Noah Millman

What Is the Proper Catholic Way For Marriage To Fail?

Petr Jilek / Shutterstock
Petr Jilek / Shutterstock

I’m even less of a Catholic than Alan Jacobs is – I’m not even a Christian, and I’m a pretty poor excuse for a Jew these days. Nonetheless, I want to say something about the debate about Amoris Laetitia apropos of Jacobs’s piece in these pages and Ross Douthat’s response.

I understand Pope Francis’s argument in pretty much the way Jacobs does: that nothing has changed about doctrine regarding the indissolubility of marriage, but that individual priests can exercise prudential judgment about how and when best to apply discipline (such as withholding communion) as a means of teaching that doctrine.

The heart of Douthat’s response as to why this is a problem is basically this:

[O]n an ecclesiastical level, here’s where I’d like to place my trust: Not in any individual priest or pastor or bishop, but in a process, however flawed and fallible, that treats a broken marriage as something that might still be real, whose vows might deserve to be respected even in permanent separation, and whose participants and offspring therefore have rights and claims that deserve a hearing from someone other than the inevitably-partial, pressured and overburdened pastor of a typical Catholic congregation in the year of our Lord 2016.

And what conservatives fear, what has us grim-faced even in our relief that the pope did not do something that explicitly contradicts the church’s doctrine on marriage, is Francis’s implicit dismissal of the need for such a process in cases where the divorcee seems sufficiently “responsible and tactful,” where the second marriage seems sufficiently stable and happy and permanent and, well, bourgeois.

Because a church that tells people that no protections for their possibly-sacramental first marriage are necessary so long as they are tactful in their request, real in their regrets, and respectable in their new life, a church that does not provide any real safeguard for what it claims is an absolute and cosmic reality, an icon of Christ and his bride … can such a church be said to really believe any longer in the indissolubility of marriage, no matter what kind of flowery language its high officials use?

Another way to put this would be: why should bourgeois respectability be grounds for special mercy? Why is their cross especially hard to bear? I have some sympathy for this critique – but I wonder whether Douthat will follow it all to way to what I think is its logical conclusion.

I like my Christianity pretty Tolstoyan, which is to say, I have little or no use for the supernaturalism, but I recognize the power of a highly original ethical critique. As I understand that critique, Christians are called to a much higher standard of morality than was articulated by the rabbinic tradition, one that, pretty much explicitly, is unachievable by anyone but the saints. And then, Christians are exhorted to be vastly more merciful towards those who fail to achieve that saintly standard – more merciful than, frankly, anyone but saints can be with any kind of consistency. Jesus of Nazareth says that anybody who experiences lust has committed adultery “in his heart,” and he also says, defending the woman about to be stoned for adultery, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

What does this mean for the indissolubility of marriage? Earlier in his response to Jacobs, Douthat says:

A Christian marriage is not a high moral goal, in other words, like charity or chastity or piety, which human beings chase after and to which they imperfectly aspire; it is an ontological and sacramental reality, created by the spouses’ vows and by God himself. In which case no power on earth can dissolve it, no feeling of repentance or regret or five-step Walter Kasper-approved “penitential path” can make it disappear, and no pastoral accommodation can transform the departure from those vows into something other than adultery, or the taking of new vows into something other than a promise to live in public defiance of the Decalogue.

Fair enough: I see the difference between a norm of moral behavior, where Christianity arguably demands the impossible, and a sacramental institution that has its own reality, within which people live as best they can. If you bear or sire a daughter, that daughter exists even if your feelings about her, or your own ability to be a parent, change. But what of . . . fidelity? What side of that dichotomy does it fall on?

It seems to me that, plainly, it must fall on the side of the other virtues – as an ideal, an aspiration to which, in its perfect form, only saints can achieve, and that most of us fall very far short of. It’s hard enough to live up to in the form presented to Moses on Sinai, and Jesus of Nazareth raises the bar all the way to heaven. And the prohibition on divorce comes pretty quickly after the unachievable standard for adultery; Matthew 5:27-28 is just as clear and uncompromising as Matthew 5:31-32. So if Christian marriage is an “ontological and sacramental reality” while fidelity is an aspirational ideal, then it is an ontological and sacramental reality that must be expected to endure despite regular and repeated infidelities. Indeed, based on the standard for fidelity that Jesus of Nazareth articulates, I would venture that most nearly every marriage that does endure does so under precisely those conditions.

What are the implications of this understanding? Well, as I understand it, the problem with simply welcoming divorced and remarried Catholics back into communion is that they are not merely sinning (according to the Catholic church’s lights), but living in a state of avowed sin; the act of remarrying is a public expression of the intention to continue in a state that doctrine says is adulterous. (Since a marriage can’t be ended, you need to establish, through the process of annulment, that it never really existed in the first place.) But what about a man who lives adulterously according to our common understanding, and not merely the uncompromising standards of the church? A man who takes up with another woman, has children with her, without ever divorcing his wife or marrying the new woman? How does his spiritual state differ, fundamentally, from that of the divorced and remarried man?

It seems to me that, on one level, it doesn’t differ much at all. In both cases, you’ve got a marriage that failed, and a new family. Good respectable bourgeois Pharisees, of course, would say that there are a host of important differences – that going through the process of divorce and remarriage makes the new life more stable, lets everyone properly understand their social and financial place, and provides generally for a better social order. These are some of the reasons why, in fact, we have the divorce laws we do.

