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USA: The Presidential Plot Thickens


A conversation between Arthur Brooks and Gail Collins. 

Arthur Brooks: Hi, Gail. What a week, right? No huge surprises on Super Tuesday, as Trump increased his plurality with wins in a majority of states. Thursday’s Republican debate was yet another dumpster fire of insults and name-calling.

But then the plot thickened. On Saturday, Cruz had massive wins in Kansas and Maine, and only narrowly lost to Trump in Kentucky and Louisiana. As of now, Cruz is closely trailing Trump in the delegate count — Trump is up 384-300. Rubio is a distant third at 151.

The Democrats, on the other hand, have gotten enviably boring. At this point, the Clinton campaign’s grim march to victory is looking inevitable, right?

Gail Collins: Arthur, I have already admitted that the Hillary-Bernie battle has ceased to be all that thrilling. Really — issues, issues, issues. Yawn. I’m sure the Democrats wish they could have all the excitement and color of Donald Trump stomping toward the nomination over the still-struggling bodies of the most hated man in the Senate and an increasingly juvenile Floridian who’s terrified he’ll lose his own state.

Arthur: You’re a regular Don Rickles today. Next you’ll call John Kasich a hockey puck.

Gail: Show respect. Kasich beat Marco Rubio for third place in Maine. And he’s promised that if he’s elected he’ll reunite Pink Floyd.

Arthur: Well, reuniting Pink Floyd could be a controversial policy. They’re foreigners and will take the jobs of hard-working American rock musicians.

I wanted to ask your thoughts on an under-reported factoid that caught my eye this week: Sanders actually took a slightly larger percentage of Democratic votes cast on Super Tuesday than Trump took on the Republican side (39 percent versus 38 percent). They were dead even in places like Virginia and Massachusetts. Yet the media reported Super Tuesday as a humiliation for Bernie and a huge, huge win for Trump.

I continue to maintain that Trumpmania is as much a press phenomenon as a popular phenomenon, and supply is in large part creating its own demand. What do you think?

Gail: The press hardly made him up. In fact, speaking on behalf of the political writers of America, I would like to point out that 99 percent of us totally discounted his candidacy until he started to climb in the polls.

Arthur: You’re right, almost everybody discounted his candidacy at first. But the media covered him like the O.J. trial. During one window last summer, he was given 78 percent of the primetime CNN coverage of all the Republican candidates. That was seven times the total airtime for the next closest contender. This amounted to a de facto press blackout on everyone else. Kind of amazing that Cruz or Rubio could get any traction at all.

Gail: Bottom line from the last week is that Cruz will probably be the last non-Donald standing. I know you don’t take sides in these matters, but you know a lot of serious, establishment Republicans. What fills them with more horror – Nominee Cruz or Nominee Trump?

Arthur: Well, I think the term establishment is increasingly problematic now that it is used to describe Tea Party favorites like Senators Mike Lee and Ben Sasse. But to answer your question without picking sides myself, I have heard many on the center-right say they would prefer Cruz. The chief reason they give is the Supreme Court, where Cruz has won five cases. Those who support Cruz feel that he can be counted on to make appointments in the Scalia mold. And there is no fear that he might nominate Judge Judy.

Here’s something I always meant to ask you. As a loyal fan of your regular column, I sense that you were a bit more optimistic about some of the mainstream Republican candidates early on, but then soured on all of them. What happened?

Gail: Optimistic is a term I would never use about this group. But it is true that early on I was impressed by the fresh faces on the Republican side. Fresh faces was obviously not a great Democratic plus factor.

Then it turned out all the fresh faces were terrible candidates. Just take the way Marco Rubio turned into a Trump Mini-me — the man who gave the Republican campaign the new theme of undersized genitals. Geesh.

Arthur: As the father of multiple teenagers (pray for me), I am not going to defend silly name-calling. But I can’t agree at all that Rubio is a Trump clone. Like or dislike him, he is a serious candidate with a lot of policy ideas. And as far as I know, there’s no Rubio University, Rubio Palace or Rubio Steaks.

Gail: I’m not totally sure if Marco had ever been offered a chance at a line of steaks, he’d have turned it down. This is not a guy who should be looking to do battle about personal finances.

Arthur: Who among us would turn down a fabulous line of steaks bearing our name? I think “Brooks Steaks” has a nice ring to it. Although I don’t really eat that stuff, and also everyone would think it was David Brooks. So scratch that. But sorry — go on.

Gail: We’ll see what happens in the Florida primary, but I’m betting we won’t have Marco to kick around much longer.

You know, there’s more to this story than a lack of quality opposition to Trump. The Republicans have also lost contact with their people. The degree of alienation between the party and its voters is way, way more than on the Democratic side.

Arthur: Again, not so sure I agree here. It’s hard to find a young Democrat who doesn’t have a jaundiced view of the Clinton coronation process. Sanders is a reaction against the party establishment and has the same level of support as Trump.

