Daniel Larison

Romney Paved the Way for Trump

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Ross Douthat tries to figure out why Trump is winning:

Until Donald Trump blew this model up. Yes, Trump has adopted conservative positions on various issues, but he’s done so in a transparently cynical fashion, constantly signaling that he doesn’t really believe in or understand the stance that he’s taking, constantly suggesting a willingness to bargain any principle away [bold mine-DL]. Except for immigration hawks, practically every ideological faction in the party regards Trump with mistrust, disgust, suspicion, fear. Pro-lifers, foreign-policy hawks, the Club for Growth, libertarians — nobody thinks Trump is really on their side. And yet he’s winning anyway.

That’s all true enough, but the same could be said and was said about Romney four years ago. Quite a few pundits were certain in 2011-2012 that Romney was so compromised by his record, especially on health care, that he couldn’t be the nominee despite all of the evidence to the contrary. Romney took more conventionally conservative positions than Trump has, but was even more cynical and pandering to every faction to get to that point. A large bloc of Republican voters didn’t really believe anything he told them, and like die-hard anti-Trump Republicans this year desperately rallied behind anyone they thought could stop him. Romney won in part because there simply weren’t enough Republican that held his record or his shape-shifting against him. We’re seeing much the same thing this year with the failure of the #NeverTrump forces.

Romney and Trump are very different in their temperaments and backgrounds, but in some important respects they fill similar roles in their respective election cycles. Like Trump, Romney won enough of the very conservative voters and a larger share of the “somewhat” conservative and moderate voters that make up the bulk of the primary electorates in most places. Like Trump, he was blessed with incompetent, divided opposition. Like Trump, he was the relative moderate in the field who normally wins the party nomination. Remember that Romney went from being a moderate-to-liberal Northeastern Republican to a party-line movement conservative in the space of a few years. The idea that Romney was a sincere or credible conservative was always laughable, but large numbers of Republicans went along with it. Most of the people now pledging undying hatred for Trump never even thought twice about whether they would support Romney, and the party rallied behind him as enthusiastically as it has behind any nominee.

In the end, it’s not that much of a mystery why Trump is winning. Romney showed him the way, and in the process showed that he probably didn’t have to do as much of the embarrassing pandering as he did. Republican voters wanted to win the 2012 presidential election more than anything, and mistakenly believed that Romney could do it. Because of that, they were prepared to put up with a thoroughly cynical, dishonest nominee who would say anything to get elected. Now most Republican voters have mistakenly convinced themselves that Trump can win, and many of them are making the same bargain that they made last time. As Douthat says, “they’re just in the grip of a strong delusion about Trump’s actual chances against Hillary Clinton.” The delusion may be stronger this time than it was four years ago, but it is the same refusal to acknowledge that the GOP is going to lose the election that we saw right up until Election Night in 2012. A party that believed that Romney was “supposed” to win but “blew it” will believe all sorts of strange things.

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Trump’s Foreign Policy Speech

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Trump’s foreign policy speech yesterday veered between a few sensible comments and a large number of contradictory and worrisome assertions. Like previous Trump statements on foreign policy, this speech was all over the map. While he insisted on the importance of a coherent foreign policy, he demonstrated that he does not have one. The speech offered his supporters and detractors material to justify their earlier opinions of him, but offered too few specific commitments to give us a clear idea of how Trump would handle a wide range of international issues. There were some good elements in it, but on the whole it didn’t make a lot of sense.

Trump emphasized some of the right things in his speech. He stressed that American interests should take priority, and made a straightforward appeal for a foreign policy that puts the interests of the American people first. He also said that America shouldn’t go abroad in search of enemies. That was presumably a nod to John Quincy Adams without directly quoting him. Trump noted correctly that post-Cold War foreign policy went off the rails and led to multiple costly failures, and expressed justifiable skepticism of the ill-conceived democracy promotion efforts of the 2000s. He repeated his point that U.S. allies need to do more to contribute to their own defense. At one point in his speech, he rightly said, “A superpower understands that caution and restraint are signs of strength.”

If those were the bright spots in the speech, there were also many problems. It may be inevitable in an election year, but many of Trump’s claims about the administration were false or misleading. He recycled the tired charge that Obama “dislikes our friends and bows to our enemies,” and like everyone else making that charge had no evidence to support it. The examples that he thinks support this claim show nothing of the kind. Trump denounced the nuclear deal with Iran again and falsely claimed that “we watched them ignore its terms, even before the ink was dry.” In fact, Iran has been complying with the terms of the deal, and has already shipped out its stockpile of low-enriched uranium in a major win for U.S.-led nonproliferation efforts. It is typical of Trump’s view of the world that he cannot even acknowledge a significant U.S. foreign policy success despite his fixation on the need to win.

