Trumped? It takes a village to bring down a well-endowed front runner

Good morning Austin:

It’s going to take a village to bring down Donald Trump.

And so, each in his own way, Trump’s four rivals did their part to fell the giant  – including Dr. Ben Carson (he also serves who only stays away) – and with a big assist from Mitt Romney, the party’s last nominee and, with the demise of Jeb Bush, the closest thing to the embodiment of that chimerical thing called the Republican establishment, who summed up Trump’s crimes against probity and decency in a speech yesterday in Utah.

But mostly, by laying out the case against Trump early in the day of the 11th debate, Romney sapped a bunch of Trump’s attention and energy ahead of the debate. Trump replied to Romney’s 17-minute speech with another epic, vivid, bravura nearly hour-long stream of consciousness monologue at a rally in Portland, Maine, before flying to Detroit for another long debate, which was essentially an opportunity for Fox/Megyn Kelly to vet Trump, abetted by hectoring from Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

But, when all was said and done, Trump once again made political history by establishing, in the most explicit terms, in both Maine and Michigan, that he is the phallic top dog.

“He begged me for an endorsement (in 2012),” Trump, in Portland, said of Romney. “I could have said, `Mitt, drop to your knees and he would have dropped to his knees.'”

And then, in the most memorable moment of last night’s debate, this:

RUBIO: But let’s be honest too about all this. The media has given these personal attacks that Donald Trump has made an incredible amount of coverage. Let’s start talking again about the issues that matter to this country. I’m ready to do that starting right here right now tonight.

BAIER: Mr. Trump, your response?

TRUMP: Well, I also happened to call him a lightweight, OK? And I have said that. So I would like to take that back. He is really not that much of a lightweight. And as far as — and I have to say this, I have to say this. He hit my hands. Nobody has ever hit my hands. I have never heard of this. Look at those hands. Are they small hands?

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: And he referred to my hands, if they are small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee.

BAIER: OK. Moving on.

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OK. Let’s back up.

Here was Romney in Utah.

Frankly, the only serious policy proposals that deal with a broad range of national challenges we confront today come from Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich. One of these men should be our nominee.

(APPLAUSE) Now, I know that some people want this race to be over. They look at history and say a trend like Mr. Trump’s isn’t going to be stopped. Perhaps. But the rules of political history have pretty much all been shredded during this campaign.

(LAUGHTER)

If the other candidates can find some common ground, I believe we can nominate a person who can win the general election and who will represent the values and policies of conservatism. Given the current delegate selection process, that means that I’d vote for Marco Rubio in Florida and for John Kasich in Ohio and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state.

And here is Trump’s reply in Maine.

What is most significant about what Romney had to say, is that Ted Cruz is now within the penumbra of establishment acceptability. There was a time, a few weeks ago, that Cruz might have considered this the kiss of death. He reveled in being that least acceptable choice – even less acceptable than Trump – to the Republican powers-that-be in Washington. And there was reason to believe that those powers-that-be would be as happy or happier with let’s-make-a-deal Trump than obdurate showboat Cruz.

But now, it’s very much in Cruz’s interest to be credible as someone who could emerge as the consensus anti-Trump, and, with Romney’s speech, he clearly crossed that threshold.

The results Super Tuesday, and especially Cruz’s  delegate-rich victory in Texas, gave Cruz a decided advantage over Rubio as the most credible Trump rival, and last night’s debate confirmed Cruz’s place as a more serious challenger to Trump than Rubio.

But, I don’t see any quick coalescing around Cruz. And, even from his own strategic perspective, that might be OK.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who, in a more orderly universe, with his experience and electability, would be the front runner, did very well again last night and improved his chances of defeating Trump in his home state’s winner-take-all primary on March 15, an outcome that would help everyone but Trump.

And, Cruz should probably be rooting for Rubio to come from way behind to beat Trump in Florida’s winner-take-all primary, also on March 15, though that’s a tougher strategic call.

In the meantime, thanks to Texas, Cruz’s stack of delegates isn’t all that far behind Trump’s.

AP

From Cruz last night’

The stakes are too high and if you are one of the 65 to 70 percent of Republicans who recognize that nominating Donald would be a disaster, then I ask you to come join us. If you’re supporting other candidates, come join us.

We welcome you to our team because we’ve demonstrated not once, not twice, not three times, but five separate times (wins in Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma and Alaska, and finishing second to Trump’s third in Minnesota) we have beat Donald. And if you don’t want him to be the nominee, then I ask you to stand with us as a broad coalition of people who believe in the Constitution, believe in freedom, and want to turn this country around.

From Jonathan Last at the Weekly Standard:

In theory, Ted Cruz’s best states are behind him. But at the Detroit debate, Cruz was clearly the class of the field and it’s clear that no one should count him out as the delegate race moves into its next phase.

