A Week of Political Failures House Republicans made it bad for themselves. Putin made it even worse for Obama.

It’s been a week of shocks, failures and gaffes, different in severity but all revealing.

In Washington Rep. Kevin McCarthy, presumed successor to Speaker John Boehner, seemed to be acting out what he understands to be the anger and aggression of the GOP base. He’s grim-visaged, stern. He says “frustrated” a lot. I guess when you’re not sure what substantive moves on-the-ground Republicans desire, you go to stylistic concerns. Mr. Boehner usually opted for an easygoing, humorous dignity that sometimes required a certain verbal obscurity. He was relatively careful, strategically colorful—“Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”—and couldn’t stop his eyes from filling with tears, which in a Democrat might have been alarming but in a Republican was endearing. You can’t be wild, grubby or too vividly partisan as speaker of all the House, especially if you’re a Republican because you’ll be called on it. A problem for Mr. Boehner was that his dignity made him look impassive when his base was seething.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Obama

Rep. Kevin McCarthy on Capitol Hill in January; Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Obama at the United Nations, Sept. 28.

Mr. McCarthy seems to have decided to show he’s seething, too, and bare-knuckled and rough and tough. On “Hannity” Monday, he spoke of how he’s going to be “different” as speaker. He wasn’t wrestled into the following words, he eagerly shared them: “What you’re gonna see is a conservative speaker that takes a conservative Congress that puts a strategy to fight and win. And let me give you one example. Everyone thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought and made that happen.”

Oh dear. Many of us actually thought the Benghazi investigations were driven by a desire to get the facts of a tragedy in which four people died and the administration’s response veered from misleading to dishonest. Instead they’re driven by a merely partisan agenda? At least one of Mr. McCarthy’s colleagues has, appropriately, asked for an apology—he shouldn’t be using their work to help his immediate prospects. Mrs. Clinton responded with her own special brand of faux-sadness, telling Al Sharpton that Mr. McCarthy’s statement “dishonors” those who died. She’ll be throwing that in Republicans’ faces when she testifies Oct. 22.

Mr. McCarthy is well-liked in the House, a veteran said to be a natural lover of the nuts and bolts. But it will be surprising if some of his fellow Republicans don’t start asking: “He’s got the guts and the hunger, but does he have the brains?”

In the Planned Parenthood hearings, some Republican members similarly acted out anger and indignation, but seem to have gotten little for it. They were not in general efficacious in their questioning. Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards acted the part of a long-suffering woman being abused by crude, hectoring men. A focus seemed to be on financial issues—how much she is paid and Planned Parenthood makes. But that, as Mona Charen notes in National Review, is not the reason for the hearings. The reason is the harrowing videotapes, which were not shown. If they couldn’t be used, the hearings could have been delayed until they could. Without them, the real horror got lost. The appearance of men bullying a woman did not get lost.

The Republicans looked angry. They were real mad! Which I guess is what they think is needed now.

The week’s big failure was the administration’s, and it was of course Russia’s going full-bore into Syria. This wasn’t Vladimir Putin “enacting” anything. Even the Obama administration didn’t “act,” really. They scrambled, desperately, stung by surprise and humiliation.

Mr. Putin has moved to fill the void left by American inaction; he is attempting to displace the U.S. as the region’s dominant outside power. The Russians say they are bombing ISIS, but there is little evidence of that. By all accounts they are bombing U.S.-backed rebels. Mr. Putin is attempting to prop up his client Bashar Assad, and sending a message to radicals and extremists who may one day move on Russia. An imposed Syrian stability is in Moscow’s interest: He’ll show the destabilizers who’s boss. He is—once again!—asserting Russia’s place as a force in the world. He is trying to demonstrate to America’s allies that Russia is a better bet, either as a reliable friend or a dangerous foe.

Mr. Putin’s move is worse than a snub to President Obama. It’s an insult, a cuffing.

It is generally assumed Mr. Putin moves in other nations to whip up nationalist fervor and bolster his position at home. That would likely be a side benefit to this venture, not a motive. Is he moving to humiliate Mr. Obama? That would be a side benefit, too. He means to emerge as top dog. Old Putin cliché: He’s a whacked-out would-be czar riding shirtless on a horse. Emerging Putin cliché: “This guy means business.” He’s a deadlier and more acute strategic thinker than has been appreciated. He’s one cool customer.

Part of what has happened is due to the president’s habitual cloud-talking. In cloud-talking you say words into the air and then ask: “Isn’t that a pretty cloud?” Since 2011 the president has been saying, “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Now he uses the word transition—Syria must “transition” away from Assad. Stepping down, red lines, transitions—the cloud-talk enters the air, has no force, and disappears. The world is impressed by actions.

Russia may in time move on ISIS, and if it does that will scare them. To ISIS the U.S. is ambivalent, half-hearted. Mr. Obama is dithering, or pursuing some grand strategy that exists in his head and is nowhere else discernible. (Maybe that strategy is to diminish U.S. leadership in the Mideast and withdraw from the region on the ground there is little we can achieve there. But in that case he would welcome Mr. Putin and see him as a means to his end. Instead, the sight of Mr. Putin leaves Mr. Obama jittery and off his game. Mr. Putin in fact is just about the only world leader who seems to rattle him, as if Mr. Obama doesn’t know what to make of someone who resists him, dislikes him, and doesn’t care if everyone knows.)

ISIS would take Putin seriously—he is not timorous about the use of force, as he has shown in Ukraine. And Russia’s reputation for brutishness has, after all these years, survived. ISIS will not enjoy being attacked by Russia, if they are attacked by Russia.

As for Assad, he’s famously ruthless but he’s also turned out to be tougher than Washington understood. When told four years ago that he was over, he essentially did a Moe Greene, from “The Godfather”: “I buy you out, you don’t buy me out. . . . The Corleone family don’t even have that kind of muscle anymore.”

Yes, in the end Moe was done in. But he was up against Michael Corleone, not Fredo.

The Two Sides of Pope Francis His speech to Congress was spiritual and not pointedly political, which came as a relief.


The pope I love embraces the hideously deformed man. He sees the modern world for what it is, “a field hospital after battle.” We’re in triage: “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds.” This pope calls the woman who wrote him that her lover had left but she was having the baby. He tracked her down on her cellphone. “It’s Francis!” She said he told her he’d baptize the baby. This pope fills my eyes with tears. He loves the poor. He pays his own hotel bill. He had a return ticket home from the conclave because it wouldn’t be him. When he was elected he came out on the balcony and stood awkwardly, like Alec Guinness playing the part of a humble cardinal who, to his shock, had been chosen to lead the greatest institution in history. He stood there blank-faced, not equal to the moment, then saved the moment not by giving his prayer but by asking for prayers.

The pope I love tells comfortable cardinals that they are suffering from “spiritual Alzheimer’s.” Of those working within the church whose orientation is homosexual, he says: “Who am I to judge them if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith?” He instructs priests and bishops to give absolution through confession to the contrite and remorseful who have had abortions. Like most American Catholics I didn’t think he was saying anything new here. But he wanted to make it clear. Good, these things should be made clear.

Pope Francis addressing Congress

Pope Francis addressing Congress

The Francis I love is against materialism because he knows it is hollow and soul-crushing. He knows wealth and power are a moral hazard. He does not want man reduced to a commodity. He is for the little guy. He opposes the throwaway culture in which the old and the vulnerable are expendable. He wants you to be a saint, not a Scrooge.

