State of the Union

Donald Trump, Presumptive Nominee

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

After Indiana, American politics have entered a new period.

For eight months, Donald Trump’s electoral strength has astounded, shocked, and dismayed the political class and terrified the inner circles of the GOP. The outer-borough New Yorker, pushy WASP (Russell Baker’s phrase of some thirty years ago), developer and TV star with flamboyant personality, bold and bombastic, a militant centrist, an Eisenhower Republican with a Berlusconi temperament, has managed to carry out what amounts to a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, or at least its presidential process.

Republican voters, told for months that Trump was not a real Republican, not a real conservative, not whatever National Review, the Wall Street Journal, or the Weekly Standard thought a Republican nominee ought to be, have said they didn’t care. Every important national pundit predicted Trump would, eventually, lose. The voters disagreed. Record Republican turnout in one state after another. Trump wins. Last night, a long resistant GOP establishment acknowledged the fact.

The first point to make is that the Republican establishment deserved to lose. Honestly, it is impossible to point to one single thing that the national Republican party has done this century for the mostly middle class voters who regularly support it. It has no legislative accomplishments, nor shown evidence of successful pushback on social issues. A large segment of its regular voters have experienced a massive sociological decline in wages, life chances, and life expectancy. The only significant thing the national GOP has accomplished since the millennium is starting the Iraq war. If ever a defeat was richly deserved, it was this one.

At this stage no one really knows what kind of candidate or president Donald Trump might be. He is of course a distinct underdog at this point. Like many, I can point to GOP intellectuals, not neocons, who despise him. Not because of his anti-war or anti-interventionist or anti-immigrationist stances. These are people who more or less agree with those positions. But because Trump seems to have ADD, because of his sometimes vulgarity, because they don’t trust him pay sufficient attention to the process of government to follow through. Because he too easily slips into demagoguery. And no one knows how Trump will do in this new stage. It’s likely that a year ago, Donald Trump contemplated a future of ten good years managing his golf empire and enjoying his family.

Now Trump has become a tribune for white working class patriotism, spokesman for a core group of this country, the one most neglected and dismissed by the Washington political class. For Trump personally, this must be a strange and largely unexpected challenge. To begin a campaign as what was perhaps a lark, or as a bid to be taken seriously, and to find oneself somehow thrust into the crucible of history. It is never clear which particular elections are historically decisive, but it is obvious that in this general period the entire West is facing the question of whether its basic identity will survive under the challenges of globalism and mass migration.

Of course these issues, all those related to globalism and immigration, was critical to Trump’s success. The campaign conveyed implicitly a loyalty to the Americans who are here now, not to some ineffable universalist idea of America, not to the hundreds of millions who might come if the the immigration laws were—as so many in the establishment wish—loosened further. For this, of course, he was denounced as racist.

Ditto of course with trade. Of course we’ve all read our Ricardo, and many in some ways appreciate the seemingly infinite supply of cheap Chinese manufactured goods in our stores. But these come at a price beyond the actual cost; that price, increasingly, is that larger and larger segments of the American population lack the prospects of ever finding secure employment. To those who remember, as Donald Trump does, that one of the things that made America special was that it was a country with many good working class jobs, this is a coruscating loss.

Republican talking heads are already speculating about the looming defection of GOP foreign policy hawks io the Hillary campaign, and the formation of some sort of Neocons for Hillary group is as inevitable as eventual rain showers. It is a genuinely curious thing that Clinton will run to the right of Trump on foreign policy. This could be a potential advantage for Trump, but it is far from clear that Trump will figure out how to make it so. His foreign policy talk last week showed he was still trying to figure out how to appeal to national security hawks while pushing for a less interventionist, more America First, foreign policy. But even some variant of the Obama-Kerry foreign policy would be better for America than the reflexive hawkishness Clinton represents.

Trump claims, without a great deal of tangible evidence, to have been an early Iraq War opponent. Hillary, of course, supported the war. It can only help Trump in the general election to draw out this distinction, and pound away at its continuing relevance.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

Why Kasich Flopped

One of the curious aspects of the GOP campaign is that John Kasich has not done better, especially in the northeastern or mid-Atlantic states where “moderate Republicanism” still has a political resonance. David Drucker contemplated the surprising Kasich weakness and cited one strategist who concluded “Kasich has proven there is no market for a defiant left of center Republican.”

Perhaps it was Kasich’s relatively soft edge on social issues (though he was always and consistently pro-life), his readiness to accommodate Obamacare, and a general style which touted “I can work across the aisle to get things done and am not like these other bomb-throwers” which did him in. But I’m not so sure. There is an argument to be made that Kasich’s “moderation” was inconsistent, that he vacillated too readily towards hardline positions that didn’t stand up to scrutiny, especially on foreign policy. One of the surprising things about the primary election cycle is that neither Trump nor Sanders were punished at all by voters for challenging the bipartisan hawkish consensus which now governs Washington. In Kasich’s bid to be the reasonable guy in the room, he ignored foreign policy, or actually showed himself to be just as ready to strike belligerent poses as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham. Given the chance to be “defiant left of center,” he passed.

Months ago, it looked as if it might be different. In a January town hall in northwest New Hampshire, Kasich was asked who seemed like an exemplary secretary of state who might guide his thinking. He mentioned Jim Baker. I thought this might have been simply the reflex of a tired candidate coming out with the name of the secretary of state he actually knew; and that Kasich was somehow unaware that Baker was a kind of demon figure for the neoconservatives for trying to push Israel towards peace with the Palestinians. But no, it seemed the remark was fairly intentional. I hoped that the remark might arise later in the campaign—perhaps become a vehicle for a Kasich defense of George H.W. Bush’s “realist” foreign policy, and show Kasich in healthy contrast to Graham, Cruz, and Rubio who spout only neocon-approved positions.

But Kasich didn’t see it that way. Instead, on the debate stage, surprising belligerence came from Kasich: “punch Putin in the nose” and “arm the Ukrainians” were his most notable utterances. In other words, risk war with Russia over Ukraine. One wonders what Baker would have thought of this.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of George H.W. Bush was to oversee the end of the Cold War and the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union. And one of the factors which made it possible was that Washington was not overly triumphant about it: the end of communism was good for Russia, and so was letting Eastern Europe go. But there were implicit understandings that the U.S. wouldn’t try push its advantage by, for instance, expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders. Perhaps these should have been codified, but they weren’t.

In what John Mearsheimer rightly describes as a “boneheaded play,” Washington and the EU have been trying to peel Ukraine away from Russia’s orbit through NATO and EU expansion and democracy promotion, and have effectively installed through a combined rebellion/coup d’état a “pro-Western” government in Ukraine. The result has been a bloody civil war, with great possibilities of escalation. It is probably not too much to say that these policies were the exact opposite of what George H.W. Bush and James Baker conceived in the early 1990s, when they envisioned Russia emerging as a non-hostile partner in the international system. And yet here is John Kasich, apparently believing there aren’t enough hot spots in the world, suggesting—as basically his signature foreign-policy contribution—that we should add more fuel to the fire by “arming the Ukrainians” in order to punch Putin in the nose.

In last night’s “Acela primary” moderate Republicans voted for Trump over Kasich. Trump’s campaign style is certainly not moderate, but those looking for a realist foreign-policy sensibility may have felt they had nowhere else to go. For this, Kasich has only himself to blame.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

Should Donald Trump Have First Amendment Rights?

Darron Birgenheier / Flickr
Darron Birgenheier / Flickr

On Sunday’s “Face the Nation,” host John Dickerson asked his press panel what the Democrats’ reaction would have been to large-scale efforts to block roads and disrupt traffic for those attending a Barack Obama rally during the 2008 campaign. While no one replied directly, Ruth Marcus said, “We know what it would be.” The understood answer was the road-blockers would encounter a nationwide crescendo of denunciation, and would be shamed as despicable racists seeking to disrupt the American democratic process.

By contrast, those seeking to disrupt Trump rallies face nothing of the sort. Instead, Trump and his supporters are denounced over and over again for their verbal, or in two or three instances physical, lashings out against those who have repeatedly sought to wreak havoc on their events.

The possibility of widespread violence, instead of the now-routine disruptions, prompted Trump to cancel a Chicago rally on the evening of March 10. The cancellation, and the TV coverage of altercations outside the arena which followed, sparked debates between liberals and leftists over whether creating mayhem around Trump events is politically prudent, morally justified, and tactically effective. No one who scans these debates is likely to come away greatly reassured about the bedrock solidity of the shared commitment to the democratic rules of the game in American politics; one could easily conclude that America is beginning to veer towards a state where political disruption and civil violence will become a kind of norm, as it is in much of the Third World.

After the cancellation, the news networks played in continuing loops footage of confrontations between outnumbered Trump supporters and anti-Trump demonstrators outside the University of Illinois at Chicago venue. The latter sometimes waved Mexican flags or banners flouting their undocumented status, defiantly expressing the belief, newly ascendant on the left, that the United States has no right to enforce its immigration laws.

The essayist Michael Tomasky tweeted, “It’s surreal, but if you think this hurts Trump and not the protesters, I fear you are mistaken.” This seemingly innocuous tweet was quickly set upon by some of Tomasky’s Twitter followers, one of whom labeled him a “tone-policing white liberal.” In a podcast debate between millennial writer-activists Ali Gharib and Jesse Myerson over whether it was a good idea for the left to shut down Trump rallies, Tomasky was singled out for disdain along with Damon Linker, who had written the left’s proper response to Trump’s events was not to disrupt them. Myerson used the word  “cowardice” before adding he didn’t actually know Linker personally. The former Occupy Wall Street activist, who had created a small splash by publishing a kind of communist manifesto for millennials in 2014, argued that almost any action which prevented Trump from speaking was justified, so long as it succeeded. The important thing was to show strength, not weakness. Forcing Trump to cancel a rally showed the demonstrators’ strength. Chicago was thus an unambiguous victory.

For his part, Gharib—who took the part of “liberal” in the “liberal-leftist” dialogue—managed to remind one of nothing so much as the hapless liberals of the 1960s, invariably ready to concede the moral high ground to the far left, while seeking to defend, almost apologetically,  the “process” rules of liberal democracy. We agree completely with your aims, they would say to radicals which wanted not civil rights or the end of the Vietnam War but “revolution” on some sort of Maoist or Castroite model. Gharib did note that leftists or liberals might one day have some use for the right to rent a hall and hold a political meeting, so it was perhaps not a wise precedent to deny it to Donald Trump. The mounting of continuous disruptions of the rallies of a “racist fascist” was perfectly alright with him however.

One could see similar modes of thinking elsewhere in the ranks of well placed mainstream commentators: Jonathan Chait claims that Trump poses an “unprecedented threat” to American democracy, “spreading poisons” though its system, but says that the “whole premise of democracy is that rules need to be applied in every case without regard to the merit” of the cause benefitting from them. Chait expressed dismay that most of his Twitter followers disagreed with this last point.

One of the rare anti-Trump commentators who managed not to embarrass himself by fawning over the good intentions of those who wanted shut Trump down was the Cato Institute’s Walter Olson, who wrote unambiguously,

If Side A rents a hall for a rally and Side B comes in and shouts down A’s speaker, what has happened is better described as “mob rule” than as “free speech.”

As several observers noted, the culture of shouting people down or denying them the right to speak has been growing rapidly on the left in recent years. Bernie Sanders himself had his microphone seized and a rally disrupted by Black Lives Matter activists, an incident to which Trump has sometimes referred in his own speeches. Olson noted that many who engaged in recent shutdowns, such as one against Federalist Society speaker Orrin Hatch, are not young or black but actually staffers of an exceedingly well-funded liberal think-tank. The lack of respect for the free speech of those one disagrees with was a noticeable feature of last fall’s wave of campus protests, from Yale to Claremont, which had no connection to Donald Trump. Ali Gharib’s concerns notwithstanding, respect for free speech does not rank highly on the progressive hierarchy of values.

Yet the sanctity of the rules of the democratic process, and right of one’s opponents to express themselves freely may not be the most important issue to arise from these incidents. If Donald Trump were really a dangerous fascist, rather than a 69-year-old businessman who holds fairly populist (and popular) attitudes towards American immigration law, one could more readily empathize with the soul-searching of progressives wondering how to counter him. The communist Jesse Myerson (I am not red-baiting, this is how he describes himself) has a point when he asserts that no one is a free-speech absolutist.

But to concede, with a kind of lazy or passive credulity, the left-wing definition of Trump as a “racist fascist” is in its way as alarmingly wrongheaded as proclaiming he and his supporters should be denied their opportunity to hire a venue and hold a peaceful rally. This kind of smearing has many parallels, but one it evokes most clearly the left-wing rhetoric of the 1960s, where the United States was presented as irredeemably fascist, racist, and imperialist—“Amerika” or “Amerikkka” in the rhetoric of the day.

