Final Debate of 2015 and Where We Go From Here

The direction of where the Republican primary is headed became quite clear to me last night watching the final debate of 2015, that is, clear as can be until it changes again. It has been a fluid and rather unpredictable primary thus far, with the candidacy of Donald Trump dominating 90%+ of media coverage, and with successful conservative Governors like Scott Walker, Rick Perry, and Bobby Jindal having to drop out for lack of traction and funds. The wildly popular two-term Governor of the most important swing state in the country, Kasich, has failed to gain any traction, and the candidate who has spent the most money (by far) and has the most name recognition with nearly everyone in his family having once been President, Jeb!, set to blow over $100 million of other people’s money before dropping out (which I believe will happen after New Hampshire). It has been bizarre, but frankly cluttered, and when it gets less cluttered, it may get more bizarre, and it may get less bizarre. But here is the lay of the land as I see it.

There remains the camp that says, “this Trump this is for real; he really wants to be President; his lack of any real campaign budget or infrastructure is immaterial; the polls show he is the favorite to win the nomination”. I am not in that camp, but I admit that thesis carries weight just in terms of the fact that he is still around at all. Whether he wins or loses Iowa, it is entirely possible he could win New Hampshire and South Carolina, and have momentum for Nevada and Florida, before starting to face states where he will have a tougher time. The proportionate delegate count in the majority of states is why he can’t just run away with it even in that scenario. But he can maintain a #1 position in this narrative, and the best thing I can say is that should this play out it does simplify things a lot. He would lose 45 states to Hillary, if he is lucky, and there would be no need to pay attention to any part of the campaign. It would not only save me hundreds of hours of my life, but a bunch of dough as well. I see this scenario as highly unlikely.

The other scenario that gets ugly for those limited conservatives among us who, um, want to win, is that Trump and Cruz split each other up in some states (Cruz takes Iowa, Trump takes South Carolina, etc.), leaving each competitive but each short of what is needed to win. A Rubio then takes some other key states, with that proportionate delegate count thing helping him the most, and you end up deep into the primary with a Trump/Cruz/Rubio triangular nightmare. I don’t really see this sticking either, as I think Cruz kills Trump or Trump kills Cruz, all of their pitiful niceties last night notwithstanding. This scenario in its most developed form – a convention fight – certainly means the loss of the election, and also means apathy after the primary (though it means having to pay attention all the way through the primary).

The scenario I see shaping up and became more evident to me last night, is that we are headed towards a Cruz-Rubio fight for the nomination, and I strongly suspect this too will leave the winner deeply bruised and damaged, left to engage the most pathological politician of our lifetimes with 30-40% of their own party’s voters having turned on them.

If one wanted to make a list of real, actual, material, substantive, “big point” ideological differences between Rubio and Cruz, they could bring a very, very small piece of paper. If Cruz, Rubio, and one guy were in a room with no cameras to discuss belief system and policy, the guy not named Cruz or Rubio would leave the room saying “geez, these two are one and the same”. But many in the party and certainly many in the media want a narrative that goes like this: “Cruz is a firebrand true conservative who has taken on the establishment”, and “Rubio is a darling of the establishment with a more neocon approach to foreign policy”. Cruz will get lumped in with Sarah Palin; Rubio will get lumped in with Mitt Romney. It’s all nonsense, but as a narrative, it has legs. Politically, it should be a winner for Cruz, depending on what the real goals of Ted Cruz are.

I think the country was mostly snoring through the metadata arguments of last night. I think if you entered the debate last night a Rubio guy you saw someone capably and competently presenting his vision for national defense and being unscathed by often incoherent attacks from obscure candidates like Rond Paul. If you entered the debate a Cruz fan you were happy to see him and Trump continue in the one-sided man-crush (I guess Cruz finds standing up to Mitch McConnell easier??), and you wouldn’t have seen anything change your mind about Cruz being the second coming of Thomas Jefferson. Trump is untouchable with his people – my perpetual belief in the demise of Trump is not based on a belief that his people will turn on him; it is based on a belief that he doesn’t have as many people as you think. The “Christie is coming on strong” narrative is actually useful to what I want to see happen, but it doesn’t seem to have any real empirical support. Indeed, if Christie could play a role in helping Trump find second place in New Hampshire, a 1-2 loss in Iowa and New Hampshire for The Donald would be most splendid. But really unless th3ere is a significant surprise in the next six weeks, I think we have a trifecta of surviving candidates, and the Trump/Cruz/Rubio reality will be a lot easier to decipher if it turns into a Cruz/Rubio battle.

Should that one-on-one develop, and each candidate decides to fight hard for the nomination with a foundation in place that the other candidate must be preserved for the general election, it will be a fine battle to watch. I happen to believe that Rubio carries a stronger vision for the future of this country, has more to say for millennials and Hispanics, and from a personality standpoint, would literally wipe the floor with Hillary. I also believe him to be impressively prepared and substantive, and think his message for the country is the right message at the right time. Ted Cruz is a sharp guy, and I can’t say with certainty that he would lose to Hillary. I don’t see him winning, as I have permanently engrained into me the fact that so many voters are totally and completely oblivious to anything whatsoever other than popularity, likability, and personality. That should help the Republican candidate in a big way against this Democratic corrupto, but I fear that Cruz’s ruthless political ambitions will hurt him. I will be happy to be wrong.

But if he and Marco are going to have a petty fight for five months or longer like what we began to see last night, the person who wins that fight is going to wish they hadn’t. The Republican party has proven itself incapable of doing what Hillary cult members did in 2008: Vote for their arch rival Obama EN MASSE. The Cruz faction turning on Rubio and Rubio faction turning on Cruz would end the election. I don’t mention a Trump faction ending the election because I think they come in equal parts from folks who have never voted and folks who otherwise would vote Democrat; rank populists. But the only way for a Cruz and Rubio faction to not turn on the other is for those factions to not be formed to begin with. I suspect that train has left the station. And in 11 months I may very well again have to realize that it would have been better to have been wrong and won, than realize I was right, and lost.