He wades into the great spiritual questions.

That pope has captured the imagination of the world.

Is what he does merely symbolic? Nothing at his level is merely symbolic. He is acting in a Christlike way: His actions are lessons, reminders, intimations. Inspirations.

The less lovable pope is—well, and I say this still with love, Uncle Frank in the attic. This is the one who endorses secular political agendas, who castigates capitalism in language that is both imprecise and heavily loaded. He doesn’t, actually, seem to know a lot about capitalism or markets, or even what economic freedom has given—and is giving—his own church.

For one small example, the other day Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group gave $40 million to the Catholic schools of New York, meaning he is giving his personal wealth to pay for the education of children, many of whom are recent immigrants and some of whom sleep in cars. Last I looked Mr. Schwarzman was not a monk or a mystic but a businessman in private equity. This is not abusing, ignoring or dehumanizing the poor. This is lifting them up, helping them in a concrete way that will change their lives.

Political Francis seems not spiritual but strangely earthbound, like the pontiff of the Church of What’s Happening Now, a super-groovy pope acting on some antique ideological biases and assumptions.

On Thursday in the Capitol, as Francis made the first-ever speech by a pope to the U.S. Congress, the nature of the historic moment was sharpened by this question: Which Francis would show up—the one who makes me think of Heaven, or the earthbound one?

The speech was spiritual and not pointedly political, which came as a relief. He spoke of America with a certain reserved warmth, but a warmth nonetheless. As rhetoric it was high-class boilerplate, but its messages were useful. I wondered if the recent criticism of his secular political stands had led him to soften or refigure his speech. I wondered: Having just met America for the first time, and experienced all its variety and affection, how is he feeling about America now? I bet it has nothing to do with the cartoon, comic-book, dumbed-down Marxist stereotypes some of his friends and followers peddle.

Highlights of the speech:

The job of lawmakers “is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation.” The “chief aim of all politics” is “the pursuit of the common good.” The four American lives that have most touched him, that most embody the nation’s “dreams,” are Abraham Lincoln, who stood for “liberty”; Martin Luther King, who stood for “liberty . . . and nonexclusion”; Dorothy Day, the activist, who stood for “social justice”; and Thomas Merton, the monk and writer, who stood for “dialogue and openness to God.” These were four interesting choices, especially the last two, who don’t occupy a large place in the public imagination. But Day should be considered for sainthood, and one guesses that under Francis she may be. Merton wrote a spiritual masterpiece, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” that is important to many who experience Catholic conversions.

Democracy is “deeply rooted in the mind of the American people.” Politics is “an expression of our compelling need to live as one.” Americans should not be “fearful of foreigners,” because “most of us were once foreigners.” We must respond to immigrants in a way that is “humane, just and fraternal.” We must remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

He delightfully took a moment to nod to the creation of wealth: “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world.” (That may have been his way of saying, “Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Schwarzman!”) “It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service. . . . The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts.”

You can believe there are two Francises and still feel an integrated affection and admiration for this man who stands for so much that is good, and tries to encourage the good. Who is in many ways great. Who has filled the world with more than his portion of sweetness, and who has drawn the affection and regard of non-Catholics around the world. He has even made left-wing American Catholics, a grumpy lot, happy. For at least 30 years they were frustrated and depressed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I guess it’s their turn.

They were sometimes graceless and grudging toward past popes. I don’t see what conservatives gain by playing that part now. When a much-loved pope comes to visit there’s a kind of moral imperative to good cheer.

I close with the words of a New York businessman, a capitalist and Catholic. I asked him Wednesday how he was feeling about Francis. “If he lives he’ll change the world,” he said.

For the better? “I think so, hopefully in an aspirational way. Don’t tax me to death helping the less fortunate. Urge me to do good. And I will. And many will. For him.”

The Undercard and the Mane Event Donald Trump’s rivals try to give him a haircut, but he ends up trimming himself.

Simi Valley, Calif.

By the time you see this you will have seen the soundbites, quips and cuts. You’ll have seen the clashes. So, quickly:

Did the undercard debate suffer for the absence of Carly Fiorina? No. It was substantive and thoughtful and there were sparks without her. Each of the four candidates had his moments. Best, to me? Rick Santorum on the minimum wage, and evoking the now-frayed connection between the American working class and a Republican Party that 35 years ago became their natural, welcoming home and later threw them over to tend to the causes of the donor class. What the GOP got in return was 5,000 donor votes and lots of money with which to make commercials the working class will find neither believable nor even interesting.

When the candidates of the overcard came out, all eyes went to Donald Trump, who looked game enough but tired. In an arena, surrounded by 15,000 fans, he is in his element, loose and funny. When on a debate stage in a long line of opponents, under questioning and unable to do long riffs, he is less sure of himself.

Trump at the barber'sMr. Trump is famously preoccupied with his hair. He refers to it a lot, asking audience members at speeches to come up and see if it’s real, and inviting those behind him in the bleachers to attest to its real-like nature. I have wondered if he identifies with the Old Testament figure Samson, who believed all his might was connected to his long locks, and if he lost the latter he’d lose the former. I wondered if Mr. Trump’s rivals would give him a metaphorical haircut. They tried, but I think it was Mr. Trump who gave himself a trim. His insults weren’t refreshing and outrageous, but personal and tacky. He punched down at contenders struggling in the polls. His aggression was unformed, unfocused and unattractive. He was like an entertainer who senses his material is no longer working but has to keep using it because the new stuff hasn’t arrived yet. His lines didn’t land. On some level he knew it. He played not to his strength—reality-TV truth-teller—but to old clichés about him—vulgarian, bully, boor.

And there was Carly Fiorina, standing there with scissors looking very much like Delilah. She gave him a bit of a trim too, in their exchange on Mr. Trump’s remarks in Rolling Stone: “Look at that face!” he was quoted. “Would anyone vote for that?” He later claimed to have meant her “persona.” Did she buy it? “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” The crowd exploded. Mr. Trump leaned in: “I think she’s got a beautiful face.” The crowd went silent, and winced.

Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka—elegant, poised, chic—told me afterward: “I grew up on construction sites. My father talks to everyone, he’s friends with everyone.” She meant, I believe, that he doesn’t deserve the charge of bigotry. Which makes it odd that so often he seems to summon it.

I don’t know if he lost any support Thursday night but he would not have increased his portion of the electorate. He is looking stalled and stale.

Ms. Fiorina has broken through again. This was the debate in which she became an acknowledged heavyweight. She is prepared, has a highly organized mind, and remains collected under the lights in a way that allows her to be what she is, knowledgeable and eloquent. She was brilliant on Planned Parenthood, direct on Mr. Trump and bankruptcy—at this point she’s using him as a foil. Her closing remarks on Lady Liberty and Lady Justice were so strong, the man sitting next to me insisted she must have known the question was coming. She can, however, be too stern. There’s nothing wrong with putting a woman on the currency; it does not erase anyone’s history.

Jeb Bush smiled a lot. I wondered if he was channeling Mitt Romney in 2012, who smiled at his opponents on the stage as if they were adorable frolicking children. But Jeb smiles sweetly. With his gray-rimmed glasses and his weight loss he looked like Woodrow Wilson in a winsome mood. Did he break past his recent polling misery? No. He didn’t hurt himself, but he didn’t help himself. There is a discomfort with combat; his syntax and usage break down when he gets an opening to project aggression.