About Trump, there are several more or less indisputable facts. Trump is a self-promoting businessman who is running for president on a platform which appeals most strongly to a white working class which has lost economic security and social stature to economic globalization and immigrant wage competition. Their kids have disproportionately served in the armed forces, subject to repeated deployments for pointless wars plotted by their more educated countrymen. I have attended nearly a half-dozen Trump events and stood in lines for hours chatting with these people. A fascist mob they are not.

What is a Trump speech like? Typically the tone is conversational. Much of it is about polls, or joking about other candidates. Ted Cruz is “the Canadian.” The audience is with Trump on the jokes, they know the lines in advance. The media—as with its recent credulous reporting about Trump’s “questioning of Romney’s faith”—seems determinedly unable to discern when Trump is joking.

In policy terms, most of the content of Trump’s talk is about trade and trade deals, along with special-interest financing of politicians. I’m not sure Trump’s supporters fully believe he will renegotiate America’s trade arrangements successfully, or bring any factories back. I am certain they appreciate being part of a movement which gives the president a mandate to do that. They might well have preferred to support a more normal politician—for Trump’s trade policy positions seems to me fairly similar to what Richard Gephardt was saying in the late ’80s and ’90s. But Trump is what they have. Things for them are now mostly far worse than they were in Gephardt’s time. And a Trump rally is more fun than a Gephardt rally.

You actually don’t hear much talk about immigrants at a Trump rally, beyond the occasional reference to “beautiful Kate” who was murdered in San Francisco by a criminal illegal alien who was free to roam because San Francisco is a “sanctuary city.” References to The Wall, both a concrete and symbolic promise to enforce—to actually enforce—America’s existing immigration laws, are however a big part of any Trump rally. Deporting 11 million illegals (which would be a public relations and logistical nightmare) is not. If any of the bien pensants lamenting the fascist aura surrounding Trump events want to correct me, it’s possible I’ve missed something: as I’ve said, I’ve been only to five Trump events, all in New Hampshire. But nothing I’ve heard from the Trump stage is racist or fascist. Not even close.

About violence, what can one say? I believe there have been three incidents in which disruptive protesters have been punched or manhandled. One can’t excuse this, though in most of the instances the circumstances were somewhat unusual. In one case, an old man sucker-punched a much younger one who was giving him the finger while being escorted out. In another, an African-American Trump supporter took offense at two protesters, one wearing Ku Klux Klan garb, the other waving a placard with a Confederate flag imposed on Trump’s face (and yelling what we can only imagine). These are the incidents which are discussed again and again on TV, out of a data set involving dozens of Trump rallies, hundreds of disruptions, and hundreds of thousands of people. Even the Washington Post has felt obliged to report upon the pure hatred which seems to infest the Trump protesters.

Honestly, in what universe does an individual feel entirely safe going to someone else’s political rally in order to disrupt it? For example, if people (as someone on Twitter suggested to me) descended upon on a Hillary event, whipped out placards with photos of late-term aborted fetuses, and started shouting about baby-killing, would they be treated with overwhelming civility? One would hope so, of course, but one can’t be sure they would be. And if this happened repeatedly, again and again and again?

It is true that Trump plays the tough guy on stage—“Get him out of here,” or in some cases, “In the old days he’d get a punch in the nose” or be “carried out on a stretcher.” I’m sure this is unwise, and fairly certain Trump will stop doing it if the violence at his rallies persists. But those words seem to me most of all a way of diffusing tension, giving people something to think about while the disrupters are removed. Trump’s campaign is, after all, about giving voice to the aspirations of largely powerless people. Trump can’t very well show that he can be pushed around by the dorm-room Marxists and professional protesters who come to disrupt his rallies.

Donald Trump is of course a candidate with many obvious flaws: he is crass, egotistical, and seemingly not well versed in policy. If he is elected, there is a considerable chance he would be unable to do anything to improve the lives of his supporters, or that he would sell them out by acting like a more or less normal Republican. This is what Michael Brendan Dougherty, a shrewd observer of the Trump phenomenon, feels is the most likely scenario. But there is also a chance that, once in office, he would try, with some success, to carry out a nationalist populist program, particularly in regards to trade. The result would be a subtle reshuffling of winners and losers, a shift in who gains from federal policies and who does not. We all know who has gained the most in the past 30 years. Perhaps under Trump the national-income shifts would go in the other direction.

My sentiments about Trump are mixed, but I certainly hope the people who have waited for hours outside gymnasiums to hear him can, for once, win some partial political victories.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

What President Trump’s Foreign-Policy Team Might Look Like

To: DJT

From: McConnell

Since the Romney attack, it’s clear that much of the GOP establishment will fight your nomination tooth-and-nail, won’t support you after you win, would prefer Hillary. One guy who advises Marco on foreign policy took that further and said he’d prefer mass murderer Joseph Stalin to you. This attitude speaks volumes about GOP neoconservatives: most don’t think the Iraq War was a symptom of failure in moral and strategic judgment; most don’t know anyone who served in a combat unit, or anyone whose children who face repeated deployments. Most of them still hope to start another war in the Middle East, with Iran. Or escalate in Ukraine, in order to “bleed” Russia.

But there are many rooms in the GOP establishment, and the party includes millions who realize something’s gone very wrong. Most wouldn’t have chosen you to fix it, and many are still alarmed by your success. But anyone not explicitly against you can eventually be with you. Once you make it to the White House, you will need good people to manage and direct State and Defense.

Let’s start with foreign-policy intellectuals. A couple of weeks ago, some neoconservatives got press attention with one of those letters they are known for. It was organized by Eliot Cohen, an academic tub-thumper for the Iraq War, and its signers included most of those who had long yearned for that war and sold it to Bush and Cheney and through them to the country. These people hate you for all kinds of reasons, but the biggest is that they’ve been expecting to return to power for a long time, attached to Marco or Jeb or someone else, and now you’ve blocked them.

Still, most international relations experts are not neoconservatives, and none of the best ones are. They realize America is protected by two large oceans, can’t be expected to solve every problem in the world, and shouldn’t bankrupt itself by trying. Many of them are not liberals of any sort; they are instead the sort of men and women who might in the past have worked for Ike, or Nixon, or Reagan. For lack of a better word, they are realists.

One good place to find them is in this advertisement, published in the New York Times in the fall of 2002. It’s signed by international-affairs experts who opposed the Iraq War as a quagmire and a strategic distraction from defeating al-Qaeda. Many professors might have agreed privately but preferred to hide in the tall grass—Bush’s neocon hawks then dominated public opinion. The most famous of the signers are Steve Walt and John Mearsheimer, who are brilliant, if controversial because of that Israel book they wrote a few years later. (Which, I should add, is widely—if quietly—admired by people with experience in foreign-policy circles.) There are many other important international-relations people on the list: Mike Desch, now at Notre Dame; Barry Posen, at MIT; Robert Pape, at University of Chicago; and many others. I’m not sure who among them would want to work in an administration, but they would be worth getting in for meetings, to see what they have to say. It’s important to remember that on the most critical foreign-policy decision America has faced in the past 50 years, they were right and all those now attacking you were wrong.

Two others to reach out to are Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett. Both held important posts in the National Security Council during the Bush administration and negotiated with the Iranians right after 9/11. (For a while, Iran was on our side against the Taliban, until the neocons forced a shift in policy.) Since they left government, they’ve been arguing that we can build a new relationship with Iran, a mutually beneficial one. You have been trashing Obama’s deal with Iran, of course, but your shift to complaining that we aren’t getting enough out of the deal, like opportunities to sell goods to Iran, sets the stage for a pivot once in office. The Leveretts may be too optimistic about Iran—time will tell. But they might be right.

Another person, closer to the center, is Jacob Heilbrunn, who has been editing the center-right foreign-affairs magazine The National Interest for the past several years. He knows everyone and all the issues, and he could be a good bridge between the realists—a lot of whom are pretty pissed off and disaffected—and what remains of the GOP establishment.

Also worth reaching out to is Andy Bacevich, a former Army officer, who went back to school and became a top international-relations professor and author after the first Iraq War. Andy is critical of the entire military-interventionist sweep of American foreign policy, perhaps more than is politically smart to be, but he’s full of ideas that your administration (and the country) can benefit from.

Of course, keeping in touch with the more establishment types, who are actually correct some of the time, is smart. Being in regular contact with Richard Haass is always a wise move; he’s experienced and sensible, though his ambition for an important post with whomever is elected makes him less interesting than he might be. Richard Allen, an old Reagan hand, has signed on with John Kasich for the campaign, but I’d bet he’d be willing to advise President Trump come January.

My larger point is that your administration needs effective people. Voters have been willing to take your word for it that you will choose “the best people”—to go along with Carl Icahn. But once elected you will have to fill the picture in. A number of figures in the GOP establishment are looking for concrete signs of how this will happen.

You should always keep in mind that you have a strong mandate to break from the neocons who wrecked George W. Bush’s administration and much of the Middle East. In that sense the hostile letter organized by Eliot Cohen is a blessing in disguise—it means that as president you will have to approach foreign affairs with a clean slate, and no one will expect you to reach out to or “mend fences” with the neocons who have entrenched themselves in the main conservative think-tanks. Most of these warmongers would rather serve in a Hillary Clinton administration.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

The Trump Realignment

Trump signs the Republican loyalty pledge. Michael Vadon / Wikimedia Commons
Trump signs the Republican loyalty pledge. Michael Vadon / Wikimedia Commons

The ebb and flow of campaigns is something political insiders and professionals try to master, but it is usually mysterious. Timing is everything. It is clear that Ted Cruz and especially Marco Rubio have generated some momentum by attacking Donald Trump more personally and viscerally, but far from clear that it will change the course of the contest. What if Rubio had started two weeks earlier with personal attacks: Trump as “con man'; Trump should sue “whoever did that to his face”; Trump as an elderly man who had to check during the debate that “his pants weren’t wet”? But it wouldn’t have been possible then, for Rubio himself was still too shaken by his February 6 debate bruising at the hands of Chris Christie to pull it off.

It’s not clear which of the attacks will stick. “Trump University,” a scam which must be an embarrassment to its founder, is surely the most effective, for it does involve Trump profiting from the gullibility and aspirations of people who were clearly not very well informed. That Trump seems uncertain whether to explicitly disavow or just feign ignorance when asked about David Duke’s support seems less likely to resonate: Klan endorsements and getting baited about them are almost a perennial in American politics. Jimmy Carter tried to make an issue of the Klan endorsement of Reagan, without much success. Trump—who to my knowledge has no racist past or associations to disavow—has certainly been less deft than Reagan in handling the matter, but that’s hardly surprising. That Trump has manufacturing ties in China and Mexico, meh. Anyone could say the whole point of his campaign is to change the incentives that make such offshoring arrangements attractive.

What is clear from attending a Rubio rally is that there is now an audience for this kind of thing; there are thousands of Republicans who really don’t like Trump and enjoy seeing him mocked. The press has responded to it too, and it may have catapulted Rubio into the number-two challenger status he has long sought.

Rubio seems to have hit his stride in the attacks, reveling in them and putting them on effectively. I saw him in Purcellville, Virginia (an exurb about an hour west of Washington) on Sunday—2000 people in a college gym, and the crowd was stoked. Rubio was not nearly as robotic and programmed as he was in New Hampshire. He began his rally with the attacks on Trump before pivoting to older material about America the exceptional nation and himself as a child of immigrants who best understands and represents this. But the candidate is now animated, and so was the crowd. Rubio was scheduled to make four stops on Sunday, so perhaps 8,000 people will have seen him. That’s roughly three percent of the Virginia primary electorate. An anti-Trump super PAC is doing a national buy of TV ads slamming Trump on the Trump University issue, but they apparently won’t air before Super Tuesday. In short, I’m not sure this new wave of anti-Trumpiness by Rubio is going to impact anything.

Yes, more people did see the debate on Thursday, where Rubio and Cruz performed tag team attacks on Trump, but the one pollster who re-phoned previous respondents after the debate found no change in voter sentiment. Corey Stewart, who heads Trump’s Virginia campaign, thought there was little chance that the debate had much of an impact: most of what people see, he said, is non verbal: “people see two little guys flailing, throwing punch after punch at a big dude.” In one recently published Virginia poll, Trump exceeded 40 percent, coming in first: Stewart thought that score might be “unrealistic.” But Trump is strong in the southwestern part of the state, the Hampton Roads area, the rural I-81 corridor—and weakest in the Washington suburbs.  It’s a state Trump could still lose, but the prospect of that might have have been greater if the anti-Trump campaign had begun in earnest two weeks earlier.

One thing about personal attacks is that they draw responses in kind. Trump had been tough going after Cruz, but his only response to Rubio thus far had been to label him a lightweight choker on Twitter (without paying attention to the correct spelling). But one shudders to imagine what it would be like if the mudslinging got serious. Was the Trump campaign sending a warning shot when Diamond and Silk (two black women performers who have made widely shared pro-Trump “viral” videos and performed on stage at Trump rallies) brought up Rubio “rumors” to CNN? A campaign that just turned personal in the past week could quickly escalate into the ugliest in living memory.

