It was morning in America again. For the first time in maybe ten months, Donald Trump didn’t call in to any of the national Sunday morning talk shows. He gets to call in – everyone else has to show up on-set or at least on camera – but it seems he had nothing to say. But he made up for that Monday. He started whining, and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal was not kind to him:
As the prospect of a contested Republican presidential convention increases, so does the brawling over delegates – and the whining from the losers. If someone decides to run for President, is it too much to ask that he or his campaign managers understand the nominating rules?
“The system is rigged, it’s crooked,” Donald Trump said Monday on Fox News, with his usual understatement, after Ted Cruz won 34 GOP delegates in Colorado while Mr. Trump was shut out. “The people out there are going crazy, in the Denver area and Colorado itself, and they’re going absolutely crazy because they weren’t given a vote. This was given by politicians. It’s a crooked deal.”
The Wall Street Journal folks told him to grow up:
The truth is that he lost due to his own campaign’s ineptitude. The state politicians in Colorado did exactly what they are entitled to do under Republican Party rules: set up a process that allocates delegates to candidates in any way a state party sees fit. Most state parties nowadays hold primary or caucus elections, but some do so with a hybrid system that can seem convoluted but makes sense if the goal is to build a party of volunteers from the ground up.
Colorado awarded delegates through a caucus process that began with precinct meetings and moved to congressional district and state GOP conventions. The attendees at those conventions then voted to elect the delegates to the national convention, and Mr. Cruz won 30 delegates that will be pledged to him on the first ballot. Another four are free agents but say they prefer Mr. Cruz. Three others are state party leaders who are free to vote as they please.
That’s the way it is, and Ted Cruz out-organized him. There must have been a thousand news articles on how the Trump crew had no idea what they were doing, but that may be beside the point:
The larger point is that none of this is undemocratic or dishonest. A political party exists to nominate candidates to run for election with the goal of winning. Political parties are private entities independent of government and can set up the nominating process any way they want. Candidates are obliged to follow party rules, not vice versa.
In short, deal with it, Donald – but everyone sees what Trump is setting up for the convention. He doesn’t have enough delegates on the first ballot to win and does his Incredible Hulk thing, smashing what he can, the stupid party rules, the stupid party itself, and, facing his wrath, and the wrath of all those who voted for him only to find that their votes had been advisory, not determinative, the party, in fear and trembling, capitulates to him. At that point, the current Republican Party, that independent private entity with its particular state-by-state structures and rules – which Ted Cruz understood and navigated rather brilliantly – and with its defining principles and party planks on this and that – simply disappears. It’s over. That’s the plan. There no longer is a coherent Republican Party. There’s only Donald Trump.
That might work, and ever since Trump declared last June, there have been thousands of news items lamenting or cheering the end of the Republican Party – but it had to happen. The social conservative evangelicals never did get along with the pro-business billionaires, and neither thought much of the war-everywhere-now neoconservative hawks. Add the Tea Party burn-it-all-down purists in 2010 – things got more unstable. Trump added what seems like white nationalism to the mix, along with his one-strong-man authoritarianism – protesters are still getting beat-up at his rallies and he has said he thinks there will be riots in the streets at the party’s convention in Cleveland if he doesn’t get the nomination – but those are mere ornamentation. This has been going on a long time. The party has been tearing itself apart for years.
The Republican Party is dead, but Michael Gerson, who was Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 through June 2006, and a senior policy adviser from 2000 through June 2006, and a member of the White House Iraq Group, thinks his party is doing just fine:
On the whole, the Obama era has been the best time to be a Republican since Herbert Hoover left office. The 2014 election yielded the highest number of GOP House members since 1928, and the second highest number of GOP senators. There are currently 31 Republican governors. The GOP controls 70 percent of state legislatures and enjoys single-party rule in 25 states.
RealClearPolitics election analysts Sean Trende and David Byler put together an index of party strength, based on performance at federal, state and local levels. By their measure, Republicans are doing their best overall since 1928. “The Republican Party,” they conclude, “is stronger than it has been in most of our readers’ lifetimes.”
