This is getting tiresome. On a quiet Sunday evening there was BIG NEWS in the mess that the Republican Party has become, and then, by noon on Monday, this turned out to be another false alarm:
The temporary alliance between Senator Ted Cruz and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, formed to deny Donald J. Trump the Republican presidential nomination, was already fraying almost to the point of irrelevance on Monday, only hours after it was announced to great fanfare.
With the pact, the two candidates agreed to cede forthcoming primary contests to each other. Mr. Kasich would, most crucially, stand down in Indiana’s primary on May 3 to give Mr. Cruz a better chance to defeat Mr. Trump there, while Mr. Cruz would leave Oregon and New Mexico to Mr. Kasich. It appeared to be a measure of last resort, but initially it seemed like a breakthrough.
Mr. Cruz trumpeted what he called the “big news” in Indiana, a state that appears pivotal to stopping Mr. Trump from winning a majority of delegates. “John Kasich has decided to pull out of Indiana to give us a head-to-head contest with Donald Trump,” he said.
But at his own campaign stop in Philadelphia on Monday, Mr. Kasich tamped down Mr. Cruz’s triumphalism. Voters in Indiana, Mr. Kasich said, “ought to vote for me,” even if he would not be campaigning publicly there. He added, “I don’t see this as any big deal.”
And that was that, because it was a dumb idea:
Under the best of circumstances, the arrangement between Mr. Cruz and Mr. Kasich would seem to be a long shot – more of an expedient to stop Mr. Trump from taking a big step toward winning the nomination next week in Indiana than a permanent joining of forces.
Far from forming any kind of unity ticket, Mr. Trump’s surviving challengers have both vowed to triumph in an open convention in Cleveland, and they remain irreconcilable on key matters of policy. Their agreement dealt only with three states, leaving an open question as to how directly they might compete with each other everywhere else.
But everywhere else was for later:
Even in Indiana, emerging as the most important state, the Cruz-Kasich pact appeared something less than decisive. While Mr. Kasich’s campaign canceled his public appearances in the state, the governor was still slated to visit Indianapolis on Tuesday for a fund-raising event at the Columbia Club. And he still had meetings scheduled with a series of Indiana Republicans, including Gov. Mike Pence, according to a leading Republican in the state.
Mr. Cruz’s campaign privately advised supporters on Sunday not to endorse tactical voting, whereby his supporters might switch their allegiance to Mr. Kasich in states where the Ohio governor is running stronger against Mr. Trump. “We never tell voters who to vote for,” read the suggested Cruz talking point. “We’re simply letting folks know where we will be focusing our time and resources.”
So what was this about? Who knew? The Donald pounced:
Mr. Trump, who has taunted his opponents throughout the race for their Keystone Cops approach to undermining his campaign, seemed to relish the continuing strain between his remaining rivals. On Twitter, he mocked “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” and “1 for 38 Kasich,” referring to the latter’s dismal winning record in the Republican race, for being unable to beat him on their own.
The Keystone Cops were those slapstick incompetent policemen featured in a long series of silent movies produced by Mack Sennett for his Keystone Film Company between 1912 and 1917 down the street here in Echo Park – some of the old studio is still there – and their slapstick spirit lives on:
Mr. Cruz said the agreement was aimed at empowering anti-Trump voters against the front-runner, denying that the effort to stop Mr. Trump was subverting the will of the people. “This is entirely about the will of the people,” he said. “This is about winning the votes of the Hoosier State.”
Mr. Kasich, in Pennsylvania, grew quickly agitated at the suggestion that his deal with Mr. Cruz reflected desperation.
“Me? No, I’m not desperate – are you?” he asked a reporter. “Are you desperate?”
And this isn’t a vaudeville act? It must be, but the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson sees something that might work:
I don’t know, maybe a hurricane will dishevel Trump’s comb-over and reveal his bald pate, causing such mortification that he quits the race. Or maybe there will be an earthquake next week in Indiana, affecting only precincts where Trump has a lead.
There’s that, but this particular lame-brain plan won’t work:
The Cruz-Kasich pact comes at the 13th hour. Its announcement Sunday seemed orchestrated to distract attention from the fact that Trump is expected to sweep five more primaries Tuesday – in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut and Rhode Island – making a contested GOP convention even less likely.
That Cruz and Kasich have joined forces merely illustrates what a paper tiger the “Never Trump” movement has been. Trump is right – I hate when I have to write those words – to call the arrangement an “act of desperation” by two candidates who are “mathematically dead” in the quest for a majority of delegates.