Beyond the personal attacks, and the prospect of their escalation, there has been important intellectual shadow boxing behind the scenes. The escalation of personal rhetoric has meant that there is now no chance that Rubio would be selected as Trump veep, which would be one way in which neoconservatives could enter the foreign-policy apparatus of the next administration. It has long been clear that Rubio represented the neoconservatives’ best chance for restoration: his campaign was overlaid with a kind of neocon signaling, from the core “New American Century” slogan (evocative of PNAC) to the prominence of certain advisors, to the hawkish positions on every conceivable foreign policy issue, to the the lockstep adherence to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s positions.

Cruz and Christie and Jeb Bush have all made hawkish sounds too—but they were occasionally tempered. Cruz for instance suggested that the overthrow of Assad was a bad idea for the U.S. and is skeptical of nation-building. I had noticed that Chris Christie was very hawkish in his New Hampshire town halls, both about American defense spending and the Iran deal, and it puzzled me: it seemed slightly out of tune with his more moderate worldview.

This all came into sharper focus after Christie endorsed Trump—not a huge surprise if one had watched the interplay between the two men. But it was certainly a surprise to the neocons, who apparently believed they had effectively “tutored” the New Jersey governor. The tone of the Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin’s attack on Christie hinted at the neocon shock of the turnabout:

after months and months of careful coaching by outside foreign policy experts, his initial gaffes (e.g. “occupied territories” was how he referred to the West Bank) stopped and he became proficient on national security. One former adviser told me he “absolutely” would never have helped Christie had he known he would endorse Trump. He said of Christie’s endorsement, “It’s an absolute disgrace.”

There is much to chew on here: the neoconservative effort to pressure politicians to say the right (pro-Israeli right wing) things on Israel issues, the patronizing tone of it all (“careful coaching”), and the sheer unrelentingness of their effort to control the national dialogue; the fact that an intellectually highly capable man like Christie felt it politically expedient, even necessary, to accept such tutoring and to mouth the resultant paragraphs. And the obvious insecurity of the neoconservatives: they can never really be certain that even if the politicians mouth the phrases they are told to that they will actually believe them, or whether, when circumstances change, they will go back to, for instance, thinking of the Palestinian territories as occupied territories, the way they are considered by practically every government in the world. One is reminded of David Frum’s lament about writing speeches for George W. Bush, delivered after Bush had begun his retreat from the neoconservative policies of his first term:

I always believed as a speechwriter that if you could persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel himself committed to the ideas that underlay those words. And the big shock to me has been that although the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas. And that is the root of, maybe, everything.

In any case, the Trump victories in South Carolina and Nevada, and the apparent endurance of his leads in the Super Tuesday race, have produced a swirl of neoconservative anxiety—maybe they will support Hillary (Robert Kagan has) or maybe they will try to get a third party going.

The resulting electoral sociology could be breathtaking. Whether he deserves it in any meaningful sense or not, Trump is clearly reliant on working-class support in his bid for the GOP nomination. That is his base, people who have voted Republican for two generations now and received nothing in return but seeing their kids sent to war, the loss of good jobs, and declining living standards. They want, as Corey Stewart says, to “shake things up” and don’t care if it’s done in a politically correct way. If that push continues, and the neoconservatives continue their migration towards Hillary, the end result will a race in which the Republican candidate is running to the left of the Democratic candidate, at least in terms of the social base of his coalition and on foreign policy. This would amount to a major realignment in American politics, certainly one more dramatic than anything we’ve seen in the postwar era.

None of this is even more than slightly probable: Trump could easily falter; there are ample indications that his standard stump message is getting tiresome, and it is not clear he is willing or capable of effectively renewing it. It may be that he will face opponents more compelling than Cruz or Rubio, perhaps at the convention. Or that the coming zillion-dollar Super PAC ad barrage, even if too late for Super Tuesday, will somehow do him in. Or that (and this is the fervent belief of Trump’s GOP establishment Twitter opponents) the attacks themselves will throw Trump off his game, and he will make more serious mistakes than he has made thus far. All could happen, singly or in combination. Politics in America right now is a big and exciting mystery.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

Trump, Christie and the Revival of GOP Moderates

In a development which brought to an abrupt and screeching halt the momentum that Rubio supporters were touting (on Twitter at least) after Thursday night’s debate, Chris Christie has endorsed Donald Trump for president. No one who saw much of the two up in New Hampshire will be surprised.

Christie plainly never disliked Trump, whom he’s known for a decade. His attacks on him were those that an experienced governor would make naturally—“I tell everybody who goes to a Donald Trump event, if you get to ask a question, just ask him ‘how?'” Christie said. “I don’t care which of the things he talks about just ask him, ‘How? How?'” At town halls, he would refer to him as “Donald” and you could read a certain friendliness into the tone.

You don’t necessarily see it in soundbites, or even in the debates, but Christie is an enormously gifted politician. He knows how to talk, how to tell a story, has a strong grasp of policy, can connect with voters in a town hall more effectively than anyone I’ve seen. It wasn’t enough to overcome the legacy of Bridgegate, or the fact that the moderate-governor lane was crowded, or that the leadership of today’s GOP may be out of the grasp of any Northeastern moderate Republican not named Donald Trump. But he was noticed as a talent immediately after winning the governorship, and he was encouraged to run for president in 2012, and people of wildly different ideological perspectives (me, Jennifer Rubin) saw him as someone they could conceivably support for president. In one revealing Christie moment, he told New Hampshire voters that Rubio could have solved his “Gang of 8″ immigration problem by simply telling voters he had looked more closely at the problem and changed his mind. I thought of that when, twenty minutes later, Christie launched into an absurdly hawkish interpretation of Iran and the nuclear deal.

I would guess that Christie felt his chosen profession was somehow diminished by the likes of Rubio.  A man who could banter off the cuff endlessly with reporters and citizens was clearly irritated by being surpassed by someone possessing none of those abilities. Well apart from what he stood for, there was something fake about Rubio—the scripted answers, the avoidance of press gaggles. Christie had begun to talk about it in public a week before the final New Hampshire debate, making repeated references to “the boy in the bubble. ” He lowered the boom on the night of February 6, three days before the New Hampshire vote, denying Rubio a showing which might well have—given the party establishment’s wariness of Trump—catapulted him into a South Carolina lead. Now he’s done Trump another solid, providing far and away the most significant endorsement in the campaign season, coming at a critical time. I’m not sure a Trump-Christie ticket would be balanced effectively in any meaningful sense, but Trump really owes Chris Christie.

The liberal media (reinforced by the voices of Republican establishment) has been so busy seeking reasons to display shock and horror at Trump’s rise that they have largely missed that he is essentially a moderate Republican. Trump is relatively tough on the one issue that simply did not exist in the era of Rockefeller, Nixon, and Ford: mass immigration. Apart from that, he is politically of a piece with the latter three—supporter of substantial public works, not eager to take a knife to New Deal era entitlements, a law-and-order guy but certainly ready to accommodate both minority political aspiration and affirmative action.

In foreign policy, Nixon and Rockefeller were hawkish but not nuts about it. While Trump overstates his “antiwar” credentials, he clearly has learned something from the Iraq and Libya failures, which the Cheney-Kristol-Rubio wing of the party has not. Trump’s sense that the United States ought to at least try to present itself as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is well in line with mainstream Republican thinking until roughly 1992. A meeting with Henry Kissinger ought to appear soon on Trump’s public calendar; each would gain from it.

Christie’s endorsement obviously helps Trump in a tactical sense, days before the critical Super Tuesday primaries. It should do more in helping to define who Trump is and what his rise means. Populist, yes, kind of. Pro-working class? Well, certainly working class voters have been extraordinarily responsive to his campaign. But with what politicians, in what category, should he be grouped? On that score, we’ve seen an extraordinary amount of heavy breathing fright-mongering. But as the evidence mounts, the category that includes Rockefeller, Nixon, Ford, and now Chris Christie is easily the best fit.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

Kasich and the Missing Foreign Policy Debate

At the entrance to a John Kasich event at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia Monday morning, I was asked by a radio reporter why I was attending. I didn’t say “journalist” (my usual answer) but replied instead, “I’m not satisfied with a three candidate race of Trump, Cruz, and Rubio.” I’m aware that Kasich barely participated in Iowa and South Carolina, but in the one state he, Cruz and Rubio all spent a lot of time in, he bested them both. Plus, as he tells audiences, he beat Donald Trump in Dixville Notch.

To demonstrate that it’s not a three (or two) candidate race, Kasich has to somehow hang on till the campaign moves to Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio in March. Then there is a clear rationale for him if Donald Trump falters: polls say he is the most electable Republican in the race, with the most appeal to centrist voters. Once the terrain shifts in April to major central and northern states, both east and west, he is a more natural fit than Cruz or Rubio. By that time, Trump will either have shown himself to be more broadly presidential (filling out his policy positions with greater detail, hiring respected policy advisors) or will be exhibiting clear signs of losing interest in the entire enterprise.

But to move north, Kasich has to at least make an impression in places like northern Virginia, still an electorally purple area, filled with high tech, a diverse array (in both social class and ethnically) of new immigrants, and a seldom acknowledged dependence on the federal government based across the river in Washington.

We are no longer in New Hampshire. At 10:00 a.m. on a Monday morning, the student center was filled with about 800 people, few of them students. Kasich was running late due to airport problems. Tom Davis, a former congressman who represented this district for 10 years and now the rector of George Mason, introduced him. Most of Kasich’s more established endorsers are people who knew him in Congress, when he rose to chair the budget committee during the 1990s, and they seem genuinely enthusiastic, though with politicians it is always difficult to tell. (A week ago, Nikki Haley was reportedly saying privately she didn’t think Rubio was qualified to be president). The audience was led in the pledge of allegiance by a Muslim cleric—clearly a bit of a risky move, a way of saying “We are not those nativists.” Kasich’s immigration position is more or less centrist: rhetorically pro-immigrant, insistent that just as if you have a house, you have to be able to choose who to let in. Putting aside the symbolism, he is more distant from Clinton and Sanders than from Trump on the issue.

John Kasich is still trying to introduce himself to voters. He is the son of a small-town Pennsylvania mailman, the grandson of coal miners, of Slavic background. He talks about his budget record in Congress a lot (there was a “Kasich budget” at one point), he talks about the waste in Pentagon procurement, he is friendly towards Gingrich. He moves quickly past his uneventful but lucrative eight years out of office (on Fox, a job with the Lehman brothers) to Ohio. Getting elected in 2010, he may have hit the timing right, but his governorship coincided with a robust economic revival in the state—he got the budget in the black, and is now a very popular governor.

He moves on to audience questions. There was a moment when he described his first race for the Ohio state senate and mentioned that many of his early supporters were women who came “out of the kitchen.” Aha! Within the hour, this remark was being parsed on MSNBC—a sexist gaffe! Reviewing the tape, it was revealed Kasich had said that things were different in the early ’80s, that there were far more women at home, and now things had changed. But the minor storm was a reminder: there are people in the press determined to see Kasich tripped up, for whatever reason.

At town halls here as in New Hampshire, the questions are different than what journalists will ask. He handled an immigration question by the answer above (the owner of a house has to be able to lock its doors, to choose whom to let enter) but the tricky ones come unscripted. A woman in early middle age asked about the future for her autistic son, now living in her basement and approaching the end of schooling. I thought Kasich hit the answer out of the park, mentioning that the disabled have no real advocates for them, that many should be able to participate in the workforce, that they deserve the chance to acquire as much autonomy as possible. And that doing this might require a considerable rethinking about what the role of government should be. The whole question is a reminder that the world is quite different: how many people with mild or moderate disabilities might, in years past, have done chores on the family farm, with no one sensing that this was a grave crisis. But now clearly it is, for a great many people. He received sustained applause for his answer.

I have yet to hear a pure foreign-policy question come up in any town hall, but this is where the next president has the most autonomy, and where the differences between the remaining Republicans are most pronounced. It seem truly bizarre that there should be pressure to winnow the field without more serious attention to these issues. There is now considerable pressure being exacted on Kasich to give way so the party can coalesce around Marco Rubio. Rubio is clearly the hawk in the race: he seeks to roll back the normalization towards Cuba, cancel the nuclear deal with Iran on Day One (a position he shares with Cruz), deploy more troops to Syria and Iraq, monitor and perhaps attack ships and aircraft bound for North Korea, toughen measures against China to encourage human rights, send more weapons to Ukraine, increase sanctions on Russia, and ensure the departure of Bashar al-Assad. This is, as has been noted, the return of George W. Bush’s first-term policies, before Bush replaced Rumsfeld and demoted Cheney in stature.

Hypothetically (though I very much doubt it), such policies might be exactly what the Republican party and the country want and need. But doesn’t it seem peculiar that Conservatism Inc. is pushing these policies without the pretense of national debate? That would seem to be the major motivation behind the efforts to shove Kasich and Cruz out of the race and anoint Marco Rubio as the party-insider choice. It’s almost as if the conservative establishment feared that if foreign policy were actually debated in the campaign, their favored candidate wouldn’t fare so well.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

Kasich Earns His Ticket

KATHERINE TAYLOR/EPA/Newscom
KATHERINE TAYLOR/EPA/Newscom

I spent election night in New Hampshire with the Kasich campaign. Obviously this was an important night for the country, with more decisive victories than I had anticipated for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Taken together, their wins signal a dramatic rejection of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, the shared ideology of the current American establishment.