Trump attacks the Iran deal as an example of “not being willing to leave the table,” when it was the persistence and determination of the administration to see the deal through that allowed the U.S. to score one of its most significant recent diplomatic achievements. Trump complains about “the humiliation of the United States with Iran’s treatment of our ten captured sailors,” but neglects to mention that the incident in question was resolved speedily and peacefully thanks in part to the diplomatic channels created by the very nuclear negotiations he ridicules as a failure. On this issue, Trump is like so many of the other Republican candidates in that he claims to value diplomacy but doesn’t want to accept the compromises that make successful diplomacy possible.

He went on to say that “President Obama gutted our missile defense program, then abandoned our missile defense plans with Poland and the Czech Republic.” The first part isn’t true, and the second part is misleading. The U.S. is still pursuing missile defense plans in Europe, for good or ill, and is now doing so by cooperating with all of NATO instead of the ad hoc bilateral deals that the Bush administration made with those two countries. For what it’s worth, most Poles and Czechs still didn’t support their governments’ decision to participate in the missile defense scheme and don’t care that it was cancelled. More to the point, Obama made that decision to reduce tensions with Moscow, and that thaw in relations with Russia worked for a few years. Pursuing better relations with Russia is something that Trump endorses elsewhere in the speech, but it doesn’t occur to Trump or his speechwriters that improving relations with Moscow may require making gestures that will displease some domestic hawks and European allies. Trump claims not to be interested in antagonizing Russia, but objects when an irritant in the relationship was removed. He says he doesn’t think the U.S. and Russia have to be adversaries, but doesn’t seem to want to accept that the U.S. will have to make any accommodations for that to happen.

So some of Trump’s specific complaints about current policy are wrong on the facts or are at odds with other positions that he has taken. Other statements are maddeningly vague. For example, Trump said, “We are getting out of the nation-building business, and instead focusing on creating stability in the world.” Many Americans will cheer the first part of this statement after the costly debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the second part potentially commits the U.S. to a very ambitious and activist role in the world. It’s not at all clear what Trump thinks “creating stability in the world” entails, what it would cost, or whether the U.S. would even know how to do this. Later in the speech, Trump suggests that he wants a huge military build-up: “We will spend what we need to rebuild our military.” This promises a further increase of military spending, which is already at historically high levels, and amounts to just throwing money at the Pentagon without any attempt at reforming the way it uses it. In his concluding remarks, he makes a statement that sounds like an endorsement of a dangerously messianic role for the U.S. in the world: “We will always help to save lives and, indeed, humanity itself.” Maybe that’s just a meaningless rhetorical flourish. Maybe it is something much worse. The trouble with Trump is that we can never be sure.

Trump has said that he prizes unpredictability and wants to keep people guessing as to what he might or might not do, and after this speech we still have only the vaguest idea of what we could expect from a Trump foreign policy.

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The Weird Cruz-Fiorina Gambit

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The effort to stop Trump just became a lot more comical:

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz will announce on Wednesday afternoon that former presidential rival Carly Fiorina has agreed to be his running mate should he win the GOP presidential nomination, sources confirmed to WMUR.

Naming a running mate at this point in the race is a desperate move for Cruz, but I suppose he has decided that he may as well take a chance in the hopes that this will keep his campaign from being ignored. Fiorina a strange choice, but then Cruz is in the strange position of pretending that he will end up as the nominee despite being a distant runner-up to Trump. I suppose it’s possible that adding Fiorina as his running mate will help Cruz a little in the California primary, but unless he wins Indiana next month it probably won’t matter.

As a matter of politics, it is difficult to see what Fiorina adds except for her being from California. Cruz reportedly sees her as a talented “attack dog,” and I suppose she can do that well enough, but she also brings with her the baggage of her business record. Selecting a former CEO who was known for the large number of employees she fired is an odd choice under any circumstances, and it is likely going to create more headaches for Cruz than it solves. She has had no success in politics, so it’s not clear why anyone would think that adding her to the campaign would lead to success. On top of all that, Fiorina isn’t prepared to be president if necessary. For that reason alone, it is a mistake to select her as a would-be Vice President, and it reflects poorly on Cruz’s judgment.

The main problem for Cruz is that naming a running mate this far in advance of the convention so reeks of desperation that it probably cancels out whatever small advantage having Fiorina as a running mate might give his campaign.

