Republicans Are Ready to Rumble Substantive arguments are healthy, but personal attacks aren’t. And unity gives Democrats an edge.

During a week of book-tour talks, meetings and conversations in New York, Southern California and Washington, a question consistently emerged: What is going on in the Republican Party?

My thoughts as they evolved through seven days of thinking aloud:

What is going on, and not only with Republicans, is that American voters are surveying the past 15 years. At home they see an economic near-collapse followed by a feeble recovery, a culture that grows every day grosser and more bizarre, falling educational results, a bigger, more demanding and more corrupt federal government. In the world: two unwon wars, ISIS, a refugee crisis greater than any since the end of World War II, Putin on the move, American clout and prestige on the decline.

Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina

Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina

They think: Who gave us this world? Who led us the past 15 years? They realize: It was the most credentialed, acclaimed and experienced political professionals in both parties. The pros gave us this world—the people who knew what they were doing! Who had a lifetime of political attainment!

They conclude: Maybe we have to expand our idea of “credentials.” Maybe we need another kind of “experience.” Maybe individuals with “attainments” outside the political world are the ones who can get us out of this mess.

Thus Donald Trump the businessman, Ben Carson the neurosurgeon and Carly Fiorina the former CEO. Add their poll numbers up—consistently, for 100 days now, so it’s not a blip but a real trendline—and you have more than half of likely Republican voters saying yes, I want an outsider.

And you know, they have a point. They are derided in the media as irrationally angry, but they shouldn’t be dismissed. They’re trying to make things better, to break through the logjam.

But as we get closer to the voting, there are two things they have to keep in mind. One is that reaching outside doesn’t necessarily make things better. It might. It might make things worse. The fact of outsiderness is no guarantee of anything except a lack of political experience. The other is that, as Carl Cannon of RealClearPolitics has noted, politics is actually a profession, even for some a vocation. You learn important things as you practice it. Experience deepens your ability to decide, to persuade, to lead. Political knowledge can be a handy thing when you hold the country’s highest political office.

Is it possible what we need right now isn’t a nonpolitician but instead a brilliant and gifted politician to lead us through these times? (Yes, I know: Who? I don’t know. The powers of the most successful pols tend to be clearest in retrospect.)

There are two important pieces of context within the above dynamic. One is that the great, enduring issue that divides the wise men, elders and big donors of the GOP (who are the natural protectors and supporters of the party’s professional politicians) and the base (which is turning to the outsiders) is illegal immigration. The base hates it. The elders and donors vary in their support—some accept it for practical reasons, some are enthusiastic, some are true open-borders ideologues—but they all support it. That taints their warnings to stick with politicians who know how things work.

The party on this huge issue is split between the top—the affluent and influential—and the bottom—the indignant, the worried and working-class.

Another part of the year’s context: 2016 is in a way like the dramatic, portentous year 1976. That year Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan fought over one question: Will the Republican Party stay a midcentury moderate-liberal party or become a conservative party? Reagan’s landslides in 1980 and 1984 answered the question: The GOP would be a conservative party, and has been since. But this year’s question is equally fundamental: What does conservative mean in the 21st century?

Is it conservative to spend whatever it takes, and it will be a lot, to create and maintain the best national defense in the world? (The world is safer when America is stronger.) Or is it conservative to care about spending, to look to our allies to pick up their part of the burden? (Build too beautiful a military and you’ll only encourage the politicians to use it.)

Is it conservative to say we have to cut back entitlement spending to cut our unsupportable deficits, or is it conservative to say a deal’s a deal, generations paid into it and have a moral right to everything they were promised? Is it conservative to say there’s plenty to be saved by cracking down on fraud and waste but in a time of economic stress the people will not accept benefit cuts and no serious party that lives in and respects reality should attempt it?

Is it conservative to attempt to be the leader of the world, its sole and acknowledged great power, or is it conservative to be, as they say, the friend of liberty everywhere but the protector primarily of our own interests?

This is a lot to work out. It will probably take more than one election cycle. It’s to the credit of Republicans that they are having these debates. But a party wrestling with these issues is by definition not unified.

The Democrats, for all their small struggles, are. They are disciplined. Their central organizing principle is getting and holding power.