It’s not an anti-government message—both Sanders and Trump very much believe in government. It’s an anti-what-the-government-has-been-doing-for-the-past-20-years message. It’s a rejection of the Iraq war, opposed by both the winning candidates, (and supported by all the others), and of a Wall Street-dominated economic system. For the Trump voters, it’s also a rejection of high levels of immigration and a free trade regime that has decimated America’s manufacturing base. Sanders harkens to an older radical tradition, deeply rooted in the country, supposedly vanquished once and for all by the neoliberalism embodied by the Clintons.

I like both of the winning candidates, and relish how much they discomfit the current establishment. Everyone seems to like Bernie Sanders at least a little, but boy does Trump ever worry them. Driving back from the Kasich election night party in Concord I heard Rachel Maddow on the radio. She is totally freaked out that a large number of Americans want to reestablish control of their nation’s borders. I wonder why she has such difficulty understanding this, I really do. Xenophobic nativism she labels it. Generally a cool customer, she is unable to hide her hatred.

I’m far from persuaded that either Trump or Sanders will be elected president—Sanders because his views are too far left for the country, Trump because of his temperament and relative lack of political experience.

I’ve seen John Kasich five times now, including tonight. He campaigns as a moderate conservative who can work with Democrats across the aisle, as a governor who knows how to balance budgets. He’s occasionally said some hawkish stuff, but essentially he is the only other non-neoconservative remaining in the GOP race. I’ve written before that I believe his endorsement of James Baker as a model secretary of state is significant as an indication of his foreign policy inclinations, realist and not neocon.

But the unexpected thing at a Kasich event is his sweet side, which seems so unlike the other Republicans. In his celebration of his second-place finish, he used his time before the national cameras to describe moments from his town hall meeting which sounded evangelical, though without any references to scripture. He recalled people in pain who came to him during a town hall, suffering from illness or grief, and how he responded, with words, or embraces. It might easily have seemed treacly, and was unusual for an election night speech. But with Kasich it seemed authentic, and it worked.

The Kasich party was full of Ohioans, cheerful volunteers who came out to canvass over the weekend. When the TV showed a graphic saying that Kasich had beaten Trump (by one percent) among late deciding voters, the Ohioans started chanting “ground game, ground game.” While waiting for the candidate to appear (waiting actually for Clinton and Sanders to finish their very long speeches), the Ohioans chanted “Unite Not Divide,” perhaps the least catchy political slogan ever. I don’t believe any serious analysis of what Kasich has in terms of money and organization in the ensuing states has been published, and it is assumed that Jeb and Rubio have infinite amounts of establishment or neocon money to continue.

But I have little doubt that Kasich is superior to those two as a politician, in terms of judgement, experience, and intelligence. I suspect that will emerge in the weeks and months to come.

Scott McConnell, a founding editor of The American Conservative, reports on the 2016 campaign from New Hampshire.

Sanders and Trump in Very Late Capitalism

goldenalcoff / Flickr
goldenalcoff / Flickr

It has been snowing since Monday morning, and I’ve learned from experience my car can’t handle it. Next time in New Hampshire, rent a Jeep. But I did go to a Bernie Sanders rally at a small college in Nashua yesterday morning. From the perspective of a campaign effectively using its resources, the event wasn’t particularly well conceived.

There were a few hundred people there, mostly young. And more guys than girls; that part of the “Berniebros” thing is true. The gender imbalance at Clinton events is more pronounced. Two dozen young people, staffers or volunteers with Bernie placards, sit behind the stage. For the size of the rally (maybe 500) and the staff effort involved, with journalists and TV crews from all over the world, I thought the Sanders camp would have done better to have had his workers out canvassing, making sure that they contact every marginal or irregular voter in the state, and get them all to the polls.

I’ve heard before that Sanders is a one-issue guy—he talks about inequality, and he’s done little else for 40 years in politics. Everything comes back to that. But the stopped clock is sometimes right.

Like most college educated people my age, somewhat touched by the 1960s, I’m familiar with arguments about socialism. In the mid 70s I took a poli-sci class with Columbia’s most active Marxist, Mark Kesselman, a good scholar and teacher and a nice guy. And like Sanders, he would draw on statistics about American income inequality, wage stagnation, and the lack of class mobility in “late capitalism.” And he presented these arguments well.

But we had in our class a Polish emigre, a fiery young woman named Irena who had been active in Warsaw student dissident politics. Irene, finally in a position to challenge Marxist arguments without fear of legal sanction—went for it. She called bullshit on Professor Kesselman. It was all pretty civil; this was grad school after all. But Irena emboldened the rest of us. For the inequality Kesselman described in 1976 America just wasn’t that severe. Yes, professionals made more than workers, and business execs far more. And yes, the children of doctors and lawyers were more likely to succeed than working class kids. But there was, as I think Kesselman was forced to concede, quite a bit of upward mobility from one class to another. And if a vice president of U.S. Steel made a lot of money (working in the “productive sector” as Irena called it, deploying the Marxian term with a kind of self-mocking irony, because she had no desire for a career there), was that really a crime?

I wonder how that class would go today. For Sanders, like Kesselman, talks a great deal about how much wealth is controlled by the one percent, or the one tenth of one percent, compared to the rest. He talks about how much students go into debt to attend college, in an era when a college education is as necessary as a high school diploma was fifty years ago.

And now, there really are very few U.S. Steels. The wealth of the one tenth of one percent is now concentrated in the financial industry. The money of the middle class has been redistributed upwards to Wall Street. No one calls it the “productive sector,” even ironically. Wall Street pays for the political campaigns, and pays for the politicians. It pays for Hillary Clinton. Sanders’s message is as simple as that. And there is a great deal of truth in it. If Kesselman taught his class today, what could grad student Irena possibly say to deflate him?

Snowed into my hotel room, I’m watching a Trump event on a video feed. It’s a town hall, not a rally. The first or second subject he chooses to address is the cost of prescription drugs. He says it’s a problem he would solve by negotiating better deals with the drug companies, and the other politicians don’t do it because they are in the pay of the drug companies. “Woody Johnson, I know him, nice guy.” But I’m not taking any of his money.

It’s not of course a Marxist message—Trump basically says he is independent of the donors because he’s rich, while Sanders says he is independent of them because he raised tens of millions of dollars in small donations. But both campaigns are criticizing the same thing, in divergent but essentially parallel ways. I don’t think this has a precedent in American history, the leading candidates of both parties running essentially class-based campaigns against a financial elite. Something to contemplate.

Predictions: Trump 28, Kasich 18, Cruz 14, Rubio 13, Bush 13, Christie 10, Fiorina 3, Carson 1.

Sanders 53, Clinton 47.

Scott McConnell, a founding editor of The American Conservative, reports on the 2016 campaign from New Hampshire.

Pop Goes the Marco Bubble

WMUR-TV / YouTube
WMUR-TV / YouTube

A few moments on a New Hampshire debate stage last Saturday will likely go down as an historic moment in American politics. For the previous week there had been a palpable sense that the GOP establishment, desperate to coalesce behind someone to stop Donald Trump, was going to break very quickly towards Marco Rubio. Immediately after Iowa, Rubio began began scooping up endorsements from senators. There were many press reports that key players in Jeb Bush’s financial team were ready to jump—and pull their funds, and their friends, from Jeb’s flailing candidacy to Rubio. No doubt Cruz and of course Trump would continue. But there was a sense that the “party had decided” or was about to—to borrow the name of a well regarded book that describes the process of a party establishment coming to a decision.

Rubio had convinced many that he was eminently electable in a general election. On paper, the Gen-Xer with a Latino immigrant background seemed like the magic bullet designed to instantly boost the GOP out of its stale pale male rut. He seemed more or less conservative, and on foreign policy (to those who bothered to notice) was a full-fledged neocon, whose views seemed a reflection of the right-wing, very pro-Zionist Cuban émigré Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, under whose tutelage Rubio’s career began. Against Clinton or Sanders, he seemed formidable on paper.

In early debates he did well, and generally impressed voters. It might have seemed a bit too slick a package, but it was an attractive package. It was a hurdle to finesse his “Gang of Eight” sponsorship of an unpopular-with-the-GOP-base amnesty bill, but the legislative process is complex enough that the issue could be muddled. And he learned to talk “right” about immigration with impressive fluency, to give the impression he was very serious about controlling the border. An added bonus consisted of slams at some Cuban immigrants (his own ethnic group) for gaming the system by tapping into the state and federal social benefits and diverting them to Cuba. Many would leave a Rubio event saying “This guy is an American who gets it.”

Those most familiar with Rubio may have thought him an appealing politician, but pointed to problems. Some noted that the nicely crafted answers he delivered to various questions were always scripted or that he avoided spontaneous exchanges with the press. Then there was the undeniable fact that he had few legislative accomplishments in the Senate, and, remarkably, his campaign couldn’t even manage to put a positive gloss on the record. He hadn’t really led anything, ever. But snarky descriptions by New York Times columnist Gail Collins (“a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points”) or Chris Christie (“boy in the bubble”) or (at a considerably less influential level) myself  (“Chatty Cathy“) were hardly going to stop the GOP rush to anointing Rubio.

Jeb Bush’s mordant ads quoting Rubio endorser Rick Santorum saying that Rubio had “no accomplishments” in the Senate might slow things a bit, but nothing Jeb has done in this election cycle has really succeeded. And if Rubio, buoyed by a surge of positive press and rising in the national polls after Iowa, finished a strong second in New Hampshire, the “party would decide” and not that much would stand in the way of a Rubio presidency. To be precise, Ted Cruz and three others, each pushing, or surpassing, 70 years of age: Trump, Clinton and Sanders, all who have their strengths, but also obvious weaknesses—against a well-funded, very polished, Gen-X candidate.

No one thinks that Chris Christie aided his own chances by attacking Rubio. But there are other things in politics besides winning. Rubio’s super PAC had been slamming Christie on the New Hampshire airwaves since last fall, making mountains out of molehills (Christie’s “support” of a Senate vote to confirm or reject Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor). Plus, they are human. How do you think Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor and two-term governor who can talk administrative nuts and bolts till the cows come home and mesmerize a room with off-the-cuff digressions, feels about getting swamped by someone with no record to speak of, whose every campaign utterance seems to have been written by someone else, focus-grouped, and memorized before delivery?

So Christie was going to try to lower the boom on Saturday night. He has been talking all week about the “boy in the bubble.” No one knew if he would have an opportunity. And everyone also assumed Rubio would be prepared. Yet as Christie put it in a Sunday afternoon town hall, quoting former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, “everyone is prepared until you get a punch in the mouth.”

I don’t think there is any observer of the race who expected Rubio to collapse as quickly as he did. He tried to retort to Christie with jibes at his New Jersey record, but Christie had it covered. Then Rubio reached for his Obama script trying to tap into the contradictory Republican trope: Obama is a lightweight with no accomplishments (the same charge sometimes leveled at Rubio); Obama is the malevolent semi-dictator who knows exactly what he is doing in a scheme to despoil America. He said it not once, but four times. Four. People were shocked. Chris Matthews wondered, during the post-debate interviews, whether Rubio was exhibiting symptoms of some sort of brain damage, and in one of the more hilarious moments of the election cycle, asked brain surgeon Ben Carson for his evaluation. The Twitter storm, indicative of what Rubio will endure so long as he remains the race, was both hysterical and brutal.

It should be acknowledged that Rubio recovered, and gave several coherent answers on different questions later in the nearly three-hour debate, including a moving pro-life argument. His campaign is not over, and he remains what he was, a gifted young politician whose views match up well with the neocons. But no amount of neocon spin can make those debate moments go away. And, to be fair, Bill Kristol and other Weekly Standard writers were forthright in acknowledging how terrible the debate was for Rubio.

It wasn’t simply that the answers were bad. It is that they were bad in a way that emphasizes Rubio’s organic weaknesses, that he lacks the credentials or leadership gravitas and experience that people associate with the presidency. If he is scripted, who writes the scripts? Who would call the shots, and who would be his Cheney? This isn’t the kind of thing that any sort of campaign reset could solve; it is, by its nature, something that would take years of political experience to overcome.

And it almost didn’t happen. Jeb’s lack-of-accomplishment ads and the boy-in-the-bubble talk may have been stalling Rubio’s momentum. But before the debate, there was at least a 50 percent chance that Rubio would have finished in second place in New Hampshire and the GOP establishment rallying towards him, in the form of endorsements and cash, would have accelerated. I would be surprised if that happens now. And if you think that a Rubio presidency would have meant a full neoconservative restoration, a terrible thing for America and the world, you owe a big thank-you to Governor Christie.