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Why #NeverTrump Failed

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Michael Brendan Dougherty reflects on Cruz’s abject failure in yesterday’s elections:

Why did anyone ever think that Cruz could carry the weight of the #NeverTrump cause?

It’s worth noting that most anti-Trump Republicans really didn’t want to get behind Cruz, and did so only because their other options had been eliminated over the previous months (Perry, Walker, Bush, etc.) or proved almost completely incapable of beating Trump (Rubio). They clung to the hope that some other candidate would be in a position to lead the opposition, and they did that because they had little or no confidence in Cruz. Despite the fact that Cruz was always the only one that could score more than a handful of wins against Trump, Trump’s most committed opponents also convinced themselves that Cruz was not much better. They were forced to accept Cruz as the more tolerable alternative only because every other remotely viable candidate had been driven out of the race.

In fairness to Cruz, the core problem for the #NeverTrump cause is that there simply aren’t that many die-hard anti-Trump Republicans available. Poll after poll has found that a broad majority of Republicans nationally wants the party to accept the top vote- and delegate-winner as the nominee regardless of the final delegate count, and the #NeverTrump faction amounts to maybe a quarter or a third of the party. That’s a substantial minority, but it was divided between different candidates for months and remains so today. Even if it were all united behind one candidate, it wouldn’t be enough to beat Trump in most states. Only in places where Trump’s support has been exceptionally weak (e.g., Wisconsin, Utah) have anti-Trump forces been able to prevail. Dougherty is right that Cruz was a poor fit for the anti-Trump cause, and Cruz’s earlier indulgence of Trump made him a terrible one to lead the attack, but even a more credible and competitive opponent would have struggled and lost. There are simply far more Republican voters that either like or can tolerate Trump than there are Republicans dead-set against him, and there was nothing that Cruz or any other candidate could do about that.

Another reason that anti-Trump Republicans failed at each turn is that they kept refusing to take the threat from Trump seriously long after it became obvious that it was real. As late as January and even February, Trump’s die-hard opponents kept laughing off his chances and telling themselves that most of the party would reject him. They kept repeating the claim that Trump’s support was limited to little more than a third of the party and wouldn’t expand, but there was every reason to believe that his support would keep increasing as the primaries continued. Trump’s opponents kept imagining that they had the luxury of time, but that was as wrong as could be. Trump was only going to get stronger as the primary schedule moved to the Northeast, and so the time to stop him was in March or February before he could confirm his status as the front-runner. They believed their own propaganda, or perhaps they simply had no clue what most people in the party thought, or perhaps it was some of both. The result is that they made no effort to coordinate against Trump early when it might have been possible to stop him, then refused to adjust after Trump’s first set of victories, and all the while most kept clinging to a fantasy that Rubio would save them. As Damon Linker notes in his column today, the anti-Trump Republicans have been in denial about the extent of Trump’s support and the likelihood of his winning the nomination for months, and that denial has ensured that their opposition to him would be as disorganized and incompetent as possible.

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What Is the Point of Trump’s Foreign Policy Speech?

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Donald Trump will give a foreign policy speech later today as part of his campaign’s attempt to present him as a more credible general election candidate. He’s speaking at an event sponsored by the Center for the National Interest (former President Nixon is not amused), which will probably produce another round of arguments about Trump’s supposed realism. The speech could be the typical rambling that we’ve come to expect from Trump, or he might deliver prepared remarks as he did for the AIPAC conference, but I doubt the speech will shed any new light on his views or clarify the jumbled, deal-obsessed approach to foreign policy.

In one sense, it makes sense that Trump’s campaign wants to have him give policy addresses to make him appear to be a more serious candidate. This is what the “normal” presumptive front-runner would start doing at this point, and so that is what they are having Trump do. Even so, I’m not sure I see the point. The people that are likely to be won over by policy addresses are the same sort of people that have already declared themselves to be against Trump no matter what. The content of Trump’s speech isn’t going to reassure them even if he sticks to a very conventional set of policies.

If the speech accomplishes anything, it will probably be its effect on Trump’s media coverage. If media outlets choose to accept that Trump is trying to be more “presidential” by giving these speeches, that is the message that will be conveyed to a national audience. The speech isn’t going to satisfy most people that work on foreign policy, but then it was never going to and it isn’t meant to.

Trump’s speech can be viewed on C-SPAN’s site here at 12:00 Eastern.

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Trump Dominates Tuesday’s Voting

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Trump swept all five states tonight as expected, and actually did a bit better than the polls indicated. He not only won a majority of the vote in every state, but came close to 60% or exceeded it in several places. With half the vote counted at 10:00 Eastern, Trump was at 57% in Pennsylvania. Trump also took 59% of the vote in Connecticut with almost three-quarters of precincts reporting. 61% of Delaware Republicans backed Trump with 99% reporting, and his percentage was even higher in Rhode Island. Maryland appears to have been his worst state of the night, and even here he trounced Kasich by 33 points.