The Republicans this year have more intellectual vitality and engagement. That they are split about ideas, stands, principles is to their credit. They are acting out what politics was meant to be. But that civic virtue is a political liability.

At this point—early, but certain trends are obvious—the Democrats have the advantage. They want one thing. The Republicans want many serious and opposing things.

Which gets us to the subject of super PACs and the damage they can do. The other night in the Fox Business debate some candidates touched on the practical and philosophical disagreements in the party. It was edifying. We need more.

But the first candidate whose super PAC money goes to killing another candidate with heavy opposition research will likely be the killer of more than one candidacy.

While all this is roiling the Republican Party, while all the divisions are thrashed out, is this the time for candidates to do to each other what Newt Gingrich did to Mitt Romney in 2012, grinding him up and handing him on a platter to the Democrats? I wondered last spring if 2016 would come down to Boring versus Bloody—a dull, peaceful Democratic coronation; a Republican rumble from which the nominee emerges damaged beyond repair.

The Democrats are depending on the Republicans to bloody each other in that way. They’re depending on Republicans to be stupid.

There have been reports Jeb Bush’s PAC is considering going after Marco Rubio. If it does, Mr. Bush will look like Al Pacino in “Scarface,” with his allies wielding all that super PAC dough and saying: “Say hello to my little friend.” The Pacino character took out all his enemies, but what’s so memorable about that last scene is that he shot up the entire mansion, pretty much brought the house down, and of course went down himself, in the end.

The Not Ready for Prime Time Bush Like Scott Walker, Jeb couldn’t rise to the demands of the national stage.

We’ll begin with what went wrong with the Republican debate in Boulder, Colo., then look at what went wrong with Jeb Bush.

CNBC’s debate moderators have famously come under fire for questions, statements and a tone that were obnoxious. They were. The moderators seemed intent on trivializing the field. When you say, “Candidate A, you have criticized Candidates B and C, turn to them now and tell them why they’re dopes,” you are presenting yourself as the puppet master and them as puppets. They must either attack their colleagues as instructed and look weak, or push back against the moderator in a way open to charges of defensiveness and cynicism. They can’t win. (Though later one did.)

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio

The worst of friends: Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio during the Republican presidential debate.

There’s nothing wrong with mischief from debate moderators, but this was dumb mischief, plonkingly obvious in its ideological hostility. What’s your greatest weakness? Should fantasy football be regulated? These questions were merely shallow.

To Jeb Bush: “Governor, the fact that you’re at the fifth lectern tonight shows how far your stock has fallen in this race, despite the big investment your donors have made.” Donald Trump uncorking a taunt, right? No! It was moderator John Harwood! He followed up: “Ben Bernanke, who was appointed Fed chairman by your brother, recently wrote a book in which he said he no longer considers himself a Republican because the Republican Party has given in to know-nothingism. Is that why you’re having a difficult time in this race?”

It is very hard to imagine a candidate in a Democratic debate being asked if he’s not doing well because his party is ignorant and vicious. Jeb’s response to being smacked around like this was some vapidity about how “the great majority of Republicans and Americans believe in a hopeful future.”

There was browbeating, and interruptions aimed at forcing a candidate’s thought-train off its tracks:

Since Chris Christie has called climate change undeniable, asked Mr. Harwood, what would he do about it? Mr. Christie said his solutions would not be the usual Democratic ones involving more taxes and more power to Washington.

“What should we do?” Mr. Harwood pressed.

“What we should do is invest in all types of energy, John—”

“You mean government?” Mr. Harwood interrupted.

Christie: “I got to tell you the truth, even in New Jersey what you’re doing is called rude.”

That was a lovely moment. The best belonged to Ted Cruz. “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. This is not a cage match. And if you look at the questions—‘Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain?’ ‘Ben Carson, can you do math?’ ‘John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?’ ‘ Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?’ ‘Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?’ How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?”

He continued, over a moderator/interrupter: “I’m not finished yet. The contrast with the Democratic debate, where every fawning question from the media was, ‘Which of you is more handsome and wise?’ ”

Again he barreled past an interrupter: “Let me be clear. The men and women on this stage have more ideas, more experience, more common sense than every participant in the Democratic debate.”

