I have long believed that the Republican Party has too many presidential candidates. They take up air time, distract the electorate and make it more difficult to make a decision. Psychological research suggests that having too many options diminishes one’s capacity to make an intelligent decision.
After last night’s debate, it looks like we are down to two, and maybe three Republican candidates. Trump, Cruz and maybe Rubio. If you ask me, and you did not, I would say that it’s really down to two: Trump vs. Cruz. Apparently, establishment Republicans can't figure out whom they hate more.
As it happens, the Democratic Party has done a better job of finding a candidate while also keeping the party united. The Republican Party is seriously fractured by now, with large numbers of voters swearing that they will never vote for either of the two leading Republican contenders.
If I am allowed one far-fetched prediction, since everyone believes that Hillary will be the Democratic candidate, all Republicans should consider the possibility that she will be gracefully pushed aside… perhaps by an FBI criminal referral… and that a new candidate will emerge. Perhaps a Joe Biden or even an Elizabeth Warren.
Recall the vice presidential debate in 2012 between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan. Biden made Ryan look weak and ineffectual. Running against Hillary is not the same as running against Biden. When choosing a candidate most Republicans are asking themselves who will do best against Hillary. They should ask who will do better against Joe Biden or even Elizabeth Warren. Keep in mind, Biden plays the tough guy better than most people. And he generates a great deal of personal sympathy for having lost his son. No one is going to bulldoze Joe Biden. Also, Warren is exceptionally intelligent and talented. Neither of them will be a weak candidate like HRC.
Also, a Hillary withdrawal with a Biden re-entry would be compelling television drama. Since that is what seems to matter most these days, we should be prepared for the eventuality.
This scenario assumes that Democrats are devious—huh?— and that they will do what it takes to win the election while keeping their party united.
Last night was really the Trump and Cruz show. Marco Rubio showed signs of life near the end when he accused Cruz of being a politician, but I did not see him as forceful or confident. Chris Christie showed some signs of life; Ben Carson did not. Jeb Bush seemed uncertain and nervous while Kasich, easily the most qualified candidate, did not seem presidential.
I must say a word about “New York values.” As you know, Cruz suggested that Trump embodied New York values. He was referring to the fact that Trump had declared in an interview with Tim Russert that he believed in the social and political values that the vast majority of New Yorkers hold. These are decidedly liberal, as no one doubts. And they are rigidly enforced, as no one should doubt.
Later, Trump declared that he had changed his mind, but Cruz was making sense. The alternative is to believe that Trump does not much care about those issues and therefore was willing to say what you need to say in New York if you ever want to be invited to another cocktail party. If not that, he was simply unwilling to confront the cognoscenti… point which does not bespeak serious principles or intellectual courage.
For my part I am closer to Cruz on this issue. I once wrote that New York is a city full of free thinkers, all of whom think exactly the same thing. I meant that New Yorkers know that they must hew to the party line, lest they suffer social ostracism.
I was exaggerating slightly for rhetorical effect, but if you lean right in New York you pay a social price. Groupthink is alive and well in the Big Apple, and anyone who thinks otherwise is not thinking.
The New York Times fact checked Cruz’s assertion. Steve Eder wrote this:
Senator Ted Cruz, playing up Donald J. Trump's New York roots (and possibly paying him back for saying "not a lot of evangelicals come out of Cuba"), said that not a lot of conservatives come from Manhattan.
While not known as a hotbed of social conservatism, there are clearly more than a few who would consider themselves conservatives in the economic sense, at least. A look at the voter registrations in Manhattan shows that while Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans, there are certainly more than a few of the latter.
As of Nov. 1, there were 613,634 active registered Democrats and 83,970 active registered Republicans in Manhattan, according to the state elections board.
Obviously, a 7 to 1 ration suggests that Manhattanites skew left. It also suggests that free and open debate is simply not allowed in the city. It suggests that Manhattanites all think the same thing and all vote for the same candidates. New York is a one party town. As for what counts as a Republican in New York City, that would include people like Michael Bloomberg and John Lindsay….
Being a Republican in New York is not the same thing as being a Republican in South Carolina. True enough, writers on the National Review and the Wall Street Journal editorial page also live in Manhattan—at least, some of them do—but most of them do not much cotton to the unprincipled real estate mogul.
Responding to Cruz, Trump skillfully evoked 9/11 and seemed to get the better of Cruz in the exchange. He used good debating tactics and appealed to emotion. It's his specialty and he did it well. It does not address the issue.