Gail: Totally different. Sanders has a well-formed ideology that’s perfectly consistent. His big targets are Wall Street and its big campaign donors, which is hardly foreign material within the Democratic Party. And while it’s true that a lot of young people are not thrilled by the idea of another Clinton in the White House, I don’t think I’ve met any who wouldn’t come out to vote for her against Trump or Cruz.

Imagine what the Republicans would give now for a completely qualified, mainstream leading contender, whatever the downside.

Arthur: I admire your mainstreaming of Bernie, but I continue to maintain that he’s mostly a protest vote. His ideology is indeed consistent — with Eugene V. Debs and other 1920s socialists. I hear his pick to replace Scalia would be the French economist Thomas Piketty. O.K., I just made that up for effect. But still.

As to everyone voting for Clinton over Trump, it’s sort of notable that erstwhile Democratic candidate Jim Webb this week said he wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, but he wouldn’t rule out voting for Trump. Whether or not this would ever really happen, it’s kind of a striking statement, right?

Gail: Jim Webb is – I don’t know. A guy who always thought he was a bigger deal than reality suggested. Now in such a deep sulk that he’s looking for the most shocking thing he can say to get attention. Anybody who desperately wants publicity is going to announce for Donald Trump. If you’re a “Dancing with the Stars” also-ran trying to rekindle a career, chances are your publicist is not going to urge you to endorse Marco Rubio.

Arthur: Before we finish, I want to get your prediction on what’s about to happen in the Republican Party. What do you think are the odds that no one wins a majority of delegates and we wind up with an open convention in Cleveland?

Gail: Every political writer goes to bed at night and dreams of an open convention. We’d be breaking the news about sudden movement in the Nebraska delegation and the whole world would be hanging on every word. So I am definitely in favor, but sort of dubious that it will happen in the real world.

But you’re way better at numbers than I am. What’s your bet?

Arthur: Lots and lots of unhappy Republicans are hoping for this, but I think you are right — it is still a pretty remote possibility. The winner-take-all primaries on the 15th make it more likely that even a candidate with considerably less than a majority of votes gets more than 50 percent of the delegates at the convention.

But if it’s Trump, what then? Here’s a multiple-choice quiz for you:

Republicans fall in line and support Trump; the party fractures, with a big percentage overtly disavowing their nominee and staying home; a movement takes shape to start a new party or support a third-party candidate; we all wake up and say, “I had the weirdest dream last night.”

Gail: Well, if they’re going for C, they’d better get their act together and start collecting signatures this weekend. Since Trump has virtually no personal convictions when it comes to the issues, I can imagine him sewing up the nomination and then coming out with a traditional, responsible-sounding platform that would give some of the Republican mainstream cover.

Arthur: Plus, free steaks for everybody!

Gail: Can I throw a rhetorical question at you? Republican leaders like Mitt Romney who are suddenly standing up to Trump — where were they two months ago? Aren’t they a little late to the fair?

Arthur: I think they just didn’t believe that Trump was an authentic threat, and didn’t want to alienate his supporters unnecessarily. It kind of reminds me of what my Democratic friends explained to me when Al Sharpton — who they privately felt was a polarizing, negative figure — was briefly running for president in 2004.

Gail: The idea that a blast from Mitt Romney is going to mute the Trump boom at this point in the game is pretty hilarious. I am tempted to say that Romney’s only chance of having an impact would be to tie Donald to the roof of his car.

Arthur: Ha. So much for your promise to retire Seamus the Irish setter.

I doubt Romney expected to move the race, but I’m sure he felt it was the right thing to do to speak up publicly about what he sees as a major threat to his party and country. Perhaps it came too late, but at least he went on record with his views.

So what can we expect in the coming week? We hear from Michigan today, but afterward, the primary schedule gets remarkably quiet. We’ll have to content ourselves with returns from the Guam primary on Saturday. Also, I hear the District of Columbia holds its Republican caucus in Room 308 of the Capitol Hilton, if anyone shows up. Last I heard, the D.C. Republican Party membership was down to approximately eight.

Gail: As Guam goes, so goes the nation. And this week, we’ve got debates! Dems on Wednesday, Republicans on Thursday. All signs point to a boring, issue-oriented exchange on the Democratic side while the four guys in suits bring thrills, chills and lots of insults. It’s like a PBS round-table discussion on campaign finance versus a Don Rickles Celebrity Roast. So lucky for the G.O.P. to be on the exciting end of everything, hehehehe.

Arthur: I think you’re right that there’s an exciting week ahead for the Republicans, but my spider sense tells me that it will be something more substantial than chair-throwing at the debate. Stay tuned.

Arthur C. Brooks: Presidente del American Enterprise Institute, un think tank conservador.

Gail Collins: Periodista. Desde 1995, tiene una columna en el New York Times. 

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