Pressed to answer the original question, Mr. Cruz said he’d be happy to. But Mr. Harwood turned to another candidate.

“So you don’t want to hear the answer, John?” Mr. Cruz challenged.

“You used your answer on something else,” said Mr. Harwood, curtly.

He sure did.

I don’t know if fights like this win you anything, but the pushback was deserved, and instructive for future moderators: Be tough, incisive, follow up, dig down. But don’t be a high-handed snot, don’t wear your bias on your sleeve. That helps nothing. Don’t you get that?

To Jeb. He has not succeeded this year, and there is no particular reason to believe he will. Yes, he still has money, but what has money got him so far?

You could see almost all of what wasn’t working in his exchange with Marco Rubio, whom Jeb tried to zing in an obviously prepared attack on missed Senate votes.

“I’m a constituent of the senator,” said Jeb. But he’s not showing up for work. “I mean literally, the Senate—what is it, like a French workweek? You get, like, three days where you have to show up?” He suggested Mr. Rubio resign “and let someone else take the job.”

Well, said Mr. Rubio, you’ve said you’re modeling your campaign on John McCain’s in 2008. “I don’t remember . . . you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record. The only reason why you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”

Mr. Bush began to respond but let Mr. Rubio cut him off: “My campaign is . . . not going to be about attacking anyone else on this stage. I will continue to have tremendous admiration and respect for Gov. Bush. I’m not running against Gov. Bush, I’m not running against anyone on this stage. I’m running for president because there is no way we can elect Hillary Clinton to continue the policies of Barack Obama.”

Mr. Rubio shut him down, just as Mr. Trump had in previous debates.

It’s widely believed among high Jeb supporters that Mr. Trump—“The Gong Show,” as they call him—has kept Mr. Bush from rising. But Mr. Trump isn’t the problem, he was the revealer of the problem: Jeb just isn’t very good at this.

He’s not good at the merry aggression of national politics. He never had an obvious broad base within the party. He seemed to understand the challenge of his name in the abstract but not have a plan to deal with it. It was said of Scott Walker that the great question was whether he had the heft and ability to go national. The same should have been asked of Jeb. He had never been a national candidate, only a governor. Reporters thought he was national because he was part of a national family.

He was playing from an old playbook—he means to show people his heart, hopes to run joyously. But it’s 2015, we’re in crisis; they don’t care about your heart and joy, they care about your brains, guts and toughness. The expectations he faced were unrealistically high. He was painted as the front-runner. Reporters thought with his record, and a brother and father as president, he must be the front-runner, the kind of guy the GOP would fall in line for. But there’s no falling in line this year. He spent his first months staking out his position not as a creative, original chief executive of a major state—which he was—but as a pol raising shock-and-awe money and giving listless, unfocused interviews in which he slouched and shrugged. There was a sense he was waiting to be appreciated.

I speak of his candidacy in the past tense, which is rude though I don’t mean it rudely. It’s just hard to see how this can work. By hard I mean, for me, impossible.

Two Departures and a Grilling Stephen Harper loses, Joe Biden bows out, and Mrs. Clinton survives the Benghazi Committee.

An interesting question for history is who was the real leader of the West the past half-dozen years, Angela Merkel of Germany or Canada’s Stephen Harper, voted out this week after almost 10 years as prime minister. His great success was in helping bring his country through and past the global meltdown of 2008. He was loyal to Western principles and a friend of America even when, as in recent years, its leaders’ decisions left him doubting and dismayed.

Rep. Trey Gowdy

House Benghazi Committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy

A general rule of politics: After 10 years they are going to throw you out. But the vote was overwhelming after a charmless, dour campaign. The incoming prime minister is the 43-year-old son of charismatic former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Justin Trudeau has been a snowboard instructor, schoolteacher, bartender, bouncer, speaker on environmental and youth issues, and advocate for avalanche safety. Sensing “generational change” and gravitating toward “a life of advocacy,” he entered politics and served two terms in Parliament. He has been head of the Liberal Party two years. He is handsome, has a winning personality, exhibited message discipline during the campaign, and is a talented dancer. There’s a sense we in the West have entered a new screwball phase. Watching Mr. Trudeau’s victory speech, I remembered the columnist Dorothy Thompson reaction on watching the newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy. There’s something not fully stable there, she thought. But we have to let history do what it enjoys doing, which is surprising us.

