What Cruz and Rubio need to do now.
Both Donald Trump and his opponents are up against the constraints of time.
Trump wants to run out the clock; Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio want overtime. Trump does not want any more Texas-debate–style fights with Rubio and Cruz, and yet he still has four more debates on his schedule. In each one, we will see a geometric increase in attacks on Trump — all the more so if Carson or Kasich, or both, drop out, and the allotted debate time is split just three ways.
For the first time in the already too long series of debates, candidates descended to Trump’s brash style of street fighting. And they wounded him — not enough to seriously injure his candidacy, but enough for us to see how more of the same certainly might (and how more far earlier might have done so already).
The problem for Trump is not just that he cannot score points on ideas and so he monotonously strikes back with ad hominem slurs, but also that, off the cuff and in passing, he is capable of saying almost anything. Over two hours, those anythings — especially when they are windows into his past and his present values — finally add up.
So far Trump’s supporters have put up with his hypocrisies, self-contradictions, and unhinged statements — as if all that is felt to be a small price for hearing him pulverize Washington careerists, media flunkies, hypocritical grandees, and Republican sellouts. Americans are sick and tired of Black Lives Matter careerists and abject racists calling them racists, of wealthy apartheid liberals lecturing them about their white-privileged middle-class status, of crony green capitalists with huge carbon footprints, of hypocritical multimillionaire Malibu scolds, of the media hectoring the 52 percent who pay income taxes and canonizing the 48 percent who do not, of illegal aliens laying down to them a set of ultimatums while praising the country they were glad to leave and ankle-biting the one they want to stay in, of elites worrying more about the feelings of Islamic radicals than the terrorism that jihadists commit, and of our elected representatives borrowing more money for more government programs that make things far worse for everybody except those who run them.
If it is a choice between Washington Republicans’ sober and judicious tinkering and tsk-tsking on the one hand, and raw unadulterated anger on the other, the so-called base will choose the latter every time. The furious and fed-up may not like Trump’s cruelty, but the array of targets that he crudely lashes back at — John McCain, Megyn Kelly, Jeb Bush, the Pope, Vicente Fox — in their various ways themselves often are unpopular. When Vicente Fox cusses at Trump, when the Pope slyly questions his Christianity, when Megyn Kelly flirtatiously winks to her audience, when New York Times columnist Ross Douthat jokes about a possible Trump assassination, when the Chinese say they don’t welcome the idea of a Trump presidency, when a few screwball British members of Parliament dream of denying Trump entry into Britain — all of them only win Trump even more acclaim from hoi polloi.
In contrast, to a Trump supporter, the only real sin is a liberal and mean-spirited Trump. In the last debate, Trump did not deny that he supported and gave money to John Kerry’s campaign in 2004 — and that he wanted a sitting Republican president, George W. Bush, impeached. That put him with the Michael Moore/Code Pink crowd. He said the same sort of thing in the previous debate when he suggested that Bush had cooked up the WMD threat to mislead Americans. He seemed a neo-Truther — in the manner of his earlier Obama-birther days — when he talked about what Bush should have known and done prior to 9/11.
Trump still thinks that Planned Parenthood is mostly a noble women’s health collective whose chief activities are diagnostic testing and medical referral for things like cancer, when it is in fact far more concerned with teenage contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and, in good Margaret Sanger fashion, advocating and facilitating abortion — and its related dark trafficking in fetal tissues — without leaving budgetary footprints of just that. Trump’s idea of fixing Obamacare is a sort of Trumpcare, more efficiently run but equally intrusive. Trump’s notion of smaller government is suing more people for criticizing big names, and allowing the rich to confiscate other people’s property for “economic development.”