Everyone else did fine, had moments. Marco Rubio lets the game come to him, and when it does he hits the ball.

I hadn’t been to a debate this cycle. These are some of the things you see when you’re there: In the commercial break the candidates thirstily gulp down water and then go straight to family and friends in the crowd for hugs and handshakes. Wives and grown children whisper advice. Supriya Jindal repeatedly huddled with her husband. Throughout the debate Ted Cruz kept his eyes on his wife, Heidi, in the audience. She gave him thumbs-up and mouthed advice. It was like seeing Burgess Meredith call to Rocky in the ring.

On TV the candidates seem bold and composed, but when you’re in the room you see how needful of support and encouragement they are. Lindsey Graham makes faces when he’s not on camera, rolling his eyes and sighing. Mr. Trump makes faces on camera, too—the jut-jawed Mussolini look, the blank-faced Putin pose. In the cavernous spin room where supporters of each candidate tell reporters how well their guy did, every candidate seemed represented but Ms. Fiorina. There was no Carly sign. A reporter explained: Carly doesn’t do the spin room. Like a professional gambler, she scoops her winnings off the table and leaves.

The gift of Trump is that just by showing up he makes people watch the Republican debates. The force of his presence makes it all bigger, more exciting, as if something important is happening. That elevates the field. The other candidates are noticed too, and get a chance to make an impression. It’s enlarging.

The cost of Trump is that he turns it all into “Survivor.” That trivializes serious candidates. Mr. Trump has so upped the dramatic ante that the networks have jumped in as players, goading dopey candidate No. 3 to confront and attack dopey candidate No. 4. This is diminishing. They’re puppets in somebody else’s show.

This journalistic approach is in line with the general national mood of hating politicians. Will they cuff around the Democrats like that? And by becoming active players in the drama, do journalists themselves become the newest freaks in what they themselves call the freak show?

A Democratic pundit there to do cable told me something smart. Journalists are now acclimating themselves to the new reality, he said. A few months ago they thought Mr. Trump and reality TV were climbing over the wall trying to get into the real world of politics. Now they realize it’s journalists trying to climb over the wall into the new world of reality TV. That, he said, is now the real world of politics.

What Jeb and Hillary Have in Common Neither party is in the mood to continue a dynasty.

The other day I saw Jeb Bush looking comfortable. It was startling. He was on TV, in a modest midday interview on Fox News Channel, answering a question about the pope’s comments on abortion and forgiveness. He said we all should be more merciful.

He didn’t look like the Unhappy Warrior. Normally he sort of bobs back and forth on the screen, shrugging out responses like a distracted mother on the playground checking her phone, or a jittery tennis player who can’t, in repose, stay still. But he was pleasant, fluid, in the moment. Maybe as fall begins, as the summer in which he was eclipsed by Donald Trump ends, he’s going to get comfortable. Maybe he had to find himself in reduced circumstances to wake up. Maybe he had to look into the abyss to realize it’s not an entitlement, it’s a battle.

Bushes & Clintons

Former US president George Bush, his wife Barbara Bush, their son Jeb Bush, First Lady Hillary Clinton, and US President Bill Clinton look up to see the US Army Golden Knights parachute team on November 6, 1997 at the conclusion of the dedication ceremony of the George Bush Library in College Station, TX.

We’ll see if that becomes an autumn storyline. I still don’t see it working for Mr. Bush, but with money and organization like his you don’t just disappear like Herman Cain. You stay and fight. It would be humiliating not to. So you go at Mr. Trump, maybe start having fun, maybe come to see a deeper rationale for your candidacy. At least you’re trying to stop that Vandal, that Visigoth. You have a purpose. You’re not just next in a dynasty.

They always say of candidates who aren’t so good on the stump, “But you should see him in the room!” Listen, they’re all good in the room. I’ve never seen a candidate who wasn’t. Politicians are warm-blooded animals; they come alive in groups with regular people (thank God, a normal American who’s awed to be with me!) and potential donors (thank God for money!). Jeb has always been said to be good in the office—literally sitting in the governor’s office, judging policy proposals. There he has all the sophistication and fluidity of Bill Clinton, but Mr. Clinton uses it just to talk and impress you with his range and acumen. Jeb, as governor, used information to start, end or reorder a program. Talking wasn’t an end in itself. But it’s still unclear how to translate “good in the office” into support.

Six and nine months ago at various events people would cross the room and ask me, with some urgency, “Can Jeb win the nomination?” They were so hopeful. And they were all Democrats. They wanted an alternative to Hillary. I realized Jeb is a Democrat’s idea of what a Republican contender should be. Among Republicans of course he has some supporters, but the only really rabid pro-Jebbers I’ve met the past few months are former Bush 41 and 43 ambassadors who want back in the game. Of more immediate possible import, talks with Jeb donors suggest theirs was not passion money but canny financial bets placed when he was inevitable.

This week’s thought on Mr. Trump: The shrewdest words on him from another candidate were Chris Christie’s observation a month ago that Mr. Trump will be as good a candidate as he wants to be, which implied that others would not bring him down, but he could bring himself down. My thought, which is really a question, is that candidates for president, while natural competitors, sometimes get to the point where they think they are going to win, and it messes with their heads. Maybe they fear, deep down, that they’re not quite up to the office—their skills don’t match its demands, their psychological makeup can’t withstand its burdens. They start to think: A guy like me shouldn’t be president! At that point they begin to undermine themselves with poor decisions and statements. I’ve wondered about what Mr. Trumps’s inner workings might tell him in this area. Sooner or later we’ll find out if he has any taste for self-sabotage.

That of course would only happen if in his mind the White House, the office of the presidency, holds a certain mystique, certain historic vibrations: “Lincoln walked here.” “FDR found out about Pearl Harbor in this room.” I’m not sure everyone has those feelings anymore. They used to. Poor Nixon wouldn’t put his shoes up on a hassock unless he covered it with a towel, because it was White House furniture.

We finish with Hillary. I am more deeply skeptical of her prospects for the nomination, even with the money, the organization, the endorsements, the inevitability. After this summer she looks very evitable.

In the abstract, before a campaign, she’s always impressive—so famous, so accomplished, the first woman, we know her. And then she starts to campaign and she’s in your face and its not abstract anymore and you’re reminded of everything you don’t like, everything you have qualms and doubts and fears about.

I don’t see how it works now. Her polls are on a downward drift. In Iowa Bernie Sanders is within striking distance: “This looks like 2008.” People don’t trust her; the famous word cloud—“liar,” “dishonest,” “untrustworthy”—was damning because it said it all. She doesn’t embody the current spirit of her party—she is too close to Wall Street, too grubbily self-enriching, too hawkish. She’s poor on the stump, comports herself like royalty, and in interviews and press gaggles there are the dead, disingenuous eyes. She shows impatience at having to answer questions as if she were just anybody. The national press corps has no special love for her. They won’t grill her on the skillet of their skepticism as they would a Republican, but they won’t carry water for her either.

