Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The folly of expanding draft registration. John Allen Gay sees no reason to expand Selective Service registration to include women, and warns conservatives against supporting such a change.

Drawbacks of the Saudi “offer” to fight in Syria. Aaron David Miller outlines why Saudi Arabia’s statement that they would send troops to Syria is less than meets the eye.

Poland wants more than NATO can give. John Deni explains why NATO is unlikely to base troops permanently in Poland.

Was the Iran deal a victory for realism? Nikolay Pakhomov doesn’t see much of a chance for the nuclear deal to lead to a significant change in U.S.-Iranian relations.

When the USSR and China almost went to war.. Robert Farley reminds us of the 1969 crisis between the Soviets and Chinese.

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Trump Continues to Lead in South Carolina

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The first post-New Hampshire poll from South Carolina shows that Trump continues to lead comfortably. He leads Cruz 36-20%, while Rubio (15%), Bush (11%), Kasich (9%), and Carson (5%) divvy up the rest. That represents a slight improvement of a few points for Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich over the last poll from this same outfit. Unsurprisingly, Trump wins in almost every category. Once again, his support is spread very evenly across all different age and ideological groups. He leads Kasich among moderates by 19 points, beats Rubio among “somewhat” conservative voters by 17 points, and he even ties Cruz among the “very conservative” at 33%. In other words, Trump outdoes or matches his rivals where they are strongest, and then trounces them everywhere else. Among “somewhat” conservative and moderate Republicans, he receives more support than his next two strongest opponents combined, and those two groups account for half of the respondents.

Perhaps the most important factor explaining Trump’s success in South Carolina is that he leads Cruz even among evangelicals, and then runs away with over 40% of the non-evangelical vote. Evangelicals make up 65% of the respondents in the poll, and Trump gets roughly a third of them while Cruz gets less than a quarter. Notably, there is not much regional difference in Trump’s support: he’s at 34% in the Midlands, 37% Upstate, and 36% in the Lowcountry. He remains the dominant candidate in the state just over a week before the primary on the 20th. That is consistent with the South Carolina polling we’ve been seeing for the last few months. Except for the brief Carson surge that threatened Trump’s lead in the fall, he has been well out in front of the rest of the field at least since August, and it doesn’t seem likely to change.

Because South Carolina has a winner-takes-most/winner-take-all by district system for delegate allocation, Trump’s broad support distributed across the entire state makes it entirely possible that he could sweep all of the state’s fifty delegates. That would clearly separate him from the other candidates in the delegate count, and it would put him in a very good position going into the Nevada caucuses (2/23) and Super Tuesday on March 1. If Trump is going to be stopped somewhere, it isn’t going to be in South Carolina.

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The Media Turns on a Media-Driven Candidate

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Paul Waldman comments on Rubio’s predicament:

Marco Rubio is in serious trouble, so he’s now attacking Donald Trump, something he hasn’t been as eager to do before. While it may produce a return slap from the Republican front-runner, it probably won’t be enough to shift the discussion around Rubio, who is now learning a very hard lesson: Live by the media’s favor, die by the media’s disfavor.

One of the curious things about this election cycle is how relentlessly many media outlets and pundits have promoted Rubio with so little effect. It is quite possible that the overt and undeniable pro-Rubio bias in election coverage has helped to sour many voters on him and make them more suspicious of him than they might otherwise be. The desire to hype Rubio as the “real” front-runner or most likely nominee has been persistent for months despite the lack of evidence to support these claims, but until the Iowa caucuses it yielded no benefits for Rubio. In fact, it created increasingly unrealistic expectations of what he should be able to do, which made the shortcomings of his underwhelming campaign more glaring than they already were. The glee with which his third-place finish in Iowa was greeted in the media (and not just movement conservative media) was impossible to miss, but that ended up making Rubio’s bad debate and his predictably poor showing in New Hampshire seem even worse than they were. The constant boosterism and the endless string of media-created “moments” that Rubio was supposedly having throughout the last year helped obscure the candidate’s flaws and widened the gap between what everyone expected him to be able to do and what he could do.

