Missing the Cut

Hollywood, Tuesday, August 4, 2015 – yes, that’s a date-stamp, because, in the political world, this was the big day:

Gov. John Kasich of Ohio is in and former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is out of Fox News’s Republican debate on Thursday night in Cleveland, officials with the network said Tuesday, resolving the mystery of which lower-polling candidates would make the cut for the first debate of the 2016 presidential contest.

The network announced the 10 candidates who will have a podium spot for the main forum, which is expected to draw wide national viewership and give an invaluable platform to the candidates involved. The remaining seven will be part of an earlier forum airing at 5 p.m. that day.

Fox News’s “decision desk,” which does its election night calls, sifted through five national polls, including the network’s own survey released late Monday, to select the top 10 candidates for the debate based on the polling.

The rest of this New York Times item covers how tricky this business was, but a seventeen-person debate would have been unmanageable – if you gave everyone their say, what they had to say would have to be very short, unless the debate were ten hours long. No one would watch that. A ten-person debate makes more sense, but even then, in ninety minutes are so, no candidate is going to offer an extended argument. They won’t get to a second paragraph. Expect clever turns of phrase, and quips, and put-downs – and catchphrases. A few words can sum up the whole point of a candidacy. They’ll have to.

We’ve heard them before. Deport them all! Make America great again! Negotiate with no one, ever! Keep the damned government out of [fill in the blank]! Drill baby, drill!

No, that last one was from 2008, but you get the idea. This won’t be a debate. It will be a competitive display of message-packaging – and of course those who have not been given this opportunity to strut their stuff on national television are pretty upset:

“The idea that they have left out the runner-up for the 2012 nomination, the former four-term governor of Texas, the governor of Louisiana, the first female Fortune 50 CEO, and the 3-term Senator from South Carolina due to polling seven months before a single vote is cast is preposterous,” Rick Santorum communications manager Matt Beynon said in a statement Tuesday.

Debate host Fox News announced that Santorum, who won 11 states in the 2012 GOP primary, along with Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Jim Gilmore and George Pataki, will square off ahead of the prime-time event Thursday in Cleveland, Ohio.

Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and John Kasich made the cut. The others didn’t, and it’s not like they’re obscure nonentities. Well, maybe Jim Gilmore is, but this was Fox News deciding who the important and useful Republicans were, or not:

“While Fox is taking a lot of heat, the RNC deserves as much blame for sanctioning this process. They should not be picking winners and losers. That’s the job of the voters,” Beynon added.

Is it? The Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson and the rest have something to say about picking winners and losers. They have the money. The Republican National Committee doesn’t, but here they simply subcontracted the job of winnowing out the chaff to Fox News. They trust Roger Ailes, and, really, he can do what he wants. It’s his network. All of this is really none of our business. He chose the polls. He seems to have tossed out one where Perry and Kasich were tied and used an earlier one where Kasich was ahead, but Kasich once worked for Fox News – he had his own show way back when. Rick Perry didn’t. That’s just the way it is:

Ben Carson, John Kasich, and Mike Huckabee are all former Fox News employees. Donald Trump was such a regular on Fox News that he had a special Monday morning segment on Fox and Friends. All told, 40% of the Republican debate field was regularly featured on Fox – but only 30% were paid employees.

There are insiders, and those who are not, and no one in the party likes Bobby Jindal. This was Fox News letting the losers know their party thought they should find something to do with their time, something useful. The Republican National Committee asked Ailes to find a plausible way to do that. He was glad to help. The rich donors will have their say later. As for the voters, who the hell do they think they are?

All of this was at the margins. Donald Trump was running away with things in the polls. Roger Ailes likes the guy, but his boss, Rupert Murdoch, doesn’t. Two weeks earlier Rupert Murdoch had said that Donald Trump was embarrassing “the whole country” but now they’re working things out – given the facts on the ground. Things changed, as Josh Marshall notes:

We’ve all seen the polls showing Trump as the forerunner in the massive GOP field with around 20% support. It’s early. His name recognition is sky high. And with so many in the race, you can be a frontrunner with a big lead without a huge amount of support. But here’s a number that is genuinely a big deal.