But, if I understand correctly, Douthat’s position ought to be that the second fellow is more accessible to mercy than the former, because he is not living in an avowed state of sin. He hasn’t divorced; he hasn’t remarried; he hasn’t pretended that what he is doing has anyone’s blessing. He has committed adultery, yes – repeatedly. But he hasn’t vowed to keep committing it. If I’m wrong about this, I’m open to correction, but I think I’ve got that right. And if I do have that right, then isn’t that, from a Catholic perspective, a better way for marriage to fail than the more respectably bourgeois route, precisely because it is more honest about what that failure actually signifies?

I’m not bringing up this alternative as a straw-man, suggesting that of course nobody could defend the idea that the latter situation is preferable to the former and therefore Pope Francis is right and his conservative critics are wrong. On the contrary – one could readily use that understanding as the basis of an alternative social order. You don’t even have to imagine a world in which “first wives” retain certain rights and privileges unto death even as concubinage is widespread. After all, that’s pretty much how polygamy works in the parts of Africa where it is common.

My question for Douthat is simply this: assume that nobody knows the practical consequences in terms of the prevalence of divorce or of adultery or of church attendance or of any other social consequence that might result either from greater leniency or greater stringency on the matter of divorced and remarried Catholics. Assume, further, that the goal on all sides in this debate is to strive to prevent marriages from failing – that nobody is actually being cavalier about that question. Granting these premises for the sake of argument, what is the best way for a marriage to fail, where two people conclude: we cannot live together and we cannot live chastely apart? What should be tolerated – by the couple and by the community – as a way of enabling a troubled marriage to survive as an “ontological and sacramental reality” if not as an idealized form of communion? And if Amoris Laetitia extends special mercy in the wrong direction, is there a better direction in which to extend it?

Or do we just need tougher love all around?

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Five Ways The GOP Race Could End

I should really stop writing horse race posts. Norm Ornstein’s got this.

Here are his five possibilities:

  1. Trump gets 1,237 delegates by June 8.
  2. Trump falls short of 1,237 in June, but gets to the majority before the convention in July.
  3. Trump falls short and Cruz trails—but Cruz wins on the second ballot.
  4. Trump and Cruz form an alliance against the chicanery and evil of an establishment bent on choosing someone else.
  5. The establishment has enough muscle and support to choose an outsider who does not have the negatives that are evident for Trump and Cruz.

Looking down the barrel of the remaining calendar, and at how Cruz continues to strengthen in California, I think scenario #1 is now relatively unlikely. If Trump gets a big boost after wins in New York and elsewhere in the northeast, that could change – but if nothing changes, Trump is going to fall short.

Scenario #3 is still quite plausible – Nate Silver and Ross Douthat do a good job of explaining why and how Cruz could well prevail on the second ballot. The thing is, the more people understand that to be the case, the more incentive any unbound delegates who loathe Cruz but could tolerate Trump have to prefer scenario #2, and vote for Trump on the first ballot. We just don’t know how many delegates there are who feel that way, or who could be persuaded to feel that way.

I have been arguing for weeks, if not months, that scenario #4 is the reason why scenario #5 simply will not happen.

So I believe the most-likely scenarios are #2, #3 and #4. And which one transpires depends on how well Cruz does versus Trump in the remaining primaries – particularly in Pennsylvania, Indiana and California.

That’s about it. I’ll try to write about something else for the next while.

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Cruz Consolidates the Rubio Vote

After Super Tuesday, I pointed out that by remaining in the race after his dismal showing, Marco Rubio was making it materially more-likely that Donald Trump got the nomination. I think the results from Wisconsin yesterday substantially bear that out. Ted Cruz’s share of the state vote looks an awful lot like what the Cruz and Rubio combined votes would have looked like had Wisconsin voted on, say, March 5th. Had Rubio dropped out after Super Tuesday and endorsed Cruz, Cruz would likely have won Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri and North Carolina in addition to the states he actually won. That wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the delegate race, but it would have made a bigger difference in the popular vote totals, which could have relevance for arguments at the convention in the event that nobody gets a decisive plurality of delegates, much less a majority.

With that in mind, the state Cruz needs to focus on most aggressively now is Pennsylvania. There are very few delegates actually in play in Pennsylvania, because the overwhelming majority elected out of the state will be unbound. But it’s a very populous state, so a strong win there could run up Cruz’s popular vote total, and it’s a Northeastern state, a region where Cruz has so far done poorly. For both reasons, it’s a very valuable prize for the Cruz campaign. And, unlike New York, where Trump has polled above 50% in every poll since the beginning of March, Pennsylvania has never been a particularly strong state for Trump, nor is it necessarily a terrible state for the very conservative Cruz – this is the state that elected Rick Santorum and Pat Toomey to the Senate, after all. Maryland is another state that may not be so terrible for Cruz if he can truly consolidate the Rubio vote with his own slice of the anti-establishment majority. And it’s winner-take-all. If Cruz wins both Maryland and Pennsylvania, then there is still a chance for him to prevail in Cleveland.

The interesting question is how Kasich plays into this. Kasich did very poorly in Wisconsin – poorly enough that one really must question what his objective in running is. Unlike Rubio, whose continued presence in the race after Super Tuesday clearly benefitted Trump, Kasich might well be hurting Trump by staying in; Trump won moderates in Wisconsin, and that’s Kasich’s brand. But that will likely cease to be true after April. Winner-take-all Indiana is a must-win state for Ted Cruz, and it’s a conservative state. But it’s also a state that borders Ohio, as well as an open primary. If Kasich is still in, he could well throw the state to Trump. If he dropped out after losing all the Northeast contests on April 26th, and endorsed Cruz, he could put Cruz over the top. (That is, assuming all the Kasich supporters haven’t already voted early by that time.)