The overwhelming volume of presidential election coverage creates an illusion that only presidential elections matter. But Democratic decline at the state and local levels has radiating effects — influencing the shape of redistricting, emptying the bench of future electoral talent, and helping to undermine the implementation of Democratic initiatives such as Obamacare.
Consider: If Republicans had fielded a strong presidential nominee this year, who managed to win a winnable election, the party’s success would have been more comprehensive than any since 1980.
So it’s best to consider what’s really going on here:
The tragedy is not that Republicans are on the verge of self-destruction; it is that they were on the verge of victory, and threw it away. This singular failure is not a small thing for the GOP. The patient is brimming with health and vigor in every way, except for the missing head. Either of this year’s likely Republican failures would complicate the job of candidates down the ticket and alienate demographic groups that are essential to future national victories.
Gerson thinks two things need to change:
The first is the tea party claim that ideological purity is the key to presidential success. Republicans, in this view, have lost recent presidential elections because their quisling candidates, John McCain and Mitt Romney, could not turn out 4 million “missing” conservative voters.
That number, it actually turns out, is a myth, rooted in the slow reporting of vote totals after the 2012 election. “There’s no magic formula,” said Dan McLaughlin of RedState, “no cavalry of millions of conservatives waiting just over the hill to save the day.” A Custer-like loss by Cruz – who has shown little ability to expand beyond his narrow ideological appeal – would demonstrate this point.
And there’s that other matter:
This is the claim by right-wing populists that Republicans need to completely reorient their ideology in favor of nativism, protectionism and isolationism in order to appeal to working-class whites. This was the message of Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns starting in the 1990s. With Trump, it is back in full force.
And that’s a killer:
Aside from the fact that protectionism is self-destructive economic policy, and isolationism is disastrous foreign policy, an attempt to pump up the white vote with nativist rhetoric alienates just about everyone else. Trump has secured his stagnant plurality in GOP primaries by earning record-level disapproval from the rest of the country. If Trump were the Republican nominee, winning states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan would require an increase in the white working-class vote so vast that the math is essentially impossible.
So the party is in a pickle:
Is it better to lose with Cruz or Trump? The arguments for tea party purity and for “white lives matter” nativism each need discrediting defeat. Unfortunately, they seem to be the two available choices.
Ah, this then calls for a White Knight:
Eventually, Republicans will require another option: a reform-oriented conservatism that is responsive to working-class problems while accommodating demographic realities. This is what makes Paul Ryan so attractive as the Hail Mary pass of an open convention.
Paul Ryan is not running for president, but the New York Times does report this:
While Mr. Ryan has repeatedly said that he has no intention of becoming his party’s nominee this year, he is already deep into his own parallel national operation to counter Donald J. Trump and help House and Senate candidates navigate the political headwinds that Mr. Trump would generate as the party’s standard-bearer – or, for that matter, Senator Ted Cruz, who is only slightly more popular.
Mr. Ryan is creating a personality and policy alternative to run alongside the presidential effort – one that provides a foundation to rebuild if Republicans splinter and lose in the fall. “He is running a parallel policy campaign,” said Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina.
He is shaping an agenda that he plans to roll out right before the convention, a supplement of sorts to the official party platform.
Jonathan Chait wonders about that:
Paul Ryan’s shadow campaign for the presidency is well under way, and the visible portion peeking above the surface – message videos and gravitas-conferring overseas trips – conceals a larger whisper campaign submerged beneath the surface. If Donald Trump fails to win a majority of pledged delegates on the first ballot, and if Ted Cruz fails to organize a majority on a subsequent ballot, a disorderly and panicked party would almost automatically turn to its recognized leader as the candidate. Alternatively, should either Trump or Cruz win the nomination, Republicans running down-ballot will need a less toxic brand. In which case, Ryan will assume his role as de facto party leader, supplying a friendlier-sounding message for Republicans in blue and purple states.