Scott McConnell, a founding editor of The American Conservative, reports on the 2016 campaign from New Hampshire

Who Will Survive New Hampshire?

Wikimedia Commons

Whether he has a real campaign structure or not, Donald Trump is a draw in New Hampshire.

This morning in Exeter, 300 people who arrived two hours before his town hall (as I did) didn’t get in before the venue was full. The line of disappointed ticket holders snaked out two hundred yards down the sidewalk. Trump didn’t come out to at least wave and say a few words to those who didn’t get in; a better politician would have. I listened to the speech in a coffee house where some Philips Exeter students were streaming it. The prep school students favor Bernie, by and large (what would you expect?), and have the expected attitudes of their social class towards Trump and his supporters. I was pleased at least to hear that Trump had stopped talking about getting cheated in the Iowa caucus, as he did yesterday, because, honestly, no one here cares.

Do Trump’s crowds transfer into actual votes? Certainly fewer than those who attend other candidate events: near me in line were a Mom and her teenage son who had come from Maine to see him, another Mom and her kid who came from Massachusetts, and three Danish journalists. Politico yesterday ran an important article about how Trump’s political operation was amateurish, and the candidate himself acknowledged that he wasn’t really familiar with the term “ground game” until a few weeks ago. It’s a learning on the job thing, and can’t help but make people wonder how he would do as president.

In any case, clearly the parts that came easily and naturally for him—garnering media attention, filling the unfilled non-neocon American nationalist ideological slot—Trump has done already, turning himself into a contender. Now comes the harder part: to elevate himself as a serious candidate, who can talk more specifically about policy, speak more concretely about who would fill a Trump administration, and—equally important—can adopt and utilize up-to-date campaign techniques. The science of winning elections has evolved a good deal since the 1950s, and while rallies are important, so are data mining and targeted get-out-the-vote operations. Trump seems never to have heard of either. He will have to learn quickly if he is to compete effectively against Cruz or Rubio or someone else, and certainly would be required to win victory in the fall. I’d put the odds that he is willing to commit to that effort at about 50 percent. Hearing his soundbites yesterday whining that Ted Cruz “stole” the Iowa vote made me think they were less than that.

So who are the competitors? There is Jeb, whose self-deprecating “please clap” line, when his audience failed to notice he had reached a crescendo in describing his own commander-in-chief qualifications, seems to sum up his campaign. He would probably make an excellent secretary of education, but he will excite no one.

Seemingly the weakest of those with some chance is Chris Christie, who now runs at about 6 or 7 percent in the polls, after spending a lot of time here. I’m surprised he’s not doing better: I saw Christie last night, and there is no one who is a more compelling speaker, and no one you’d rather “have a beer with” to adopt that storied standard. He is unscripted, he goes into digressions, he tells stories, he has a great politician’s voice, deep and full of range. Last night at a Milford fire house, he held an audience of 200 or so nearly mesmerized for two hours; he spoke of drugs, a law school friend’s fall into addiction and death, school loans, rock climbing, his wife being mistaken for a young staff aide. He gave a routinely hawkish answer on Iran, but (without hard evidence) made me believe he was a man capable of changing his mind. He’s terribly overweight, but if you are looking for someone who can hold the attention of a room, he’s your guy.

My sense is that he actually is a polite man, but he is searching desperately for political oxygen, and so looks for vulgar and quotable soundbites—against Obama, against Hillary Clinton—which do get quoted. I was hoping that he would say something sharp about the apparently party-anointed Marco Rubio, but candidates save those for media interviews. But Christie’s rap about the carefully scripted “boy in the bubble” is starting to become a thing. I think everyone has known this for a while, but didn’t feel compelled to talk about it because Rubio wasn’t that important. But now he’s the designated anti-Trump and anti-Cruz candidate of the neocons and a growing number of the party establishment. I doubt that any of them could do better than Rick Santorum at naming Rubio’s actual accomplishments, but he seems electable, the perfect and malleable vehicle for the ambitions of more substantial men.

Rubio is getting a bump out of Iowa. I saw him yesterday at noon, in a converted mill in Laconia, a small town in the middle of the state. The room was tightly packed with 200-plus people—more of an accomplishment than drawing 200 people in the more populated southern end of the state. There was an efficient young staff, brandishing laptops. I overheard an aide tell someone the campaign was bringing in 180 canvassing volunteers from Iowa. You had the sense of a tightly run, efficient organization. The event came before Santorum’s now famous inability to name a Rubio accomplishment had circulated. Despite his boyish demeanor, Rubio is not actually all that young, when you consider that John F. Kennedy had captained a PT boat and served eight years as a fairly important senator. But he is, in a way, a perfect communicator, able to talk about immigration without being treacly (as Jeb cannot), and to be as hawkish as Bill Kristol wants. You can go to his events and never see him drawn out of his comfort zone, a perfectly programmed Chatty Cathy doll. The programmed answers are good, and Rubio delivers them well. No one fails to notice where the applause lines are supposed to be. The major question about Rubio as president is who would be the Cheney.

There is an assumption that there are three tickets out of New Hampshire, or four if you include Jeb, who has money to hang around as long as he wants. I can all too easily imagine a scenario where Trump finds himself in a battle with Cruz and Rubio and decides that this politics business isn’t really for him. Suddenly the race would be down to two, a carpet bomber and a neoconservative. I hope there is room for a genuine fourth ticket—for Kasich or Christie. They are centrist Republicans, self-made men, intelligent figures who have governed states and genuinely like the profession they are in. Watching them I have the feeling they could do town halls forever—they like the attention, like talking about policy, and basically like people. From what I’ve seen, voters like them too. But most American voters haven’t seen too much of them yet.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

Trump Still Alive After Iowa

Crowds wait to enter a New Hampshire Trump rally, two hours before the event started.
Crowds wait to enter a New Hampshire Trump rally, two hours before the event started.

No post-Iowa polls have appeared at this writing, but everyone wants to know whether Donald Trump’s New Hampshire lead will survive his supposedly surprising defeat in Iowa. Of course, finishing second in Iowa wasn’t really astonishing: the New York Times pointed out two weeks ago that his ground organization in the state was more or less pathetic. NBC’s Chuck Todd observed, correctly I think, that Trump might have finished third or fourth if he hadn’t made a desperate push there in the last two weeks—like cramming for a final after not going to classes all semester. Meanwhile, Rubio and especially Cruz had been working the state for the entire semester. In any case, I doubt the meme you may have heard a lot of in the last two days: that this single setback will collapse Trump’s followers’ magical belief in his apparent invincibility and “burst his bubble,” so that they will all decide sensibly to stay home next Tuesday.

Some evidence was provided by the turnout for the Trump rally in Milford, New Hampshire on Tuesday evening, one night after Iowa. Roughly five thousand people were packed to standing-room-only capacity into two buildings in an athletic facility with indoor tennis courts.

Many people go to sports events or concerts all the time where there are more than 5,000 people. But they are likely in major cities. It’s worth relating what you have to go through to attend a large Trump event. For the Milford rally, you had to drive your car to a designated nearby parking lot sometime between 4 and 5 p.m. Then you had to wait outside for 15 or 20 minutes for a shuttle bus to collect you and take you to the rally site. Then you waited outside in line for maybe an hour, went through airport-style security, entered the building, and waited once more—standing up, surrounded by the crowd, and wearing all your winter clothes—for an hour for Donald Trump to appear. It might have been cold outside, but inside, it is warm, too warm. No one fainted, to my surprise. I haven’t seen another political event in New Hampshire draw more than 600.

Trump was endorsed by Scott Brown, the handsome Massachusetts-turned-New Hampshire figure who narrowly lost a Senate bid to popular incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen in 2014. Brown is an appealing and somewhat populist politician. He doesn’t say much that is especially brilliant, but people like seeing and hearing him. It’s an endorsement that certainly helps Trump.

Before Brown introduced Trump, Ann Coulter spoke for ten minutes. I knew Ann slightly in the late ’80s and ’90s when she was a smart lawyer and aspiring journalist, long before she was her own brand. It’s really quite a show, this woman with a luxuriant mane of blonde hair and a flamboyantly broad-A accent letting out a long series of subtle, ironic right-wing nationalist jibes. In a different era, 30 or 40 years ago, her class affect might have irritated a Trump crowd. What’s that debutante got to say that could possibly interest us? But times have changed. People who on ethnic, class, and cultural bases might once have been at each other’s throats are all threatened, if not equally, by the elite program to get rid of America’s borders. Ann was received warmly. “She’s really funny” was the phrase I most overheard in the crowd around me.

I’m not sure what more to say about Trump. This is the fourth time I’ve heard him in a month. He doesn’t talk about policy in any serious way, he just riffs. Much of what he says I very much disagree with. (I think climate change is a major problem; I support the Iran deal). But that really isn’t the main point. The main point is, if I were to put it in a way Trump never would, much of the bipartisan establishment believes that borders are an outdated concept (except for Israel’s borders, which are sacrosanct), and that human progress requires higher levels of immigration and no real barriers to international trade. If Americans are hurt by these policies, so what? Their residual nationalism is outdated, if not actually bigoted. Anyway, that’s what much of the establishment, left and right, apparently believes.

No one knows whether Trump would actually do anything to slow or stop these processes. But he might. He is, after all, not paid for by the special interests pushing these agendas. And the only other candidate who might is a socialist, less appealing for myriad other reasons.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

Jeb Won’t Challenge Rubio

Photo by Scott McConnell
Photo by Scott McConnell

Who in the so-called GOP establishment lane is going to try to challenge the elite anointment of Marco Rubio? Possibility number one was Jeb Bush, who surely has the money and organization to do it. He had shown some relative strength in New Hampshire, coming in second in one poll, and seemed to make a good impression on people in two previous events I’ve seen him in.

But the morning after Iowa, there wasn’t much evidence of Jeb making a fight of it in New Hampshire. His first event was at Franklin Pierce College, a small, out-of-the-way school in the southwest corner of the state. Students are always good to help fill an audience, and of course some came. So did maybe 120 other, mostly elderly, voters. Lindsey Graham was traveling with Jeb today, and introduced him warmly. Lindsey took some shots at Trump for not spending any nights in the state, but he didn’t mention anyone else.

Jeb didn’t start off with his standard tale of working out with the cadets from the Citadel, who ask him afterwards to promise to “have their back.” Instead, he mentioned three Iowa winners who are not qualified to lead on Day One, but went into specifics only about Trump’s vulgarity. It’s almost as if he has given up on pushing down Rubio as a not-ready-for-primetime upstart, and wants only to hurt Trump. It can’t possibly be a calculation that any Trump’s votes will go to him. It is quite obviously personal. Trump’s insults wrecked his campaign. He is seeking revenge.

Jeb has many qualities you would like to see in a public servant. He is seriously wonkish: there are far too many statistics in his talk for it to be effective as a let’s-excite-people-to-go-to-the-polls vehicle, but he knows them. I don’t think he has to fake being a compassionate, bleeding-heart conservative. And he is quite driven to figure out ways in which a more streamlined, cost-efficient government could serve the less fortunate. His sincerity on this score is palpable.

He is also, I am convinced, after pondering the question for much of the past year, a sincere neocon. He gushed over how much he had learned from Lindsey Graham on foreign policy. Asked a good question about Sunnis and Shi’ites in an anti-ISIS coalition, he gave what amounted to the Netanyahu-approved answer, using tough language to deride first Hezbollah and then Iran for apparently provoking the poor Saudis to bomb Yemen. Unprompted, he promised to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to “send a signal.” Someone who often displays a subtle ability to weigh competing arguments in domestic-policy disputes seems completely unable or unwilling to do this in foreign-policy questions. So whatever wounds he might have suffered from Rubio having vaulted over him from Florida, it is plain that disagreement with Rubio’s neoconservative foreign-policy positions is not an issue for him.

It may be unfair to call Jeb “low energy.” Few men his age could travel around and give two or three town halls every day, each one loaded with statistics and laden with answers to policy questions. But it is obvious that no political energy comes out of his rallies. People may like Jeb, and think he is capable and good-hearted. But there is no excitement there. Could he hold a lead if he had one? Sure. But he doesn’t have one.

Driving back from Franklin Pierce, I heard MSNBC commentators going in and out of a Hillary speech. I know she’s smart and capable, but people are getting tired of her. This morning, I saw Ezra Klein say that while he didn’t used to think so, he is now pretty sure Elizabeth Warren could have beaten her. I agree.