And as we look further down the calendar, Cruz is going to need decisive, lopsided wins in proportional Oregon and Washington, as well as in huge California, where most delegates are selected at the district level, to snatch the nomination from Trump, both because he’ll need every delegate he can get and because he’ll need to get outright popular vote majorities to make the claim that he’s the rightful nominee. Kasich’s moderate voters are a poor fit for the Cruz campaign. I’m pretty sure Cruz needs to be one-on-one with Trump well before Cleveland to achieve victory there.

It is vanishingly unlikely that the convention in Cleveland will nominate John Kasich no matter what happens from here on out. It’s very hard for me to believe that Kasich doesn’t actually know that. Maybe he’s running for Vice President, in which case the rational thing for him to do is run up his delegate count as high as he can and sell it to the highest bidder – whether Trump, Cruz or the party leaders looking for a white knight to save the party from both. In any event, we’ll know whether Kasich really is a party man, being strategic in the effort to stop Trump, or whether he’s just being stubborn, by what he does at the end of the month. I’m betting he’s just being stubborn.

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We Don’t Need a Trade War For Trade To Serve the National Interest

I am pretty sure that Donald Trump does not actually take anything he’s saying especially seriously – most definitely including the stuff he says about trade and immigration. Trump is running on attitude, and he figured out that “we win – they lose” was a pretty good attitude to run on right now in a GOP primary.

The risk for those – like some at this magazine – who are trying to hitch their particular policy wagons to Trump’s star is not merely that that star may be falling (we’ll see soon enough whether it is, and if it is, it’s surely still significant that it made it this far), but that it isn’t really flying the direction they want to go. If it’s ever to be taken seriously, economic nationalism deserves a far more cogent argument than Donald Trump or his campaign are likely to give it.

I’m going to try to lay out two pieces of such an argument here.

First, I want to start with this piece by Andy Grove from several years ago about how Silicon Valley ceased to be a major job creator in American manufacturing. His diagnosis:

The underlying problem isn’t simply lower Asian costs. It’s our own misplaced faith in the power of startups to create U.S. jobs. Americans love the idea of the guys in the garage inventing something that changes the world. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman recently encapsulated this view in a piece called “Start-Ups, Not Bailouts.” His argument: Let tired old companies that do commodity manufacturing die if they have to. If Washington really wants to create jobs, he wrote, it should back startups.

Friedman is wrong. Startups are a wonderful thing, but they cannot by themselves increase tech employment. Equally important is what comes after that mythical moment of creation in the garage, as technology goes from prototype to mass production. This is the phase where companies scale up. They work out design details, figure out how to make things affordably, build factories, and hire people by the thousands. Scaling is hard work but necessary to make innovation matter.

The scaling process is no longer happening in the U.S. And as long as that’s the case, plowing capital into young companies that build their factories elsewhere will continue to yield a bad return in terms of American jobs.

The current economic consensus basically argues that markets are the best allocators of capital and that consumers are the best arbiters of their own interests. Therefore, a regime of relatively free trade and relatively free movement of labor, because it maximizes total output and allows both distinct geographies and distinct individuals to pursue their comparative advantage, is best for everybody. If there are negative distribution effects of this regime, they can be compensated for via transfer payments. If this system produces harmful dislocations, that’s the price of creative destruction, though that price can be mitigated through a variety of social welfare policies.

Many adherents of this viewpoint look at economic nationalists and see a kind of special-pleading on the part of those who benefitted from previous economic arrangements, and see the goal of economic nationalists to be insulating American workers from competition. That sounds like a risky strategy for the long term, because it’s not like competition is going to go away just because we hide from it behind a tariff wall. Economic nationalists sometimes respond by pointing to America’s 19th century experience, and the way in which we built a huge manufacturing base behind just such a tariff wall.

But for much of the 19th century America was actually playing catch-up to the previous economic leader – the British – who operated under more of a free trade regime. We (and Germany) were able to pursue our development strategy in part because Britain let us do so, just as Japan and China have been able to pursue theirs because we permitted it. It’s just not obvious that that strategy is applicable to a power like ours that sits at the developmental frontier. And thinking in these terms locks us into a zero-sum mentality about trade that it’s easy to imagine leading to unproductive trade wars – which is where these arguments typically end.

But Grove articulates a crucial piece of the answer to the question of how that strategy might be applicable to a frontier economy like America’s, as well as how we might think about trade in national-interest terms that nonetheless aren’t so zero-sum:

A new industry needs an effective ecosystem in which technology knowhow accumulates, experience builds on experience, and close relationships develop between supplier and customer. The U.S. lost its lead in batteries 30 years ago when it stopped making consumer electronics devices. Whoever made batteries then gained the exposure and relationships needed to learn to supply batteries for the more demanding laptop PC market, and after that, for the even more demanding automobile market. U.S. companies did not participate in the first phase and consequently were not in the running for all that followed. I doubt they will ever catch up. . . .

