The Night the GOP Establishment Lost

Republican Candidates Take Part In Debates At Reagan Library In Simi Valley

Originally published on my Huffington Post column, September 17, 2015.

There was a loser in CNN’s Republican debate held on September 16 and that loser was the Republican establishment. Jeb Bush entered the race last summer as the hundred-million-dollar man. His campaign was — and remains — heavily supported by the nation’s financial elites. It helps, after all, to be born to privilege and to be the son and brother of former presidents.

But those financial elites must be secretly very worried after last night’s effort. I have previously described Bush as resembling Aethelred the Unready in his fitness for office, but really any late dynastic place-holder will do — Romulus Augustulus perhaps, or one of the supinely indifferent late Merovingians.

Yes, Bush got off a wisecrack about wanting his Secret Service nickname to be “Ever-Ready,” to convey a sense of high energy. But if there was a lasting Bushian moment from the debate, it occurred when he sheepishly raised his hand and acknowledged that, yes, he was the privileged white kid who smoked marijuana in high school and now wished to enforce strict drug laws.

Carly Fiorina, on the other hand, turned in an authentically energetic performance. She has clearly memorized all of her talking points and has mastered the art of speaking in complete sentences. These observations would be unremarkable were it not for the manifest inability of some of the other candidates to display comparable skills.

But the substance of her remarks was frightening. If she belonged to a different time and culture, she would quickly be denounced for her deranged, destabilizing militarism. Just consider: she promised to shred the agreement on nuclear inspections with Iran and announced herself ready for whatever the consequences might be. She rejected even the possibility of talking with Vladimir Putin. At the height of the Cold War, American presidents made sure to communicate with Soviet leaders, at least after the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated how dangerous it was not to keep those lines of communication open. She called for the rapid build-up of the American military. Her bellicosity simply does not reflect America of the early twenty-first century. The fever swamps of 1950’s Cold War politics, maybe, but not today’s world.

Ben Carson’s performance, on the other hand, carefully reflected that major premise of the Hippocratic Oath — “first, do no harm.” He was genial, he appeared warm, reassuring even, and he looked very much like a doctor with a good bedside manner. On the other hand, he offered little of substance. And what he did propose should give us pause. He repeated his desire to repeal the federal income tax and replace it with a biblically-grounded system of tithing. (It would be churlish, but someone must ask him whether he favors the return of other biblical principles, like stoning as a form of capital punishment). He half-agreed with Donald Trump’s suggestion that over-vaccination might be a cause of autism. Carson would never be a viable player on a national ticket, but as a candidate for the Republican nomination, he clearly survives to fight another day.

And so also does Donald Trump. He was his typical self. He was brash, he was condescending, he boasted about the greatness of his business acumen. The man is a self-proclaimed genius — no one can find so many ways to remind listeners that, yes, yes, he is a genius. In his more lucid moments, he spoke about the corrupting influence of big money on politics and he was altogether believable in describing how millions of dollars can translate into special favors and access.

What Trump succeeded in doing was staying true to type. He is the billionaire developer whose success is built on a mountain of hype, salesmanship, and borrowed money. He has definitely peaked in the sense that it is hard to see his momentum carrying him past fifty percent in the polls. On the other hand, will he maintain his share of the vote? A quarter, say, or a third of likely GOP voters? Yes, that is definitely possible.

Ted Cruz is someone to be watched carefully. He is betting his presidential fortunes on the forthcoming government shutdown. And his performance was carefully scripted to presage the campaign he intends to run in the coming weeks. He is articulate — as befits someone who has authored dozens of Supreme Court briefs and argued close to ten cases before the Court. And he wanted his audience to understand that the election should be about the preservation of the constitutional principles he holds dear.

He entered the debate seeking to articulate a legal case — he was opposed to Chief Justice John Roberts as insufficiently conservative (!), he declared himself as committed to repealing every word and phrase of the Affordable Care Act, he stated the extremist case for the Second Amendment, attacked Planned Parenthood, and condemned the Iran deal. One might analogize his strategy to those interplanetary space probes that use the gravitational pull of one planet to slingshot ever faster towards the next destination. He has now argued his legal brief to the nation, he will next use the government shutdown to boost his standing among far right voters, and will rely on the attendant publicity to achieve escape velocity.

The remaining candidates appear ever less plausible by the day. Scott Walker has the gravitas of the assistant night manager of a plumbing supply store in Shawano or Eau Claire. Marco Rubio is somehow less than the sum of the parts. He can never rise above the din and the fray to distinguish himself. Rand Paul actually came across as balanced and well-reasoned, especially when discussing foreign policy. And that will avail him nothing in today’s GOP. John Kasich might have been a real contender in, say, 1992 — when the Republican Party was still actually grounded in the reality-based community. And did I forget someone? Chris Christie? Mike Huckabee? Nope. Not gonna happen.

So, what happens next? I would expect next week’s polling to reveal Donald Trump holding his grip on first pace, with twenty-five to thirty-something percent. Carson will continue to poll second, somewhere around twenty or twenty-two percent. But Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz will both start to move up. I could even see Fiorina at around fifteen percent. Fiorina’s gains, furthermore, will be at the expense of the establishment candidates. Really, who outside immediate friends and family will continue to support Walker, or Kasich, or, yes, even Jeb Bush after last night’s show?

The plutocracy that is the Republican establishment must then confront the grimness of its plight: Bankrolling Bush, or Kasich, or Christie no longer makes sense. So, do we see the big money begin to gravitate toward Carly Fiorina? She surely knows how to excite the base. But she is a loose cannon whose extremist rhetoric will not play well in the general election. Still, if I had to guess, my hunch is that we shall very soon start seeing the big super-pac money come her way.

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