We’ve assumed that Donald Trump is not only capped in a national race but also likely capped about where he is now in a GOP primary race because his negatives are so high and there are so many people who not only do not support him, but who would never support him under any circumstance.

But check out this number from the latest Monmouth poll. Monmouth has polled the evolving GOP primary in April, June and July. And over that period Donald Trump’s favorable ratings have gone from 28% to 52%, while his unfavorables have gone from 56% to 35%. To put that a different way he’s gone from a -28% net approval to a +17% net approval. In other words, that’s a 45 point shift in three months.

Things have been settled at the low end – John Kasich sneaked into the top ten – but no one expected this, which Marshall finds extraordinary:

It’s one of the truisms of politics that high negatives are close to impossible to change, especially if you’re a well-known person. While new (negative) facts can drive your numbers down, it’s very hard to find ones that drive them back up. Like many truisms, this one is bogus. It’s difficult to recover from high negatives. But it happens all the time. That said, this is a massive, massive shift, especially for someone who is extremely well-known to the public and must have very high name recognition numbers. One might also add that it is a remarkable move over the course of a period in which Trump has marching around like a clown leveling racial slurs at whole nationalities. But that’s a more subjective judgment.

This isn’t:

I still think it is exceedingly unlikely that Trump will win the nomination. But these numbers really upend any idea that Trump is already maxed out – that he’s leading at 20% or more but can never go higher. And it’s hard to come up with a scenario where he leaves the race any time soon or really at any time before someone clearly beats him with actual delegates. He can easily self-fund. He has a massive ego which much be firing on insane amounts of dopamine with all this attention and adulation. Why would he ever leave the race?

This isn’t just a summer fling. I see no reason why he won’t be dominating the GOP race for some time.

David Brooks, the New York Times’ “nice” conservative, thinks he knows why:

We are now living in a time of economic anxiety and political alienation. Just three in 10 Americans believe that their views are represented in Washington, according to a CNN/ORC poll. Confidence in public institutions like schools, banks and churches is near historic lows, according to Gallup. Only 29 percent of Americans think the nation is on the right track, according to Rasmussen.

This climate makes it hard for the establishment candidates who normally dominate our politics. Jeb Bush is swimming upstream. Hillary Clinton may win through sheer determination, but she’s not a natural fit for this moment. A career establishment figure like Joe Biden doesn’t stand a chance. He’s a wonderful man and a great public servant, but he should not run for president this year, for the sake of his long-term reputation.

On the other hand, bumper-car politicians thrive. Bernie Sanders is swimming with the tide. He’s a conviction politician comfortable with class conflict. Many people on the left have a generalized, vague hunger for fundamental systemic change or at least the atmospherics of radical change.

The times are perfect for Donald Trump. He’s an outsider, which appeals to the alienated. He’s confrontational, which appeals to the frustrated. And, in a unique 21st-century wrinkle, he’s a narcissist who thinks he can solve every problem, which appeals to people who in challenging times don’t feel confident in their understanding of their surroundings and who crave leaders who seem to be.

Brooks’ specialty is psychoanalyzing the American public. It’s quite irritating actually, even if, now and then, he may be right in a general way, one that no one can verify – but there may be other things going on here. Kevin Drum suggests this:

Trump’s position on the issues is pretty much the same as all the other GOP candidates, except more, and “more” seems to be what a lot of Republicans want these days. You can never have too much “more” in today’s tea-party dominated Republican Party, and Trump has more “more” than anyone.

But I want to toss out another suggestion. To a lot of us, Trump is a celebrity real estate developer who likes to get into petty feuds with fellow celebrities. That doesn’t seem very presidential. But that’s the old Trump. The modern Trump still gets into petty feuds with fellow celebrities, but he’s also the star of Celebrity Apprentice, and that’s how a lot of people view him these days.

You’ve seen the show, right? You’re not one of those vegan-weenie-lefties who lives in a bubble of art museums and Audubon meetings, unwilling to sully yourself with popular TV, are you? The kind who looks down on regular folks?