How could the U.S. have forgotten [that scaling was crucial to its economic future]? I believe the answer has to do with a general undervaluing of manufacturing—the idea that as long as “knowledge work” stays in the U.S., it doesn’t matter what happens to factory jobs. It’s not just newspaper commentators who spread this idea. Consider this passage by Princeton University economist Alan S. Blinder: “The TV manufacturing industry really started here, and at one point employed many workers. But as TV sets became ‘just a commodity,’ their production moved offshore to locations with much lower wages. And nowadays the number of television sets manufactured in the U.S. is zero. A failure? No, a success.”

I disagree. Not only did we lose an untold number of jobs, we broke the chain of experience that is so important in technological evolution. As happened with batteries, abandoning today’s “commodity” manufacturing can lock you out of tomorrow’s emerging industry.

I think that’s an argument that even the Tom Friedmans of the world could understand and respect. Total global manufacturing employment is falling, and is going to continue to fall, as more and more of the process becomes automated. But we still need to have an adequate manufacturing base in key industries precisely to support the higher value-added activity that sits above it. The goal isn’t to protect American workers or products from competition, but to make it possible to continue to compete in future cycles of innovation. A Ricardian integration across the Pacific sounds all well and good, but if the core knowledge base about the underlying engineering is largely on the other side of the Pacific, then that’s where the future of innovation is going to come from. So we have to pursue policies that ensure that an adequate manufacturing base is maintained – and, in the context of that assurance, trade freely with everyone.

That means having some kind of industrial policy, whatever you choose to call it. As it happens, America is already pursuing an industrial policy through trade – just not one oriented around preserving a manufacturing base. America’s trade policy – very much exemplified by the TPP – is organized around promoting the products of knowledge industries, industries that depend on intellectual property. Pharmaceuticals, software, entertainment, genetically-modified crops – these are products where “manufacturing” doesn’t have quite the same meaning as it does for batteries or semiconductors. Precisely because scaling up production of these products is relatively trivial, their value is overwhelmingly dependent on an intellectual property regime that grants rents to the initial creators. They “just happen” to be industries where America remains a market leader. And American trade policy is substantially organized around making sure “our” companies get paid those rents.

It seems to me, then, that another piece of the economic nationalist argument needs to be not so much about how our negotiators are being taken to the cleaners by our rivals, but about who they are working for, how they are defining the American interest. I’m not persuaded when Trump says that we’re being “killed” in our trade negotiations – I suspect our negotiators are very tough indeed, and if you ask our counterparts in other countries they’ll agree with that assessment. But they are working primarily for the Chamber of Commerce, and the Chamber of Commerce cares primarily about American corporations’ profitability. Which is not the same thing as the long-term health of the American economy, or the productivity (and wage rates) of the American workforce.

Given that we already have an industrial policy organized around that IP regime, it’s hardly a killer argument to say that any such change in policy would be a violation of the sanctity of free trade. And it would seem to me that we could change the orientation of that policy without risking an unproductive trade war because we have, as it were, stuff to trade. We could, for example, direct our negotiators to offer a little relief on the pharmaceutical front, in exchange for getting more battery factories built in America.

In other words, we don’t need a trade war, we don’t need to demonize other countries for sensibly looking out for the interests of their citizens – and we don’t need to look at that pursuit as a zero-sum game where for us to win, they need to lose. Rather, we need to make sure that our negotiators are thinking about the national interest rather than the corporate sector’s interest. And then, by all means, we should pursue negotiations with a view to finding a way for all sides to claim a win. Because that’s the best way to get a deal.

 

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Primaries Still Matter

Although I’ve developed something of a reputation as a Trump booster (I can’t imagine why), I’ve always been aware of the potential difficulties actually winning the nomination that Ross Douthat identifies. Because of his extraordinarily low level of support from party regulars, if Trump doesn’t actually get an outright majority of the delegates, enabling him to win on the first ballot, it’s difficult to see him winning additional support on a second, third or later ballot.

But just as Douthat would like to see regular observers grapple more seriously with that difficulty when they assess Trump’s chances, I’d like to see Douthat and the rest of the brokered convention crowd grapple with the difficulties attendant on the effort to deny Trump the nomination if he wins a substantial plurality of delegates.

The issue isn’t that winning a plurality means you “deserve” the nomination in some abstract sense. Legitimacy is always and everywhere a matter of perception. If those subject to an authority perceive it as illegitimate, then that authority’s ability to function suffers, and it really doesn’t matter whether that authority is duly constituted according to one or another theory. Standing on the ground of principle in such circumstances will be more likely to discredit the authority’s theory than to bolster the legitimacy of the authority.

Trump is running explicitly against the Republican party as it has historically understood itself. It’s a rebellion. If 40+% of the Republican party primary electorate supports Trump’s rebellion, and nobody else comes close to that level of support, and the delegates at the convention simply ignore that expressed preference, and pick somebody more to their liking – the sort of person Trump is running explicitly against – their actions will not be perceived as legitimate. Nor should they be, though that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that if, after all that has transpired, the party leadership blithely stands on the ground that they have the right to choose the nominee, and so nobody can legitimately complain, they will face the same rude awakening as Richard II – if not Louis XVI.

Were Trump a normal factional candidate who had plurality support but majority opposition, what you’d expect the party to do at the convention is make a deal with his faction in exchange for unity behind a compromise candidate. The problem for the party is that it’s not clear what kind of deal there is to make with Trump, not because he’s too extreme or too out of sync with the party’s historic positions, but because he’s Trump. Advocates of a brokered convention should acknowledge the problem this poses, and suggest possible deals and/or explain how the party should navigate in the rough seas that their advice would sail them into. Because as Douthat notes, the party leadership is ultimately going to act in their self-interest, and they are going to be really reluctant to see splitting the party as in their interest. Which is a major reason they’ve been as passive in the face of Trump’s revolt as Douthat laments they have been.

