Thursday, July 23, 2015

2016 Political Drama: Act I, Scene 4--the Comic Relief

The Stage is already crowded; biggest Clown Car of all enters in, honking furiously.  A masked figure dressed as a troll, with pursed lips and flaming bouffant hairdo, pops up, spewing invective in all directions.   The crowd laughs, groans, sighs--the Clown points in every direction, dishing out insults. The other clowns slink off to the corner of the stage, muttering angrily. 

Donald Trump is a showman, a media-savvy, wealthy blowhard with no scruples and no visible agenda. He has set a new standard for making a splashy entrance and gaining the short-term surge in the polls:  This is how it is done, amateurs. Several other Republican candidates have had their turns, this year as they did in 2012, but his was bigger. (He got me to say, "his was bigger"--Mission Accomplished!)  

Has he proved his point, or is there something left to do?  He will surely stick around through the first debate next month--will he use it to announce his new reality TV program?  It may be too big an ask to get actual voters or caucus-goers to select his name from among the list of more worthy candidates--those with actual governmental experience, some sort of political programs, a modicum of respectability. 

So far, though, he is hitting all the right notes to attract support from certain groups of Republicans: those who felt their last two Presidential candidates, John McCain and Mitt Romney, let them down by failing to be conservative enough.  Those who can blame the weakness of the job market on the undocumented Mexican migrants (or even on the legal immigrants).  Those who think the problem with government is insufficient business experience among politicians. Those who know nothing about the political issues but know that they are sick of professional politicians running the country. Those who despise the professional news media because of their elitism, their insider games and liberal tendencies.  Rush Limbaugh (who fits into most of those categories).

Every day Trump is a candidate, Hillary Clinton breathes easier because she can avoid the media circus and quietly move forward with her campaign.  Every day he remains in the race, the other Republican candidates who engage with him are subject to rude putdowns.  Every day he remains in the race, the Republicans' brand becomes more associated with his brand, which will not help them in the future with the 60 percent or more of American adults who disapprove of it.

The Republican establishment candidates are rightfully wary of the Trump effect; in the clever words of a Eugene Robinson column title (in the Washington Post), "Trump is a Farce to be Reckoned With" for them.  They need somehow to shun him without offending him too much.  The only thing worse for the Republicans in the Presidential general election than his effect on their ultimate candidate (who will not be Trump) would be if he pulls out and announces as a general election candidate running as an independent.  I am grateful for the poll by Langer Research for ABC News     which showed that Hillary Clinton's lead over Jeb Bush nationally went from 50-44 in a two-way matchup to 46-30 if Trump were to run as a third-party candidate (drawing 20% support).

My rough calculations off those figures:  2% don't know in all cases; 4% goes from Hillary to Trump, 12% from Bush to Trump, 2% from Bush to don't know (can't decide between Bush and Trump), and 4% goes from don't know to Trump (finally a non-politician they can support!)  That last 4% doesn't matter, as neither HRC nor the Jebster could get them, the 2% Republican don't knows end up going back to Bush (probably more). but the real point--something I think would be real--is the 8% net pickup in the margin that Hillary gets in those switching from the parties and wasting their vote. Even if it were only half that much, it would make the difference between a close race and a landslide win. So, we who are looking for the Democratic landslide win in 2016 (ever more likely, in my view) can only hope Trump and the Republican party regulars can't make peace and he goes out there to make them pay. He can do it, so he may.

For me, the most likely scenario is for Trump to pull out after "he's made his point"--whatever that is, probably after winning a primary somewhere, before he has actually to develop a set of meaningful policy positions--and there is one candidate who has already planned to be on the stage at that time: Ted Cruz.  Cruz has singularly come out in support of Trump's outrageous positions attacking Mexican immigrants, and while he disagreed on the blunt, insensitive assessment Trump made of McCain's Vietnam war experience as a POW, Cruz stands more with Trump than McCain.   Cruz is an opportunist, even more than Trump, who is just a shill and a
wrecking machine, politically speaking.

People like Marco Rubio and Scott Walker have to lie low during this period, which hurts them, because they have some real ambition of capturing some of Trump's Bump when it gets flattened down.  It is they, and the more extreme conservative candidates not named Cruz (Carson, Huckabee), not the more moderate candidates (with the exception of VP-hopeful John Kasich, whose entry into the race was totally upstaged by Trump) who have been silenced by this alarming descent into buffoonery.

I want to recommend a quiz available online on the NYTimes site produced by Frank Bruni, with Kate Sinclair, to accompany his column in which he argues that Trump and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi are indistinguishable (from the point of view of what they say and how they say it). The quiz backs that up with 15 quotes--try to guess who said them between the two.  I did worse than flipping a coin would normally have done.  

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