The presumptive Democratic nominee for president has been stumbling lately. Even if Hillary Clinton gets the nomination it looks increasingly like she will be a weak, even a losing candidate.
Meantime, the Republican Party is not bothering with niceties like electability. It does not care whether a candidate might be able to do the job. It is expressing its anger, venting its spleen, rising up in a full-throated rebellion against the powers that be. Those who are not supporting Donald Trump have been flocking to Dr. Ben Carson, a fine man if ever there was one, but one who will never be nominated, never be elected and will never be able to do the job.
Some have been saying that we need to understand how angry the Republican voters are. But anger does not force you to dispense with your rational faculties. After all, the Democrats should be boiling with rage at what Barack Obama’s reign has done to their party. To some extent they are expressing it through Bernie Sanders. And yet, Sanders is not trying to destroy the party establishment. And more savvy Democrats are hard at work doing what has to be done to find a new winning candidate.
You might have thought that the radical left held a monopoly on revolutionary rebelliousness. You would have thought wrong.
This morning the two best New York Times columnists weigh in on the current state of the Republican slugfest. On the right Ross Douthat; on the left Frank Bruni. Both are relatively young but you will agree with me that they are a vast improvement over Tom Friedman.
Douthat looks at the current state of the Republican Party and asks whether it will know how to deal with the Trump challenge. He answers: probably not. For his part Bruni asks which of the Republican candidates is most electable, most competent and most capable of doing the job. He comes up with Ohio governor John Kasich. For my part, and for what it’s worth, I agree with both of them.
Douthat begins by saying that Trump is running as a traitor to his class:
Trump’s appeal is oddly like that of Franklin Roosevelt, in the sense that he’s a rich, well-connected figure — a rich New Yorker, at that — who’s campaigning as a traitor to his class.
Surely, the Republican electorate is reading this as a good sign, a positive sign, a sign that Trump can be trusted.
Douthat adds that Trump is really running a third-party campaign, not a right wing or conservative insurgency. He does not believe that this is good news. He suggests that the two party system, for all its flaws, tends to work better than multi-party systems:
So long as there are only two competitive parties, the political diversity of the country will be channeled through their sluice gates, and the (mostly upper-class, highly-educated, self-consciously globalist) people who run the parties will exercise disproportionate control over which ideas find representation.
Elites can have wisdom that populists lack, certain ideas deserve suppression, and multiparty systems are more likely to hand power to extremists or buffoons. (It’s a good thing for the country that neither Henry Wallace’s effectively pro-Soviet leftism nor George Wallace’s segregationist populism outlived their respective third-party bids.)
In a functioning two-party system, the political parties integrate the ideas of outsider or radical elements. Unless they are adopted by a political party these ideas will never become workable.
But, Douthat adds, the system has not been functioning very well of late:
And when the two-party system is functioning at its best, party leaders can integrate compelling third-party ideas, or even reorient a party entirely to react to a public discontented with its options.
But it has been more than four decades since the last such reorientation, and two decades since the last time a third-party candidate saw his ideas even co-opted by the major parties. Across the latter twenty years, the country has endured a series of disasters that had bipartisan fingerprints all over them. Yet the various movements that have arisen in reaction to those failures — the antiwar left, the Tea Party right, Occupy Wall Street – have yet to even unseat an incumbent president, let alone change the basic lines along which the two parties debate.
Enter Donald Trump. To Douthat, Trump is anything but a conservative force. His policies are all over the lot.
In Douthat’s words:
He can wax right wing on immigration one moment and promise to tax hedge fund managers the next. He’ll attack political correctness and then pledge to protect entitlements. He can sound like Pat Buchanan on trade and Bernie Sanders on health care. He regularly attacks the entire Iraq misadventure, in its Bush-era and Obama-era manifestations alike, in a way that neither mainstream Republicans nor Hillary Clinton can plausibly manage.
By now he is looking as though he can win. Douthat suggests that he will not, but that the real question is how the Republican Party will or will not adapt to him. He is not optimistic:
He won’t [win], of course, but it matters a great deal how he loses. In a healthy two-party system, the G.O.P. would treat Trump’s strange success as evidence that the party’s basic orientation may need to change substantially, so that it looks less like a tool of moneyed interests and more like a vehicle for middle American discontent.
In an unhealthy system, the kind I suspect we inhabit, the Republicans will find a way to crush Trump without adapting to his message. In which case the pressure the Donald has tapped will continue to build — and when it bursts, the G.O.P. as we know it may go with it.