Maybe you are, so here’s the primer on the show – necessary because NBC cancelled it when Trump told the world about the rapists and murderers and drug dealers that Mexico was sending us, because Mexico is full of such people. But while it was since on the air, Drum explains that it went like this:

So here’s how the show works. A bunch of C-list celebrities compete in teams each week at tasks given to them by Trump. At the end of the show, Trump grills the losing team in the “boardroom,” eventually picking a single scapegoat for their failure and firing them. As the show ends, the humiliated team member shuffles disconsolately down the elevator to a waiting car, where they are driven away, never to be seen again. This is the price of failure in Trumpworld.

Now, picture in your mind how Trump looks. He is running things. He sets the tasks. The competitors all call him “Mr. Trump” and treat him obsequiously. He gives orders and famous people – well, sort of famous, anyway, more famous than most cabinet members certainly – accept them without quibble. At the end of the show, he asks tough questions and demands accountability. He is smooth and unruffled while the team members are tense and tongue-tied. Finally, having given everything the five minutes of due diligence it needs, he takes charge and fires someone. And on the season finale, he picks a big winner and in the process raises lots of money for charity.

That’s surely why this guy is doing do well:

Do you see how precisely this squares with so many people’s view of the presidency? The president is the guy running things. He tells people what to do. He commands respect simply by virtue of his personality and rock-solid principles. When things go wrong, he doesn’t waste time. He gets to the bottom of the problem in minutes using little more than common sense, and then fires the person responsible. And in the end, it’s all for a good cause. That’s a president.

Cool. And absurd:

Obviously this is all a fake. The show is deliberately set up to make Trump look authoritative and decisive. But a lot of people just don’t see it that way. It’s a reality show! It’s showing us the real Donald Trump. And boy does he look presidential. Not in the real sense, of course, where you have to deal with Congress and the courts and recalcitrant foreign leaders and all that. But in the Hollywood sense? You bet.

So keep this in mind, you liberal latte sippers and Beltway media elites. For the past seven years (eleven years if you count the original Apprentice show), about 10 million people have been watching Donald Trump act presidential week after week. He’s not a buffoon. He’s commanding, he’s confident, he’s respected, he demands accountability, and he openly celebrates accomplishment and money – but then makes sure all the money goes to charity at the end. What’s not to like?

That’s not as psychologically deep as what Brooks was saying, but it’s far more likely, and Ed Kilgore adds this:

According to this theory, there’s nothing strange at all about people thinking Trump is qualified to be president. It’s probably stranger, in fact, that people would want to vote for somebody like Ted Cruz who’s never run anything but his mouth. If you want someone in charge of the country who’s rarely if ever in doubt and is sort of an outsized version of yourself in your most decisive mode – you know, a real decider like W. promised to be – why not, especially if he’s a familiar part of your life? That’s he’s willing to beat up on the Mexicans and Chinese and criminals and abortionists and create jobs out of thin air is just gravy.

And all he does is play the role:

Donald Trump – who Fox News said literally will be at the center of its GOP primary debate on Thursday – is already feeling the heat from network hosts. On Tuesday, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly grilled the billionaire businessman on his claim that as president he will get Mexico to pay for a wall on the southern U.S. border to help prevent undocumented immigrants from crossing into the United States.

“Bill, they are making a fortune, Mexico is making a fortune off the United States, it’s becoming the new China in terms of trade – they’re killing us at the border,” Trump said after O’Reilly pressed him twice on the same question.

The third time O’Reilly asked, Trump said, “I’m gonna say, ‘Mexico, this is not going to continue, you’re going to pay for that wall,’ and they will pay for the wall. And Bill, it’s peanuts, what we’re talking about.”

He also swatted away the idea that he should be nervous for Thursday night’s showdown.

O’Reilly gave up. He knew this was just another episode of Celebrity Apprentice, but then there is the former four-term governor of Texas, the governor of Louisiana, the first female Fortune 50 CEO, and the three-term Senator from South Carolina, all shut out of the first debate. This was the day their candidacies died – or at least the day that their party had Roger Ailes tell them they really ought to find something else to do with their time, something useful. If only someone would tell Donald Trump that – not that he’d listen.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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