This whole thing is, in fact, mathematically dead:
Cruz and Kasich would like everyone to look past the five “Acela corridor” states that vote Tuesday. But a total of 172 delegates are at stake in those contests; for comparison, that’s the same number that will be up for grabs in California on June 7. If Trump performs as well this week as polls suggest, his path to the nomination begins to look more like a cruise than a scramble.
Not so fast, the Cruz camp claims. It all supposedly comes down to Indiana, which votes May 3 and will award 57 delegates. If Cruz can win all or most of them, he says, Trump will no longer be able to reach 1,237. The nomination would be decided on the convention floor, where Cruz’s superior inside game would win the day. …
But this scenario is full of holes. For one thing, the RealClearPolitics poll average gives Trump a solid lead over Cruz in Indiana, 39 percent to 33 percent. And a Fox News poll last week showed that even with Kasich out of the race, Trump would still have a narrow lead, 44 percent to 42 percent.
That can hardly be called great news for Cruz, who needs to win blowouts, not squeakers. And even if he managed to come away with almost all of Indiana’s delegates, Cruz still would not have a realistic path to a majority. Trump, by contrast, would.
And then there are California and New Jersey:
Cruz and Kasich would still be campaigning independently and presumably splitting the anti-Trump vote. This could change, I suppose – Cruz and Kasich could theoretically agree to target different congressional districts in California, for example. But come on. Both candidates have trouble getting across the message “Vote for me.” I seriously doubt they’ll do better with “You over here vote for me. You over there, vote for this other guy, even if you don’t want him to win.”
Yes, that is as absurd as it sounds, for good reason:
The whole “Never Trump” thing is more like “Pretty Please Not Trump.” Establishment Republicans wring their hands, beat their breasts and wail about how awful Trump is, how uncouth, how unacceptable as the presidential candidate of the party of Lincoln – and then, when pressed, meekly say they’ll support him if he’s the nominee.
What are voters to think? Perhaps that career politicians speak out of both sides of their mouths. Perhaps that Trump is right when he claims an effort is underway to “steal” a nomination he is winning fair and square.
Let’s be honest: So far, Trump has run circles around his more experienced rivals. Why does anyone think this will suddenly change?
Slate’s Jamelle Bouie agrees, with less snark:
The great weakness of this scheme is that it’s delusional, full stop. And the extent to which it’s delusional is easy to understand. If we’ve learned anything watching Republicans battle for their party nomination, it’s that many Republican voters support Trump, and most (or at least a large plurality) would accept him as standard-bearer for the party. Trump is poised for victory Tuesday in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, as well as subsequent primaries in West Virginia, New Jersey, and California. More broadly, Trump has nearly 50-percent support among Republicans nationwide and is the second choice for voters in both the Cruz and Kasich camps. According to a national survey from Quinnipiac University conducted before the Wisconsin primary, Trump would win in a two-man race against either candidate.
That’s the whole point:
Technically, presidential primaries aren’t elections as much as they are intraparty deliberations: a complicated set of rules, procedures, and contests meant to help a party decide on a nominee. Democracy, or at least majoritarianism, isn’t the point.
At the same time, it has been decades since we haven’t had a majoritarian primary. For most people, that is how this works – the candidate with the most votes wins, like in any other election. It is why, when asked, more than 60 percent of Republican voters say that in the event that no candidate hits the threshold for delegates, the person with the most votes should be the nominee, rather than the person judged the best standard-bearer for the party. To do otherwise is to challenge a basic intuition about how the process works; it’s to ignore the public’s democratic faith. (It’s also why “superdelegates” were an object of controversy in the Democratic primary. Voters hated the idea that elites could choose a winner rather than leave the process to them.)
Cruz and Kasich might well outmaneuver Trump and keep him from his magic number with wins in Indiana, New Mexico, and Oregon, even as the bumbling start to their nonaggression pact has left them looking more like the Superior Foes of the Donald than actual competitors. But it won’t matter either way. Whether he gets to 1,237 or not Trump has an unbeatable advantage – democratic legitimacy. And if Republican leaders try to take the nomination from his hands, he’ll have a powerful rallying cry: They’re trying to steal your vote.
There are arcane party rules that allow that, but they don’t matter now:
To take the nomination from the candidate with the most votes is to tell ordinary Republicans that their ballots don’t matter – that the will of elites outweighs the will of the voters. That many of those elites are elected officials – and themselves accountable to voters – doesn’t matter; that they might make a good choice doesn’t matter, either. What matters is the widespread belief that votes count and that voters have the final say on the choice of nominee. Ignoring this belief wouldn’t just confirm every possible critique of “the establishment” – it would tear the party apart.
