The Enemy Of My Enemy

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 2-

This week:

  • Which does the dreaded establishment prefer — Trump or Cruz?
  • Three weeks to Iowa — is Clinton sagging?
  • Scandals and lies taking their toll?

President 2016

Trump vs. Cruz: National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar, an excellent and experienced political reporter, asked what he called the “$64,000 question” to a number of establishment-minded Republicans whom he characterized as “seni­or GOP strategists.” They were given the opportunity to answer from behind the wall of anonymity, which often makes truths against one’s own interest easier to tell.

His question: Given that next month’s Iowa caucuses are shaping up as a contest between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, whom would they prefer come out on top?

“The clear win­ner,” he writes, “was Trump.”

It is important to understand why — and it certainly isn’t because these people would prefer to have Trump as the nominee. The first reason is that they believe Trump cannot win the nomination in the end, even in the event he wins Iowa. The second is that they despise Cruz so much that it is interfering with their rational thinking.

They do not view Cruz as a savior from Trump, as many conservatives view him, or as the one to blunt his momentum going forward. Rather, they view Cruz as the real problem, whereas Trump is just a harmless amusement who will pass away.

We view this as a serious error. The party regulars (or the so-called “establishment”) is taking the modern party’s foundational ideas (with which, over time, they have made their peace) and their endurance for granted. We share the view that Trump cannot win, but believe Cruz must play a major part in stopping him, making an indispensable contribution to Trump’s downfall.

The risk of a Trump win in Iowa is that he becomes unstoppable after that. The virtue of a Trump defeat there — from the perspective of conservatives who oppose him — is that his support in the states that follow is mostly the product of celebrity and his status as the apparent frontrunner. That will all vanish if he evaporates in Iowa.

Why the hatred for Cruz? It surely goes back to the perception, based on his short and explosive tenure in the Senate, that he is not a team player. This is true (for better or worse), and the 2013 shutdown, which could have had catastrophic consequences for the party if not for the disaster that immediately followed, was entirely his fault. But believe it or not, that shutdown was mostly inside baseball. It directly affected very few Americans at the time it happened.

And so we have a paradox: From an ideological perspective, Cruz is more or less a real Reaganite. He is very much within the tradition of modern conservatism (as are most of the other remaining GOP candidates, ranging from Jeb Bush to Rand Paul). That is something Trump cannot claim to be, as he seems to be embracing a blood-and-soil nationalist idea that is more common among the European Right and alien to American ways.

A Trump nomination would mark a massive ideological departure for the GOP. It would mean the end to the more libertarian and fusionistic Reaganist ideology as the driving Republican philosophy — again, a philosophy with which the GOP establishment has finally more or less made peace.

But the establishment views Trump as easier to beat in a long slog. And it seems to shrug off the possibility that the American Right could be overtaken by birther kookery, much less the fascist sort of ideas on trade that it has long resisted.

In short, the modern Republican establishment is rooting for someone completely unelectable and unlike them against someone who, although perhaps also unelectable, is much closer to their own ideological tradition. And they are doing so for what they consider to be practical reasons.

How very fitting, and surely too clever by half.

Clinton Slide: The new set of large-sample Marist polls in Iowa and New Hampshire reinforce the notion that Ted Cruz leads in Iowa and that Trump (for now) maintains a 16-point lead in New Hampshire over Marco Rubio.

We remain confident in the belief we expressed last week — that a second or close third-place Rubio finish in Iowa, along with a Trump collapse, will lead a lot of the non-Trump, non-Cruz vote in New Hampshire coalescing behind Rubio. (The more “establishment” candidates — Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush — control a combined 44 percent of the vote there, compared to Trump’s current 30 percent.)

But the real action appears to be, surprisingly, on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton was supposed to have put Bernie Sanders away by now, but Democratic caucus-goers appear to be having doubts. She now leads Sanders only narrowly there, 48 to 45 percent. In New Hampshire, she trails by a similar margin, 50 percent for Sanders and 46 percent for Clinton.

This is not to say that Clinton will not win the Democratic nomination. After Iowa and New Hampshire are over, Sanders will not find it so easy to compete with her in states where black voters make up a large share of the Democratic primary electorate — South Carolina in particular, and throughout the South. Clinton appears to own the black vote.

But what does her apparent fall-off in Democratic primary support in those first two, nearly all-white states mean?

Again, we raise our hypothesis from months ago about how bad Clinton’s situation (scandals, unfavorables, etc.) would have to get before Democratic voters begin to view her as unelectable and abandon her. Because based on the Marist poll’s view of Iowa and New Hampshire, she may very well be:

In Iowa:

  • Clinton leads Trump by eight points among registered voters (48 percent to 40 percent), but Sanders is ahead of him by 13 (51 percent to 38 percent);
  • Cruz tops Clinton by four points (47 percent to 43 percent), but Sanders beats him by five (47 percent to 42 percent);
  • And Rubio is up by five points over Clinton (47 percent to 42 percent), while he’s tied with Sanders (44 percent to 44 percent).

In New Hampshire:

  • Clinton is ahead of Trump by just one point (45 percent to 44 percent), but Sanders tops him by 19 points (56 percent to 37 percent); 
  • Cruz beats Clinton by four points (48 percent to 44 percent), but Sanders leads him by another 19 points (55 percent to 36 percent); 
  • And Rubio bests Clinton by 12 points (52 percent to 40 percent), while Sanders leads him by nine points (50 percent to 41 percent).

Now remember first that Iowa and New Hampshire are not exactly Republican states. The last time a Republican carried Iowa was 2004, and before that you’d have to go back to the 1984 Reagan landslide. Likewise, Republicans haven’t won New Hampshire since 2000, and before that 1988.

If Clinton is trailing both Rubio and Cruz in both states — Rubio by double digits in New Hampshire — that’s pretty bad news for her, even at this early stage.

For a point of comparison: In 2012, Mitt Romney did lead Barack Obama in a handful of polls of Iowa, but he never eclipsed him by more than 3 points, and never led him in the polling averages. Romney led Obama in six of the dozens of polls taken in 2012, but never by more than 4 points.

But remember also that it’s very significant that Bernie Sanders is outperforming Clinton against all comers. That is probably the most frightening part of this poll for Clinton. It means that she suffers from something that goes beyond the dissatisfaction with President Obama’s job performance in both states. (In the Marist polls, he has 52-to-40 percent disapproval in Iowa, 52-to-42 percent disapproval in New Hampshire).

The consistent showing in other polls (no such numbers were released with these ones) of high unfavorability for Clinton and supermajority belief that she is a dishonest and untrustworthy person is surely having a toll on her candidacy. But that is all going under the radar, thanks to the veritable circus going on in the GOP primary. Under cover of Trumptopia, Republicans might be on their way to mounting a serious bid for the presidency in 2016.