-known candidates.

***

“[Cruz] can’t afford to look weak, and I don’t think he will,” said Katon Dawson, the former chair of the South Carolina GOP who earlier this cycle was aiding Rick Perry, a frequent critic of Trump’s before he dropped out. “I don’t think he’s going to be a punching bag. It doesn’t seem to be in Cruz’s nature to go take a whole bunch of punches.”…

A Cruz source downplayed the barbs, insisting Trump hasn’t yet seized on any serious policy disagreements. If he had, Cruz would have to respond, as he has to Marco Rubio, with whom he’s been battling over immigration and foreign policy.

“From a strategic standpoint, knowing Cruz, he’s not going to stand there and take any so-called substantive hits,” said the Cruz source, who required anonymity in order to speak freely about the campaign. “That’s not who he is…but at this point, it’s more of a slight than it is a hit. Trump didn’t make a negative connotation about his flat tax plan, about his stance on foreign policy. You’ve seen that from [Marco] Rubio and you have seen a response from the campaign, but you haven’t seen anything like that from Trump.”…

“You don’t gain anything from attacking Trump,” said Steve Deace, a prominent Iowa radio host and Cruz backer. “Every moment you spend entertaining his reality show is a moment you don’t spend talking about solutions to the American people. When someone’s having a tantrum, you just have to allow them to have it. Be the adult.”

***

The danger for Cruz is that Trump will define him the way he defined Jeb (“low energy”) and Carson (“pathological”). Cruz has his share of weak spots, and it’s reasonable to think that the same loudmouth who (falsely) tarred Obama as a Kenyan-born interloper will find a way to make Cruz wish he hadn’t actually been born in Canada.

But there’s also a chance that Cruz is better positioned than other candidates to withstand Trump’s attacks. While it’s true that Cruz’s Senate colleagues almost unanimously consider him a grandstanding, self-serving mercenary, he has devoted a huge amount of effort to making himself likable to early-state voters. In Iowa, his favorability rating is 73 percent—a full 16 percent better than Trump’s. In order to take Cruz down, Trump will have to persuade voters that they have made a mistake about someone they really, really like.

A defining feature of Cruz’s campaign so far, meanwhile, has been its discipline. In an era when any stray remark can supernova into a campaign-destroying meme, Cruz has mastered the art of sticking to his script and his game plan. And you can bet that, on the stage at the Venetian on Tuesday, he will do everything in his power not to be drawn into a slap fest with Trump. Instead, he’ll be watching for an opportunity to make Trump pay for his own aggression, much as Rubio politely disemboweled Jeb in that exchange over his Senate attendance records.

The danger for Trump, then, is that he will flail at Cruz, miss the target, and find that Cruz has, with an ingratiating smile, delivered a narrative-changing counterattack to his dear “friend.”

***

Trump is a champion of identity politics, which in case we should forget, was invented by the left. He advances without apology or qualification the interests and values of his supporters. As a group, they possess the identity of people put-upon by their opponents. It may not be correct to say they are all one ethnic group, although many are indeed white; but it is true that Trump’s “tribe,” regardless of its demography, identifies with him as one of their own because of his unique political style. Like members of the politically correct left, Trump and his supporters see themselves as immune from criticism not because of the strength of their arguments, but because of the distinctive characteristics of “who they are.” They are defined by their grievances. Although their identity politics exists on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the left, they do make a claim to victimhood, the same as “black lives matters” activists do to assert their immunity from criticism.

Opinion polls show that Trump’s supporters are by no means the most conservative; indeed, they even include some self-described moderates. What unites them is not ideology but feelings of marginalization, which pertain not only to their political views but to the fact that many of Trump’s backers are not faring well economically. Financially stressed and ostracized by the ruling liberal class, they are behaving more like an alienated class of Marxist imagination than as social agents of stability and tradition. They are indeed thinking like revolutionaries, only now their ire is aimed at their progressive masters and the institutions they control…

He’s showing that old-fashioned right-wing paranoia, which had been contained for decades by the decorum and restraint of both mainstream liberalism and conservatism, is back. Because of the increasing radicalization of multiculturalism over the past few decades, Trump’s supporters no longer feel they have to restrain themselves. In their minds they are just doing to others what has been done to them…

Welcome to a whole new image of Donald Trump, the man perfectly at home in the postmodern culture of America.

***

Pretend I’m your buddy and we’re at a bar and I’m the guy who, among your friends, drew the short straw and has to tell you that your girlfriend is the antichrist. And, Trump people, I am your friend. You, by and large, aren’t traditional conservatives like I am, but you’re hard-working, loyal patriots, veterans and cops, the people who defended this country and who built it regardless of what that fool in the White House says. We agree on much more than we disagree on, and if I was back in a foxhole I’d choose one of you as a battle buddy any day over those simpering GOPe femboys or, heaven forbid, some safe space-dwelling liberal.

But I gotta be straight with you – Trump’s bad news, and everyone else sees it. He’s using you, and he’s going to toss you away when he’s done and never look back. Break it off before it’s too late – this is just a fling, and if it keeps up one day you’re going to find your wallet missing and probably your car too. And you’ll wake up with a political rash.

Donald Trump is out for one thing, Donald Trump’s personal aggrandizement. He cares nothing about you. He cares nothing about your aspirations and dreams. Don’t misunderstand him when he pays attention to you. He’s just trying to get what he wants from you, an earthshattering ego stroke…

When he dumps you, when he goes back to the New York liberal roots that are at the core of his being and starts talking about how he’s decided to switch back to his old positions, that it’s reasonable to take your guns, to liberalize immigration, and to keep Obamacare, you’re going to feel like fools. You’re going to be humiliated. And the GOP establishment, which is terrible, is going to be looking at you saying, “I told you so.”

***

Trump is selling a rather different product to many disaffected Americans: an opportunity for a glorious, thrilling defeat.

As a native Southerner, I am familiar with the appeal of this product. It’s what Lost Cause literature is about. Your cause is just, and not the cause that your enemies claim you are fighting for. But you are outnumbered. You are outgunned. The establishment is against you. You are better, you are more noble. But you will probably lose just because of sheer force of numbers. So you might as well go down fighting for what you believe in, defiantly and gloriously. In Trump’s case, I think the tell is all the talk about him being “politically incorrect.” That’s a relevant criterion for hiring a reality TV star or a talk-show host. But whether a potential president’s comments are provocative or transgressive seems to me to be much less important than what the president is actually proposing to do, and whether such programs will work as advertised.

Trumpkins often prove to be either blissfully unaware or manifestly uninterested in the details of Trump’s agenda. Liberals and commentators hold this up as evidence that large swaths of the GOP electorate are dumb. But I think many remain unaware of or uninterested in the details of the Trump program for a rational reason: they have no real expectation that their man will actually be president. They’ll say he’s a winner in public. It’s part of the braggadocio he purveys and they are getting to share in at the moment. In their heart of hearts, however, they know Trump won’t win. Don’t underestimate the attraction of the Lost Cause. It makes defeatism glamorous.

***