How often have we heard from conservatives about the deep Republican “bench”? In their telling, there are literally a dozen or more highly qualified candidates just waiting in the wings to take back the White House. And that doesn’t even include such singular talents as Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, who so far have chosen to sit this one out. Why, according to conservatives, any one of these candidates would be a brilliant choice as president.

Then came The Donald who, intentionally or not, exposed the entire field for what it really is. This point was put forth today by, of all people, Rich Lowry, in an article on Politico entitled, “The GOP Field That Failed.”

The rise of Donald Trump is, in part, a function of a vacuum.

He is thriving in a Republican field that is large, talented and, so far, underwhelming. There’s 17 candidates and nothing on. Except Donald Trump.

Now, this has much to do with the media, and with Trump’s unique qualities as a showman. He has the advantage of not caring, about anything apparently — the facts, his reputation, or, ultimately, winning the presidency. In consequence, he is a free man.

The Jorge Ramos incident was Trump in microcosm. He did what no other Republican politician could get away with (having a security guy manhandle a Latino reporter) and displayed a cavalier disregard for reality by denying he was having Ramos removed, even as he had him removed. But the episode was mesmerizing, and Trump — in his madcap way — was commanding in how he handled it.

If any other candidate had done that or something similar, it would have been a signature event of his campaign, but for Trump it was just another day on the trail, to be eclipsed by some other memorable event tomorrow.

Trump has at least half a dozen such indelible moments — his bizarre announcement, the John McCain diss, the Lindsey Graham cellphone, the Megyn Kelly fight (x2), the Mobile rally — when the rest of the field has almost none. No speech, no policy proposal, no argument, nothing from the other candidates has come close to capturing the imagination of voters, giving Trump the space to loom all the larger.

The weakness starts at the top, or what was supposed to be the top. In the normal course of things, the establishment front-runner provides coherence to the field. Hence, the expectation that the field would have Jeb Bush and a not-Bush, or maybe two. For the moment, this assumption has collapsed, as the current shape of the field is Trump and everyone else.

This is quite the comedown for Bush. His “shock and awe” has turned into getting sand kicked on him at the beach by a loudmouth and bully. It’s not just that Bush is trailing Trump badly in the polls; he has acceded to the terms of the debate being set by the mogul. It wasn’t long ago that Bush swore off talking about Trump, as basically beneath him. Now, he is sniping with him daily.

Before he got in the race, Bush spoke of only wanting to do it if he could run joyfully. Little did he know that he would be joyously grappling with an ill-informed blowhard who takes it as his daily obligation to insult Bush and trample on the pieties he holds dear.

In the argument with Trump over mass deportation, clearly Bush is right. But the split screen with Trump doesn’t necessarily do him any favors. Trump is such a forceful communicator that he comes off as some sort of throwback alpha male, whereas Bush is such an earnest wonk he looks and sounds like a sensitive dad from a contemporary sitcom. It’s like watching a WWE wrestler get a stern talking to from Ned Flanders.

Bush is not a natural performer to begin with (he struggles with set speeches), and he believes his contribution to the race is to be the nonthreatening Republican, which is often indistinguishable from the uninteresting Republican. So while Bush has methodically built the superstructure of an impressive campaign — with fundraising, organization and policy proposals — he has so far barely warmed up an ember among voters.

Scott Walker, in contrast, had a surge early in the campaign. It dissipated over time when his limited preparation on national issues didn’t match his outsized early press exposure. A so-so debate performance and the rise of Trump have continued his long fade to middle of the pack in the latest early state polling (tied for fourth in New Hampshire and tied for seventh in South Carolina).

Walker’s ability to appeal to both the establishment and activist wings of the party had looked like a strength, but now it seems a precarious balancing act, made all the more difficult by a panicky reaction to Trump.

No sooner had Walker pronounced himself “aggressively normal” in the debate than he seemed to opt for just “aggressive” in an attempt to play to the passions tapped by Trump. Who could have predicted that the Midwestern candidate who tells stories about buying shirts for $1 at Kohl’s would have to play populist catch-up with the New York billionaire who travels by eponymous helicopter?

Walker had already changed his mind about immigration, shifting from support for a “comprehensive” approach to strong opposition to amnesty. Trump has pushed him further, and Walker has gotten tangled up on the issue of birthright citizenship.

At the Iowa State Fair, he seemed at one point to say that he was opposed to it. Then, he told John Harwood of CNBC he wouldn’t take a position on it. Finally, on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” he danced around a question on the 14th Amendment before saying that anything that goes beyond simply enforcing our immigration laws is a red herring.

Earlier this week, Walker blasted President Barack Obama for hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping for a state visit, even though as governor he had been friendly to China and obligingly wore a Chinese-American flag pin in an appearance on Chinese state TV.
It’s one thing to play to the mood of voters; it’s another to give the appearance of not quite knowing who you are, which is much more deadly than an August dip in the polls.

As for Marco Rubio, for whom expectations have been so high, he has been the least reactive to Trump. His campaign is still betting on the long game. It believes his natural talent will tell over time, but he doesn’t have a natural geographic or ideological base, and his 21st-century economic agenda — although thoughtful — is not likely to stoke enthusiasm among primary voters.