Joe Biden’s decision not to run for president left me sad. He would have enlivened things. He has always reminded me of what Democrats were like when I was a kid—kind of normal and earthy and fun. They did not spend their time endlessly accusing people of being sexist-racist-homophobic-gender-biased persons of unchecked privilege. They would have thought that impolite.

I can’t imagine Joe Biden ever needed an image consultant to coach him on how to be himself. As if he had a choice.

Going in, the question about Hillary Clinton and the Benghazi Committee was: How will she come out? Would she emerge triumphant, bruised, stronger, exposed? How would the Republicans, who’ve proved themselves largely hapless in grilling those involved in various scandals, do this time? In 2013, in front of a Senate committee, Mrs. Clinton blunted attacks with her dramatic rhetorical question: “What difference, at this point, does it make?” When I watched I thought, “She just won.” But afterward “What difference does it make?” became a kind of shorthand for high-handed theatrics. It is hard to judge the impact of most Clinton performances in real time because Mrs. Clinton is a practiced actress and it takes people time to figure whether they believed the act or not.

Her goal was clearly to take all comers and end this. She wanted to make the Republicans look like tiresome obsessives, which usually wouldn’t be hard.

She took her seat in the hearing room handsomely coiffed, beautifully made up, wearing a sober, dark high-end pantsuit. Young journalists tell me I’m not allowed to describe how she’s dressed or whether she looks tired (no, well-rested) or stressed (no, cool as a cucumber). I tell them if they’re going to be journalists they can’t start out as word cops. Nor should they in their work put politically correct limits on their ability to describe a scene. If you mean to be a craftsman, you cannot start your career as a censor.

Chairman Trey Gowdy (nondescript suit, hair under control) wasted no time: “We are going to pursue the truth in a manner worthy of the memory of the four men who lost their lives.” He set a tone not of theatrics but factuality. He defended his committee’s investigation by asserting previous congressional probes had not been “serious” or “thorough” because they lacked sufficient access to relevant documents.

This undercut Mrs. Clinton’s ability to make points by repeating, as she has recently, that this is the eighth investigation. Mr. Gowdy cleverly brought up Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s witless comment suggesting the purpose of the investigation had been to damage her popularity. He blunted every charge and complaint he knew she was about to make.

She sat blank-faced, furiously thinking.

Elijah Cummings, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said in his statement the investigation is political, a “taxpayer-funded fishing expedition.” Having watched him in hearings the past few years I cannot determine whether his chronic umbrage is real or feigned.

In Mrs. Clinton’s opening statement she spoke slowly, in a calm, lower-register voice. When she spoke with personal warmth of the late ambassador, Chris Stevens, she was actress-y in a way you’d like if you like her and not if you don’t.

The preamble was meant to posit her as a person who felt authentic pain at what had happened in a way that suggested she’s suffered enough

She then perhaps cheekily pivoted to what we can learn from the tragedy. This was meant to establish her deep experience and command and was occasionally off-point: “Retreat from the world is not an option.” She evoked the Reagan-era deaths of 258 Americans in the Beirut Marine barracks and, more cleverly, security failures in the administrations of her husband and of George W. Bush. That was meant to make Benghazi—only four dead—look comparatively insignificant.

The first hour-and-a-half seemed to focus on niggling things, as if no one could get their hands on the thread. Viewers at home may have given up. Then the pace quickened. There were hundreds of requests regarding security issues in Benghazi in 2012, and Mrs. Clinton said not one reached her desk. This is remarkable. A secretary of state who supported a military action that unleashed chaos and sends her friend, the ambassador, into that chaos has no awareness of his requests for more security? Sidney Blumenthal had her personal email address but Chris Stevens didn’t?

There were substantive fireworks when Rep. Jim Jordan suggested the administration used a protest over an anti-Islam video as a cover story for what Mrs. Clinton knew to be a planned and deliberate terrorist attack. He suggested a motive: The attack came less than two months before the 2012 election. He presented proof she knew Benghazi wasn’t a popular protest about a video. She never really answered the charges, falling back on quickly unfolding events, confusion, a fluid situation. She dodged, and it was obvious. “I wrote a whole chapter about this in my book,” she attempted. She pretended the line of questioning was an insult to those who died. No, it was an insult to her. She was passive-aggressive: “I’m sorry that it doesn’t fit your narrative, Congressman.” She later spoke of how wounding it is to have one’s assertions received with such skepticism. This was unpersuasive.

