Dems’ problems even bigger than Republicans’?

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 6-

This week, New Hampshire primary on Tuesday:

  • Trump’s Iowa flop hasn’t ended him quite yet
  • Democrats’ choices: Venality and extremism
  • Rubio’s worst debate yet came just when he needed a strong performance

With Donald Trump’s clear but not overwhelming loss in Iowa, the Republican Party briefly put off its day of reckoning — that day when Trumpists decide whether to follow another Republican, or else Republicans decide on whether they can accept Trump as their nominee.

That day will still come, one way or the other. But for now, it falls to Trump’s critics and opponents to prove he really is the wet paper bag of a campaign that everyone saw last week.

On the Democratic side, the candidates are dueling to see who can position themselves furthest to the left. It’s a game Hillary Clinton can’t win, and she has been quick to claim that it’s because of sexism.

Democrats: Again, with everyone focused on Trumpmania, there’s been a tendency to forget that Democrats have a problem on their own hands.

Last Wednesday’s forum and Thursday’s debate demonstrated that they face a choice between venality and dishonesty on the one hand, and extremism on the other. Last Monday’s Iowa result suggests that they’re increasingly attracted to extremism at the moment.

On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton delivered a surprisingly terrible answer when asked about the nearly $8 million that she and her husband have raked in just from big banks, for about three dozen speeches they’ve been paid to give to such financial institutions. Asked specifically why she had taken $675,000 for three speeches to Goldman Sachs, Clinton said, “That’s what they offered.”

Conservatives find this sort of thing distasteful, but perhaps they’re a bit biased. For progressives, it is difficult to square a defense of this sort of thing with the doctrinal belief that campaign finance is corrupting the election system. Clinton is hesitant, even defensive about releasing the transcripts of these speeches. There probably isn’t any smoking gun here, just some casual praise for the financial industry that would be rather embarrassing for her in her race to the left against Bernie Sanders.

Speaking of which, what about Sanders? He’s the only remaining alternative to Clinton now that Martin O’Malley has dropped out of the race. On Thursday, the elderly socialist expanded his critique of Wall Street beyond the usual populist schtick about how it tanked the economy, and the perfidy of millionaires and billionaires, etc. This time, he got really serious: “The business model of Wall Street is fraud,” he said.

This may well be what a lot of liberal Democrats want to hear. But it’s also (in addition to being false) the sort of wild-eyed statement that makes one unelectable in a general election. One hundred percent of Americans know there’s some corruption on Wall Street, but roughly 50 percent of them also own stock.

As others noted, the absence of Martin O’Malley or any other third candidate from last week’s events removed the buffer between Clinton and Sanders. Both thus strove to move as far leftward as they could, and to attack one another relentlessly. It was hammer and sickle — er, tongs.

If Republicans could have chosen any result for the Democrats in Iowa, it probably would have been a narrow Sanders win that would further weaken Clinton before she ultimately wins the nomination in the end. What they got — a nominal and empty Clinton triumph — was just as good if not better.

Clinton blew a 55-point lead in Iowa to win by a quarter of a percentage point. And of course, that’s in terms of notional convention delegates — Clinton might well have had fewer Iowans caucus for her than did so for Sanders. What’s more, she would have lost in delegates, too, if she hadn’t won six out of six tiebreaking coin tosses at various precincts throughout the state.

For now, the conventional wisdom is that Clinton will lose on Tuesday, but then is safe after New Hampshire. Once the states with black voters begin to vote, she is supposedly invincible. And Sanders has his work cut out for him to challenge that assumption by making inroads in places like South Carolina.

But Team Clinton is clearly worried about the success that Sanders has enjoyed so far — hence the ludicrous accusations of sexism that they are now leveling at the Sanders campaign and its supporters. Without even training the strongest attacks against her — her classified email problem, especially — the least likely vessel for a socialist revolution is slowly pulling her apart, bit by bit.

Republicans: First, the Iowa result. Ted Cruz (the winner) and Marco Rubio (strong third-place finisher) both got what they needed out of Iowa to emerge as serious contenders. Donald Trump underperformed big expectations with his second-place finish. It’s not enough to end him just yet, but a second loss in New Hampshire — coming as it would against what all the polling says — certainly would.

On Saturday night, the Republicans debated, and this time Trump bothered to show up. One of the more remarkable differences was that Trump was no longer the center of attention. In fact, he was just another guy on stage.

The fact that Rubio had become the perceived frontrunner was clear from the way he became everyone’s target during the debate. And he did not handle it well. He came under especially heavy criticism for an exchange in which he punched down at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and retreated to the safety of anti-Obama talking points.
This was Rubio’s worst-reviewed performance yet — and probably his first bad performance in any debate so far. It came just when he seemed to be on the verge of putting away Christie and the rest of the non-Trump-non-Cruz candidates.

Christie, who had nearly fallen out of the polling universe in New Hampshire before the debate, probably has too much ground to make up to finish better than fourth or fifth in New Hampshire on Tuesday. Not so John Kasich, whose New Hampshire-focused campaign is finally getting traction at just the right moment.

Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Christie. If two or all three of those keep going after New Hampshire, their presence in the race comes mostly at Rubio’s expense in the contests that follow in Nevada (where Rubio hopes to win) and South Carolina (where he will be lucky to finish third). This would cloud Rubio’s path to the nomination.

This has become Cruz’s best hope — that he can outlast Trump while keeping the potential Rubio vote divided for as long as possible in a marathon 50-state scramble for delegates. Cruz doesn’t need to win New Hampshire, nor will he. A second- or a strong third-place finish is good enough for him to declare victory.

Another thing making Rubio’s life more complicated is that Bush also seems poised to finish stronger than expected. He definitely helped himself in Saturday’s debate. Team Bush thinks he can keep going by knocking out Rubio with negative ads, but Bush has little reason to stay in the race if he can’t at least beat Kasich on Tuesday.

Fortunately for Rubio (and Kasich), Donald Trump also had an atrocious performance on Saturday night. He was even more irritable and unfocused than usual. He actually let Jeb Bush get the better of him on the issue of his abuse of eminent domain. He also went out of his way to insult the New Hampshire audience that will soon decide his fate — when they booed one of his answers, he accused them all of being “special interests” and big GOP donors.

Trump is near or above 30 percent in many polls of New Hampshire. But polling in the state is historically miserable, thanks mostly to late and post-Iowa deciders. A Trump implosion — caused not only by Saturday’s debate antics but also by his campaign’s total lack of a ground game — could set the stage for another surprisingly tight three-way or even four-way finish on Tuesday. It is not impossible to imagine some combination of Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Kasich, and Bush all clustering around 20 percent in the final tally.