Candidate or not, he’s still that White Knight, or maybe not:
Some of the differences between Ryan and the declared candidates are real. Unlike Trump and Cruz, Ryan supports the party’s business wing on international trade and immigration. He is pragmatic about political messaging and tactics, and understands that doomed kamikaze legislative maneuvers or gratuitously insulting key demographic groups ultimately sets back the conservative cause. Also on display in today’s story is Ryan’s well-honed talent to conjure an imagined, impossible version of his own policy agenda and present it as reality.
The magical-realism version of the Ryan platform involves heaping doses of empathy and wonkishness. As always, the evidence for this lies not in any concrete commitments but in promises lying somewhere over the horizon. The key passage from today’s Times story: “For example, if the Republican nominee does not provide an alternative to the Affordable Care Act – something Republicans have failed to do since it passed in 2010 – Mr. Ryan intends to do so, just as he will lay out an anti-poverty plan.”
Chait smells bullshit:
Note the “intends to,” a phrase that captures Ryan’s uncanny ability to have his assurances taken at face value. Republicans have been promising that they were on the cusp of unveiling a party-wide alternative to the Obama administration’s health-care reform since the debate began in 2009, but they have never quite managed to do so. Republican alternatives to Obamacare have lain just over the horizon for half a dozen years, and oddly enough, the pace of their imminent unveiling appears to have increased. Consider a small sampling of the recent time frame. In January 2014, Ryan promised he would develop a Republican plan that year. By March, the Washington Post was reporting the unveiling of this plan as a fait accompli… The plan never came.
Chait goes into the history of this nonsense, but it comes down to this:
The reason the dog keeps eating the Republicans’ health-care homework is very simple: It is impossible to design a health-care plan that is both consistent with conservative ideology and acceptable to the broader public. People who can’t afford health insurance are either unusually sick (meaning their health-care costs are high), unusually poor (their incomes are low), or both. Covering them means finding the money to pay for the cost of their medical treatment. You can cover poor people by giving them money. And you can cover sick people by requiring insurers to sell plans to people regardless of age or preexisting conditions. Obamacare uses both of these methods. But Republicans oppose spending more money on the poor, and they oppose regulation, which means they don’t want to do either of them.
They’re stuck, but it’s not just health care:
A similar reason prevents Ryan from detailing his “anti-poverty plan.” In this case, the problem is Republican fiscal math. Ryan and his party are ideologically committed to massive tax cuts – indeed, Ryan reiterated not long ago that he would refuse to support any tax-reform plan that did not relieve the burden on high earners. They are likewise committed to maintaining Social Security and Medicare for anybody 55 and up, which by definition rules out any cuts to their budgets over the next decade. Ryan has also proven unwilling to implement deeper cuts to the discretionary budget – the funding stream for agencies that, for the most part, are not redistributing money from rich to poor, the largest being the Department of Defense – which is why he has twice agreed to raise the funding caps on that pool of money. That is why Ryan’s budget relies on massive, disproportionate cuts to spending programs that help the poor. Sixty-two percent of the cuts in the Republican budget come from programs aimed at helping people with low incomes. (Those programs account for less than a quarter of all program-spending in the federal budget.)
Gerson is simply wrong about this guy:
Ryan has gone to enormous lengths to demonstrate to the national media that he truly and deeply loves poor people and wants what is best for them. But however Ryan feels about poor people in his heart, the boundaries of his policy commitments lead inescapably to the result that he is going to massively reduce the amount of money the government spends on helping poor people. If Ryan didn’t share these priorities, he wouldn’t be the leader of the Republican Party, and insiders would be casting their eyes somewhere else for an alternative to Trump and Cruz.
Simon Maloy is a bit nastier:
Paul Ryan is one devious character. We’re in the middle of a Republican presidential primary and the Speaker’s office is busily putting together slickly produced campaign ad-like videos of Paul Ryan speaking in hopeful, forward-looking prose about the greatness of American democracy. And the fact that he’s doing this at a point where it looks like the primary is barreling toward a convention fight between two broadly dislike candidates has naturally led everyone to speculate whether Ryan is laying the groundwork for capturing the 2016 nomination himself.
