The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at The Wall Street Journal written by the editor, James Taranto.
Question and Answer
A Majority Incongruous
Poor Donald Trump just can’t catch a break, to hear Politico’s Ben Schreckinger tell it:
Despite Trump’s polling lead, there are significant obstacles to his running away with the [Republican presidential] nomination in the coming weeks. With [Marco] Rubio buoyed by momentum, Nevada’s organizing-heavy caucuses set for Tuesday, and the first half of March weighted toward states where [Ted] Cruz is poised to finish strongly, there is little space for Trump to translate that lead into a certain nomination in the coming weeks.
Wait, didn’t Trump just win big in South Carolina, a week and a half after winning big in New Hampshire? Yes—and not only that, but Schreckinger’s piece is titled “Is Trump Now Inevitable?”—meaning the adjective in the Hillary Clinton sense. (To be sure, Mrs. Clinton was also inevitable in 2008, when she lost anyhow. Inevitability isn’t what it used to be, something we suppose was bound to happen.)
The Palmetto State’s other big winner was cognitive dissonance [the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes], which is affecting not just pundits but members of both parties. The New York Times reports:
Mainstream Republicans grappled on Sunday with Donald J. Trump’s sweeping victory in South Carolina as if cycling through stages of grief, with some refusing to accept that he could be the party’s eventual nominee and others searching for ways to prevent his insurgent candidacy from becoming unstoppable.
The Times quotes Trump’s top two rivals, who to nobody’s surprise are trying to play down his victory. Rubio: “Last night was truly the beginning of the real Republican primary.” He hopes so, since he’s finished third, fifth and second in the unreal ones.
Cruz: “If you want to beat Donald Trump, you’ve got to go with the only campaign that has demonstrated that they can beat Donald Trump.” Cruz defeated Trump in Iowa three lifetimes in politics ago before finishing third in both New Hampshire and South Carolina.
A spokesman for John Kasich, meanwhile, notes that Rubio “has the same number of second-place finishes as Governor Kasich despite spending at least $45 million more.” Kasich finished second in New Hampshire, fifth in South Carolina (another “tie” with Rubio) and eighth in Iowa, behind Cruz, Trump, Rubio, Ben Carson and ex-candidates Rand Paul, Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina.
“But as the candidates projected confidence,” the Times report continues, “members of the Republican establishment were filled with increasing anxiety about Mr. Trump’s prospects”:
Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member from Mississippi, sounded a note of alarm about Republicans continuing to wait to see how the race plays out.
“After Trump has won in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Republicans are crazy and about to blow the White House if we don’t rally to stop him,” Mr. Barbour said. “It’s certainly time that we have to consolidate the race.”
He predicted that Mr. Trump’s nomination would not only cost Republicans the White House but also hurt the party’s chances of keeping its majority in the Senate.
The idea that non-Trump Republicans can “consolidate the race” is based on the hypothesis that Trump has a “ceiling” of support and cannot possibly attract a majority of Republican voters.
That hypothesis is increasingly weak, but still a live hope based on the contests thus far, in which Trump has yet to top 36%, never mind 50%. Then again, no other candidate has so far managed more than 28%, Cruz’s Iowa total. And a finding in last week’s nationwide Wall Street Journal poll provides the strongest evidence we’ve seen against the ceiling theory:
When Republican candidates were pitted against each other in test match-ups, the poll found that Messrs. Cruz and Rubio were about equally equipped to best Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump would lose to Mr. Cruz by 56% to 40%, the poll found. Mr. Rubio would beat Mr. Trump by 57% to 41%, a reversal from last month, when the poll found Mr. Trump winning that matchup by a 6-point margin.
Other candidates tested in hypothetical matchups were weaker than Mr. Trump. The poll found Mr. Trump would beat Mr. Bush by 54% to 43%, and he would beat Mr. Kasich by 52% to 44%.
If this poll is accurate—and we’d note it’s an anti-Trump outlier, which shows Cruz with a slight overall lead—it demonstrates that a majority of Republicans are willing to consider voting for Trump—that his ceiling is north of 50%.
Bush has already left the race. There’s pressure on Kasich to bow out as well. That makes sense given that Cruz and Rubio appear to be the two candidates who could beat Trump. But it’s hard to see how either of them could do it while the other is still in the race.