The trouble with being a media-driven candidate is that it makes the candidate heavily dependent on continued positive coverage, and as soon as that coverage changes and the candidate suddenly faces intense scrutiny for the first time it magnifies every setback to an extraordinary degree. Rubio had the particular misfortune to stumble during a debate, which was supposed to be one of his strengths, and to make a mistake that had nothing to do with policy and everything to do with performance. Rubio could spout nonsense about the nuclear deal for days and never be called on it, but screwing up in a back-and-forth with a rival on live television is fatal for such a candidate. He has relied on positive coverage to build him up into being perceived as a plausible nominee, and the coverage has dramatically and maybe irreversibly changed.

Now that Rubio has been subjected to widespread ridicule instead of fawning admiration, he is left with nothing but a campaign strategy that can’t and won’t work. The core of that strategy all along was that everything would go perfectly for Rubio and all of his rivals would screw up or fade away in a timely fashion, and to make that happen it was essential that Rubio didn’t endure any negative or embarrassing coverage of the sort that he has had to endure for the last several days. However, a plan that doesn’t account for inevitable setbacks and adversity is not much of a plan at all, and no amount of positive spin in the media is going to change that.

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Rubio’s Bad Foreign Policy Judgment

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Rubio wants to use his supposed foreign policy experience to give him a boost against his rivals:

“The fact of the matter is Jeb has no foreign policy experience,” Rubio said. “He has no foreign policy experience and was governor a long time ago. The world has changed a lot in the last 10 years. Foreign policy has changed a lot in the last five years. No one on that stage has more experience or has shown better judgment or has shown a better understanding of national security threats than I have.”

This is the story that Rubio and his admirers like to tell, but it’s quite misleading. It’s true that he has some experience being on the Foreign Relations Committee that Bush and most of the other candidates don’t have, but considering how often he has skipped out on his job in the Senate that isn’t as significant as it sounds. Besides, Kasich could plausibly claim to have more experience on these issues than Rubio from his many years in the House. This argument may work against Bush, but it nonetheless exaggerates how much experience the senator has.

As for having better judgment and understanding, that’s not at all obvious. More so than any Republican candidate still in the race, Rubio was on board with Obama’s foolish military intervention in Libya, which helped to destabilize Libya and its neighbors for the last five years. That not only calls his judgment into question, but it would make him uniquely ill-suited to face Clinton in the general election. He may not be alone in his supporting reckless actions in Syria that risk war with Russia, but that by itself shows that his judgment is worse than that of at least a couple of his rivals. Any Republican candidate unwilling to risk an armed confrontation with a nuclear-armed major power over Syria has already shown that his judgment is better than Rubio’s.

The problem for Rubio is that this alleged advantage on foreign policy is the only card he has left to play, and it isn’t a very good one. Many Republicans distrust him in part because of his reflexive interventionism, and in the end a lot of what Rubio claims as his “better understanding” of foreign threats amounts to exaggerating those threats and overreacting to them. Where he is inclined to see a U.S. role in virtually every crisis and conflict in the world (including his deplorable support for the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war on Yemen), at least some of his rivals aren’t willing to involve the U.S. in so many places. Rubio’s foreign policy experience isn’t that great (and compared to some previous Republican nominees it is extremely brief), and his judgment is frequently very poor. Like Clinton, he invokes his foreign policy record as if it were something to be proud of, but in the eyes of many Republicans it is exactly the opposite.

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Trump’s Support Keeps Growing

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Ross Douthat surveys the “Republican mess” after New Hampshire, and says this:

Which leaves us with the Trump-as-nominee scenario, something I’ve consistently predicted will not happen. I’m not going to break with that prediction here. But it must be acknowledged that if you were scripting a path to the nomination for a populist candidate who only has a third of the party in his corner [bold mine-DL], this is almost exactly the script that you would write — with a strong but still-limited hard-right candidate like Cruz, and then a logjam of weak and deluded mainstream politicians competing deep into the primary season for the rest of the vote.

