David Brooks remains in denial about what is happening:
Sometimes a candidate can sweep Iowa and New Hampshire and cruise to the nomination. But that candidate has to be broadly acceptable to all parts of the party. Trump, Cruz and Sanders are not.
In fact, candidates don’t have to sweep Iowa and New Hampshire to win the nomination. On the Republican side, this hasn’t happened, and when it happens on the Democratic side the winner has normally gone on to win the nomination (see Kerry, Gore, etc.). Even front-runners with otherwise overwhelming advantages aren’t always able to win both states. (At the time, it seemed that Romney had done it in 2012, but we later found out that he hadn’t.) Winning both contests can go a long way towards proving that a candidate is acceptable to the larger party. In the past, the winner in both places goes on to be the nominee. The truth is that we don’t know what happens when an insurgent candidate wins both because that hasn’t happened before. If that is happening, that should make us less confident that the insurgents can’t go on to win the larger contest.
Sometimes all that it takes for a candidate to “cruise to the nomination” is to win two out of the first three contests. Right now, Trump and Sanders are in a position where they could win both of the first two. Sanders has more of a fight in Iowa, but he has caught Clinton there after trailing her for most of the last year. His advantage in New Hampshire is considerable. Trump is better-positioned in later states to “cruise” than Sanders is, but there’s no telling how much back-to-back Sanders wins might change things. Sanders’ numbers in South Carolina have been improving, but they need to improve a lot more for him to have a chance of winning there. Cruz has the most difficulty of the three in winning anywhere outside his home state, but that is because Trump appears to be doing so well everywhere.
As for being “broadly acceptable to all parts of the party,” this hasn’t been put to the test in the modern primary era in a long time. It is not impossible for insurgents and/or factional candidates to win a party nomination. If it were, McGovern and Carter would never have been nominated. Obama showed in 2008 that it was possible to beat the candidate preferred by party leaders. Sanders will have trouble repeating that feat because of his weak support among minorities, but there was a time in the 2008 race before he won Iowa when it seemed that Obama was just as much of a long-shot as Sanders seems to be today.
On the Republican side, it would be unprecedented in the post-reform era to nominate a candidate as deeply disliked by party leaders as Trump is. That doesn’t make it impossible. In order for Trump to lose, one of his rivals has to be capable of beating him, and so far there is no evidence that any of them can do that. Brooks says later on that “sooner or later the candidates from the governing wing of their parties will get their acts together,” but this seems increasingly unlikely on the Republican side. The time for them to “get their acts together” was months ago. All of the panicking in the last week or two just shows that party and movement elites waited too long to stop an outcome that they previously believed couldn’t happen.
Brooks doesn’t allow for the possibility that this is as good as the “governing wing” candidates can be. Maybe this is what they look like when they have their “acts” together, and it’s not very impressive. As he did Sunday, he touts Rubio as his champion, but Rubio doesn’t seem equal to the task that he is being assigned. He keeps dropping lower in the New Hampshire polls (he fell into fifth place in the latest Globe poll), and he isn’t gaining ground anywhere else. Other “governing wing” candidates are passing him in the Granite State, which makes him seem less like a future Trump-slayer and more like an also-ran.
I don’t begrudge Brooks his denial if he wants to stay in it, but I don’t understand the value of desperately ignoring reality because it is unpleasant. This is this same denial about Trump’s chances that made it possible for him to consolidate his lead in the face of minimal resistance. It is the same misguided confidence that “eventually” the voters will suddenly change their minds that allowed Trump to get to where he is now. The strangest part of this is the unfounded belief that Rubio is going to save the day when he has shown absolutely nothing that would inspire such confidence. It is more than a little odd that Rubio has been dubbed the savior of the Republican “governing wing” when the only major thing he tried to do in the Senate was a complete flop and he has been conspicuous by his absence from the actual work of being a senator for much of his time in office. Perhaps he belongs to the “governing wing” solely because he happens to have immigration and foreign policy views that Brooks likes, and the others don’t.
The bigger problem with Brooks’ analysis is that he keeps clinging to the belief that most primary voters in both parties value the sort of political leadership that Brooks favors. We’re all guilty of projecting our preferences onto voters, but this seems an especially egregious case. Having seen how people have responded so favorably to Trump, Cruz, and Sanders (all of whom haven’t really shown any ability to lead or govern), why does Brooks assume that voters will suddenly realize that “effective leadership capacity is the threshold issue”? If they were interested in “effective leadership capacity,” they wouldn’t be backing these candidates in the first place. These candidates are gaining a following because of something else they are offering voters that has nothing to do with their competence at governing, but has everything to do with their vision for what the country could and should be. Their campaigns are doing as well as they are in part because the “governing wing” candidates have no clue how to counter or compete with them. The “governing wing” candidates are offering nothing except a rehashed version of the policies and promises that have left tens of millions of Americans disgusted with their parties, and reminded of that lousy record of failed leadership these people are going to prefer almost any alternative. Far from being the abandonment of political sanity, as Brooks would have it, rebuking the failed leaders of both parties might be the most sane thing American voters have done in a while.