In the South Carolina debate, Trump loudly proclaimed that, while Saddam Hussein was “a bad guy,” nonetheless “he killed terrorists.” In fact, Saddam’s pre-invasion Iraq was a sanctuary for most of the world’s worst terrorists, from Abu Nidal and Abu Abbas to Abdul Rahman Yasin, one of the engineers of the 1993 attempted World Trade Center bombing. Whom Saddam actually did kill was one million of his own people. Praising thugs like Vladimir Putin and Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi is tricky business for Trump supporters: understandable if your crude point is that it is not worth our blood and treasure to knock off these rogues only to get chaos as a reward; creepy if you hint at a bit of admiration for their anti-American, murderous, taking-care-of-business personas.
In 2012, Trump blasted Mitt Romney’s notion of self-deportation as “mean” and “crazy”; in the South Carolina debate, he lauded just that approach as the cornerstone of his immigration policy. If voters are reminded clearly enough that a protectionist and immigration hawk hired illegal aliens and outsourced his product-line production to China, they will become accustomed to not liking it.
Trump is a smear addict. He is most riveting when ridiculing critics, but he must understand that slurs are his addiction. And one thing about addictions is that they eventually require greater doses to remain effective, even as they prove unsustainable both to the health of the addict and to the well-being of those around him.
So Trump needs to wrap up the primary race quickly, and with it the public occasions of his just being Trump. In the last debate, Cruz and Rubio ended an exchange or two with a snappy put-down, but Trump did so monotonously. Finally Trump’s same old, same old repartee of “Be quiet,” “You liar,” “You should be ashamed of yourself,” “Give me a break,” “You lose on everything,” “You’re a lousy businessman,” “He lied this time. He lied — 100 percent, 100 percent,” “You don’t know much. . . . You don’t know much. . . . You’re the basket case” gets, well, boring.
Trump needs to finish the last four debates in the fashion he did all the others except the last — and thereby delay, delay, delay audits of his integrity and ethics. He does not want to discuss his tax returns in the next two weeks precisely because it is likely that they will utterly destroy his three greatest boasts: He’s a “winner” because of his massive $10 billion worth; he works on behalf of vets and little guys, as is demonstrated by his “tremendous” philanthropy; he is a genuine populist who pays the same percentage on his income as does the carpet installer and the DMV clerk.
Nor does Trump want to make depositions in an ongoing civil suit about the alleged “waste, fraud, and abuse” at Trump University — any more than Hillary does about her actions as secretary of state. Currently, Trump boasts that he has almost no staff and not much of a budget; he will need both when the tsunami of opposition research finally washes over him.
But if Trump can snag the nomination in March or early April, and with it the machinery of the Republican establishment, then he will get airbrushed with endorsements and big money, as he turns his invective toward Hillary Clinton. An array of friendly party experts will comb his past to provide the usual contextualizations, half-truth defenses, and excuses of the sort Hillary has mastered in the last 20 years to explain away her serial lying and hypocrisies. In other words, get Trump through March with a hold on the nomination, and then his glaring flaws and abysmal record are reduced to “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard,” or “Hillary does even worse stuff.”
In contrast, Rubio and Cruz must fight a rear-guard battle to draw the nomination out, pricking Trump with thousands of tiny bleeds without making a single gaffe of the sort that has plagued both. They must remind Trump enthusiasts ad nauseam that their leader was until very recently a pro-abortion John Kerry liberal. Trump’s populism is in part a meaner version of Ross Perot’s, and in part a more liberal combination of Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Rubio and Cruz need to survive long enough to get Kasich and Carson out of the race, and then start seeing 33 percent/33 percent/33 percent polls, which will work against Trump by leading to the obvious corollary that 33 + 33 > 33.
Trump has to wrap up these primaries so that when his supporters finally tire of his smears and untruths, when the Clinton slime machine thinks it’s time to ignore Sanders and start on Trump, and when his tax returns and an array of lawsuits hit the fan, he is not just Trump the flash-in-the-pan expendable buffoon, but the Honorable Donald J. Trump, Republican nominee for president of the United States.
If he cannot secure the nomination early this spring, it will likely go to Cruz or Rubio.