Let’s say that the GOP ought to adopt important aspects of the Trump message. Douthat may well be correct to say that it will not be able to do so, and will be destroyed in the process. Allow me to offer a brief footnote: the more Trump trashes the GOP establishment and its elites, the more he treats them like idiots and fools and incompetent bunglers… the less likely it will be that they will be able to integrate Trumpism. It would require them to bow down to a new master. Don’t hold your breath. The problem the GOP is facing is this: it's not about Trump's message; it's about Trump the man. Integrating the first is far easier than integrating the second.
I would add that Trump has been trampling Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican. This matters because those who Trump has been treating with contempt have supporters and those supporters might just decide, if he is the nominee, to withhold their votes.
And besides, if Trump is elected, how do you expect that he will be able to govern a mass of people who he has insulted, diminished and defamed. When he calls them into his office and says: Hey, stupid, do you think they will be filled with a spirit of cooperation? Do you think that they will all roll over and do as he tells them? I suspect that it will look more like herding cats.
While Trump’s heresies are considered to be of little consequence, many conservatives are unhappy with John Kasich because he seems to be insufficiently conservative. Allow me a comment here. Anyone who has actually governed has had to make deals. Someone who has never exercised executive authority in the political world has the luxury of seeming to have attained an uncompromising level of ideological purity. If he has never conducted policy he can dismiss his prior opinions as just that, opinions.
Bruni makes the case of Kasich. Primarily, that he will do better in an election against Hillary or another Democrat than any of the other Republicans. Secondarily, that he is the best qualified to do the job. By implication, Bruni is suggesting that neither Jeb Bush not Scott Walker is likely to emerge victorious from the primary process. Today, that seems clear.
Bruni will probably not vote for Kasich. He undoubtedly finds Kasich more congenial than say a Ted Cruz, but his points bear examination:
He may never make it out of the primaries. The odds are against him. And he has flaws, serious ones, which I’ll get to.
But that doesn’t change the fact — obscured for now by the bedlam of the Republican contest — that the party has someone who’s comporting himself with unexpected nimbleness, who would match up very well against Hillary Clinton or any other Democratic nominee and who could give Republicans hope, if they just gave him a chance.
He’s now in his second term as the governor of Ohio, and that’s not just any state. Along with Florida, it’s one of the two fiercest battlegrounds in a presidential election, a necessary part of the electoral calculus for Republicans.
He won re-election there last year with 64 percent of the vote. That largely reflected the weakness of his Democratic opponent, but Kasich’s current approval rating in Ohio of 61 percent affirms his ability to please a constituency beyond Republican partisans. His popularity with the voters who know him best came through in a recent poll showing him well ahead of Donald Trump among Ohio Republicans. Meanwhile, Florida Republicans put Jeb Bush, their onetime governor, behind Trump.
As for New Hampshire, where voters have had the best chance to see Kasich in action recently, he looks like someone who can win:
In a poll released early last week, he rose to second place among Republicans in the state, behind Trump. That same survey of New Hampshire voters showed something else interesting: In hypothetical general-election matchups, Clinton beat Trump by two points and Bush by seven. But Kasich beat her by two.
As for his conservative principles, he has a mixed record:
By cutting taxes and controlling spending in Ohio, he proved his conservative bona fides, at least on fiscal issues, something being stressed in a clever new commercial — note the female and black faces, along with the use of the moon landing to capture a yearning for American greatness — that’s being shown in New Hampshire.
But there’s plenty else that pegs him as independent-minded and might make him acceptable, even appealing, to swing voters, whom he seems as well positioned to capture as any of the other Republican candidates are.
He has expressed openness to some kind of path to citizenship for immigrants who came here illegally. He has shown little appetite for the culture wars that other Republicans gleefully fight (although, it must be noted, he formally opposes gay marriage and abortion rights).
Most strikingly, he broke with Republican orthodoxy and with most other Republican governors and accepted the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, a decision he defended in a way that illuminated his skills as a tactician and a communicator. He said that what he’d done made practical and cost-effective sense for Ohio, and that his course was consistent with true Christian principles, which call for helping the downtrodden.
Bruni suggests that a ticket of Kasich and Rubio can be formidable. I suspect that it will do better than Trump and whomever against Hillary and whomever, but also will have the best chance of winning against a Biden and Warren ticket.