According to exit polls in the three states that had them, Trump did especially well with men, non-college degree holders, and older voters, but he won practically every demographic group in every state. Even among Maryland Republicans with postgraduate degrees, he edged out Kasich 38-36%. Among Connecticut Republicans that were college graduates, he beat Kasich 55-34%. He won every ideological group, and did better with conservatives rather than moderates in these states. 68% of “somewhat” conservative Connecticut Republicans backed Trump, as did 63% of “somewhat” conservative Pennsylvania Republicans. Likewise, 55% of “somewhat” conservative Maryland Republicans supported Trump while 26% went for Kasich. “Somewhat” conservative voters are often the largest ideological bloc in Republican primaries, and Trump won a disproportionate share of support from them across the region tonight.

In contrast to Trump’s success, Cruz’s exceptionally poor showing everywhere tonight underscored how much of a factional candidate he remains despite his status as the only plausible alternative to Trump. Cruz failed to clear 20% in any state today, and in some states he couldn’t even reach 15%. Cruz is known to be primarily the candidate of very conservative voters, and they made up a smaller fraction of the electorates today than they have in most previous primaries. In Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Connecticut, they made up less than a third of the voters. And even among very conservative voters, Cruz consistently came in behind Trump. In Pennsylvania, Trump won very conservative voters by a few points, won them in Maryland by 19, and won them in Connecticut by 29. Cruz lost with his strongest constituency in every election, and was annihilated with everyone else.

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Trump Is on Track to Win Again

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Five Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states vote today, and Trump is poised to win all of them by a wide margin. Trump will likely gain more than a hundred delegates from these states, which brings him significantly closer to securing the nomination. In Pennsylvania, he leads Cruz in the average by 21 points. While it is the state with the largest haul of the day with 71 delegates, most are directly-elected unbound delegates. In spite of this, most say they will back the front-runner or the winner of their districts, and so almost all of the delegates will probably end up in his column anyway:

The picture looks brightest for Trump, who could do well among the unbound delegates, according to CNN interviews with 135 of the 162 candidates on the ballot. About 25% say they’ll support the front-runner, another 42% say they’ll support their district’s choice. This bodes well for Trump, who is poised to win most of the state’s congressional districts.

Twenty percent of respondents said they will support Ted Cruz, while 11% said they planned to remain uncommitted until a later date. The Cruz campaign is urging supporters to back write-in candidates in the 10th and 17th districts.

The situation in neighboring Maryland is much more straightforward: the state’s 38 delegates will be awarded on a winner-take-all basis with most decided by the winner of the state’s Congressional districts. Trump leads Kasich in Maryland by more than 20 points in the average. Trump currently polls over 50% in Connecticut, which makes it likely that he’ll be able to sweep the state’s 28 delegates. Trump is likewise dominating polling in Rhode Island, but because of the state’s proportional delegate allocation he will get just a portion of its 19 delegates. Finally, Trump has a large lead in Delaware, and will take the state’s 16 delegates assigned to the primary winner.

As expected, Trump is on track to continue cleaning up in blue-state primaries. Given his strength with more moderate and secular Republican voters, these were always likely to be among his best states, and it appears that this is what will happen today.

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Attack of the ‘Centrists’

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There’s a lot wrong with Jim VandeHei’s weird op-ed about a possible agenda for an independent presidential candidate, but this seemed especially deplorable:

Exploit the fear factor. The candidate should be from the military or immediately announce someone with modern-warfare expertise or experience as running mate [bold mine-DL]. People are scared. Terrorism is today’s World War and Americans want a theory for dealing with it. President Obama has established an intriguing precedent of using drone technology and intelligence to assassinate terrorists before they strike. A third-party candidate could build on death-by-drones by outlying [sic] the type of modern weapons, troops and war powers needed to keep America safe. And make plain when he or she will use said power. Do it with very muscular language—there is no market for nuance in the terror debate.

In other words, VandeHei’s recommendation is to take one of the most warped, irrational parts of our political system and make it worse on purpose. Politicians from both parties routinely exaggerate foreign threats to the U.S., and they mislead the public into thinking that they are at great risk of attack. His answer is to do even more of this as irresponsibly as possible. He observes that people are scared, and so he concludes that the best thing that a “disruptive” political movement can do is to scare them even more and promise to kill foreigners more efficiently. He wants to take the worst elements of Trump’s demagoguery and combine them with some of the most objectionable policies of the current administration. VandeHei wants to “rail against Big,” except for the part where he wants to indulge and strengthen the warfare state. His dream candidate is not Mark Zuckerberg, but rather Lex Luthor from Batman v. Superman.