Then there’s the problem that Ted Cruz, the only candidate who might come close to Trump in the delegate count, isn’t a good party man either. Indeed, Cruz’s interests are distinctly at variance with those of party regulars, and this needs to be factored into any analysis of how a convention might be brokered. Cruz and Trump are allied in opposing the established party leadership, allied in trying to keep any other candidate from consideration on either the first or subsequent ballots, and allied in having little future if they don’t get nominated this time. Trump won’t have the kind of loyalty from his delegates that a typical nominee has – but Cruz very well may. If party leaders don’t agree to make Cruz the nominee, he might well throw his support to Trump in exchange for the Vice Presidency.

Of course, the uncommitted delegates at Cleveland will know about that before the first ballot. How might they react to the prospect of blackmail? Is it not possible that Trump might use that possibility to win over some among these delegates who have a deep antipathy to Cruz? And what about Kasich himself? Bear in mind that while Trump is still only winning pluralities in a three-person race, it’s entirely possible that, if Kasich dropped out, Trump would be winning majorities.

In other words, if the convention tries to give the nomination to someone other than Cruz or Trump, they may discover that Cruz would prefer to ally with Trump against the party regulars, and Trump wins the nomination. And if the convention tries to give the nomination to Cruz, they may discover that enough party regulars prefer to appease Trump than to lose with Cruz to put Trump over the top – provided Trump comes close enough to a majority that he doesn’t need to convince that many of them.

All of which means: the primaries really do matter.

Let’s say Cruz wins an overwhelming victory in the Wisconsin primary today, and this propels him to unexpected victories in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and a better-than-expected second-place finish in New York. Then he racks up lopsided wins in Indiana, Nebraska, Oregon, Washington, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, and – crucially – California. Even in this scenario, Trump ends up ahead, limping into the convention with a plurality of around 1,050 delegates, with Cruz nipping at his heels at around 900. This would basically make Cruz the equivalent of Reagan in 1976 – but Trump lacks the regular party support that Ford had. So Rubio and Bush instruct their delegates to vote for Cruz on the first ballot, and the lion’s share of uncommitted delegates follow suit. Kasich, who wins only his home state, comes under ferocious party pressure to do likewise, and he does so, giving Cruz a solid first-ballot majority.

Could that scenario transpire? Yes. Could the party avoid open civil war in that scenario? Probably – particularly if Cruz did well enough in Pennsylvania and California that his popular vote totals began to rival or even surpass Trump’s.

But let’s say Cruz’s victory in Wisconsin has no material impact on voting in the Mid-Atlantic later in the month – that, once again, it’s just demographics, not momentum. Trump wins an outright popular majority in New York, and either strong pluralities or outright majorities in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. John Kasich finally drops out, which enables Trump to win Indiana in a head-to-head contest with Cruz. Trump loses Nebraska, Oregon and Washington, as well as Montana, New Mexico and South Dakota, but wins a clear majority in California, and 2/3 of the state’s delegates, as well as New Jersey, which is winner-take-all. He comes into Cleveland just 50 pledged delegates shy of a majority, with Cruz far behind, below 800. In that scenario, I think it’s fanciful to imagine that the party could unite behind anybody but Trump. In which case, the question facing the convention would be: should we try to unite behind Trump, or accept that the party is going to split for 2016, and start planning for how to heal before 2020.

If that’s the question, is Douthat sure the party will choose schism over apostasy?

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Why Donald Trump Will Lose To Hillary Clinton

Earlier in the campaign, I would have disagreed with Daniel Larison that Donald Trump would be a disastrous general election candidate. (I would have agreed that he would be a disastrous president, but that’s another matter.)

I would have pointed out that while Trump’s favorability numbers are poor, so are Clinton’s; that while Trump might well lose women by a larger margin than any previous GOP nominee, he might rack up large totals among men to compensate; that while he’d do extremely poorly among recent immigrants and first-generation Americans, he might do better than a typical GOP nominee among African Americans; and that while he’d cause the GOP to lose ground in wealthy suburbs, and hence in swing states like Virginia and Colorado, he’d potentially gain ground in rust-belt states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. I would still have bet against him to win the general election, but I wouldn’t have taken crazy short odds to do so.

I’m not inclined to argue that way anymore. The reason has nothing to do with Trump’s positioning on the issues and the potential coalition that could be assembled around those issues. It has everything to do with Trump as an individual candidate.

It turns out Donald Trump really is another Sarah Palin. By that I don’t mean that he’s ignorant, ill-prepared for the job, or incoherent in his opinions – all of those things were already clear months ago. Nor do I mean that he has no class, taste or manners – those things were also already clear months ago.

What I mean is that he has far less control over his own persona than I had previously assumed. Until fairly recently, I bought into the idea that Trump was a professional wrestler, putting on an outrageous show, breaking all the rules, and flummoxing all the traditional candidates who could neither win as the Marquess of Queensbury nor grab a chair and jump into the ring with him.

But I’m coming to the opinion, bit by bit, that, while Trump is indeed a wrestler, he’s also one of the saps who doesn’t know the fights are fake. He really believes he’s the character he’s been playing, and gets quite defensive when somebody expresses doubts about his actual prowess. This is a huge problem for Trump, because the core of his appeal is precisely that he’s the one who sees reality for what it is, and is willing to call a spade a spade.