How did she do? How did they do? The Republicans were able interrogators. For Mrs. Clinton it was mixed. At moments she was poised and in command, at others more scattered and scrambling. She has considerable faith in her talent for double talk. She suffered through and survived, and will soon be saying what she wanted to say: I took any and all questions, there is nothing to add, the issue has been addressed. Next.

The Biden Eclipse and the Trump Plateau Hillary Clinton pre-empts her biggest challenge as Republicans consider their alternatives.

Something big happened at the Democratic debate. It didn’t have to do with Hillary Clinton besting Bernie Sanders or Jim Webb. What she had to do, after the long, battering summer, was show she is up to the battle, ready for it, capable—that she can do this. She did. She was crisp, lively, a presence. In demonstrating that she is up to the race she deprived Vice President Joe Biden of his rationale for getting into it. People say he didn’t have a rationale but of course he did, it just wasn’t something he could say or leak. His rationale, at 72 and having recently experienced great loss, was: The party’s in trouble, the front-runner can’t win, she’s too encrusted by scandal, in an act of heroic sacrifice I’m going to swoop in and save the day.

But she had to tank, and very obviously, for him to swoop. She didn’t. If she had, I suspect we’d be spending the weekend hearing about his impending candidacy. We won’t.

I don’t see how he gets in now.

Vice President Joe Biden

Vice President Joe Biden

Too bad! Mr. Biden would have added a layer of affection to a so-far cold enterprise. He would have added an element of old-time normality to the field. He would have been as entertaining in his way as Donald Trump, and it would have been instructive to see how Democrats respond to the entrance of President Obama’s two-term vice president. Who has the party’s heart?

It would have been great. But if he jumped in now he’d look like a spoiler, doing it not to save the party but fulfill his sense of destiny. He won’t want to look that way. If he were willing to look that way he would have announced six months ago.

Luck matters in politics as in life and Mrs. Clinton has now been lucky twice in a short time. Kevin McCarthy blunted Republican arrows on Benghazi, then Bernie Sanders blunted arrows by saying the email scandal doesn’t matter. To many of his supporters, presumably, it did. Now all Democrats have permission not to care. It’s nice to get a pass like that!

And now the one candidate who could have derailed her will likely not get in. She is on a roll.

The Democratic debate revealed two other things. The 2008 Democratic contest was a rush to the center, with both leading Democrats, Mrs. Clinton and Barack Obama, trying to show they were moderates at heart. The 2016 primary is a rush to the left. We are now not embarrassed to argue America should be more like Denmark, we are proudly socialist or severely progressive, and by the way Republicans are the enemy. Asked which enemy she was proudest to have made, Mrs. Clinton mentioned the NRA, the Iranians, some others and “probably the Republicans.” She was smiling, but if any GOP hopeful declared “the Democrats” to be on his enemies list he would be roundly condemned as polarizing, and people like me would be saying: “You don’t demonize the other team, you win them over!” It is interesting that in Mrs. Clinton’s case that isn’t happening.

If the Democratic candidates are rushing to the left it’s because they know some significant quadrant of the base is there. If Hillary feels free to speak of the Republicans as enemies it’s because she knows there is a portion of the base that is angry, polarized and ready to respond to an aggressive tone.

We hear a great deal about uncompromising anger on the Republican side and none about the take-no-prisoners resentment on the Democratic side. But it’s there.

Which gets us to Donald Trump, who had another good week with smashing polls in Connecticut, Nevada, South Carolina and Virginia. ( Robert Costa of the Washington Post says the untold story now is Mr. Trump’s state organizing.) But the smartest new data I saw this week was from Target Point, which conducted a national poll of likely Republican primary voters from Sept. 29 through Oct. 1. I call it smart because it confirms my own observations and biases.