I don’t think Ryan wants the nomination, at least not this year. The ads are provocative, sure, but his office has been cranking them out for months.
Something else is going on here:
Ryan has to understand how huge a risk he’d be taking to swoop in at the last second and steal the nomination from two candidates who will have spent over a year campaigning and winning votes. He’d face persistent credibility questions, he’d have a Trump-led insurrection to deal with and quite possibly a Cruz-led revolt as well, and if he lost in November his political career would be over.
I think he’s doing something very different. Ryan is taking advantage of this fraught situation in the presidential race, with his party choosing between a toxic performance artist and an unlikable ideologue, to position himself as a voice of reasoned moderation. And he’s deliberately pitching this message to an audience that is ready and eager to swallow it, digest it and treat it as plain and obvious truth: Beltway pundits. …
Ryan wants pundits and reporters who are watching Donald Trump and Ted Cruz savage one another to look at him and think “Oh, well, he’s the reasonable one – he likes unity! He said so in the video! He’s Paul Ryan, the wonky unifier who loves ideas.”
Maloy also smells bullshit:
As late as last year, the Speaker who decries the politics of division was dismissing proposals to roll back tax breaks for the wealthy as “envy economics.”
Ryan has been pushing the same dogmatic policy proposals for years – the only thing that changes is the way he tries to sell them. In 2014 he tried rebranding his intensely plutocratic vision of America as “the American idea” and tried to borrow some legitimacy from the Founding Fathers. He tried recasting himself as a poverty warrior, rechristening the block-granting of social programs as “opportunity grants” and proposing to cure economic hardship through signed contracts that carry “sanctions” for failure to stop being poor. The series of videos he’s releasing now are part of another rebranding, this one for the social media age…
The guy is as much of an ideologue as Ted Cruz, but he’s savvy enough to know how to sell his extreme brand of conservatism in such a way that pundits and the press will view him as something other than a hardline right-winger. And right now he has the perfect foils in Cruz in Trump, guys who make it easy for a guy like Paul Ryan to come off as measured and reasonable.
That’s rather self-serving, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog has an alternative theory:
The Ryan pseudo-campaign really might be the GOP establishment’s way of running a third-party campaign without actually putting another presidential candidate on the ballot. The establishmentarians might have weighed all the options and concluded that, yes, they want a tamer, more domesticated conservative message out there, but they don’t want to split the presidential vote – hey, they might beat Trump at the convention and nominate a candidate who can win, or Trump might secure the nomination and start seeming electable, and they don’t want to forgo either of those possibilities. But if this year’s nominee is doomed, they’re running Ryan as a non-nominee for non-president.
Hey, a non-nominee for non-president might be good for the party, and it has been done before:
For years, the GOP used the increasingly rabid right-wing media for recruitment and loyalty-building. Crazy things were said on Fox News and talk radio, at Free Republic and WorldNetDaily – all of which kept the yahoos loyal to the GOP and conservatism. And then some “respectable” figure, maybe Lindsey Graham or John McCain or, well, Paul Ryan – would go on the Sunday talk shows and persuade more moderate voters that the GOP was house-trained and you could trust it around your kids, and never mind the scary noises coming from the radio dial every time Limbaugh or Savage was on the air.
So we have Ryan:
The GOP always wants a respectable figure running for president, but Trump and Cruz are making that unlikely this year. However, “running” Ryan as a non-presidential candidate revives the multiple-target-market strategy… I think it’s called brand-stretching. The marketing of Ryan is an upward stretch for the Republican brand, an attempt to regain sophisticated customers. Ryan is the ideal embodiment of this campaign, because the non-right-wing press loves him and will happily sell him to middle-of-the-road voters.
I’m not sure Republicans really have to go to all this trouble to salvage the House and the Senate, given Democrats’ habitual disregard of down-ballot races. But the GOP’s not taking any chances. I expect it to work.
That is the argument that Paul Ryan, the non-nominee for non-president, can at least save the House and Senate. Look! Look! Not all Republicans are batshit crazy! But who’s going to believe that now?