The puncturing of that image is, I believe, the most fundamental reason why his general election poll numbers are cratering. The specific reasons – his outrageous misogyny most prominently – are secondary. The primary reason is that Trump – at the very moment that he most obviously needs to begin making a general-election argument – is instead driving the conversation back to himself, and to his peculiar obsessions and insecurities.

There’s no reason to do this. Trump no longer needs to be outrageous to get attention – he’s the clear front-runner for the GOP nomination; he has our attention. He needs to demonstrate that he has more than one arrow in his quiver, more than one play in his book. Instead, he’s demonstrating the opposite.

One of the major reasons so many Americans would rather not see Hillary Clinton in the White House is that those who remember the ’90s do not recall fondly the Clinton family psychodrama, and those who are too young to remember are not moved by Secretary Clinton’s persistent tendency to make her candidacy about herself: her readiness, her commitment, even, sometimes, the notion that the country somehow owes her the position as recompense for all she’s been through. Trump, like Clinton, is also running a very personalist campaign – he’s not running on ideas or ideology but on character, on himself as the personal catalyst for making American great again. The most effective way to undermine that argument, while simultaneously neutralizing what so many people dislike about Clinton, is for Trump to make his campaign about his own vanity. And yet, Trump can’t seem to stop doing exactly that.

Trump is riding a tsunami of revulsion by GOP voters against the leadership of their own party. But once we get into a general election, there’s no need to vote for Trump in order to obliterate the GOP as we have known it. Because you could also vote for Hillary Clinton – or, of you’re somebody who can’t imagine pulling the lever for Clinton, you can just not vote.

Hillary Clinton is a pretty lousy candidate, but she has months to turn Trump from somebody who tells it like it is and is beholden to nobody, to somebody who just won’t stop blathering on about the awesome succulence of Trump steaks. Once that transformation is complete, there will be no reason for most voters not to prefer Clinton to Trump, despite all her flaws and failures.

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Eisenhower and Interventionism

I’m overdue to follow up on my lament for the end of the Obama Administration, specifically with respect to foreign policy, and to respond to Daniel Larison’s cogent criticisms of that piece.

Precisely because I think Larison’s criticisms are cogent, I don’t feel the need to rebut them. President Obama has been anything but anti-interventionist, and specifically started at least one outright dumb war (against Libya) of the precise sort that he ran for office claiming he wouldn’t launch.

But I do want to defend my Eisenhower comparison a bit. Larison says:

While Obama’s foreign policy has been compared to Eisenhower’s by more than a few people, Obama has failed to do the one thing that clearly distinguishes Eisenhower from his predecessor and several of his successors: concluding the existing war(s) and avoiding new ones. This has supposedly been Obama’s preoccupation throughout his presidency, and he has often boasted about ending America’s foreign wars, but it hasn’t happened. He has not only failed to conclude the U.S. role in the war in Afghanistan, but has started at least two new military interventions and routinized the waging of perpetual, unauthorized war in many countries during both of his terms.

It’s a fair knock on Obama that he failed to end the war in Afghanistan (in fact, he began his first term by escalating it), but it’s worth recalling that Eisenhower was anything but an anti-interventionist. It was during the Eisenhower Administration that America conspired to overthrow the governments of Iran and Guatemala and to bring the Mobutu regime to power in the Congo. Eisenhower coerced the British and French into backing down during the Suez Crisis, but opposition to European imperialism was a longstanding American policy objective that in no way contradicted the aim of expanding American influence to replace those European powers – and, indeed, when Nasser failed to respond to the Suez decision with gratitude, Eisenhower explicitly brought the Middle East under the American security umbrella. It was under Eisenhower that SEATO was established, and under Eisenhower that the first American military personnel were dispatched to South Vietnam. And then there’s NSC document 162/2, the cornerstone of an approach to nuclear weapons that threatened the survival of civilization itself over questions of relative power between competing states.

In general, there was far more continuity between the Truman and Eisenhower approaches to the Cold War than discontinuity, something the Taft Republicans understood perfectly well. It nonetheless remains the case that Eisenhower was a more effective and more prudent Commander in Chief than either his predecessor or his successor, and even people who, at the time or retrospectively, disapproved of America’s Cold War commitments should recognize that fact. I suspect the same thing will prove true of the Obama Administration and critics of America’s expansive Global War on Terror (or whatever we’re calling it these days).

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I’m Gonna Miss This President When He’s Gone

The foreign policy that President Obama describes in his extraordinary series of interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg is pretty much exactly the foreign policy that I would support – far more so than the foreign policy that the Obama Administration has actually followed.

To some degree, that divergence exists because the President himself has changed over the course of his tenure. He came into office with certain instincts about how American foreign policy had to change, but far more optimism than he currently has about the ability of better policies to achieve dramatically better outcomes, as well as even a president’s ability to significantly change the course of foreign policy. Even the ways in which the President failed to follow his own preferred policies – backing into an over-commitment to escalating the war in Afghanistan, for example, or failing to convince allies like Israel or Saudi Arabia to rein in their more destructive policies in the interests of their patron – become more comprehensible in light of his candid articulation of the constraints within which any president operates.