Ted Cruz may be benefiting most from the Trump surge in his strategic positioning. He has a cogent theory of the case, which is that if he is nice to Trump — and the other outsider candidates — he eventually can inherent his supporters. This makes intuitive sense, although Cruz — exceedingly careful in crafting his words and in calculating his interest — is hardly a natural anti-politician.

It is still August, of course. The rules of gravity say Trump will come back down to earth. The media interest that is so intense now could burn out. His lack of seriousness should be a drag over time, and he will still have to weather more debates and presumably — should he stay strong — a barrage of negative ads.

Even if he fades, though, someone else will have to fill the screen. To this point, No one else has been big or vivid enough to do it.

Advertisements
Comments
  1. meursault1942 says:

    Yeah, this whole “deep GOP bench” thing has always been a crock of shit. Just because a lot of people are in the clown car doesn’t mean the bench is deep. It just means you’ve got a bunch of clowns. If you’re trying to talk up human failure-pile Carly Fiorina, then your bench isn’t that deep. Hell, even Rich “Starbursts!” Lowry is noticing. This WaPo column raises another good point about this deep bench that isn’t:

    And yet, after all the declarations, we’re at a political moment when Trump is clobbering all of these talented politicians in the polls — and doing so by honing the lessons he learned from reality television.

    It’s late August, so obviously things will likely change by the time Iowa starts to caucus. But remember, the whole point of this deep GOP bench was supposed to be that it would thwart the absurdity of the 2012 cycle, when Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann were front-runners for a time. And yet in this cycle, it’s gotten to the point where William Kristol has morphed from praising the current crop of “strong candidates” to fretting that “the rest of the field isn’t what it should be” and encouraging Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito to enter the race.

    So here’s my question: What does it say about the deep GOP bench that none of them have managed to outperform a guy who has no comparative political advantage except celebrity and a willingness to insult anyone who crosses his path?

    Bingo.

  2. meursault1942 says:

    Also, for a good long read, I highly recommend this Vox article. Its main topic is why tech nerds don’t seem to understand politics, but the meat of it involves dispelling a number of crusty old myths. The section called “Republicans and Democrats are different, and the former are more extreme” in particular is excellent, as it really digs into just how deranged Republicans have gotten and just how false the “both sides do it!” narrative is. “The parties are not mirror images at all,” the article says. “They are different beasts entirely. And it’s important to understand how they got that way.”

    To explain, the author first digs into the realignment that happened post-Civil Rights:

    What enabled bipartisanship was, to simplify matters, the existence of socially liberal Republicans in the Northeast and Democrats in the South who were fiscally conservative and virulently racist. Ideologically heterogeneous parties meant that transactional, cross-party coalitions were relatively easy to come by.

    Over the past several decades, the parties have polarized, i.e., sorted themselves ideologically (that’s what the GOP’s “Southern strategy” was about). Racist conservative Democrats became Republicans and social liberals became Democrats. The process has now all but completed: The rightmost national Democrat is now to the left of the leftmost national Republican.

    Of course, are poor conservative friends are desperate to pretend the above isn’t true. That’s why they cling to sad little tropes like “Party of Lincoln!” and “The GOP passed the CRA!” and absolutely refuse to acknowledge the Southern Strategy (“Master Historian” Noonan is particularly hilarious in his doomed attempts to wave away the Southern Strategy…he knows just enough to make himself look really, really foolish.)

    And the consequences of this maniacal lurch to the right are aptly summed up as such:

    As the GOP has grown more demographically and ideologically homogeneous, it has become, in the memorable words of congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, “a resurgent outlier: ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; un-persuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

    Yup, that is contemporary conservatism. All of it. The derangement, the refusal to accept facts, the extremism–it’s all there.

    But of course, conservatives have, for multiple reasons, been able to exert influence beyond their actual numbers, and that’s why the political situation is what it is today:

    Demographic trends are working against the GOP. If they continue, and the GOP continues to alienate growing demographics like minorities and single women, it will become increasingly difficult for the party to assemble a national majority and win the presidency.

    However, for various reasons, aggrieved older white men still punch above their weight, politically speaking. Democratic constituencies cluster in urban areas, where many of their votes end up wasted. GOP demographics are more spread out, covering a larger geographical area, thus giving them a reliably large bloc of low-population states in the Senate and a built-in advantage in the House of Representatives. (That advantage was magnified by the gerrymandering of 2010, giving Republicans what is likely an unshakable lock on the House through 2022.)

    On top of that, Democratic constituencies don’t reliably vote in midterm elections, which gives the GOP a huge advantage in those congressional elections (and in state elections).

    So that’s where American politics stands today: on one side, a radicalized, highly ideological demographic threatened with losing its place of privilege in society, politically activated and locked into the House; on the other side, a demographically and ideologically heterogeneous coalition of interest groups big enough to reliably win the presidency and occasionally the Senate. For now, it’s gridlock.

    More people vote Democrat than Republican; that dynamic is magnified by high voter turnout (hence the conservative mission of vote suppression). But conservatives are able to prevent things from getting done–which neatly fits with their philosophy that opposes actually doing things (except, of course, for shrinking government for no other reason than…wanting to shrink government). And here we are.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s