And the email scandal is not a scandal anymore but a continuing crisis. It will dog her as the FBI investigates. For all its complexities, everyone understands the story’s outlines. As secretary of state she wanted to use her own private email system because if she were part of the government’s system she wouldn’t be able to control it; her communications would someday be public record, vulnerable to freedom-of-information requests. She wanted secrecy as she did business the public shouldn’t know about or wouldn’t understand. If that resulted in a less secure system, one more vulnerable to hackers—well, she wants what she wants. She would be the one to determine what is made public. After that determination the server would be wiped clean.

This is high-handedness not toward political foes but toward history and the people’s right to know. It reminds you of every scandal in the past and suggests more in the future.

Yes, she remains strong in the polls, but not as strong as she was, and it’s not hard to envision steady attrition ahead.

Joe Biden should get in, if he has the heart for it.

If this summer has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. A reality-TV star with no previous experience in elective office is running first in the Republican party.

Neither Jeb nor Hillary embodies the current spirit of their party. Among Republicans that spirit includes hunger, anger, joyful aggression, a mood of “tear it down” competing with a mood of “build something up.” Among Democrats there’s a tilt leftward, against power centers, rebelling against inevitabilities. Neither party seems all that invested in continuing dynasties.

America Is So in Play Donald Trump’s staying power in the polls reflects a change in the electorate only now coming into focus.

So, more thoughts on Donald Trump’s candidacy, because I can’t stop being fascinated.

You know the latest numbers. Quinnipiac University’s poll this week has Mr. Trump at a hefty 28% nationally, up from 20% in July. Public Policy Polling has Mr. Trump leading all Republicans in New Hampshire with 35%. A Monmouth University poll has him at 30% in South Carolina, followed 15 points later by Ben Carson.

Here are some things I think are happening.

One is the deepening estrangement between the elites and the non-elites in America. This is the area in which Trumpism flourishes. We’ll talk about that deeper in.

Second, Mr. Trump’s support is not limited to Republicans, not by any means.

Donald Trump has Univision anchor Jorge Ramos

Donald Trump has Univision anchor Jorge Ramos ejected in Dubuque, Iowa, Aug. 25.

Third, the traditional mediating or guiding institutions within the Republican universe—its establishment, respected voices in conservative media, sober-minded state party officials—have little to no impact on Mr. Trump’s rise. Some say voices of authority should stand up to oppose him, which will lower his standing. But Republican powers don’t have that kind of juice anymore. Mr. Trump’s supporters aren’t just bucking a party, they’re bucking everything around, within and connected to it.

Since Mr. Trump announced, I’ve worked or traveled in, among other places, Southern California, Connecticut, Georgia, Virginia, New Jersey and New York’s Long Island. In all places I just talked to people. My biggest sense is that political professionals are going to have to rethink “the base,” reimagine it when they see it in their minds.

I’ve written before about an acquaintance—late 60s, northern Georgia, lives on Social Security, voted Obama in ’08, not partisan, watches Fox News, hates Wall Street and “the GOP establishment.” She continues to be so ardent for Mr. Trump that she not only watched his speech in Mobile, Ala., on live TV, she watched while excitedly texting with family members—middle-class, white, independent-minded—who were in the audience cheering. Is that “the Republican base”? I guess maybe it is, because she texted me Wednesday, saying: “I registered to vote today! I am a Republican now!!!” I asked if she’d ever been one before. Reply: “No, never!!!”

Something is going on, some tectonic plates are moving in interesting ways. My friend Cesar works the deli counter at my neighborhood grocery store. He is Dominican, an immigrant, early 50s, and listens most mornings to a local Hispanic radio station, La Mega, on 97.9 FM. Their morning show is the popular “El Vacilón de la Mañana,” and after the first GOP debate, Cesar told me, they opened the lines to call-ins, asking listeners (mostly Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican) for their impressions. More than half called in to say they were for Mr. Trump. Their praise, Cesar told me a few weeks ago, dumbfounded the hosts. I later spoke to one of them, who identified himself as D.J. New Era. He backed Cesar’s story. “We were very surprised,” at the Trump support, he said. Why? “It’s a Latin-based market!”

“He’s the man,” Cesar said of Mr. Trump. This week I went by and Cesar told me that after Mr. Trump threw Univision’s well-known anchor and immigration activist, Jorge Ramos, out of an Iowa news conference on Tuesday evening, the “El Vacilón” hosts again threw open the phone lines the following morning and were again surprised that the majority of callers backed not Mr. Ramos but Mr. Trump. Cesar, who I should probably note sees me, I sense, as a very nice establishment person who needs to get with the new reality, was delighted.

I said: Cesar, you’re supposed to be offended by Trump, he said Mexico is sending over criminals, he has been unfriendly, you’re an immigrant. Cesar shook his head: No, you have it wrong. Immigrants, he said, don’t like illegal immigration, and they’re with Mr. Trump on anchor babies. “They are coming in from other countries to give birth to take advantage of the system. We are saying that! When you come to this country, you pledge loyalty to the country that opened the doors to help you.”

He added, “We don’t bloc vote anymore.” The idea of a “Latin vote” is “disparate,” which he said generally translates as nonsense, but which he means as “bull—-.”

He finished, on the subject of Jorge Ramos: “The elite have different notions from the grass-roots working people.”

OK. Old style: Jorge Ramos speaks for Hispanic America. New style: Jorge Ramos speaks for Jorge Ramos. Old style: If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America. New style: How touching that an American president once thought if you lost a newsman you’d lost a country.

It is noted that a poll this week said Hispanics are very much not for Donald Trump. Gallup had 65% with an unfavorable view of him, and only 14% favorable. Mr. Trump and Mr. Ramos actually got into that, when Mr. Ramos finally questioned him after being allowed back into the news conference. Mr. Trump countered with a recent Nevada poll that has him with a state lead of 28%—and he scored even higher with Nevada’s Hispanics, who gave him 31% support.

I will throw in here that almost wherever I’ve been this summer, I kept meeting immigrants who are or have grown conservative—more men than women, but women too.

America is so in play.

And: “the base” isn’t the limited, clichéd thing it once was, it’s becoming a big, broad jumble that few understand.

*   *   *

On the subject of elites, I spoke to Scott Miller, co-founder of the Sawyer Miller political-consulting firm, who is now a corporate consultant. He worked on the Ross Perot campaign in 1992 and knows something about outside challenges. He views the key political fact of our time as this: “Over 80% of the American people, across the board, believe an elite group of political incumbents, plus big business, big media, big banks, big unions and big special interests—the whole Washington political class—have rigged the system for the wealthy and connected.” It is “a remarkable moment,” he said. More than half of the American people believe “something has changed, our democracy is not like it used to be, people feel they no longer have a voice.”

Mr. Miller added: “People who work for a living are thinking this thing is broken, and that economic inequality is the result of the elite rigging the system for themselves. We’re seeing something big.”

Support for Mr. Trump is not, he said, limited to the GOP base: “The molecules are in motion.” I asked what he meant. He said bars of support are not solid, things are in motion as molecules are “before combustion, or before a branch breaks.”

I end with this. An odd thing, in my observation, is that deep down the elite themselves also think the game is rigged. They don’t disagree, and they don’t like what they see—corruption, shallowness and selfishness in the systems all around them. Their odd anguish is that they have no faith the American people can—or will—do anything to turn it around. They see the American voter as distracted, poorly educated, subject to emotional and personality-driven political adventures. They sometimes refer to “Jaywalking,” the old Jay Leno “Tonight Show” staple in which he walked outside the studio and asked the man on the street about history. What caused the American Civil War? Um, Hitler? When did it take place, roughly? Uh, 1958?

