The sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia kept me from writing about last Saturday’s Republican debate, and about the state of the race more generally. In a nutshell: Just when you think things cannot get worse, they get worse. The Republican Party is in free fall and no one knows how to stop it.
The words “lie” and “liar” were used more than twenty times during last weekend’s debate. At various times, Donald Trump was talking over Jeb Bush, or Ted Cruz was talking over Marco Rubio, or Cruz was talking over Donald Trump. Only Ben Carson at one end of the stage and John Kasich at the other were able to steer clear of the playground-like fracas. Of course, Carson seems so spacey at these events, he makes everyone around him look informed. Kasich has ridden his calm demeanor and positive talk points into a 2nd place finish in New Hampshire and rising polls numbers in South Carolina, which is odd because when he was on Capitol Hill, he was known for his often explosive temper.
It isn’t just the debates. In this morning’s Washington Post, there is an article about Ted Cruz’s 2013 filibuster that resulted in a government shutdown. Cruz wanted to defund the Affordable Care Act, even though he had no real plan to accomplish that. One of his colleagues at the time, now-retired Sen. Tom Coburn, told the Post: “It wasn’t about the shutdown. It wasn’t about the Affordable Care Act. It was about launching Ted Cruz.” I need hardly point out that Coburn is not what you would call a liberal. In defending Cruz’s efforts, his national spokesman Rick Tyler explained to the Post that the problem wasn’t Cruz, but the congressional Republicans who refused to fight: “’Oh, we don’t have the votes. We’ll just give up.’ That’s not leadership; that’s capitulation and appeasement and surrender.” Look at those direct objects. They are not words we associate with politics but with war. How will that play in a general election, in which large numbers of voters express their frustration with Washington gridlock and its excessive partisanship? And, make no mistake about it: At this point in the cycle, Cruz is the most likely alternative to Donald Trump, who continues to speak on the stump as if the campaign were a reality show, mixing in personal attacks with non sequiturs with false claims and virtually no substantive policy positions. Except the wall.
As a lifelong Democrat, perhaps I should be gleeful that the GOP nominating contest has turned so ugly. But, I am also a lifelong American, who believes the two-party system has served our country well and knows that it is never good for democracy when either party goes over the cliff. Given the fact that today’s Democrats are as beholden to NARAL and Emily’s List as today’s GOP is to the NRA, it is a good thing that there are some checks and balances on both parties. The need for compromise often results in legislative hash, but such hash is often less dangerous to the country that the wholesale adoption of either party’s more extreme positions.
The Democrats have a different problem in their nominating contest. Bernie Sanders really does have a more accurate moral case to make against the rigged financial, economic and, consequently political system that has enshrined ideas and policies that accept as a given a set of economic principles that will continue to direct almost all new wealth to the top one percent, that will continue to ignore the dignity of work and workers, and will frustrate a host of other efforts, such as more equal opportunity for African-Americans. He is right to be so leftist in his critique. But, Sanders’ proposals, from single-payer health care to free college education, sound neither new nor appealing to people who are still as suspicious of big government programs as they are of big banks. Where are the references to what mayors are doing to improve the quality of life in their cities? When does Sanders cite the work of some governors in confronting environmental degradation? People may hate Wall Street but they don’t love Washington either, and Sanders has done nothing to address that lack of love in his proposals or his speeches.
Sanders has an additional problem: He can’t win. He says that his campaign will attract millions of new voters who will be energized as never before and, so, force Republicans in Congress to support his policies. But, where is the evidence of this groundswell? In both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, fewer Democrats went to the polls this year than in 2008. And, while Clinton has thrown some jabs at him, can you imagine what a field day the Republicans will have running against a self-described “democratic socialist”? You can imagine the ad: It starts with pictures of Sanders and his wife on their honeymoon…in Moscow. Now, I have been to Moscow too. It is a beautiful city with friendly and cultured people, delicious food, and some of the most hauntingly beautiful architecture you shall ever see. But, for a socialist, even a democratic one, to go there on his honeymoon? You can bet there is a photo of them in front of a statue of Lenin or Marx.
On another day I will discuss the problems with Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, but as a political matter, and excepting the on-going FBI investigation into her email server, Clinton could not only trounce any of the current GOP front-runners, she could win with the kind of landslide that would bring the Senate with her and, potentially, the House. The GOP’s stupidity about President Obama’s ability to name a replacement to the Supreme Court only feeds the possibility that Clinton could garner the center of the electorate by a large margin.
We will know more after Saturday’s GOP primary in South Carolina. But, if Trump follows his large New Hampshire win with a win in the Palmetto State, who will stop him? Cruz might be a worse candidate than Trump. And, unless one of the more mainstream Republican candidates outpolls the others, why will any of them drop out? Now, I should add, are the mainstream candidates much more moderate in their policies than Cruz or Trump, even though their rhetoric is less offensive. Watching last weekend’s debate, and the interviews and stump speeches since, I keep think to myself that we are watching a once great party crash and burn before our eyes. It isn’t pretty. And, it isn’t good for the country.