That’s because, obviously, the #NeverTrump people waited too long:
By waiting until Trump had won to unleash attacks and coordinate efforts, they also lost their shot to influence voters and amass the votes needed to challenge Trump at the convention with at least a patina of democratic legitimacy. That might have worked.
Instead, they’re left with the worst possible outcome. Trump holds all the cards – he’s all but the winner. Cruz and Kasich and GOP elites can play grab-ass as much as they’d like. The simple fact is that, now, the Republican Party belongs to Trump.
That may be so, and Matthew Yglesias argues that the Cruz-Kasich alliance can’t work because nobody will make the only anti-Trump argument that matters:
One good reason a Ted Cruz supporter might have for tactically voting Kasich in order to block Trump from securing the nomination would be that Trump is manifestly unfit to serve as president – he’s ignorant of policy, he flames racial resentment, and he’s given multiple indications that he would wield power in a violent and lawless manner.
This is a perfectly good basis for ideologically motivated Republicans to back an ideologically hostile figure in pursuit of the greater good of stopping Trump.
The problem is that it’s also a perfectly good reason for Republicans to back Hillary Clinton in November in pursuit of the greater good of stopping Trump.
And that’s the bridge nobody in the leadership of the Republican Party has yet been willing to cross.
If you really truly and honestly and sincerely believe Trump must be stopped, and you take even the most casual glance at the math, Hillary is your only hope, which they really should admit:
It’s completely understandable that people in GOP circles don’t want to say they will betray the party’s likely nominee in order to support a Democrat in the general election. But if you believe Trump is unfit for the presidency, that’s the only reasonable course of action. And belief that Trump is unfit for the presidency is, at this moment, the only viable basis for an anti-Trump coalition.
Their own logic traps them, but Amanda Marcotte argues that logic isn’t their strong suit:
The Cruz/Kasich plan is something that could only be hatched by people whose confidence in their own cleverness is completely unmoored from any real world evidence for it. The idea is that, at this late stage in the game, each of them will “throw” certain states to the other through the magic of not doing local campaigning for a week. Kasich promises not to campaign in Indiana anymore and Cruz will, in exchange, not campaign in Oregon and New Mexico.
And… that’s it. They aren’t withdrawing their names from the ballot. Nor are their campaigns sending out messages to voters to vote for the other guy. The hope is that by Kasich simply removing himself from the campaign trail in Indiana for a whole week, the voters who were planning to go for him will beat feet to Cruz, edging him over Trump, who is currently in the lead in the winner-takes-most state. Brilliant plan, guys. Really top notch. It will be a total surprise when voters, completely unaware or indifferent to this plan, just vote for who they want and Trump wins anyway.
Plus, the whole move shows that Kasich and Cruz have no understanding of the conservative base they’re trying to woo. These are folks who have heard for decades now that they are the victims of some great elite conspiracy to rob them of their right to control the country. Trump has already plugged himself into that narrative, telling Republican voters that there is a conspiracy to deprive him of the nomination and, through that, deprive the voters of their right to choose the nominee.
So Trump wins there:
This move shows he’s not paranoid at all, because there is, in fact, a conspiracy to deprive him of the nomination and, by virtue of that, deprive the voters of their right to pick the nominee through majority rule. Trump is already getting a poll boost from telling voters that the elites are out to get him. What’s going to happen now that the conspiracy has been proven real?
In short, this is a Mack Sennett clown show:
Trump is not a brilliant politician. He’s not a savant whose genius instincts stomp all over any effort by experienced politician to stop him. He’s a man who got really, really lucky, in that he made a run for president against a field that was so overstuffed with incompetents that he looks like a genius in comparison. This latest brilliant plan from Kasich and Cruz highlights that. He’s not so much winning anymore as these fools are losing.
Moreover, the whole thing is a symptom of what is a deeper problem for the Republicans, which is a total inability to get competent people into the upper echelons of leadership. It’s comical to consider all the chatter last summer about the “deep bench” the party had to offer in the Republican nomination contest, as the over a dozen people who threw their hat into the ring turned out to be an embarrassment. The Republican Party is stuffed to the gills with people who think they are smart and capable, sure, but is mostly empty when it comes to those who have accurate self-assessment.