President Obama describes himself as both a “realist” and an “internationalist.” He’s a realist inasmuch as he believes that we can’t solve all the world’s problems, can’t be everywhere at once, can’t solve most problems through the application of force, need to be wary of free-riding by phony allies, and need to distinguish clearly between core interests and matters more peripheral to our concern. He’s an internationalist inasmuch as he believes our core interests are deeply intertwined with the well-being of other countries, inasmuch as many of the most serious challenges to those interests require international cooperation to confront, and inasmuch as he strongly believes in the framework of transnational and supra-national institutions designed to facilitate that cooperation. I concur on all counts.

He also describes himself as both a fatalist and an optimist. He’s a fatalist inasmuch as he believes in many if not most circumstances there is little America can do to change the course of events overseas, and inasmuch as the power of tribal and other atavistic attachments endure far beyond what liberal-minded do-gooders might wish or imagine. He’s an optimist inasmuch as he believes that despite the endurance of those attachments, over time the world is nonetheless growing less-violent and better-fed, and that the arc of history still bends toward justice, if usually slowly. I pretty much concur on all of those counts as well.

Goldberg describes in some detail the way in which President Obama was “liberated” by the decision to reverse himself and not attack Syria. In retrospect it would obviously have been preferable never to have threatened to attack rather than to threaten and not follow up. But it took a singular act of political courage on the President’s part to back down, because it is absolutely certain that he would have been praised for using force, even by those who would not have voted to use force themselves, and even if force produced a disastrous outcome, and the President certainly knew that. He deserves more credit than he generally gets for refusing to say: “It’s too late. I’ve already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield.”

The President’s apparent disdain, verging on contempt, for much of the foreign policy-making apparatus in Washington rivals that of this magazine. I relished the President’s acerbic takedown of the claim, often made, that Putin’s intervention in Ukraine was prompted by a perception of American fecklessness: “I don’t think anybody thought that George W. Bush was overly rational or cautious in his use of military force. And as I recall, because apparently nobody in this town does, Putin went into Georgia on Bush’s watch, right smack dab in the middle of us having over 100,000 troops deployed in Iraq.” One of the most depressing conclusions I drew from Goldberg’s article is that President Obama has been battling the instincts of that apparatus for very nearly his entire presidency, growing more obdurate in his resistance as time has passed, and that this resistance has had virtually no effect on that apparatus’s instincts at all.

Like President Eisenhower, Obama will likely leave office on a note of caution to future administrations – but one that implicitly admits his failure to address a central problem in making foreign policy that he only belatedly understood. Like President Eisenhower, that hard-won wisdom is all but certain to be ignored by his successor, who will likely be either a full-throated liberal interventionist or an erratic, impulsive nationalist.

I am going to miss him very much, no matter who follows.

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Convention Rule 40 or Fight

Shutterstock.com
Shutterstock.com

My latest column for The Week is extremely similar to Philip Diehl’s piece at TAC, in that we’re both writing about how Rule 40(b), designed to benefit the candidate who wins with the blessing of the establishment, is blowing up in the GOP’s face in this year of the insurgent. Further, we both think that a brokered convention won’t necessarily work to the party leadership’s advantage, because even if Trump comes to the convention with a mere plurality, Cruz may prefer to strike a deal with Trump to be his Vice President than to hand control of the process back to a leadership that despises him.

But I want to make an additional point about Rule 40(b). The rule, adopted in 2012, reads as follows:

(b) Each candidate for nomination for president of the United States and vice president of the United States shall demonstrate the support of a majority of the delegates from each of eight or more states, severally, prior to the presentation of the name of that candidate for nomination.

The purpose of the rule, as I understand it, was to forestall a Ron Paul primary challenge against an incumbent President Mitt Romney in 2016, of the sort that President Carter faced from Ted Kennedy in 1980 and that the first President Bush faced from Pat Buchanan in 1992. By raising the bar for having a candidate’s name placed in nomination to outright majorities of eight state delegations, which would be exceedingly unlikely for a challenger to an incumbent President to achieve, the rule removed such a challenger’s leverage at a convention: the leverage to bargain for platform changes and/or speaking time in exchange for support for the nominee.

In other words, Mitt Romney expected to win, but he also expected his presidency either to be enough of a failure to prompt a serious primary challenge, or that there was sufficiently potent opposition to the party establishment that he might face a serious primary challenge even if his presidency was successful. And his team’s first instinct for how to deal with those possibilities was not to consider how to mend relations with the discontented faction, but to amend the rules to make it harder for such a challenge to succeed.

Donald Trump and Ron Paul have almost nothing in common – indeed, a Trump-Clinton contest would leave more room for a libertarian third-party alternative than pretty much any other other possible matchup I can imagine. But it’s very hard to credit exclamations of surprise from the GOP leadership at what’s been happening in their primaries this year, given that they anticipated – and had already implemented plans to stifle – an insurgent campaign back when they believed they would be the incumbents in 2016.

Hoist with their own petard doesn’t do it justice. This is more like, blown up fleeing through a field of anti-personnel mines they laid to defend against a rebellion by their own people.

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Rubio the Spoiler

Nineteen states have now voted. Here are Marco Rubio’s vote percentages and ranking in each:

State
Rank
  Percent of vote
Iowa
3rd
23%
New Hampshire
5th
11%
South Carolina
2nd
23%
Nevada
2nd
24%
Alabama
3rd
19%
Alaska
3rd
15%
Arkansas
3rd
25%
Georgia
2nd
25%
Massachusetts
3rd
18%
Minnesota
1st
37%
Oklahoma
3rd
26%
Tennessee
3rd
21%
Texas
3rd
18%
Vermont
3rd
19%
Virginia
2nd
32%
Kansas
3rd
17%
Kentucky
3rd
17%
Louisiana
3rd
11%
Maine
4th
8%

 

This is not the performance of a candidate with a future.