If we could be sure that Trump only had a “third of the party in his corner” and won’t get more support than that, it would make more sense to assume that Trump won’t be the nominee, but it’s not clear why we would think this. As I mentioned yesterday, Trump received more votes than McCain in 2008 or Romney in 2012, and his margin of victory over the runner-up was larger than either one’s. In other words, Trump outperformed the last two nominees in the first primary. (Considering that Romney was from Massachusetts, it is even more remarkable that more New Hampshire voters turned out for Trump than for him.) Since Trump has repeated their success with moderate Republican voters while remaining competitive among conservatives (and his national and state polling has followed the same pattern for months), why wouldn’t we think that he will receive similarly broad support as the primary season continues?

We can see from polling done before Iowa and New Hampshire that Trump is already getting more than a third of the vote in many different kinds of states, and so it seems more likely than not that his numbers are going to go up in the coming weeks following his win. Trump has been averaging 40% in Florida and Massachusetts. In the latest polling, he has almost as much support in Michigan. There may be a ceiling to his support, but it already seems to be higher than a third of the party, and it will probably end up much higher than that as he wins more primaries.

Trump’s support has been consistently underestimated or dismissed, and yet it has continued to increase. His supporters have already given him the second-best Republican caucuses result of all time, and 100,000 of them showed up for him in New Hampshire. Following that success, why wouldn’t his support keep growing?

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Trump’s New Hampshire Win

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Looking through the New Hampshire exit poll, I was struck again by how broad Trump’s support is. Like past front-runners, he wins with moderates, but he also gets significant support from all kinds of conservatives. Unlike Cruz, whose support is heavily concentrated among the “very conservative” voters, Trump draws evenly from all ideological groups. Unlike Kasich, he is very competitive among conservative voters despite deviating from the party and movement line much more often than the Ohio governor has.

Oddly enough, his vote total in New Hampshire will be very close to Romney’s in 2012, and with 97% of precincts reporting Trump’s total (97,627) is even a little higher than Romney’s was (97,532). Trump also received many more votes than McCain had in 2008 (88,571). Judging by that standard, he had more success in New Hampshire than either of the last two front-runners.

I imagine that is partly due to Trump’s own grab-bag of policies that offers a little something for every kind of voter, and it is probably because Trump is vague enough about many of his positions that voters can interpret them to mean whatever they want. Another important factor may be that he isn’t constrained by the limits of party or movement orthodoxy. That allows him to appeal to a large bloc of Republican voters for whom hewing to movement litmus tests doesn’t matter, and that is very attractive to voters that distrust and loathe party and movement elites. As Rod Dreher mentioned this morning, Trump offers his own explanation for the success he and Sanders are having, and it may be as simple as this:

We’re being ripped off, and he and I are the only people saying that.

That not only rings true to millions of people because it is true for them, but it connects with voters viscerally in a way that stale and outdated slogans never could.

It is almost a truism at this point that the candidates that movement conservative elites consider the most unacceptable is the one that receives the most support from Republican voters, and by the same token the candidates that movement conservatives like the most are often much less competitive. It was taken for granted at one time in the 2012 cycle that Romney couldn’t possibly be nominated because of his health care deviationism, but there were enough voters that didn’t care or saw that as a plus. Movement conservatives were so eager to find someone to stop McCain in 2008 that they absurdly decided on Romney as their champion. In this cycle, they made some belated attempts at denouncing Trump as a charlatan and usurper, but in so doing they showed how little they understood the rank-and-file of their own party. They aren’t the only ones.

