What everyone’s waiting for is the winnowing. New Hampshire and Iowa will force some Republican candidates out. When we know who’s still in we’ll have a surer sense of the contours of the race.
It is still true that the party has never had a year like this, with the ground shifting beneath its feet. It’s hard to see this clearly because on the surface the things you expect to see happening are happening.
The candidates are starting to throw hard punches. They’re all trying to show they can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee—a necessary talent if you make it to the general election. No point in hand-wringing or telling them to stop on the grounds that what they’re doing will produce, for the Democrats, a badly bloodied GOP nominee.
Best and worst have come from Chris Christie, who has a way of keeping things lively. Earlier he counseled his fellow contenders not to savage each other—don’t waste your ammo, keep your eyes on the prize. Good advice. This week Marco Rubio’s PAC unloaded a spot slamming Mr. Christie on the old charge he embraced President Obama during Hurricane Sandy. The governor answered Wednesday on Laura Ingraham’s radio show. He called Mr. Rubio “a first-term United States senator who has never had a tough race.” He continued: “This guy’s been spoon-fed every victory he’s ever had in his life. That’s the kind of person that we want to put on stage against Hillary Clinton? I don’t think so. She’ll pat him on the head and then cut his heart out.” It was wonderfully colorful and malicious and reminded me of Sen. Bob Kerrey, who said of Bill Clinton in 1992 that he wouldn’t win in November because he hadn’t served in Vietnam: “He’s going to get opened up like a soft peanut.”
Democratic presidential primaries in those days were fierce. They’re not anymore, because the new Democratic Party, the one of the progressive left, has only a single unifying principle: winning. Hillary Clinton’s opponents haven’t laid a glove on her, and won’t.
Mr. Rubio has turned stern and indignant, as if he’s decided the base is angry so he’ll enact anger too. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, he darkly alleges, are “isolationist candidates” whose intent is “weakening our military and intelligence capabilities.” Mr. Paul responded by comparing Mr. Rubio to Rahm Emanuel.
More touchingly, Jeb Bush again warned the base about Donald Trump. “It’s very fun to talk about the theatrics,” he said on “Morning Joe.” Mr. Trump has tapped into “angst and anger,” but “his views are not the views of a conservative.”
Mr. Trump’s supporters don’t care if he’s classically conservative. Doctrinal purity is not the story this year. The GOP base is a big jumble.
Democrats are likely less unified than they think. On the rightward and leftward edges of both parties they hate political correctness, illegal immigration, Wall Street.
A new playbook is emerging while some contenders seem to be reading from the old playbook and wondering why the plays they’re calling aren’t working.
And the GOP is struggling. In Virginia the state Republican Party wants a so-called loyalty oath in the March 1 presidential primary. Virginia is an open-primary state—any registered voter can vote in either primary—but the GOP apparently wants to discourage independents and Democrats from voting for Mr. Trump. So they’ve decided voters should sign a statement of affiliation with the GOP before they get to cast a ballot. This is so idiotic it’s almost unbelievable. When Democrats and independents want to vote in your primary you should be happy. Politics is a game of addition! You want headlines that say “Massive GOP Turnout.” You don’t greet first-time voters with an oath but with cookies, ginger ale and balloons. Ronald Reagan reached out to Democrats in 1984: “Come too, come walk with me.” We still speak of Reagan Democrats.
I do not understand the inability or refusal of Republican leaders to take Mr. Trump seriously. They take his numbers seriously—they can read a poll—but they think, as Mr. Bush said, that his support is all about anger, angst and theatrics. That’s part of the story, but the other, more consequential part has to do with real policy issues. The establishment refuses to see that, because to admit it is to implicate themselves and their leadership. Political consultants can’t see it because they don’t think issues matter—not to them and certainly not to the dumb voters.
But issues do matter, and Mr. Trump has functioned this year not as a great communicator or great compromiser but as the great disrupter. He brags that he has brought up great questions and forced other candidates to face them and sometimes change their stands—and he has. He changed the debate on illegal immigration. He said he’d build a wall and close the border and as the months passed and his competitors saw his surge, they too were suddenly, clearly, aggressively for ending illegal immigration.
Mr. Trump touched an important nerve in opposing the political correctness that has angered the American people for a quarter century. He changed the debate when he asked for a pause in Muslim immigration until America “can figure out what’s going on.” In the age of terror, that looked suspiciously like common sense. Americans do not want America to become what Europe is becoming.
You only have to look at what is reported to have happened in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve to get a sense that Europe’s establishment, with its politically correct thinking, is losing control. Angela Merkel is a great lady and most of her leadership has been sound as a drum, but she will probably lose her job eventually because of her epic miscalculation in accepting more than a million Middle Eastern refugees.
Her decision was no doubt driven by heart and sympathy, but it reminds me of the fall of Margaret Thatcher. In 1989 Thatcher moved to impose a change in the British tax system. This caused resentment and then unrest. She wouldn’t back down, and the next year she fell. Years later she told me what she’d learned. People are afraid, she said; they live closer to the margins than we understand. When you propose a big change you can leave people feeling as if the rug is being pulled from under them. That’s a big thing to learn, and she spoke of it with humility.
She lost her job by being too tough. Ms. Merkel has imperiled hers by being too soft. But the lesson is the same: know how close to the edge people feel, how powerless, and respect their anxiety. Don’t look down on it, and them.
Back to the Republicans. It reflects badly on the party that Donald Trump—whom one journalist this week characterized as a guy running around with his hair on fire—had to become the party’s 2016 thought leader.
Bernie Sanders has, in a way, had the wit to see this, which is why he said he is reaching out to Trump supporters.
Reaching out. What a concept.