Of course, Trump was himself lying when he declared that he never suggested a 45% tariff on Chinese goods. The Times fact checked the story, not a very difficult task since it has a transcript of an interview Trump did before its own editorial board:
When Donald J. Trump visited the editorial board of The New York Times last week, he fielded a question about how he would pressure China if he were president. He suggested imposing a 45 percent tax on Chinese goods brought into this country….
I would tax China coming in — products coming in. I would do a tariff. And they do it to us. We have to be smart. I’m a free trader. I’m a free trader. And some of the people would say, ‘Oh, it’s terrible.’ I’m a free trader. I love free trade. But it’s got to be reasonably fair. I would do a tax, and the tax — let me tell you what the tax should be. The tax should be 45 percent."
Mr. Trump added that such a tax would be equivalent "to some of the kind of, you know, devaluations" that China has done to its currency.
Most commentators thought that Trump came out ahead in the debate, but that Cruz is the better debater. Trump is better at appealing to emotion while Cruz has a better command of the facts.
Note the remarks by Michael Barbaro, of the New York Times. Since the Times recently ran a hit piece on Cruz, Barbaro is showing that not all of its stories are biased. Just some of them.
Anyway, Barbaro saw it thusly:
Mr. Cruz did not just dominate much of the Republican debate, he slashed, he mocked, he charmed and he outmaneuvered everybody else onstage — but none as devastatingly and as thoroughly as this campaign’s most commanding performer, Donald J. Trump.
In the process Mr. Cruz — the high school student who once recited the Constitution from memory and the Princeton debater who dazzled judges with his ability to entrap less shrewd rivals — showed the American public that his surging candidacy is not a fluke.
For the first time in the wild, caustic and bruising Republican campaign, Mr. Trump was in the position that so many who have tried to challenge him had found themselves in: flustered, frustrated and unable to regain his footing.
For those watching on television, including Democrats who had lumped Mr. Cruz and Mr. Trump together as a dream ticket of easily marginalized (if not parodied) general election candidates, Mr. Cruz seemed like something else: an intelligent and brutal tactician who may prove a more formidable and nimble opponent, should he gain his party’s nomination.
Also, keep this in mind. When Trump attacked Cruz over his qualification to be president—the so-called birther question—he evoked the authority of Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Tribe. And he said that Tribe was Cruz’s professor.
As Cruz responded, Tribe is a partisan liberal supporter of Hillary Clinton. I would add that, during the 2008 campaign Tribe stepped forward to vouch for the intellectual brilliance of one Barack Obama. As you know, Obama was such a brilliant students that he has never allowed anyone to see his grade transcripts. For a Republican to evoke the authority of a Lawrence Tribe is absurd on its face.
It is also important to note that Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, also a liberal but not a partisan, declared that Ted Cruz was probably the smartest student he ever taught in fifty years at Harvard Law School. If Trump had been willing to do some research and had not wanted to do a drive-by on Cruz, he would have known that Dershowitz publicly declared that Cruz fulfilled all constitutional requirements for the presidency.
For your edification, here are some remarks by Nate Silver, of the 528 blog. Statistician Silver used to be at the New York Times where he had an excellent record of analyzing polling data and predicting election outcomes.
Silver explains how the debate looked to him:
You’d see, in Trump, a lot of political “street smarts.” You’d see a willingness to draw from a populist grabbag of topics (tariffs on China; a ban on Muslims entering the United States) that candidates from both parties usually avoid. You’d also see plenty of self-indulgence on process topics such as Ted Cruz’s “natural born” citizenship, and a willingness to pontificate on topics he clearly knows nothing about. You’d notice that several of Trump’s opponents seemed too intimidated to attack him. You’d see Trump wobble — sometimes badly, such as in his initial exchange with Cruz — and then recover, almost miraculously.
You’d see, in Cruz, a smart tactician who serves up plenty of red meat, and who (perhaps more effectively than any other candidate) plays to both the debate hall and the home viewing audience. You’d also see a candidate who doesn’t invite sympathy and can overextend himself, sometimes tempting an effective counter-attack, like the one Trump got in about “New York values” and Sept. 11.
You’d see, in Marco Rubio, the ultimate glass-half-full, glass-half-empty candidate. Just when you thought Rubio was finally going to have his breakthrough moment (his opening answer was effective and flashed anger that Rubio has sometimes been lacking), he’d disappear for long stretches of time, with competent but canned-sounding answers that failed to raise him above the fray. Then just about when you were ready to count Rubio out, he’d surprise you with an effective strike, like the one he carried out against Cruz on immigration and other topics toward the end of the debate.
Of course, we need to curb our enthusiasm. No one has cast a vote.