During the breaks, they played some quick soundbites from Chris Christie, whom everyone has almost forgotten about. Boy is he ever not conceding the establishment lane to Rubio. “Boy in the bubble … terrified to be away from his script … not ready to answer questions on his own … bubble boy.” My quotes are remembered and perhaps not exact, but their spirit is true. It was relentless. Christie’s best political tool is his voice, when he’s not flying off the handle at some question he doesn’t like. But from what I heard from the soundbites, he was eviscerating. I will go to a Christie event ASAP to see how crowds respond to this line of attack.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

How Iowa Can Change New Hampshire

Elvert Barnes / Flickr
Elvert Barnes / Flickr

Since I first came to New Hampshire 19 days ago, the polls have been fairly steady. Donald Trump has held a two digit lead, in some surveys as much as 20 points. Ted Cruz has often been in second, and the four candidates in the so-called “establishment” lane—Bush, Kasich, Rubio, and Christie—have bunched together at between 8 and 14 percent. There are two outlier results: In the ARG survey about two weeks ago John Kasich surged to a clear second place, with about 20 percent, and fell back to 17 last week. In the Emerson poll released last Wednesday, Jeb Bush rose to second, at 18 percent. Kasich has certainly had a good couple of weeks, scoring a slew of local newspaper endorsements, plus those of the Boston Globe and New York Times, which could serve him well if he is still competitive when the campaigns go more national. Expectations for Jeb Bush had gotten so low that his rise in one poll had a bit of a surprise factor: I would say, having attended two of his events, that people tend to like him better after hearing him.

But none of the five Trump challengers could develop any sustainable momentum, and Cruz and Christie both seem on a downward trajectory in New Hampshire. One day of the news cycle last week was dominated by audio of Christie sarcastically berating a young woman at a town hall who was worried about storm flooding in New Jersey, where she had gone to college. It can’t have helped him. Cruz meanwhile has been taking heavy flak from everyone, and there simply are not that many hard-right people New Hampshire. His strategy was based on a win in Iowa giving him momentum for a strong second place here. But he’s now dropping in Iowa, and could conceivably finish third there behind Rubio and Trump. That would doom his chances for a successful New Hampshire finish, I think.

The thing to remember is that the Iowa results will probably shake up New Hampshire dramatically, and that far more change is likely in the next ten days than in the previous sixty. In that sense, politics is a little like NBA basketball: not that much is decided before the last seven minutes. For an historical illustration, here are snippets and polls quoted directly from Josh Marshall, covering the Democratic primary struggle in 2004:

Jan. 14th: One of the campaigns has tracking numbers out of Iowa which shows each of the top three — Dean, Gephardt and Kerry — clumped to within a point or two. And today’s Zogby poll seems to point in the same direction Dean 24%, Gephardt 21%, Kerry 21%. Meanwhile, the ARG tracking poll in New Hampshire shows some more movement after several days when everyone seemed to stay in place. Dean 32%, Clark 22%, Kerry 13%.

Jan. 15th: Surprising numbers out today. Zogby has Kerry not simply surging but actually in the lead in Iowa: Kerry 22%, Dean 21%, Gephardt 21%. Especially in a daily tracking poll a point difference means less than nothing (note to statisticians: don’t even say it). But this does square with what a lot of people have been saying about Kerry’s move in the state. Meanwhile ARG’s New Hampshire tracking poll has Dean 29%, Clark 24%, Kerry 15%.

Jan. 16th: Today Zogby has John Kerry opening up a five point lead over Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt in Iowa. The numbers: Kerry 24%, Dean 19%, Gephardt 19%, Edwards 17%. Even more interesting however are the ARG numbers out of New Hampshire. Today’s numbers there are Dean 28%, Clark 23%, Kerry 16%.

Jan. 17th: The Zogby poll out of Iowa continues to have Dean, Gephardt and Kerry grouped in pretty much a tie (Numbers: Kerry 23%, Dean 22%, Gephardt 19%, Edwards 18%). But the bigger news is out of ARG’s New Hampshire poll (Numbers: Dean 28%, Clark 22%, Kerry 18%) Clark remains a half dozen points behind Dean. But look at Kerry — back at 18%. A week ago he was at 10%.

Jan. 18th The new ARG New Hampshire poll out late this evening has Clark and Kerry in a virtual tie (Numbers: Dean 28%, Clark 20%, Kerry 19%).

Jan. 20th Iowa result: Kerry ends up getting more than twice Dean’s number, according to the late numbers. And of course Edwards too with more than Dean and Gephardt combined (Tonight’s ARG poll has Kerry ever so slightly in second place again (Numbers: Dean 28%, Kerry 20%, Clark 19%.)

Then after the famous “Dean scream” and Dean’s unexpectedly weak third place Iowa showing:

Jan. 21st: Not unexpectedly, John Kerry has made a big jump in this morning’s ARG tracking poll. The Numbers: Dean 26%, Kerry 24%, Clark 18%.

Jan. 22nd: ARG’s Dick Bennett seems to think that Dean is falling quickly into third place in New Hampshire. Today’s numbers are Kerry 27%, Dean 22%, Clark 19%. But a further breakdown of the numbers, provided on ARG’s site, shows steeper deterioration for Dean and some uptick for Clark.

Jan. 23rd: ARG’s latest daily tracking poll has Kerry 31%, Clark 20%, Dean 18%. That means that from January 19th to January 22nd Dean fell from 28% to 18%. In fact, from yesterday to today he fell 4 percentage points.

Jam. 24th: Some of the late polls show Dean stopping his slide going into the weekend, but having lost a lot of support since Iowa. This morning’€™s ARG poll says the deterioration of his support has ended. But they also have him down at 15% support.

Jan. 26th: All the tracking polls yesterday showed Dean, at a minimum, stopping his decline and in most cases making up some lost ground. Now the movement seems clear. Tonight’s ARG poll has Kerry 38%, Dean 20%, Edwards 16%, Clark 15%.

Following his Iowa win, Kerry won New Hampshire’s January 28th primary decisively: Kerry 38 percent, Dean 26 percent, with Clark and Edwards each at 12 percent

How could the GOP race turn within the next nine days? As mentioned above, Kasich and Bush have each made upward feints in the polls in New Hampshire, and Rubio has been trending upward in Iowa. The latest Des Moines Register poll puts him in third with 15 percent, but if he outperforms that even slightly he comes back to New Hampshire with a bounce that Kasich and Bush certainly won’t have.

Rubio’s appeal is lost on me, except that he is of Latino heritage and could supposedly solve the GOP’s problems with the nation’s changing demographics. At his events, he speaks of immigration movingly, from an immigrant’s perspective, and that is of course valuable. It appeals especially to members of the GOP donor class, who personally experience no downside from mass immigration at all. In his TV ads, he touts himself as a “national security expert”—though its not clear what that means, besides that he can recite with uncanny fluency neoconservative talking points. I doubt it’s accidental that his campaign’s slogan “New American Century” evokes the name of Bill Kristols’s PNAC group which agitated for war against Iraq from the mid 1990s onward.

McKay Coppins’s useful book on the Republican field contains nearly a chapter on the life of various Rubio “rumors” that began circulating in Florida political circles well before his 2012 Senate campaign. Some rumors involve financial malfeasance—many of which have been reported—while others involved reports of a “love child” or of various mistresses. None of the latter have been substantiated. Coppins describes the efforts by Rubio’s PAC to hire a private investigator in 2012 to see if there were any real skeletons that needed to be known about before his campaign begun. Nothing apparently was found. Thus far in this race, no one has gone negative on Rubio for his unusual use of government credit cards and the like. But that could come.

A possible wrinkle in the rumor field was raised by a Washington Post story, published last month. It recounts Rubio being arrested in a Miami public park when he was 18. It seems a banal incident, and the actual records of the arrest have been destroyed. One first wonders how the event—not recounted in Rubio’s biography—ever came to the Post‘s attention: it’s not like newsrooms these days are overstaffed with reporters eager to chase down minor peccadillos. I would conjecture that someone near Jeb’s campaign thought it worthwhile to inject the details of the arrest into the news cycle. The Rubio campaign responded, almost instantly, with an ad saying in so many words “Marco Rubio also once got in the express line with too many items” and “once tore the tag off a mattress.”

But the details of the arrest—because of the park, because of the subsequent career of the friend he was arrested with—have instigated glimmers of speculation in the Miami press, and also the gay press. My one twittersphere friend from Miami, a lawyer, Cuban-American, and Trump supporter, says she is certain that the speculation is groundless, and that the arrest was a random event in the life of a teenager, signifying nothing at all. And, I would add, even if it did signify something, its political meaning would probably be next to nothing. We live in a new era from the 1950s, or even the 1980s, and in most realms (several of my children have told me) sexual experimentation is normal and commonplace. It’s unlikely that the park arrest could be the silver bullet that could allow Jeb to surge in the polls past his ungrateful protege. But of course, if the two are close coming out of New Hampshire, one doesn’t really know how the South Carolina electorate feels about such matters.

In any case, a significant Rubio bump out of Iowa is possible, and Kasich and Bush are clearly hoping that does not happen. One thing that will probably happen after Iowa is that several candidates will drop out if they don’t do well. Santorum, Huckabee, and Rand Paul all are likely Iowa casualties, and it is worth exploring to whom their voters will go. My sense is that the sizeable Ron Paul vote from previous elections has gone to Cruz, who has scooped up many libertarians and small government activists, and to Trump, for his anti-establishment and non-interventionist positions. Rand Paul now polls at roughly 3 percent in New Hampshire (Huckabee and Santorum are lower) so there isn’t much to chew over. But if that 3 percent percent were to go mostly to one candidate, it would be significant. Trump, it should be noted, does poorly in response to “who’s your second choice?” questions, coming in sixth (!) with 6 percent in one recent New Hampshire poll. (Rubio and Cruz are tied at 17 percent.) That’s the kind of statistic which gives all his rivals ample reasons for hope, if only they could narrow the field.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

Can Trump Close the Deal?

Everyone except Kasich is in Iowa, so I’m returning home to shovel snow for a few days. Last night, I went to a Trump rally in Strafford county, town of Farmington, population less than 7,000. Trump manages to fill a high school gymnasium (maybe 800 people) in a town 35 miles from the nearest highway. (The only comparable in size event I’ve seen was a Hillary rally in Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city. As with previous Trump rallies, I am struck by the middle American, blue-collar normalness of the crowd. There is a short video here. A full range of ages, equally divided between women and men (a contrast to Hillary rallies where the ratio seems closer to 2-1). This demographic—“uncredentialed white people” in Mickey Kauss’s good phrase, have been singled out for the short end of the stick. Declining wages, declining life expectancies. If it was happening to any other group, it would be deemed a national crisis.

But people are cheerful here this evening. You have to park about 600 yards away, and make your way through the snow, but no one seems to mind. A few days prior, Byron York published an interesting story about interviewing state Republican luminaries at a political event last Saturday. Not only were none of them for Trump, but in most cases they claimed to not even know anyone who was for Trump. Considering these are people who make their living in politics, and that Trump holds a substantial lead in all the their state’s polls, this is a breathtaking admission.

With this in mind, I went around asking people before the event if they planned to vote for Trump (more than half said yes, no one said no) and what was their estimate of how many people in this crowd would get out and actually cast a vote for Trump. Or do people just come for the entertainment? I asked about a dozen people. All were from the area, so I assume to some extent they know their neighbors. The estimates ranged from half to about 80 percent, the median probably about 60 percent.

My guess is that a political scientist would consider that soft support, and it’s a pretty safe bet that the turnout will be lower here than amongst those attending a Jeb Bush town hall (where everyone is very nice, and “credentialed”). On that basis, I predict Trump would perform less well than his polls on election day, but not overwhelmingly so.

I’ve seen Trump speak three times now, and have grown tired of the basic speech. That doesn’t mean that those at the event were similarly restless, though the whole show seems very much toned down. The only real zest in it is when he’s going after Ted Cruz (“The Canadian,” someone yelled out). I wonder when he will begin to fill out what he can actually do to make America better, besides not hiring “idiots,” or making sure we have the “best people” negotiating for us. It would be nice if some of the best people were actually advising him now. I’ve made it clear before that I think Trump’s basic instincts in foreign and domestic policy are very good; his independence from the neoconservative or business oriented Beltway think tanks is as felicitous as his independence from their campaign contributions. I’m not sure when evoking General Patton and General MacArthur ceases to suffice, for any voter, as an meaningful indication of foreign policy direction.

Then again, what audiences hear from other candidates is hardly better, even if it is more detailed. Jeb Bush manages to say, in one five minute span, that we need show respect for Muslims in order to fight ISIS and that we will move our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby signaling our acquiescence to Israel’s unilateral claim to the Holy City. (There is a reason, Jeb, why no previous president has done this.)

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

Donald Trump Is More Like Ike Than George W. Bush

Photograph_of_Dwight_D._Eisenhower_-_NARA_-_518138

National Review’s barrage against Donald Trump won’t make much difference in the race, but clarifies nonetheless. In an editorial and 22 signed contributions, the magazine urges conservatives to reject Trump. Ninety percent of those likely to be influenced by National Review (a small, but not negligible number in a GOP primary) would have come to that conclusion without any help: Trump is not and never has been an establishment conservative, and other perfectly capable candidates are filling that niche. Nonetheless, NR‘s “Against Trump” campaign reveals much about the magazine and the current state of the conservative movement.