Both sides, the elites and the non-elites, sense that things are stuck.

The people hate the elites, which is not new, and very American. The elites have no faith in the people, which, actually, is new. Everything is stasis. Then Donald Trump comes, like a rock thrown through a showroom window, and the molecules start to move.

The Three Presidential Primaries There’s ‘More Obama.’ Then there’s ‘Less Obama,’ which is being overshadowed by ‘Trump.’

There are not two presidential primary contests going on but three: “More Obama,” “Less Obama,” and “Trump.”

Something big is going on among the “More Obama” people: It is getting impossible to believe their race will remain confined to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Both will be as similar as they need to be in terms of policy and approach. Their real contest is over trustworthiness, integrity, heart. In 2008 I wrote in this space that Barack Obama may lie to you and John McCain may, but Hillary will. I quoted William Greider, who observed in the venerable left-liberal magazine the Nation that the Clintons are “high-minded” on the surface but “smarmily duplicitous underneath.”

Donald Trump billboard in the United Arab Emirates

Donald Trump on a billboard at the Trump International Golf Club Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

That perception has always been alive on the left—it’s what took down the Clinton machine in ’08—and is newly alive now. Mr. Sanders just pulled ahead in New Hampshire for the first time, 44% to 37%, according to a Franklin Pierce University/Boston Herald poll. He is speaking to massive crowds. Monday night in Los Angeles he pulled 27,500 people—roughly five times as large as any crowd Mrs. Clinton has drawn this cycle, according to the Washington Post. He was introduced by comedian Sarah Silverman, an antic rallying force for Obama in ’08. She told the crowd: “Bernie always seems to be on the right side of history.” Meanwhile Mrs. Clinton’s staffers send memos to supporters telling them to keep calm and repeat certain talking points.

There is no joy or brio, no wild, glass-breaking energy, in this endeavor. It is taking on the stale air of the bunker. When you mention to Democrats that Nixon never burned the tapes but Hillary surely burned that server, they nod, smile or half-wince. No one grows defensive for her. It does not seem possible that more candidates, big ones, won’t get in.
U.S. real-estate magnate Donald Trump is seen playing golf on a billboard at the Trump International Golf Club Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. ENLARGE
U.S. real-estate magnate Donald Trump is seen playing golf on a billboard at the Trump International Golf Club Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Photo: Karim Sahib/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

“Less Obama” is the Republicans, who’ll overturn this and roll back that. It is a deep field, the most impressive since 1980—accomplished big-state governors, senators, others. They operate under the normal rules of political comportment. Many are talking about serious issues but they are still and for the immediate future overshadowed by “Trump.”

I have said that his great power, the source of his confidence, is that he has nothing to lose. If he doesn’t become president, he’s still Donald Trump, only more famous, more everything. I was sharply corrected this week by a New Yorker who has done business with Mr. Trump. “You don’t get it,” he said. He raised a knife and moved his finger along the blade: “He is walking the edge of the knife, and if he gets to the end he is president. He can lose the presidency. He does have something to lose.” Mr. Trump is serious and doing his best under the belief he can win, the businessman said. (No, he is not a Trump supporter.)

Others have written of Mr. Trump’s appeal, as have I. When citizens are consistently offended by Washington, by both parties’ leadership, they become contemptuous. They see Mr. Trump’s contempt and identify. What the American establishment has given us the past 20 years is sex scandals, money scandals, two unwon wars, an economic collapse, an inadequate recovery, and borders we no longer even pretend to control. They think: What will you give us next, the plague?

In circumstances like this a swaggering, charismatic rich man who shares and speaks the public’s indignation—and shows a bit of its raucousness and humor, too—will find fertile soil. Especially if he’s famous in a country that worships fame, successful in a nation that honors success, and rough around the edges, like an American. When his critics say he’s a freak show you know his supporters are thinking: “The world’s a freak show, Putin’s a freak show, he’ll fit in.” Nothing has captured this like a brilliant Washington Free Beacon satire of how President Trump would react on Twitter to an Iranian decision, in 2017, to kick out inspectors and test missiles:

“Very disappointed in @khamenei_ir, a liar and disrespectful man. Trump is his worst nightmare.” Soon after: “I will be on @oreilly factor tonight on @FoxNews.” Deeper into the crisis: “Have you seen @khamenei_ir’s wife? Neither have I, he is a pig who makes her dress like a ninja.” He instructs the ayatollah to check his direct messages. He tweets: “America will not bow to degenerate slob like @khamenei_ir, beard like low class tramp full of greasy rice every time we Skype!” He tweets a new poll showing his approval rating at an all-time high. He sends Khameini a taunting Toby Keith lyric: “And the eagle will fly / Man, it’s gonna be hell / When you hear Mother Freedom / Start ringin’ her bell.”

Vice President Bruce Jenner calmly tweets: “Iranian nuclear test is a threat to world peace and our allies in the region. America will respond.” Mr. Trump: “@khamenei_ir called me after my landslide election and begged for money. Tehran is an ugly city I’ll never build a hotel there.” The Associated Press sends breaking news: The Supreme Leader of Iran has issued an apology and agreed to disarm. Mr. Trump notes he’ll be on CNN with Don Lemon. His final tweet: “The Ayatollah is a pathetic negotiator and his English is very bad. Guess he didn’t go to Wharton. No match for Trump.”

I thought of a Trump supporter I know. If she read it she’d cheer.

Should he be thrown from the party, ejected by its elders, whoever they are? After all he’s not really a Republican, his views are heterodox, he won’t vow to support the party nominee in 2016, he’s only a celebrity. But the party elites don’t have the power they once had. They’ve been undone by a generation of bad leadership. They’re afraid: A monster just came out of a swamp and is lurching their way. Journalistic elites have damned Mr. Trump, to no effect except incendiary comment threads. Once they were the cops on the ideological beat; they ran that into the ground during the Bush years, using too many nightsticks.

The harder people come down on Trump, the more his supporters believe he’s the only honest one. “Entwined, entrenched interests hate him: Then I’m for him!”

Republican leaders will be patient because there’s no other choice. They can’t take him down, and even if they could they’d be damned by his embittered supporters, and Trump would run third-party. He will rise or fall depending on how he acts and speaks, what oppo comes his way, and how he responds. He has a history of falling off the edge of the knife. He will change tack or get out depending on whether he comes to believe he is hurting his brand. Republicans should argue with him on policy, take on his positions, hit him hard, often and above the belt.

I don’t know what happens with Mr. Trump, but Trumpism? That’s here now—outlandish candidates backed by indignant, enraptured people who’ve lost their judgment. Congratulations to the leaders of both parties: The past 20 years you’ve taken us far. We’re entering Weimar, baby. The swamp figure is up from the depths.

Fireworks at the Republican Debate Trump failed to dominate, and Fiorina belongs in the top tier.

Since the performance of political debaters is mercilessly and repeatedly analyzed by reporters and pundits, it would be fair and delightful if someday they critiqued us back. “Jeb, I didn’t really think that second question was aptly phrased, did you?” “No, Scott, I didn’t. And the anchor’s ad lib had the rhythm of wit without the content, which is why it didn’t land.” “Soon we’ll hear from the columnists, who’ll be out to shoot the wounded. Hope they don’t injure themselves reaching for their little metaphors.”

