Like 24 million of my fellow Americans, I watched the first Republican debates. Mostly, I watched for the same reason most of us rubberneck accidents on the freeway. We wanted to see The Donald crash and burn. He did not disappoint. Asked, by Megyn Kelly, about appalling comments he’s made about women in the past, Trump smirked and suggested those comments were all aimed at Rosie O’Donnell. After that gratuitous insult, he then treated us to a seminar on why alpha males, caught in the role of sexual harasser, tend to lose the subsequent lawsuits. Deflect, accuse, wonder why dames can’t take a joke and, geez, guys, it’s all just a bunch of political correctness. The next, day, he topped off this charming display of boorishness by suggesting that Kelly’s ‘rudeness’ to him was due to her menstrual cycle. What a prince.
So, usual Trump tactics and results. Say something insulting and idiotic. Watch your poll numbers go up. Get called on it, double down. Watch your poll numbers go . . . up. Apparently, in 2015, infantile tantrums work. (In all fairness, he did offer one of the few specific and sensible policy suggestions of the night. The man’s a pig; doesn’t mean he’s stupid).
Of course, it doesn’t matter. As the invaluable Nate Silver pointed out today, Trump can’t win. He may continue to go up a little in the polls, but his negatives are off the charts; he’s pretty close to his poll ceiling. He has a solid core of supporters, but twice as many people insist they would never, under any circumstances, ever vote for him, and that’s among Republicans. And as John Oliver pointed out on Sunday, none of this really actually matters all that much. There will be babies born before the 2016 election whose parents haven’t even met yet. We’re way way early.
So what did this first debate tell us? What can we learn from it? And what, especially, does it tell us about who might be the Republican nominee for President?
The most recent poll has Trump in first, Ted Cruz in second, Ben Carson in third. I have immense admiration for Dr. Ben Carson, an admirable man with a remarkable personal narrative. From my perspective, he looked lost up there. He has no political skills, and essentially no understanding of the major issues of the day. Ted Cruz is one of the lizard-people, I’m convinced of it. He exudes unctuous smarm. And he’s detested in the Senate; absolutely detested, including by fellow Republicans.
Carly Fiorina probably won the earlier ‘kiddie table’ debate, which didn’t surprise me, actually. I’ve heard her speak, and she’s very good. She’s well-spoken and intelligent, and understands the issues in a way that the other non-politicians running sometimes don’t. Her problem is her narrative. She was CEO of Hewlett-Packard, which she ran into the ground. She ran for the Senate in California, and got clobbered. 12 of the 30 top operatives in her Senate campaign recently came out with a statement that they would never work for her again, ever, in any capacity whatever. And her former H-P employees make for a formidable (and computer-savvy) group who will do whatever they possibly can to sabotage her campaign. She’s another ‘too much baggage’ candidate, I think.
Of the actual serious candidates, I thought Marco Rubio did pretty well, as did John Kasich. And, speaking as a Democrat, that’s scary. Rubio struck a chord with his talk about a childhood in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck. If he could take that experience, and translate it into concrete policy suggestions that really would help the lower and middle classes, he could be a formidable opponent. And Kasich came across as a decent, honorable, competent man. When the man said that he had attended the wedding of a gay friend, I expected boos from the audience. None followed. Yay. I mean, it’s not like he said anything all that remarkable; basically, ‘I decided not to be a self-righteous jerk when my friend got married.’ But the ‘basic humanity’ bar has been set deplorably low by some of the more unhinged members of the people on that stage.
Let’s make a few basic assumptions. First, let’s assume that Joe Biden decides not to run for President, and that Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee. I know that a lot of progressives really like Bernie Sanders; I’m among them. He’s the Clean Gene McCarthy of this race; a man of integrity, a serious man with serious policy ideas. I think it’s great that he’s in the race. I don’t think he can win. He might even win both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary and still lose the nomination; Hillary Clinton is much stronger with minority voters. But I want the Democratic primary process to be tough, grueling, a real grind. It’s been awhile since Secretary Clinton was in a tough electoral contest. It’s good for her to struggle. I think she can win, but she has a lot of negatives, too.
Let’s further suppose that the Republican nominee, when all the dust settles, is Marco Rubio, and that he selects Kasich as his running mate. Rubio, from Florida; Kasich, from Ohio. That’s a formidable ticket. Ohio and Florida? In play?
Now, they’ve got to run on an economic platform that makes sense. No more ‘tax cuts for billionaires, because wealth trickles down’ garbage. They can’t just say ‘I feel bad for poor people because my Mom was poor, so see, I care about you and your concerns.’ You actually have to govern in a way that reduces income inequality, and puts more money in the pockets of poor people. No more running against ‘Obamacare.’ No more crap about how the nuclear deal with Iran will bring about the end of days. Rubio’s expanded Child Tax Credit idea is the kind of Republican idea that could actually make a difference in the lives of poor people. They need more policy proposals like that one. And if they do that, run as moderates, Rubio/Kasich could win.
Unless, of course, Trump runs as a third-party candidate. He’s kept that door open, as everyone saw last Thursday. And he would absolutely pull votes from Rubio. or any other Republican. But speaking as a Democrat, that’s a lot to hope for. Donald Trump is, fundamentally and essentially, an infant. And infants get bored.