National Review has a a history, and not entirely a dismal one, of efforts to exclude people from the ranks of respectable conservatism. In the 1950s, it hardly helped conservatism of any stripe to have the John Birch Society proclaiming that Eisenhower and his brother were witting communist agents: it simply made the Right seem kooky and stupid. Buckley’s dismissal of the group was prudent. But subsequent purges targeted not kooks, but ideological opponents, especially after the end of the Cold War. Twenty years ago National Review sought to damage Pat Buchanan’s presidential bid by publishing various polemics and jointly signed statements against him. Buchanan was vulnerable because part of his appeal was as a loyal Republican who had spent many years at Nixon’s and Reagan’s side, before he began to challenge the GOP consensus.

In Buchanan’s case, the actual reasons for opposing him were seldom the stated ones. His greatest sin against the establishment right was that he opposed the first Iraq war, and made an enemy of the neoconservatives who had become an increasingly dominant part of the conservative coalition. Seven years later, NR struck again, with a 2003 cover story denouncing as “unpatriotic” those conservatives who were trying to warn against the folly of the second Iraq war. The attack, published under magazine’s current editor Rich Lowry, was hardly damaging to the individuals targeted, but did reveal that support for wars in the Mideast had become the only true litmus test for the establishment Right.

NR‘s Trump attacks cover the spectrum: Trump is both too much to the left, and too much to the right. Trump is a two bit Caesar, he is racist, he is liberal, he once supported abortion, he supported the TARP bailouts, he is not a real conservative. In so many words, he is not one of us.

But of course anyone giving Trump a look knew that already. His differences from establishment conservatism are part of his appeal. To understand that, it helps to consider what “really existing conservatism” has has meant to Americans over the past generation. The blunt truth is that the most important “conservative” project in recent memory was the Iraq war, which cost trillions, wrecked the lives of  hundreds of thousands of Americans and set the Middle East aflame for what will probably be a generation. Programmatically, the war was the project of a Republican president and his administration. It was backed enthusiastically by National Review (see “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” linked above), but had its intellectual origins in the world of neoconservatism. Not coincidentally, Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz, editors of magazines which were agitating for war against Iraq long before 9/11, are probably the best known among NR‘s slate of Trump denouncers. In other words, as the United States still grapples with the chaotic aftermath of that Iraq invasion, NR and the rest of Conservatism Inc. unleash a verbal torrent claiming that Donald Trump is a threat to those concepts—“small government,” “the permanent things”—which true conservatives supposedly hold dear. It’s almost comical.

But in ways realms different from those considered by National Review and the Beltway right-wingers, Donald Trump is a kind of conservative. In his speeches, he has tried to fill out his “Make America Great Again” slogan with some notion of what kind of society he is trying to conserve, or restore. He has talked—not very politely, but probably in the only way possible to get people to listen—about ending illegal immigration and limiting legal immigration. This is of course critical if the United States is to remain the country which it has always been, one with relatively open spaces and relatively high wages. He speaks about stopping the hemorrhage of American manufacturing jobs to China and elsewhere. Would he succeed? It’s not clear—it would certainly be difficult. But nations before have tried, and succeeded, to protect their manufacturers, and the jobs and relative social stability that go along with them. For National Review however, such policies simply are not “conservative”—and the editors mock Trump for his “threats to retaliate against companies that do too much manufacturing overseas for his taste.”

The society that Trump has in mind when he speaks of restoring America’s greatness is probably something like the America of the Eisenhower administration. Ike was reelected by a landslide when Donald J. Trump was ten years old. He carried New York state by 22 percent. Of course Eisenhower isn’t any sort of model for most in the conservative movement. The National Review of William F. Buckley’s era thought Ike’s administration stultifying. Conservative intellectuals railed against Ike’s readiness to accommodate itself to New Deal social legislation and his refusal to risk war by trying to liberate Eastern Europe. Eisenhower’s rule convinced Buckley’s friend Whittaker Chambers, for one, that capitalism was the losing side.

But a certain style of main street conservatism did thrive during the Eisenhower era. It was not revolutionary, did not look towards unleashing “democratic revolutions” in distant regions, or unraveling the regulatory chains on finance capitalism. It was devoted to bettering the lives of average Americans and practicing a strategy of containment in the Cold War. Public infrastructure was built. Industry expanded, wages grew. Married couples raised big families. Illegal aliens were deported. It was not the conservatism of the Kristols or Podhoretzes—Ike didn’t start any big wars in the Mideast or elsewhere and indeed backed the UN consensus by forcing Israel to cough up its 1956 conquests in the Sinai. Nor of the Cato Institute—taxes on the rich were high, and the government spent a lot of money on public works useful to all.

For most Americans, this was a good thing—society was basically stable, supposedly a conservative virtue. Trump certainly holds no briefs for the residual segregation of that era: if press accounts are to be believed, his taste for glamor and celebrity have led him to a more racially diverse personal life than any other candidate running. But there are plenty of signs he aspires to be a sort of Eisenhower for his time, more solicitous of middle America than of Wall Street, more concerned about American living standards than an ambitious ideological remake of the world. Asked at a New Hampshire town hall about how he would “restore stability” to the Mideast after defeating ISIS, he demurred. “Our bridges, our infrastructure are falling apart,” he answered.

It is likely that this take-care-of-Americans-first attitude is the true source of National Review’s hostility to Trump. Chris Matthews raised this point in a provocative interview on Hardball: what they really hate about Trump is not his bombast, but his opposition to the Iraq war, and the idea that he would take the Republican Party off the militaristic intervention track. That he would, in other words, take the GOP back to Eisenhower’s time. Matthews recalled from experience (not his own) that coordinated multi-signature attack is a tell-tale neocon tactic, used to try to push George W. Bush into making war against Iraq, before that used to depict Pat Buchanan as beyond the pale.

This is not to say that there are not legitimate questions about Trump’s temperament, his ability to function as America’s chief executive, or his suitability as any kind of personal role model to the nation. There are. Valid points are raised by some of the National Review contributors. Many others—including people fairly well disposed towards Trump’s candidacy—are asking them as well. But perhaps members of the “mainstream establishment conservatism” as represented by National Review are not the best people to raise them.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

Cruz Insurgent, Trump Playing for Middle of the Green

While New Hampshire polls differ at the margins, they align in one area. All of them put the totals favoring one candidate or another at about 90 percent, with 10 percent undecided. My impression is that this is mistaken. I haven’t phoned random samples of 600 voters, but I make an effort to speak to six or eight people at every event I go to, those waiting in line, those sitting or standing near me. And from that (a sample of maybe 50 people so far) I would figure an undecided rate of closer to 50 percent. Now it may all be that people who go out in freezing cold to political events are more likely to be undecided: they are window shopping, politically engaged late deciders who take very seriously the responsibility that New Hampshire’s (and Iowa’s) first in the nation status bestows on them. That would make sense. You go out not to hear a message which confirms your views or to enjoy the crowd energy of the like-minded, but in order to make up your mind. Nevertheless, I would take the polls right now with a grain of salt. They could shift a lot between now and February 9th.

Donald Trump, the current leader in the polls, seems well aware of this. In the Concord High gymnasium on Monday, he made a golf reference, which may have been obscure to many in his audience, but not to me. Trump said something like “I’m like ‘he’s looking for the clubhouse, Johnny’.” That is, he described his own situation by quoting the on course reporter following the guy leading the tournament by four shots on the 12th hole. “Johnny”, of course, is Johnny Miller, in the booth at 18, America’s premier golf-commentator. I doubt this analogy has been used at a campaign rally before. Trump would like the New Hampshire vote to be held, like, yesterday.

He has toned it down. That’s what New Hampshirites tell me—many are astonished his speeches aren’t more volatile. Perhaps because the media has so emphasized the allegedly extreme things he says, people are generally pleasantly surprised that he seems calmer or more normal. Some have suggested to me that they suspect the media has gone out of its way to misrepresent him. My own sense is that Trump really has softened his rhetoric, both because that plays better in stoic Yankee New Hampshire, and because the rhythm of the campaign calls for it.

At a Cruz event Wednesday morning I sat next to a woman who said she would never vote for Trump. She cited an incident in which Trump is alleged to have used an odd spastic arm gesture to mock the disability of a reporter, and Jeb Bush is on the air with a TV ad about it. Trump has said that he did not know the reporter was disabled, and another reporter has noted that Trump sometimes makes peculiar gestures while making fun of people who aren’t disabled. Whatever is the truth (and I doubt that Trump would be so stupid as to mock someone for a disability) it’s a damaging charge, which has denied him at least one vote. The woman told me that her family is all over the place on the election, some are Trump supporters, some for Sanders. She is for Carly.

I’ve seen two Cruz events in two days. It is not surprising that he is doing fairly well nationally. He has clearly absorbed something from his evangelical pastor father about the cadences of public speaking. He has been practicing this craft since he was 13, when he was in a group called Constitutional Corroborators, which traveled around doing performances before Rotary clubs and veteran’s groups, acting out constitutional debates. McKay Coppins, in his book The Wilderness writes, “At home, Cruz would practice these performances late into the night, studying himself in the mirror as he perfected each tic and quirk of his delivery.” At age 13.

Cruz events are slick. Unlike other candidates, who keep their waiting audiences warmed up with rock and roll tracks, Cruz has two large screens streaming very professionally produced videos. Videos of Cruz testimonials from various right wing and “liberty” activists, videos of Cruz wallowing in crowds of adoring voters. One video segment states that the federal government is taking meals away from senior citizens who want to pray.

Cruz’s actual talk is as carefully studied as those he gave when he was 13, delivered with rehearsed precision, every gesture and change in intonation precisely timed. There are scripted violent jokes and puns about the Federal government—“difference between an EPA regulator and a locust is ya can’t use pesticide on a regulator” —there is the list of five things he will do on Day One, and the five things he will get started on right away. For Cruz, and honestly, for all the Republicans up here, the Obama administration is spoken of like some sort of foreign occupation. Audiences like it. They applaud the shredding of the “catastrophic” Iran deal, applaud moving the U.S. Embassy to the “eternal capital of the Jewish people” in Jerusalem, applaud the deletion of Obamacare. Louder than applause for “rebuilding” the military is applause for reforming the Veterans Administration. Perhaps there is more concern for warriors with wounds of various sorts than there are for new wars.

Like Trump, Cruz is at war with the Republican establishment, but the targets are different. Cruz explicitly attacks Dole, McCain, and Romney as not real conservatives, as moderates who lost because they softened the right-wing message. Because they are alive and still protective of their reputations, they hit back. Contrasting himself to them, Cruz projects himself as Reagan, sweeping aside the failures of Jimmy Carter. But the analogy may feel a bit forced: the American economy is somewhat stronger than 1970s, and Iran and Russia, however difficult to deal with, are not nearly as hostile as they were in 1980.

Cruz gets some applause from his vow to destroy the IRS. Apart from an individual in a “VATMAN” costume outside the event, there is little discussion of the value added tax or the flat tax that Cruz campaigns on. My sense is these regressive taxes would be a ripe target in general election, especially in the current political climate.

But to the extent New Hampshire remains a domain of retail politics, Cruz and the others could rise at Trump’s expense. You can’t really see The Donald hanging around for 45 minutes after his speech, shaking hands, taking selfies, and making small talk with voters. Cruz is good at it, and so are all the others. It could make a difference. Cruz seems to be drawing about 250 people to events, at least in the more populous south of the state. If he did a dozen of them the past week, that’s 3,000 people, or between 1 and 2 percent of the vote.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

John Kasich Rising—and Realist?

John Kasich at a campaign event in New Hampshire, via Scott McConnell
John Kasich at a campaign event in New Hampshire, via Scott McConnell

There’s now a minor media buzz about John Kasich, the Ohio governor who is now in clear second in New Hampshire—and rising. If he manages to vault even more clearly over Bush, Christie, and Rubio there, he’ll garner lots of national attention. Having attended two of his events, I could see him thriving under a greater spotlight. He’s smart, optimistic, has a compelling personal story, was a very successful governor of a swing state, has an attractive family (wife and two teenage daughters, traveling with him this week in the campaign). A good sense of Kasich’s appeal as a retail politician can be gleaned from the first few minutes of the video here.

Most of his town halls are devoted to domestic issues: taxes, health care, job creation, tuition, the rise in opioid addiction. Kasich is pretty skilled at conveying a calm “we can do this” attitude towards such issues, and displays a nuanced understanding of them. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne remarked that the people at Kasich events aren’t angry (in contrast to you-know-who, though the people there aren’t all angry either, they are also hopeful and enthusiastic).

On foreign policy, Kasich seems understated but fairly hawkish: in two events I’ve heard him say Assad is a butcher who must be overthrown, and that he would arm the Ukrainians to resist Putin. I don’t know how fervently he believes this—he certainly isn’t making it a campaign feature. He’s domestically focused.

But in Lebanon last night, Kasich said something very interesting. Asked near the end of the event (and at the end of a very long day) whom from history he considers a good secretary of state, he answered Jim Baker. He added that he met Baker when he was first in Congress and told the secretary that when he made a threat, it looked like he would follow through.