Carly Fiorina

Carly Fiorina

I watched the pregame with these questions:

Who will The Donald be? If he attempts a statesmanlike bearing will his numbers plummet? Does he know how much his people rely on him not to become domesticated? Will John Kasich start to break through in his home state? Who will Jeb be? Will he come awake? Will he look like a pleasant, bespectacled man who’s actually thinking about dinner? Will he radiate the heaviness of the man who knows too well what can’t be done? Because there’s not much market for that.

Also I wondered, as I contemplated the idea of a long row of guys in ties, who my eye would go to. Your eye knows more than you do, it’s drawn for reasons you don’t understand. Part of the mystery of politics is connected to a mystery of show business. Mike Nichols once told me the biggest stars don’t have perfect faces, but rather they’re interestingly imperfect. Stars are stars because you can’t take your eyes from them and don’t know exactly why. So who would we be drawn to look at? Who would we be hearing?

I have been saying the early, back-of-the-pack debate might turn out to be the place to be—low expectations, more airtime, a less intense atmosphere. Interesting things might happen. Also somewhere deep, deep down, where Republicans are sweet, some sympathetic rooting for the underdogs might occur. But it was tight, somber. You could hear the questions and answers echo in the empty hall, which gave it a lonely sound, like a one-camera debate in the early days of democracy in Estonia.

The reliably on-point and interesting Carly Fiorina has been declared the overwhelming winner. That surprised me because I’ve seen her better, including this past weekend at the Koch donors seminars in California, where to some she was a revelation. This is a strong, gutsy woman. The evening was a reminder that the debates are important: Those not preoccupied with politics were seeing her for the first time. Next time she will belong in the top tier.

It’s still unclear why George Pataki and Jim Gilmore are there, and in a time of sustained national crisis their need is not endearing. Lindsey Graham is supposed to have entered to be the voice of a burly, interventionist foreign policy in the age of Rand Paul. But it’s not looking like the age of Rand Paul, and everyone’s already being pretty burly. I don’t understand his purpose.

As to the main event: Wow. I’ve never seen a political debate come in so sparky. From the first minute it was hot as a pistol, with an electric crowd and highly pointed, even adversarial questions.

There are two headlines.

The first is that when Donald Trump was put on the spot on whether he would pledge not to launch a third-party campaign, it marked a break point in the Trump saga. It made it official: Mr. Trump sees himself as operating both within and without the party, and within it only at the moment. A political operative emailed me: “He just gave [a rude gesture] to the RNC.” He did. Mr. Trump’s fiery clash with Megyn Kelly, after she challenged him on crude things he has said about women, did not work in his favor. He was boorish and ungentlemanly. Yes, I know that sounds quaint. The things he was accused of saying, which he didn’t deny, were ugly. However, the moment yielded probably the most memorable line of the evening: “Only Rosie O’Donnell.”

Marco Rubio was fresh, crisp and poised. Hillary Clinton, he said, won’t be able to lecture him on living paycheck to paycheck because “I was raised paycheck to paycheck.” He has successfully staked out the future as his theme—one that of course is underscored by his youth.

John Kasich spoke seriously and even soulfully on the mentally ill and drug-addicted in our prisons, and what must be done to help them. He was present and humorous. I thought him lovely on same-sex marriage: “God gives me unconditional love, I’m gonna give it to my family and my friends and the people around me.” It was clever of him to be gracious to Mr. Trump, who looked like he appreciated the break. I think Mr. Kasich broke through.

When Chris Christie and Rand Paul clashed on the issue of privacy and government surveillance, Mr. Paul accused Mr. Christie of taking President Obama’s side: “I know you gave him a big hug.” Mr. Christie was quick: “The hugs that I remember are the hugs that I gave to the families” after 9/11. It was a fabulous cheap shot followed by excellent special pleading. Bravo for first-class fisticuffs.

Ted Cruz was fine. He didn’t dominate as he has on some stages, but he caused himself no trouble. He’ll get deadlier as the number of candidates winnows down.

Mike Huckabee is going hard and all in for Christians in Iowa.

Mr. Bush achieved adequacy. He received respectful and supportive applause whenever he said anything, but didn’t say anything especially well. He continues to be the front-runner as odd duck.

Jeb has a low pilot light. The other day in the Koch seminar he started his Q&A with Politico’s Mike Allen in a shrugging, sluggish way, as if he were surprised to be answering questions. He seems to me embarrassed by his ambition, as if for 40 years he’d understood himself to be the singular Bush but now here he is, running for president like everyone else. Mr. Cruz, who had spoken before Mr. Bush, stayed to listen. Have you ever seen the look a cat gets in the second before he moves on the mouse? That look of full, predatory concentration? That was the look Mr. Cruz had as he watched.

I just realized I haven’t mentioned Scott Walker. He did himself no harm. He’ll likely improve as the stage gets smaller too.

The second headline is that Mr. Trump wasn’t the person your eye stayed on. It went to him first. But as the evening progressed, the other candidates stole his drama and thunder with their own claims and arguments. “The strength of the field is overshadowing Trump,” wrote a Hill staffer. That was exactly it. I found other candidates as interesting—more so.

I really don’t know if fiery debates like Thursday evening’s will wind up building interest and excitement in the Republican field, or wearing and tearing it down. I don’t know if we’ll look back on this as the beginning of a making or a breaking. Maybe the former. Anyway, it was alive. I wonder if Hillary Clinton is wondering how she can look alive.

Don’t Mourn Atticus Finch A fictional hero turns out to be as complicated and flawed as the real ones.

When I pointed to him his palms slipped slightly, leaving greasy sweat streaks on the wall, and he hooked his thumbs in his belt. A strange small spasm shook him, as if he heard fingernails scrape slate, but as I gazed at him in wonder the tension slowly drained from his face. His lips parted into a timid smile, and our neighbor’s image blurred with my sudden tears.

“Hey, Boo,” I said.

“Mr. Arthur, honey,” said Atticus, gently correcting me. “Jean Louise, this is Mr. Arthur Radley. I believe he already knows you.”

If Atticus could blandly introduce me to Boo Radley at a time like this, well—that was Atticus.

—From “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Scout and Atticus in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

Scout (Mary Badham) and Atticus (Gregory Peck) in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (1962).

I’ll never forget reading that scene as a child and how my eyes pooled with tears. They did again the other day when I reread the book. Boo, the pale hermit next door about whom the neighborhood children had spun gothic tales of derangement, was suddenly out from the shadows and revealed as a friend. And Atticus Finch, Jean Louise’s father, maintaining his composure on that dramatic evening and seeing to the small courtesies that, he knew, were part of the price we pay to continue civilization . . .

What a character Atticus was, a true American hero of the 20th century. He was strong but pacific, philosophical and gentle-natured. Still, on that summer day when mothers called their children in because a dog was walking erratically down the street it was Atticus who took a rifle, kneeled down, adjusted his eyeglasses and took down the rabid hound with one perfect shot.

I have a friend who’s honestly heartbroken at how Atticus is depicted in Harper Lee’s newly released novel, “Go Set a Watchman.” “I can’t bear to lose Atticus,” she emailed. “I’ll just cling to Gregory Peck and pay no attention to what the author is publishing. They just keep taking away my heroes.” Later she said of Harper Lee: “I’ll never forgive her.” I responded: “She was a young writer. She wrote a first, bad book. Then she wrote a great one. Forgive her.”