It found the GOP electorate to be “extremely fluid.” No candidate is close to a majority. The average respondent is still considering six different candidates. Twenty-nine percent of those polled didn’t express a clear preference for any one candidate. Most are trying to choose between two favorites. Those enjoying increased consideration are Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio.

Mr. Trump, according to Target Point, is not slumping. But “he does appear to have plateaued.”

That’s what I’m seeing too. Talking to Trump supporters this week I’m getting a sense of stalling or slight deflation. The early thrill is gone. No one mentions that it’s something he said or did. I get the impression some supporters are saying: “It’s not you, it’s me.” They’re wondering if they themselves will continue to feel the early electrical charge of Mr. Trump. They’re wondering if they will find another candidate they like as much or more. They’re not sure. A relative and early Trump enthusiast said Wednesday on the phone, “He’s—he’s not going to go in there and say, ‘I’ll bomb someone,’ right? I mean he’ll have the regular professional generals and all the military people surrounding him, giving him advice—right?” I could hear a certain wavering. But then he stopped talking because he didn’t want to wind up in a column.

Mr. Trump announced in June and has been in the lead through now mid-October, and every political sophisticate I know continues to be gobsmacked at what it all means and portends.

I have been seeing my friends go through the five stages of Trump, which are like the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. The first is denial (“He’s going nowhere, he’s a farce”). Second is anger (“This vulgar slob of a fool has some nerve messing with the American electoral process for his own enjoyment”). Next, bargaining (“If we make him promise to support the party if he doesn’t win, and he refuses, won’t that ruin him with the base?”). Then depression (“He’s a reality-TV star! He has the hair of an abnormal person! He’s our next president? I must have picked the wrong year to give up hallucinogens”). And finally acceptance (“We’ve had worse”—a Democratic political professional actually said that to me).

The only thing I feel certain of is how we got here. There are many reasons we’re at this moment, but the essential political one is this: Mr. Obama lowered the bar. He was a literal unknown, an obscure former state legislator who hadn’t completed his single term as U.S. senator, but he was charismatic, canny, compelling. He came from nowhere and won it all twice. All previously prevailing standards, all usual expectations, were thrown out the window.

Anyone can run for president now, and in the future anyone will. In 2020 and 2024 we’ll look back on 2016 as the sober good ol’ days. “At least Trump had business experience. He wasn’t just a rock star! He wasn’t just a cable talk-show host!”

Shows of Strength From Trump and Putin The GOP front-runner hasn’t started fading, and the Russian president seems in command.

Thoughts on two strongmen:

Donald Trump has entered his second act. His polls, sometimes characterized as weakening, are in fact strong. As Bloomberg’s John Heilemann said on “Morning Joe,” if Jeb Bush had Mr. Trump’s numbers everyone would declare the race over.

This week Quinnipiac had Mr. Trump solidly leading his GOP rivals in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. A national poll from Reuters/Ipsos had Mr. Trump in the lead with 31%, followed by Ben Carson with 17%. Public Policy Polling had Mr. Trump holding steady nationwide since late August, coming in first at 27%. His support is ideologically broad—35% of tea-party voters and 29% of moderates, according to PPP. He did better among younger voters and among men (31%) than women (23%). Clever people once said of George H.W. Bush that he reminded women of their first husbands. I never thought so, but Mr. Trump would remind some women of a blustery first husband, or a loudmouth uncle holding forth at Thanksgiving while hogging the sweet potatoes.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump; Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He continues with high negatives. But for all the dopey, damaging dramas he’s gotten himself into the past few months he’s maintained his position. Imagine if he’d been disciplined.

The first act was “I’m Here and I’m Yuge.” Now Act II: “I Mean It and I’m Staying.” He has unveiled a tax plan and come forward as a family man with a seven-page spread in People. He’s emerged as a noninterventionist on the Mideast—“Russia wants to get rid of ISIS. We want to get rid of ISIS. . . . Let them get rid of ISIS. What the hell do we care?” He apparently has decided to stop certain media wars.

To me the virtue of his tax plan is that I can understand it. A friend said, “It’s a total rip-off of Jeb’s plan!” It probably is. But Trump explained Trump’s plan, so people paid attention, and Jeb explained Jeb’s, so they didn’t. Mr. Trump’s economic policies seem to come from indignation—the poor need a break, the rich have a racket. Jeb’s seem to come from a desire for good government. In the current climate indignation beats good government every time.