Confronted with a political culture that always blows foreign threats out of proportion, VandeHei calls for treating a relatively small and limited threat from terrorism as if it were “today’s World War,” which puts him on the same page as the most deluded alarmist hawk. Nothing could better sum up the vacuity of conventional ‘centrist’ foreign policy thinking and the reckless manipulation of public opinion that goes along with it. But then both major parties already excel at all of this, so it’s not clear what VandeHei’s imaginary candidate would add to the already distorted debate. The fact that he thinks this represents a desirable alternative speaks volumes about what ‘centrists’ want from our political debates.

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The Limits of the Cruz-Kasich Pact

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Cruz and Kasich made a deal to focus their resources on different states to make it easier to stop Trump, but the anti-Trump pact is already running into problems:

The marriage of political convenience between Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was tested less than 12 hours into the honeymoon, as Kasich told reporters that he still wanted votes from his supporters in Indiana.

“I’ve never told ’em not to vote for me,” Kasich told reporters at a retail stop in Philadelphia. “They ought to vote for me. But I’m not over there campaigning and spending resources.”

The best that can be said for the Cruz-Kasich pact is that the two campaigns won’t be actively competing against each other in Indiana, Oregon, and New Mexico, but that doesn’t extend to urging supporters of the weaker non-Trump candidate in a given state to vote for the stronger one. Of course, the candidates’ supporters could vote tactically on their own without encouragement from Cruz or Kasich, but most aren’t likely to do that given the very different profiles of their respective voters.

The fact that Kasich doesn’t want to urge his supporters in certain states to back Cruz points to two of the main weaknesses of the anti-Trump effort that have dogged it from the beginning. The first is that anti-Trump Republicans have done and continue to do a terrible job of coordinating their efforts. The deal that Cruz and Kasich have made is the first time that the non-Trump campaigns have tried to cooperate in preventing Trump’s nomination, and even here the cooperation is limited to an agreement not to undermine one another. Most Republican voters aren’t committed to blocking Trump, and those that want to block him can’t ever seem to get their act together.

The other weakness of the anti-Trump effort is that many Cruz and Kasich voters prefer Trump to the other non-Trump candidate. A pact between the other candidates doesn’t necessarily translate into a defeat for Trump anywhere. If their favorite candidate isn’t going to make an effort in their state, some current Cruz and Kasich supporters might end up drifting into Trump’s camp. Cruz can’t count on Kasich’s mostly moderate voters to rally behind him, and Kasich likewise can’t assume that Cruz’s very conservative voters would go to him. Despite the candidates’ desire to create a united front against Trump, many of their supporters dislike Trump less than they dislike the other alternative. Trump consistently gets strong support from the others’ best ideological groups, which puts him in a good position to benefit when either one slackens his effort in a given state.

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Stop Calling the Saudis Our ‘Allies’

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Emma Ashford rejects the idea that Saudi Arabia is a “good ally” for the U.S.:

These tensions reflect a basic reality: Saudi Arabia may once have been a good ally, but today the relationship is toxic. Saudi actions are more often negative for U.S. policy objectives than positive. Rather than repairing the relationship, U.S. policymakers should reduce support for Saudi Arabia’s regional agenda.

In fact, even the use of the term “ally” to describe Saudi Arabia is inaccurate. Despite a long history of U.S. military support – including U.S. defense of the Kingdom during the first Gulf War – and cooperation on a variety of issues, there is no formal treaty alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

If we recognize that Saudi Arabia is a client rather than an ally, and if we can also acknowledge that it is a largely useless and reckless client, it becomes easier to understand that the U.S. doesn’t need to “reassure” the Saudis and indulge them in their worst instincts. The U.S. needs the Saudis much less than they need us, and that should be reflected in the relationship with Riyadh. The Saudi government is a dependent that causes the U.S. numerous headaches, destabilizes the surrounding region with their reckless actions, promotes dangerous fanaticism abroad, and contributes little or nothing to making the U.S. and our real allies more secure. The costs of the relationship are now much higher than any benefits it may produce, and the relationship should be downgraded accordingly. It should be possible for the U.S. and the Saudis to have a normal relationship without backing their policies to the hilt, arming them to the teeth, and helping them to whitewash their international crimes. The first step in having that normal relationship is to stop pretending that there is a vitally important “alliance” with the Saudis that needs to be maintained.

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