As Michael Brendan Dougherty notes in his column today, Byron York found that local party leaders in New Hampshire didn’t know any Trump supporters and had no idea who these people might be. York followed up on that earlier report today, quoting one of Trump’s supporters explaining why party leaders were so oblivious to what was happening right under their nose:

“I think like most establishment Republicans, they thought if they kept promoting the narrative that Trump was a passing fancy and he would collapse, it would happen,” Gargiulo told me. “But this phenomena is the result of 25+ years of failed promises and lackluster leadership over multiple administrations from both parties. People have had it, and those in power don’t want to accept the reality they can no longer maintain the status quo.”

People have had it with being ripped off, and they know that it will continue if they settle for another conventional candidate. Trump is winning because more voters think Trump gets that in a way the other candidates don’t, and unless that changes dramatically in the next few weeks Trump seems likely to keep on winning by equally impressive margins.

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The GOP Establishment’s Worst-Case Scenario Is Here

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Anti-Trump Republicans were confident in the weeks leading up to last night’s primary that New Hampshire would consolidate the “establishment” vote behind one of the candidates, and that would create a three-way race in later states that would eventually lead to the defeat of both Trump and Cruz. Invariably, the candidate cast for this role was Rubio, and the governors running against him were dismissed as hopeless and soon to drop out. One major flaw in all this was that it depended on absolutely everything going right for only one of the “establishment” candidates while everything had to go wrong for the rest. The bigger flaw was that even if it “worked” as planned it probably wouldn’t succeed anyway.

Like Rubio’s bad gamble of a campaign strategy, it took for granted that multiple candidates would fail and/or act against their own interests to produce the desired outcome, and that they would all do so on schedule. As it turned out, Kasich and Bush did better than most people (especially the Rubio campaign) thought they would, and Rubio flopped at the critical moment. That guarantees that the already limited “establishment” vote will remain fragmented for at least several more weeks, by which time it will probably be too late to stop both Trump and Cruz. Kasich and Bush are hardly going to defer to the less experienced candidate whom they just beat in the first primary, and Rubio’s boosters have already invested too much in his faltering campaign to abandon him now.

The GOP “establishment” was repudiated last night by almost half of the voters, and the best chance to slow down Trump’s progress towards the nomination was squandered. Party leaders are now facing their worst-case scenario. They are facing it in large part because they made the mistake of believing they had the luxury of time, and only now are they realizing that they didn’t.

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New Hampshire Results

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Trump and Sanders both won as expected, and they won by large enough margins that the networks called it for both of them very early in the evening. Sanders is on track to win by a larger margin than expected. With 53% of the vote counted, Sanders leads by 20 points. The final result may be a little closer than that, but there’s no question that Clinton was badly defeated and embarrassed by a candidate that no one considered a serious threat to her when he started. Sanders may or may not be able to translate that into a competitive showing in later states, but his success shows the depth of distrust and reluctance to acquiesce in Clinton’s coronation among rank-and-file Democratic and independent voters. Trump’s edge over second-place Kasich is not as great, but it is still very substantial (34-16%). Two candidates that no one (including me) took seriously as contenders for their parties’ nominations won convincing victories tonight, and their wins are and should be the big stories of the night. Their party leaders clearly don’t want them as the nominees, but the voters have very different ideas, and in a refreshing change of pace the party leaders failed to get what they want. Leaders in both parties have been sternly rebuked, and they deserve to be. We’ll see if any of them understand what the voters are trying to tell them.

Kasich finished strongly, and he earned his position by putting in the time and effort that many other candidates did not. While it may be true that Kasich’s campaign doesn’t have an obvious way forward in later states, he nonetheless finished well ahead of all but one other candidate. He has more reason than his “establishment” rivals to continue. There will be much less pressure on him to drop out in the near term, and he should start to get more support from donors and party leaders as it becomes obvious that he is the leading “establishment” candidate in the race. On paper, he is also probably the most plausible general election candidate and the best qualified to be president of them all, so if Republicans don’t want to settle for Trump or Cruz they should look at Kasich as the best alternative they have left.