But I know how my friend felt. She herself was already launched on a great New York career when “Mockingbird” was published in 1960, and her heroes were those of her day, JFK and Dr. King. But they were human and imperfect. Atticus wasn’t real, so he promised to stay fixed in time and never disappoint.

I think part of his power as a figure of literature—as a figure of American life—is that he wasn’t only on the right side, he was on the right side in the right way. He was for my generation the perfect father figure: calm, reliable, full of integrity and always there—the kind of father anyone would want and few would have.

He was fictional. A writer made him up. Harper Lee made up Atticus Finch just as Tolstoy made up Anna Karenina and Dickens, Scrooge. They weren’t real but through the alchemy of art wound up being more real to us than the man next door.

Messy life, or at least messy publishing, has now famously intruded, and we have Ms. Lee’s first book since “Mockingbird,” which was set in the 1930s in a sleepy Alabama town. Although written before “Mockingbird,” “Go Set a Watchman” is set 20 years later, after Brown v. Board of Education. And as we know we meet a new Atticus, a racial segregationist. The Atticus of “Mockingbird” was a symbol of the future, a lawyer who believed in equality under the law and defended an innocent black man at considerable personal and reputational cost. This was a story that gave readers something to aspire to.

The new book shows an Atticus fighting the future, trying to hold on to something that is wicked and doomed and that puts him in league with the local white Citizens’ Council and its racist rants. When his daughter, Jean Louise—known in childhood (and in “Mockingbird”) as Scout—visits him from New York and sees him at one of their meetings, she is dumbfounded. “She knew little of the affairs of men, but she knew that her father’s presence at the table with a man who spewed filth from his mouth—did that make it less filthy? No. It condoned. She felt sick.”

The bigotry in “Watchman” is drawn broadly. The locals speak not only racial slurs but slurs against Catholics and Jews. But it is not without meaning that all of the people quoted speaking this way are portrayed by Ms. Lee as fools—either ignorant and proud of it or unknowingly stupid and remediable.

I was unjust in my email to my friend when I called it a bad book, but it is a curious one. It shows the awkwardness, the stops and starts, of the young writer. The protagonist, Jean Louise, is the one we agree with: Segregation is evil and must stop. And yet as a character she is drawn unappealingly, always making long speeches and hurling accusations at those who love her and brought her up. Atticus, now in his 70s, holds views the reader will reject, yet he is patient, sincere—more human as a character than his daughter. Sometimes as I read I thought: What was Harper Lee up to?

At the end Jean Louise realizes that her anger in part arises from moral displacement. All her life her father had been a person of unquestioned rectitude, and her admiration was such that she never quite developed an independent conscience of her own. Faced with a quandary she’d ask “What would Atticus do?” Now in the America of the 1950s, she would no longer be able to outsource her sense of right and wrong. She would have to grow up. And so, the book implies, would America.

So is the old Atticus gone? Are we bereft of a national hero? No.

If every time “To Kill a Mockingbird” plays on TV and a child sees it, or a child is moved by the book, someone helpfully points out that “Atticus was a racist,” it would be sad. Children’s hearts shouldn’t be made heavy. Reality will assault them sooner or later, but it’s good when you’re young to be inspired by dreams. They make you strong.

In any case it seems to me the South has produced some new heroes recently, and they’re not made-up but real ones. The relatives who forgave the killer in Charleston and who wept as they told the suspect they were praying for his soul, and who meant it—you don’t get any better and braver than that. And the people who, after witnessing that moment, took the Confederate battle flag from public grounds . . .

Atticus never lived and can never die, and if you want to visit him you can pick up a book. America is an interesting place and we don’t have to look to fiction to be inspired.

The 2016 Contest Begins to Take Shape Hillary tries pointillism, while the GOP contends with an embarrassment of riches.

The weekend will be dominated by back-and-forth on the Iran deal. The administration will argue that some agreement was necessary and this was the best that could be got. They will continue their almost childlike insistence that it proves President Obama is either Ronald Reagan (he negotiates with foes) or Richard Nixon (he reaches out to adversaries).

There will be plenty of serious criticism of the deal, accompanied by a generalized sense that the U.S. probably got taken—because Mr. Obama always wants it too much. As with the opening to Cuba, Mr. Obama put his face on it too early, put his name on it too hard, talked about it too much in public, let his aides give background interviews saying this is a crucial effort, a historic gambit, part of the president’s visionary legacy. The adversary sees this, the need and the want—they watch the news too!—and proceeds accordingly.

Mr. Obama is an odd one in that when there are rivals close by, in Congress for instance, with whom he could negotiate deals, he disses them in public, attacks their motives, yanks them around with executive orders, crushes them when possible. But when negotiating with actual tyrants he signals deference, hunger. I leave it to others to explain what it means when a man is bullying toward essentially good people and supplicating toward bad ones. But the sense is he always wants it too much and is consequently a poor negotiator, and this will have some impact on U.S. and world reaction.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker at a Harley-Davidson dealership

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker at a Harley-Davidson dealership

Hillary Clinton has given her tentative support. The day before the deal was announced she gave a big economic speech, at the New School in New York.

I wanted to think along with it, but Mrs. Clinton doesn’t give you much to think to. She offers policy clumps wrapped in general sentiments. There was policy jargon—“consumer economy,” “quality, affordable child care,” “paid family leave,” “our fiscal outlook is sustainable.” In the tired rhetoric department there were “currents of change” and getting “our country moving.” There were a few fleeting shots at Republican candidates, which provided the speech with a kind of leavening cynicism.

She seemed at times to knock Mr. Obama, or at least distance herself from him. Wall Streeters who tanked the economy in the late 2000s got off with “limited consequences—or none at all.” Who’s been in charge since 2008? She made two references to rising health-care costs. I thought we took care of that.

There was a thought worthy of unpacking, which had to do with the “short-termism” that dominates CEOs’ thinking; they are enslaved to a “quarterly capitalism” that leaves them focused on the share price and the next earnings report at the expense of longer-term investment. This is true: They’re all squeezing too tight and missing the big picture because in the general rush of demands they can’t afford to see it. I’m not sure what a president can do about it, but it’s not bad to talk about such things.

Along the way she smuggled in a campaign theme: “I want to have principled and pragmatic and progressive policies.” I suspect we’ll be hearing more of the three P’s.

There was a nice thought nicely expressed: At its best, “public service is planting trees under whose shade you’ll never sit.” That was pretty.

It was a pointillist policy-dot speech meant to add up to a portrait of meaning. The meaning was clear: More progressivism, please. Also: There’s little substantial difference between Bernie Sanders and me other than that Goldman Sachs likes me, which only proves my range. The left doesn’t have to bolt away.

A concern for her campaign has to be Mrs. Clinton’s robotic delivery, as if she’s never there in the moment but distanced from herself. As if she’s thinking: I don’t fully believe this, but more important, do I seem to believe it? She seems to be overcoached by people who keep telling her to be natural. But why would someone in public life for more than 30 years need to be instructed in naturalness? I don’t understand her discomfort and wonder what it suggests or portends. You can argue she’s a strong leader; she may be the next president, she may be the acknowledged head of her party, but she is a poor campaigner—a poor giver of interviews and speeches, which is now most of what campaigning is. At the end of the day this will mean something.