Rubio did worse in Maine than he did in New Hampshire, Vermont or Massachusetts. He did worse in Kentucky than he did in Arkansas or Tennessee. He did worse in Louisiana than he did in South Carolina or Alabama. He did worse in Kansas than he did in Iowa or Oklahoma. And he did worse even though the field has narrowed over the course of those contests, leaving him the default candidate to consolidate the “establishment” vote.

And Rubio is making no claims that he will do well in the next four states to vote on Wednesday. As well he shouldn’t. I don’t know how anyone knows how Hawaii will vote, but Idaho seems like prime Cruz country, and based on Rubio’s dismal performance in Louisiana, one would expect him to perform equally badly in Mississippi, perhaps badly enough to be shut out of delegates entirely.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, there have been five polls since Super Tuesday:

Trump
Cruz
Kasich
Rubio
ARG 3/4-3/5
31
15
33
11
CBS/YouGov 3/2-3/4
39
24
15
16
Trafalgar 3/2-3/3
42
20
18
14
NBC/WSJ 3/1-3/3
41
22
13
17
Fox 2 Detroit/Mitchell 3/2-3/2
42
19
14
15
AVERAGE
39
20
19
15

 

The most recent poll from ARG is clearly an outlier, but Rubio’s numbers don’t look much better without it. And after yesterday, it’s likely that Cruz’s numbers will improve. It’s very hard to imagine Rubio’s will. Michigan is another state where Rubio may not even clear the threshold to receive delegates.

Then, on March 15th come Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio – and Florida.

How’s Rubio polling in those states?

Illinois was polled twice in February. In one, Rubio was in third place with 14%; in the other, he was in second place with 21%. This is unquestionably Rubio’s best shot in the Midwest, but it’s hard to imagine his standing has improved much in the wake of his string of losses on Super Tuesday and since.

Missouri has not been polled. But Cruz won neighboring Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma, while coming in a strong second in neighboring Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee. Trump won Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee, and came in second in Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma. It would be genuinely shocking if Rubio did better than a weak third in Missouri; the question is whether the state goes to Trump or Cruz.

North Carolina has been polled four times since January. Rubio polled third in all four polls, behind Trump and Cruz. None of those polls were taken in March, since Cruz’s and Trump’s multiple wins and Rubio’s multiple failures to win. I would assume again that Rubio will place a distant third.

Ohio was polled once in February. Rubio placed a distant fourth.

And then there’s Florida. Florida has been polled six times this year. Rubio has never led. In the most recent February polls, he has trailed Trump by between 15 and 20 points. Florida was also polled 21 times in 2015. Rubio never led in any of those polls either. Rubio is significantly less-popular in his home state that Cruz is in his, or Kasich is in his – or, I’d venture, than Trump is in his. Rubio best chance of winning his home state is that Cruz’s efforts to out-hustle him boost the Texan’s standing at the expense of Trump rather than Rubio, and enable the Florida Senator to win a close three-way race. Otherwise, he’s probably toast.

Rubio is counting on Florida to revive his campaign. But the state is not just his only real shot at a major win. It’s his only good shot at placing second. Which, in winner-take-all Florida, is worth a total of zero delegates.

“Spoiler” is the right word for Rubio’s campaign at this point. If the GOP establishment really wanted to stop Trump, they would pressure Rubio to drop out right now. His departure might put Cruz (or possibly Kasich) over the top in Michigan. It would certainly remove a key obstacle to a Cruz upset in Mississippi. Then, on March 15th, it would likely put Kasich over the top in Ohio, and possibly put Illinois into contention as well, and would very likely put Cruz over the top in Missouri and North Carolina. Losing Florida to Trump would be a small price to pay for such a thorough repudiation of the New York mogul in the other major states in play.

By contrast, if he stays in, Rubio will likely pull enough votes from Cruz to hand Trump a win in Mississippi, and enough from Cruz and Kasich to keep Trump on top in Michigan. That would set Trump up to possibly squeak out a win over Kasich in Ohio, and over Cruz in North Carolina and Missouri. And then Rubio will likely lose Florida anyway.

But the GOP establishment doesn’t really want to stop Trump. What they want is to back the candidate of their choosing, someone they know will be reliable on the issues that matter most to them, and who they also believe they can sell. They have made excuses at every twist and turn of this campaign in terms of how different things would have been if just one little thing had gone differently – and bewailed the good electoral fortune showered on candidates whom they cannot abide. But they cannot reconcile themselves to the fact that it’s not bad luck. The primary electorate really, really doesn’t want to vote for someone the party leadership has blessed. Frankly, they’d prefer someone completely unacceptable to that leadership.

After all, those unacceptable, uncontrollable, unaccountable candidates – Trump and Cruz – have between them won an outright majority of the vote, and sometimes an overwhelming majority, in every single primary and caucus so far, save two: New Hampshire and Vermont. Which happen to be two of the three states where Marco Rubio came in behind even poor John Kasich. Their joint share of the vote has increased as the campaign has gone on. They even jointly won a majority in Minnesota, the only state little Marco has managed to win so far.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: there is no anti-Trump majority to consolidate. There is an anti-establishment majority. And the only question has been which candidate, if any, will consolidate it.

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