Relative to recent polls and even compared with my prediction, Rubio underperformed tonight. As of 9:30 Central he was trailing Kasich, Cruz, and Bush with a meager 10%. That’s significantly lower than his polling last week, but it is actually quite consistent with his limited support over the last several months. A weak fourth- or fifth-place finish was always a strong possibility, and it was made more likely by the fact that he didn’t put as much time campaigning in New Hampshire as his rivals, and he didn’t build as large of a campaign organization as competitive candidates usually do. Rubio had an early state problem all along, and it was only a better-than-expected Iowa finish and fawning media coverage that helped to mask it.

It’s worth remembering that the Rubio campaign planned on not winning in the first two contests. They believed he would be propelled to success through TV ads and debate performances, and that they are in it for the “long haul.” It didn’t work. When Rubio flopped in a debate, he had nothing to fall back on. A third-place finish would have been bad but bearable for him. A fourth- or fifth-place finish is extremely damaging. Unless he rallies later in the evening, Rubio appears to be headed for a very bad fifth-place finish. This was always the danger of his poor, bizarre campaign strategy, as I said last week:

Unless Rubio finishes ahead of Kasich, Cruz, and Bush in New Hampshire, it is he who will be wounded and suddenly in serious trouble. Instead of being propelled onward to success by his finish in Iowa, he is more likely to be hamstrung by a weak showing in New Hampshire.

Tonight’s results put the lie to the idea that he is one of the most viable competitors for the nomination. His bad result shows that he isn’t effective at winning over Republican voters in a larger presidential primary electorate, and it undermines his claim to be the best candidate for the general election. If the final results put him behind both Kasich and Bush, the question is not whether he can recover, but how long it will be before he drops out of the race all together. Instead of consolidating the “establishment” vote, Rubio will be left trying to spin his poor showing in Lieberman-like fashion. Rubio’s candidacy has never made much sense, and tonight’s results have shown that most Republicans don’t want him or what he’s selling. Until tonight many pundits and fans could indulge the Rubio fantasy, but starting tomorrow it will be difficult for them to pretend that he still has a chance of winning.

The four-way split among the “establishment” candidates has been fatal to the anti-Trump cause. Even though Trump ran a bit ahead of his polling, he was still at 34% around 9:30 Central (64% reporting), and the combined “establishment” vote was 45%. All of the “establishment” candidates contributed to Trump’s success by staying in the race this long. Now that at least three of them seem determined to continue their campaigns after New Hampshire, Trump’s advantage over the entire field will likely increase. It’s always possible that Trump could falter and collapse somewhere down the line, but that is much less likely to happen now that he has won a clear victory in the first primary. He and Cruz are the candidates most likely to be the nominee, and Trump has the edge heading into the later contests.

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A “No-Fly Zone” in Syria Is Still Insane

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Michael Ignatieff and Leon Wieseltier make a predictably horrible plea for more military intervention in Syria:

Operating under a NATO umbrella, the United States could use its naval and air assets in the region to establish a no-fly zone from Aleppo to the Turkish border and make clear that it will prevent the continued bombardment of civilians and refugees by any party, including the Russians. It could use the no-fly zone to keep open the corridor with Turkey and use its assets to resupply the city and internally displaced people in the region with humanitarian assistance.

If the Russians and Syrians seek to prevent humanitarian protection and resupply of the city, they would face the military consequences [bold mine-DL].

Ignatieff and Wieseltier are at least honest enough to acknowledge that they want to risk war with Russia. Some advocates for a “no-fly zone” in Syria try to deny that the risk exists. Fanatical interventionists that they are, the authors are not concerned about the risk of war with a nuclear-armed major power, and so they dismiss the dangers of their preferred course of action by saying, “risk is no excuse for doing nothing.” That’s insane. If the choice is between “doing nothing” and potentially starting a war with Russia, the risk that such a war would necessarily entail is an outstanding excuse. Avoiding an even larger, more destructive conflict with one of the world’s major powers is as good a reason for rejecting military intervention as one is likely to find.