Marcotte then argues that this extends beyond, or below, those Republicans who are running for president:
It wasn’t that long ago that the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives hit a crisis point because they were so incapable of securing a speaker of the house that had some capacity to do the actual job. John Boehner wasn’t anyone’s idea of an effective leader, but compared to those who were on offer to replace him, he seemed downright adequate.
Things have gotten so bad on that front that Paul Ryan, who had failed at his state of the union response and in his vice presidential run, got the red carpet treatment when he finally stepped into the role.
She then points to Ed Kilgore explaining how that worked out – “He famously cannot get a budget resolution passed. He’s done nothing on the list of priorities he announced when he took up the gavel. But beyond those failures, he can’t even deal with emergencies, including the Puerto Rico debt crisis, the Zika crisis, the Flint water-poisoning disaster, and the opioid epidemic.”
This isn’t about Ryan having different ideological views or priorities that liberals would prefer. This is just a matter of competence, and Ryan does not have it – which isn’t too surprising, since he’s in the same party that is literally treating Cruz, a man who is so bad at being a politician he has managed to offend nearly everyone who should be his ally in D.C., like he’s the professional alternative to Trump. The Republicans would do better offering a bag of rice as the #NeverTrump alternative. It may not be much to look at but it’s white and it’s not as creepy as Cruz, giving it a better shot at winning conservative voters over.
But they asked for it:
This competence problem in leadership for the Republicans is a direct result of the many decades the party has spent prioritizing right wing radicalism. The minimum entrance requirements to be a powerful Republican have become increasingly incompatible with the skills needed to be an effective leader. Republicans are expected to be right wing ideologues of the most hardcore sort, which means believing in global warming denialist conspiracy theories, regarding Ayn Rand as a great intellectual, and arguing that the best way to fight poverty is embrace policies that exacerbate income inequality – which isn’t to say that conservatives are stupid – that’s trite and essentially meaningless.
No, the real problem is that conservatives have made a rejection of reality a basic requirement to hold office as a Republican, especially high up offices that have significant amounts of power. Being good at denying reality, alas, isn’t very compatible with dealing with reality.
That’s a bit harsh, but no more harsh than what Bruce Bartlett, a former official in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, has to say. Simon Maloy interviews him, and asks him why the hell he voted for Donald Trump in the Virginia primary, and Bartlett says that was a strategic decision:
I think the Republican Party is sick. It’s dying, it just doesn’t know it. And I think anything that speeds up its demise is to the good, because then it can reinvent itself and return as something healthy. Or you could use an addiction metaphor, where people have to hit bottom so that they can reach out and ask for help before they can cure themselves. I think that Trump is a symptom of a disease of rampant stupidity, pandering to morons and bigots and racists and all the sort of stuff that defines today’s Republican coalition. And I just think it’s awful. It’s terrible for the country in a great many ways that I don’t need to tell you. And I think that we need to have a healthy two-party system. We need to have a sane, functioning conservative party and a sane, functioning liberal party. And I think that half of that equation, at least, is not working, and it affects the other half.
So I think it’s just bad for the country. So I think that giving Trump the nomination is the surest path to complete and total destruction of the Republican Party as we know it. And I look forward to him getting the nomination for that reason. I think he will have a historic loss. I think he may well bring in a Democratic Senate. But more importantly, my hope is, at least, that he will lead to a really serious assessment of the problems of the Republican Party, and lead to some opening of thought, opening of discussion, conversation among groups that have been sidelined for quite a long time – mainly moderates and people of that sort who have been just pushed to the sidelines in favor of ever more rabid, nonsensical, right-wing authoritarianism.
Are there any of those left? Bartlett thinks so:
Party loyalty and tribal loyalty are very, very intense inside the Republican coalition, and I think what you’ll get is a lot of pro-forma endorsements of Trump. But very, very few people will actually do any work to help him get elected. You’re not going to see people going around knocking on doors and putting up signs and bumper stickers and stuff like that that is very important in terms of turnout on Election Day.
I think the regular Republican Party machine will do everything it can to help its House and Senate candidates. Mitch McConnell has already told Republican senators that they are free to run anti-Trump ads if they think that’s what will help them survive. And I think they’ll simply concentrate all their efforts on keeping the House and Senate, and maybe that will be enough. I don’t know.
One can hope. As for the Cruz-Kasich alliance, abandon hope. This was just one more false alarm. Perhaps it was the last false alarm. Even Mack Sennett stopped making Keystone Cops movies when he ran out of nutty ideas – or when the audience got bored by it all.