Naturally I wondered whether Kasich was really up to date on the symbolic meaning of Jim Baker’s name in Republican foreign policy circles. Baker, who held up loans to Israel that were being used for West Bank settlement expansion, who doubted whether the Israelis were interested in a compromise peace. Baker, the demon figure of the neoconservative imagination, the figure who represented what was most wrong with the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Baker, who for the GOP’s remaining realists, was the symbol—along with Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft—of how a Republican president could be practical and tough-minded in defense of American interests without inflaming the world with futile military interventions. Baker, who was invited to speak at J Street, the Jewish activist group most interested in forging a durable Israeli-Palestinian peace. Baker, whose mere appearance on Jeb Bush’s foreign-policy advisory panel reportedly incited a Sheldon Adelson temper tantrum.

Or was he just a candidate at the end of a long day giving a shout out to a secretary of state he knew personally?

I tweeted about the incident, and a few of my tiny number of Twitter followers responded. Then came a retweet from John Weaver, a senior Kasich strategist. That doesn’t necessarily mean much—as the refrain goes, “retweets are not endorsements”—but it might somehow mean that the Baker remark was not entirely inadvertent. There is a lane to run in, there has to be, for a non-Sheldon Adelson-approved GOP candidate.

Scott McConnell, a founding editor of The American Conservative, reports on the 2016 campaign from New Hampshire.

Where Is the Foreign Policy Debate in 2016?

On the Democratic side, an avowed democratic socialist is leading in the New Hampshire polls, suddenly posing a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton’s coronation. For the GOP, candidates range from pro-immigration free-traders to build-a-wall and close-the-borders advocates. The Republicans may all be avowed free marketeers—though international trade remains a division point—but between leading candidates of both parties a wide range of views on immigration, the degree of desirable federal  intervention in health care and the economy in general, and taxation are being discussed forcefully if not always brilliantly.

On the other hand, no one from Ted Cruz to Bernie Sanders seems eager to debate fundamental questions about American foreign policy. On that they all basically agree: the United States saved the world in the 1940s and must continue to lead it, seemingly in perpetuity. The consensus is deeply bipartisan. Occasionally a matter like the Iraq War seems to threaten the bipartisan consensus, but the breaches close quickly. Everyone insists on “American leadership”—and sees the world as kind of planetary system revolving around a Washington based sun.

The planet-sun analogy was one of many thrown out in a very smart forum held last week in Manchester, New Hampshire, sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute. Charles Koch is best known in politics for aggressive financial support of various conservative and libertarian causes. His institute’s foreign-policy forum left me thinking the most durable part of his legacy might be in expanding the realm of permissible debate about America’s role in the world as the 21st century advances.

Right now, as William Ruger, a vice president of the Koch Institute, described it, foreign policy in Washington is a battle within the 48-yard lines. Everyone takes the necessity of American primacy as a given, and those outside the consensus receive nicknames like the one John McCain sometimes bestows:  “wacko bird.” You don’t necessarily lose your job if you’re a wacko bird, but you become someone whose opinions don’t really count.

In addition to Ruger, a former political scientist, the panel consisted of Andrew Bacevich and Stephen Kinzer, both widely published foreign-affairs authors, and Christopher Preble, a scholar who heads foreign-policy shop at the Cato Institute. Television host John Stossel moderated, deploying a devil’s advocate persona.

I go to many forums in Washington, and while most are informative very few really crackle. This one did. That can be explained by the truly enormous gap between what the panelists said—reasonable if provocative arguments made by learned, highly successful, and temperamentally conservative people—and what passes for “serious” foreign policy discussion inside the Beltway.

Some examples:

*The common perception underlying the “indispensable nation” consensus is that we saved the world by defeating Nazi Germany. But of course the Soviet Union did far more to defeat Germany.

*Benghazi is alluded to repeatedly by Republicans seeking to attack Hillary Clinton’s record. But none of them ever note that the Libyan intervention against Gaddafi which preceded it did serious damage to the cause of nuclear non-proliferation and dramatically destabilized the region; the Republicans never go beyond the fact that American diplomats were killed.

*Saddam was the most brutal dictator in the world. If you were an Iraqi who seemed to threaten him politically, you would likely disappear. But in his Iraq, if you kept your mouth shut you could lead a normal life, provide for your family, send your kids to school, go to mosque or church of your choice.  No one there now can do any of that. (Kinzer)

*For someone born in 1991, when our Soviet rival dissolved itself, has seen America engaged in a major war every year but three.

*We are formally committed to the defense of 68 countries in the world.

*The United States has reorganized Afghan’s government to collapse the traditional somewhat viable decentralized system and elect a parliament manned by the rich, the corrupt, the violent.

*At the Naval War College, top officers are in an “orgasmic state” over the prospect of a new generation of weapons to threaten China, which is working on one aircraft carrier, while we have a dozen.

*We have no solution to the problems of the Middle East, its crises are beyond our capacity to fix. ISIS poses a very minor threat to the U.S. The best thing we can do to counter radical Islam is to be the best society we can be—and demonstrate by our example there is no conflict between faith and modernity. (Bacevich)

*Iran is now very secular, a country with more atheists there than anywhere else in Islamic world.

*America (seemingly without reflecting about it, and certainly not debating it) opened the barn door to cyberwarfare, when,  in conjunction with Israel, it used offensive cyber weapons (Stuxnet) against Iran. (Bacevich)

About 120 people attended. People who attend a Koch event on national security are probably a fairly conservative bunch, and it takes a lot to move someone from their basic premises. One man, a former military intelligence officer, asked a detailed question about China’s new “military assertiveness”—a threat now taken as axiomatic inside the Beltway. I believe it was Ruger who replied that 1) he believed in the “stopping power of water” (the Pacific is pretty large); 2) China would have great difficulty invading Taiwan; 3) China probably has more at stake in freedom of the seas than any other country; and finally (jokingly) he wouldn’t worry too much about China’s man-made military islands, because of global warming and rising seas. In other words, really a minimal military threat to America. (Whether China is an economic threat to American manufacturing is another issue, not relevant to this forum.)

None of this makes it on to the  Washington discussion table. Ever. Instead it is assumed, without much discussion, that it is—that it must be—America’s role to obsess about the military power of a country which spends roughly 20 percent of what we do on the military.

It is beginning to percolate, around in the country, if not in Washington, that the United States has not actually won a war in a very long time, despite fighting many of them. And some social force or combination of them is causing the American dream to feel remote for a growing share of the population. There is a now a real market for fundamental questioning of America’s strategic doctrines, far moreso than in the 1990s—and a growing potential audience for putting less militarism, more soft power (none of the panelists were “isolationists”) on the table. The Koch Institute is planning to bring more of these panels around the country, and they will probably make some waves. There are other possible steps to take—academic programs, think tanks, media initiatives. Arraigned against any rethinking is the massive Beltway blob: interlocking media; financial and industrial interests; the “military-industrial complex,” so named by Dwight Eisenhower; defense contractors spread across every state; powerful congressional lobbies for foreign countries eager for the United States to spend treasure and sometimes blood defending them. But it is a debate that America dearly needs, and the Koch Institute’s seeming readiness to engage it in a serious way is more than welcome: it may be critically important, and not only for American conservatives.

Scott McConnell, a founding editor of The American Conservative, reports on the 2016 campaign from New Hampshire.

Donald Trump Takes No Snow Days

On Friday, electronic highway signs in New Hampshire began flashing that a WINTER STORM was arriving early the next morning. Would they cancel the Trump rally scheduled for 11:30 in Portsmouth? Watching politicians, as I’ve been doing the past few days, makes you think they must yearn for a snow day. Just as I have a fanboy “These guys are good” reaction when I see professional athletes close up, I admire the sheer stamina and skill of good politicians. At this level, they all impress. Marco Rubio, eight hours after finishing a debate in South Carolina, on the stump in a bingo parlor in southern New Hampshire, bright-eyed, well-honed boyish eloquence in full display. How could his advance team possibly know they could gather 200 people at 8:30 in the morning? Kasich, in a library basement in the mountains up near the Maine border, addressing a room half-filled with retirees with the energy as if he were on national TV. Jeb, before preppier crowd just west of Nashua, in a lodge hall whose wooden panels reminded me of the lodge scenes in “The Good Shepherd”—staying two hours to take question after question, trying to give detailed answers, always thoughtful, grammatical.

In the days ahead, I will delve into the content of what the latter three, and the others, are saying. But the electronic sign left me wondering how I was going to manage the drive from Manchester to Portsmouth in a possible blizzard, and I began to wish Trump would cancel. At age 69 he might welcome a half-day off, you would think.

The Saturday morning Trump rally was in Portsmouth, the New Hampshire seacoast’s largest town—in the huge Toyota dealership. Scott Brown, a former and perhaps future New England Republican star, introduced him. Trump had had an excellent week: pretty much everyone says he debated well in South Carolina. He was thrown a fat pitch when Ted Cruz began attacking his “New York values.” Trump responded with defiant defense of the city’s people; unlike, for instance Giuliani (or even Pataki), he could talk about 9/11 without trying to make it about his own stalwart leadership. He painted a heartfelt picture of  New Yorkers responding well under the most intense duress, and no one could possibly disagree. It’s a lesson which could be filed for future use: Donald Trump not talking about himself does very well. His polls remained good, comfortably ahead in New Hampshire and catching up to Cruz in Iowa, though his “get the people to the caucus” organization remains extremely  weak. There were hints in the prestige press that some Republican “money men” had resigned themselves to his possible victory and were sending out peace feelers.

But this kind of lead two weeks before any voting starts and more than three before the first primary puts Trump in the position of team leading by two touchdowns with several minutes remaining in the third quarter: things look pretty  good, but there is a lot of time left. If he does poorly in Iowa—which seems plausible given the state of his field organization—he has to win New Hampshire; without that, all the six-month talk about his strength in the national polls would be revealed as interesting but not all that politically important. And so, no snow day in Portsmouth. Trump, who had spent the previous day in Iowa, where he not only spoke at a rally but uncharacteristically stayed to schmooze with Iowans at a pizza chain, arrived on time.

So did about 1,500 other people, some of whom, presumably more accustomed to New England driving than I, didn’t leave three hours for a 50-mile trip. The snow, which alternated with freezing rain, probably could have been worse. Those who got there early didn’t have spend too much time waiting outside, got themselves through metal detectors set up by the Secret Service (other candidates I’ve seen don’t have those), and found themselves listening to rock and roll in a toasty warm meeting hall attached to an auto showroom.

The people in Trump’s crowds are not like those of other Republican politicians. A fair number of them have come not to scrutinize a candidate but for an entertaining show, people from Maine and Massachusetts who won’t be voting for a while, high-school kids who are not registered, a fair number in unusual hats, flamboyant beards or mustaches, many men  who look like they worked with their hands. Do these translate into primary voters? Surely in some cases they  will, and it is obvious that no other candidate in the field could draw 1,500 people in the middle of a Saturday morning snow storm. But no actual voting has started yet.

If you’ve been following Trump, much of his standard speech is likely familiar. In segments, it’s become a call-and-response script for the Silent Majority. (Trump: “Who’s gonna pay for the wall? The crowd: Mexico!) I’ll comment principally on some digressions and new points.

So long as Ted Cruz remains his main short-term rival, Trump is not going to let people forget that Cruz took very large personal loans from Citibank and Goldman Sachs and failed to report them through the standard mechanisms. You sense that  Trump, with his digression on how Cruz will be “controlled” by his Wall Street creditors, will be happy to pick away at this subject for a long time. (See video here.)

Secondly, Trump talks a very hawkish game on the Iran deal. But there is a sense among some (which I share) that his opposition is more rhetorical or political than genuine. He loves to talk about the stupidity of the deal, how dumb were our negotiators, how terrible it is that Iran is getting money up front. (He fails to mention that it is, actually, Iran’s own money.) But he knows of course that any Obama-inspired diplomacy is very unpopular with Republican primary voters. And (unlike some other candidates, like Rubio) he doesn’t vow to tear up the deal on Day One, or the equivalent.

On other foreign-policy questions Trump vacillates between tough talk—“seize the oil,” he would be the  “most militaristic” president—and various pullbacks. He has begun regularly to emphasize his opposition to the Iraq War, and he stresses his own reluctance to go to war. I thought it was interesting on Saturday that he answered a question about how we should “bring stability” to the Middle East by stating that we’d been trying very hard to do that for 15 years without much success and that America’s roads and bridges were falling apart and in dire need or repair. Be assured that no other candidate in the GOP field answers a foreign-policy question like that. (See video here.)

Finally Trump clearly owns the immigration issue. When someone started off his question by quoting Ronald Reagan and saying “without borders, you don’t really have a country” Trump could reply, simply “I’m your guy.” (I think it was at that point that someone yelled  out “Bigot” and the crowd wanted to shout him down. Scott Brown, on stage besides Trump as the moderator, said “Who cares?” and urged everyone to ignore the heckler, which seemed wise counsel. It does seem remarkable that a quote like Reagan’s can seem controversial, or “bigoted.”)

Trump will surely be up here many more times in the next three weeks, as will everyone else.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

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