It is important to understand that a “no-fly zone” would first require the U.S. (and it would be primarily U.S. planes that would be involved) to destroy Syrian air defenses and the Russian air defenses that have been moved into the country in the last few months. That would mean initiating open hostilities against the Syrian government and Russia, and it would mean killing Syrian and Russian military personnel. It’s also possible that some Iranian personnel on the ground would be killed along with them. Just like that, the U.S. would be at war with two states and risking war with one more. We don’t know exactly how Russia and Iran would retaliate, but we have to assume that they would seek to do harm to U.S. allies and clients in response, and we would also have to assume that U.S. forces elsewhere in the region could come under attack. Absurdly, the “solution” they offer wouldn’t even remedy the problem at hand, since a “no-fly zone” by itself wouldn’t keep Syrian forces on the ground from killing civilians with artillery.

It goes without saying that Ignatieff and Wieseltier don’t consider any of the likely consequences of the military action they demand, and they don’t even pay lip service to all the ways this could go horribly wrong. Interventionists like them never do. They are very vocal about denouncing the immorality of existing Syria policy, but they don’t even try to reckon with the far more destructive war they have no problem with starting.

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The Republican John Edwards

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Noah Millman hopes that tonight’s primary will help put a stop to Rubio:

Laying my remaining cards on the table: I genuinely believe Rubio is the most dangerous candidate of the whole bunch, more dangerous than Trump and certainly more dangerous than the declaredly more-extreme Cruz. It’s partly that Rubio’s foreign policy views are exceptionally ideological and divorced from reality, but more that his whole political identity seems to me to have been engineered based on positioning, and positioning within the world of professional ideologists. The candidate he reminds me of most is John Edwards, and I loathed Edwards.

Millman thinks that too much has been made about the debate glitch, but I think it was an especially revealing moment because it happened when Rubio was put under real pressure for the first in the entire campaign. As McKay Coppins explains, it fits into a larger pattern of behavior that the public hasn’t been able to see:

But to those who have known him longest, Rubio’s flustered performance Saturday night fit perfectly with an all-too-familiar strain of his personality, one that his handlers and image-makers have labored for years to keep out of public view. Though generally seen as cool-headed and quick on his feet, Rubio is known to friends, allies, and advisers for a kind of incurable anxiousness — and an occasional propensity to panic in moments of crisis, both real and imagined [bold mine-DL].

The problem with Rubio’s response to Christie’s attacks wasn’t just that he fell back on rehearsed lines again and again in a weird way, but that he did so because he was clearly rattled and panicking. That might be dismissed as a fluke, but it confirmed several things that many observers already thought about him. It also showed how easily he can be shaken by an attack, and that fits with the pattern Coppins describes. Leaving aside all other flaws and bad policies, someone that has a “propensity to panic in moments of crisis” is not the sort of person most voters would want to have in the White House. The question hovering over Rubio all along has been, “Is he ready to be president?” That question was answered over the weekend, and the answer was no. That’s why I’m a bit puzzled why he thinks emphasizing his electability is the smart thing to do, since he just showed that he isn’t going to cope well with the pressures of a general election campaign.

That brings us to the comparison with Edwards. The comparison comes up now and then, and it makes more sense each time I see it made. As far as I know, Brian Beutler was the first to make the comparison, but it keeps coming up because the two do resemble one another in a few ways. Instead of Edwards’ “son of a mill worker” routine, we hear endlessly about Rubio’s father the bartender and his mother the maid, and both present themselves as smooth, polished operators that are going to expand the appeal of their respective parties by leaning heavily on their biography and family history. Originally, Edwards was trying to imitate Clinton by running as the “centrist” Southern Democrat in 2003-04 with the promise that he could make Democrats more competitive in the South and with working-class whites in general. The argument for Rubio has long been that mainly by virtue of being young, Cuban-American, and the son of immigrants that he would be able to win over voters that traditionally don’t support the GOP. Both the Edwards and Rubio arguments are exceedingly superficial, and so are the candidates that make them.

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