Meanwhile, Scott Walker announced in Waukesha, Wis. There is still something fresh and awake about him. He’s not all dinged up and slump-shouldered, even though he’s been a target for so long. His subliminal message—actually, it’s liminal—has two parts: I wasn’t born into it, I’m normal like you—but I’ve achieved a great deal, maintained my seriousness, and been a brave governor.

He made his announcement in the increasingly popular casual manner, in shirt sleeves with an open collar and casual slacks. They’re all trying to express intimacy by removing barriers—podiums, teleprompters. But that’s superficial. You can make a connection in a suit behind a podium if you sound as if you’re thinking and speaking honestly and with depth. All this physical symbolism has gotten carried away. John Kasich is next. I’m hoping he won’t announce in a T-shirt and underpants.

What is most interesting about Mr. Walker is that he has remained in the top tier, often in the top three, while being less in the public eye recently than other candidates. His years as embattled Wisconsin governor have given him a hold on the Republican imagination. As he spoke I thought: He’s from the Republican wing of the Republican Party—blunt, direct, unadorned, Midwestern. His message was workmanlike: “I know how to fight and win.” He is a reform conservative, believes in federalism, is hard-line on foreign policy: Mr. Obama says climate change is the greatest threat to future generations, but “the greatest threat to future generations is radical Islamic terrorism.” Vladimir Putin, like Lenin, probes his adversaries with bayonets: “If you encounter mush, push; if you encounter steel, stop.” Mr. Walker will run hard on his Wisconsin record: “We lowered taxes by $2 billion. In fact we lowered taxes on individuals, employers and property. In fact, property taxes are lower today than they were four years ago. . . . How many governors can say that?”

All this will make him highly competitive for the nomination. Is it suited to the mood of the nation in the general election?

Mr. Walker, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, soon John Kasich: They are going to be flooding the hustings very soon, and they’re going to hit Republicans on the ground as an embarrassment of riches—interesting, accomplished figures, all with a case to make. They’ll have the money to last because they pretty much all have rich backers. It is going to be hard for Republicans to make up their minds. This primary is going to go longer and end later than anyone knows.

The High Court’s Disunited State As five justices declare a right to same-sex marriage, the other four dissent vigorously and ominously.

Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling against school segregation, was decided in a unanimous vote, 9-0. The court understood that in decisions that mandate significant societal and cultural change, and that will garner significant opposition, the fact of unanimity is in itself a kind of final argument.

In Loving v. Virginia, in 1967, the high court struck down prohibitions on mixed-race marriages. That too was decided unanimously.

Unanimous decisions tend to quell dissent; they confer an air of inarguable legitimacy, even inevitability. Whatever your own views, you as a citizen must acknowledge that nine lawyers, presumably skilled interpreters of the Constitution who hold different judicial and political philosophies, were able to agree on the charged issue at hand. Unanimous decisions rob opponents of arguments.

High Court DissentLandmark decisions based on narrow splits reflect a continuing breach.

Not fully acknowledged in the past days of celebration on one side, and profound reservation on the other, is that the court in Obergefell v. Hodges was split 5-4 on same-sex marriage, and that the dissenting opinions were truly remarkable. They were fiery and in some cases colorful, but they also showed a court divided on the essentials of the Constitution. Most strikingly, some of them included ominous warnings.

Chief Justice John Roberts scored what he sees as the court’s grandiosity and overreach.

The petitioners in the case had “strong arguments rooted in social policy and considerations of fairness” that same-sex couples should be allowed to “affirm their love and commitment” through marriage. In the past six years voters or legislators in 11 states and the District of Columbia had revised their laws to allow marriage between two people of the same sex. The highest courts in five states “decreed the same result.” Supporters of same-sex marriage have achieved “considerable success persuading their fellow citizens—through the democratic process—to adopt their view.”

But the high court has stopped that “vibrant debate.” The majority has “enacted their own vision of marriage.” In effect they are “stealing this issue from the people,” which will make “a dramatic social change that much more difficult to accept.”

“The Constitution itself says nothing about marriage,” the chief justice observed, so that states are “free to expand marriage to include same-sex couples, or to retain the historic definition.” The majority has taken an “extraordinary step” in ordering every state to license and recognize same-sex marriage. The court’s decision is “an act of will, not legal judgment.” It “omits even a pretense of humility,” instead moving on a desire “to remake society” according to what it calls “new insights.”

“The truth is that today’s decision rests on nothing more than the majority’s own conviction that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry because they want to,” the chief justice argues. “The Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?”

That grandiosity endangers the Court’s very legitimacy, which rests on public respect that “flows from the perception—and the reality—that we exercise humility and restraint in deciding cases according to the Constitution and the law.”

The Obergefell Court is “anything but humble or restrained. Over and over, the majority exalts the role of the judiciary in delivering social change.” They act as if “it is the courts, not the people, who are responsible for making ‘new dimensions of freedom . . . apparent to new generations.’ . . . Those who founded our country would not recognize the majority’s conception of the judicial role.”

And the decision raises serious questions about religious liberty. Every state that has adopted same-sex marriage democratically has, “out of respect for sincere religious conviction,” included accommodations for religious practice. There are none in this decision. The majority “graciously suggests” that religious believers may continue to “advocate” and “teach” their views of marriage. “The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to ‘exercise’ religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses.”

Finally, and “most discouraging,” the majority felt “compelled to sully those on the other side of the debate.” “Americans who did nothing more than follow the understanding of marriage that has existed for our entire history”—including the tens of millions who voted to reaffirm their state’s enduring definition of marriage—are depicted as having disparaged and inflicted “ ‘dignitary wounds’ upon their gay and lesbian neighbors. These apparent assaults on the character of fair-minded people will have an effect, in society and in court.”

Justice Antonin Scalia put his criticism in populist terms. His message seemed a warning to the court. “Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers of the Supreme Court. . . . A system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.”

Those lawyers are “select, patrician, highly unrepresentative.” All studied law at Harvard or Yale, four are natives of New York City, eight grew up on the East or West coast, “only one hails from the vast expanse in-between.” Not a single Southwesterner, nor a genuine Westerner, not even a Protestant. The “unrepresentative character” of the court would mean nothing if its members were “functioning as judges.” But in this case they are not. This “judicial putsch,” Justice Scalia writes, is the product of “hubris”—“sometimes defined as o’erweening pride; and pride, we know, goeth before a fall.”

Justice Clarence Thomas composed a ringing aria on the subject of dignity. The majority, he says, believe they are advancing the “dignity” of same-sex couples in their decision, but they don’t understand what dignity is or where it comes from. Dignity is “innate”; the government is “incapable of bestowing” it. “Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved.”

If the government cannot bestow dignity, “it cannot take it away.”

Justice Samuel Alito warned the decision “will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.” The majority compared the traditional definition of marriage to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women: “The implication of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.”

Thus “by imposing its own views on the entire country, the majority facilitates the marginalization of the many Americans who have traditional ideas. Recalling the harsh treatment of gays and lesbians in the past, some may think that turnabout is fair play. But if that sentiment prevails, the Nation will experience bitter and lasting wounds.”

You can hardly get more ominous, more full of warning, than these opinions, which should be read in full.