Thus if you ran the Republican establishment and wanted to stop Trump, it would stand to reason that your top priority would be to persuade either Cruz or Rubio to withdraw. But candidates typically don’t get out until it’s clear they can’t win (sometimes even then; we’re looking at you, Dr. Carson). And there’s no guarantee Cruz’s or Rubio’s numbers would hold up in a two-man race—especially if the other withdrew prematurely, raising suspicions of a corrupt deal.
The cognitive dissonance over Trump’s commanding position is bipartisan. We noted Feb. 12 that several liberal commentators were pronouncing themselves “terrified” of him. Then there’s Danielle Allen, a political theorist at Harvard. Here’s the lead paragraph of her post-South Carolina op-ed in the Washington Post:
Like any number of us raised in the late 20th century, I have spent my life perplexed about exactly how Hitler could have come to power in Germany. Watching Donald Trump’s rise, I now understand. Leave aside whether a direct comparison of Trump to Hitler is accurate. That is not my point. My point rather is about how a demagogic opportunist can exploit a divided country.
When your opening gambit is the argumentum ad Hitlerum but you’re not certain enough of it (or fanatical enough) to sustain it for more than half a paragraph, you are probably in a state of panic.
Allen is very liberal: Not only does she support Hillary Clinton; she and her friends’ response to the prospect of a Trump presidency is to “joke about moving to Canada more seriously than usually.” (“Usually” is the tell there.) Rather than give in to despair, she hatches a plan for “coordination across party lines and across divisions within parties” to defeat Trump.
She instructs Republicans that “you cannot count on the Democrats to stop Trump.” Mrs. Clinton “is a candidate with significant weaknesses,” who could lose to Trump. Thus she assigns Republicans most of the work of defeating him. She instructs Kasich and Carson to drop out now and endorse Rubio. So far so good, but then there’s this:
Ted Cruz is, I believe, pulling votes away from Trump, and for that reason is useful in the race. But, Mr. Cruz, you are drawing too close to Trump’s politics. You too should change course.
Assuming her premises about Cruz are accurate, does she imagine they are unconnected? That is, if he followed her advice to pull away from “Trump’s politics,” why does she imagine he would still pull votes away from Trump?
Allen urges all Republican ex-candidates to hold “one big mother of a news conference,” where they would endorse Rubio and disavow their pledge to back whoever the GOP chooses as its candidate: “Be bold, stand up and shout that you will not support Trump if he is your party’s nominee.”
Her advice to Democrats? “Re-register [as a Republican] and vote for Rubio [in the primary], even if, like me, you cannot stomach his opposition to marriage equality [same-sex marriage].”
Curiously, she does not advise Mrs. Clinton to end her campaign, or Democratic Party leaders to push her out, so that Allen’s own party can nominate a less feeble alternative to Trump. You can see why: Absent an indictment or other emergency directly affecting Mrs. Clinton, it’s just not going to happen. But then neither are any of the other measures Allen urges—one of which is that journalists cease to “cover every crude and cruel thing that comes out of Trump’s mouth.”
But wait. Think about Allen’s proposal that other Republicans vow not to support their party’s front-runner. Would that not tear the party apart regardless of who is the nominee? If it’s Trump, the GOP would essentially be abstaining from the presidential campaign. If it’s Rubio (or someone else), the party would enter the autumn having made clear its utter contempt for the plurality of its primary voters.
Allen’s response to Trump-induced cognitive dissonance, then, is to draw up a blueprint to save the presidency for Mrs. Clinton—though like the blueprints for the Starship Enterprise, it is a fantasy, not a plan.
The trouble is that anti-Trump Republicans and anti-Trump Democrats don’t really have a common interest in stopping Trump, because they fear him, first and foremost, for opposite reasons. The Republicans, like Barbour, are afraid he’d lose to Mrs. Clinton. The Democrats, like Allen, are afraid Mrs. Clinton would lose to him. As to which side’s fears are better founded, we could argue that either way.
Actually, the foregoing is a bit of an overgeneralization. Lots of Republicans find the idea of a Trump presidency at least unsettling, and we know several conservative ones who say they would never vote for him. Some even say they would vote for Mrs. Clinton if it comes to that.
Which certainly sounds like a problem for Trump. Though the flip side is that he is the one GOP candidate who could boost his support by persuading conservative Republicans to vote against Hillary Clinton—not a hard sell even for a poor salesman.
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