More than any candidate Mr. Trump has to hold on to what he has and grow out—steadily—from there. Everyone has to do that, but he most of all because he has to prove every day that he’s not a passing aberration, a wigged-out expression of voter rage.

Here is a mystery question. Mr. Trump has been the Republican front-runner for three months. The first voting, in Iowa, is in just more than three and a half months. If Mr. Trump does well in the early contests—if he retains his lead and it starts to look like he can really win the nomination—then at some point it will come down, sharply, to him versus the party establishment. And that establishment, such as it is, will presumably try to kill him. The question: What will that look like? We’ve never seen that before. What will it be to have a party establishment try to kill the guy who’s No. 1 in that party’s polls? Maybe they think they’ll have golden oppo, but opposition research doesn’t really work on Mr. Trump, mostly because no one has illusions of probity about him. His supporters don’t think he’s a sweet, sinless businessman. They love it that he’s not.

The wisdom now, and it’s not stupid, is that as time passes the field will narrow. More candidates will drop out, voters will begin to coalesce behind other front-runners, and suddenly one of them will be polling at 27% or 32%. Various powers will throw their weight behind front-runner No. 2 or 3 or 4. But this year has reminded us to expect the unexpected. Maybe not enough candidates will drop out to make a difference. Maybe the splintered field stays splintered. How then do you stop Mr. Trump? Maybe—again—only Trump stops Trump.

The second strongman is Vladimir Putin of Russia, who made a striking impression in a revealing 100-minute interview with Charlie Rose. It took place last month in Mr. Putin’s residence near Moscow, and ran Sept. 27 on “60 Minutes” and in its entirety on Mr. Rose’s PBS show. I speak frequently to those who know or have met Mr. Putin, and the Rose interview captured the individual the most insightful of them have described. Mr. Putin was confident in his command of information, clever, at times droll, sometimes insistent.

He posited himself as a friend of world stability. Russia is in Syria to keep it from becoming what Libya is, a nation in which “all the state institutions are disintegrated.” The Syrian government of Bashar Assad has “the one legitimate conventional army,” and “I want you and your audience to finally realize that no one except for the Assad army is fighting ISIS and other terrorist groups now in Syria.” U.S. efforts have been wanting: “It has to be said frankly this is a very low level of effectiveness. I’m not trying to be sarcastic here. I’m not trying to call someone out or to point fingers.”

Mr. Rose asked if Mr. Putin saw ISIS as a unique terrorist organization. “Well yes, it’s turned into a unique organization because it has become global. Indeed they have the aim to build a caliphate from Portugal to Pakistan.” They are not the jayvee team.

Is he exploiting a vacuum in American leadership? No, said Mr. Putin, he’s trying to prevent a vacuum where the government of Syria should be. “As soon as government agencies are destroyed in a given state . . . that’s when a power vacuum occurs. And at that moment it will be instantly filled by terrorists.”

Is Mr. Putin driven by a desire to have Russia play a bigger role in the world? “I’m proud of Russia, that’s true,” he said, but such pride is not an end in itself. Then an oblique slap at the U.S.: “But we don’t have any obsession with being a superpower in the international arena. We’re involved in only one thing, defending our fundamental interest.”

Mr. Rose, noting Mr. Putin had been in the KGB, said, “Someone in Russia told me there is no such thing as a former KGB man.”

“You know, not a single stage of our lives passes without a trace,” said Mr. Putin. “All this knowledge we acquire, all the experience, will always remain with us and we carry it further and will use it somewhere. Well, in a sense they are right.”

Asked what he thinks of President Obama, he deflected—coolly. “I don’t think I’m entitled to give any views regarding the president of the United States. . . . Our relations are businesslike. I believe that’s quite sufficient to comply with our functions.”

Do Mr. Obama’s foreign-policy actions “reflect a weakness”?

“I don’t think so at all,” said Mr. Putin. “I don’t think that’s the case and I don’t intend to get involved in a domestic American skirmish.”

One got the impression he wished it understood that he doesn’t outfox weaklings, he only beats champs. It was in its way Trumpesque.

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.