The delegate math is complicated, but the basic gist goes something like this: Donald Trump has a commanding lead at the moment, but it is not a given that he will reach the 1,237 threshold he needs to clinch a majority. Simply put, Trump has failed to break through the ceiling of support he’s held since New Hampshire even as the field has consolidated. While he will be helped by winner-take-all states, where he can sweep full slates of delegates even with his plurality, he may be hurt by closed-primary states, where only Republicans vote. So his path is more challenging than it appears.

Cruz’s path is more challenging still. But tonight’s strong performance can only help Cruz—both with voters and with the party regulars who would play a big role in deciding the nominee should there be a brokered convention.

What Cruz did at the debate was make three parallel cases:

1.) Trump is a fraud who can’t be trusted to keep his word.

2.) Trump is not either conservative or Republican in any meaningful way.

3.) Trump actually is the corruption that he decries.

There are 155 delegates at stake Saturday in caucuses in Kentucky, Kansas and Maine and a primary in Louisiana. This should be good terrain for Cruz, and his organizational strength should also give him an edge in the caucus states, so it’s very likely that he will narrow Trump’s delegate edge, if only slightly.  I think Rubio will probably do well in the Puerto Rico primary on Sunday. But then Trump is likely to expand his advantage Tuesday in the Michigan and Mississippi primaries.

Having said all this, and despite Cruz et al. scoring some significant debating points against Trump, Trump remains a transfixing, entertaining presence, the master of colloquial rhetoric studded with humor and telling detail.

“He talks he way people talk when they talk with each other,” Joe Scarborough said on Morning Joe today.

From the Boston Globe:

After speculating about their comparative net worth, Trump circled back to a fundraiser he held for Romney in 2012. Though he complemented Romney’s wife, Ann, “a really lovely woman,” Trump said many of the donors in attendance told Trump that Romney was “a stiff.”

Trump said that so many people RSVPed for the fundraiser, they had to hold two consecutive events on the rainy day in Las Vegas four years ago.

“Because everybody’s shoes were so wet, I ruined my carpet.” Trump said. “This carpet was wiped out, and nobody thanked me for the carpet. Hey, maybe I can send Mitt a billed for carpet ruined.”

The crowd cheered.

Rubio has proved capable of exchanging insults with Trump with some aplomb, but that probably hasn’t enhanced his minimal gravitas.

And, while Cruz has done a better job of maintaining his dignity (though not nearly as good a job as Kasich), he still can be very annoying.

 

CRUZ: Breathe, breathe, breathe.

TRUMP: Lyin’ Ted.

CRUZ: You can do it. You can breathe. I know it’s hard. I know it’s hard. But just…

RUBIO: When they’re done with the yoga, can I answer a question?

CRUZ: You cannot.

(LAUGHTER)

RUBIO: Unbelievable.

CRUZ: I really hope that we don’t — we don’t see yoga on this stage.

RUBIO: Well, he’s very flexible, so you never know.

(APPLAUSE)

And, at least for me, Trump ultimately gets the better of Cruz’s demand that he authorize release of an off-the-record conversation he had with editors at the New York Times.

KELLY: Back in January, you gave an off-the-record interview to the New York Times. It was apparently audiotaped. Now, a recent report in Buzzfeed citing sources at the Times reports that in that interview you expressed flexibility when it comes to your immigration policy, specifically with respect to your promise to deport the 11 million people who are now living here illegally. You have suggested that you may have expressed some flexibility when it comes to the size of the wall that you want to build. But did you tell them, specifically, that you are flexible when it comes to your deportation plan?

TRUMP: I don’t know exactly what — when you talk about off the record. First of all, Buzzfeed? They were the ones that said under no circumstances will I run for president. And were they wrong. But a lot of people said that.

Then, I did have a meeting with the editorial board of the New York Times, a very nice meeting. Many of those things were off the record, I think at their suggestion and my suggestion. And I think being off the record is a very important thing. I think it’s a very, very powerful thing.

And I will say this. These three gentlemen have gone off the record many times with reporters. And I think they want to honor it, and I would always honor that.

I will say, though, in terms of immigration — and almost anything else — there always has to be some, you know, tug and pull and deal. And, you know, when I watch Ted stand on the Senate floor, I had great respect for what he did. He stood there for a day-and-a- half or something. In the meantime, what came of it? Nothing. You have to be able to have some flexibility, some negotiation.

Now, sometimes you ask for more than you want and you negotiate down to the point. I may have discussed something like that with the New York Times, but I would never release off-the-record conversations. I don’t think it’s fair, frankly, to do that to anybody.

KELLY: How flexible are you on this issue?

(AUDIENCE BOOS)

TRUMP: Not very flexible. No, not very flexible. I give the example — I’m going to build a wall. I’m the one that wants the wall. I’m the one that can build the wall.

(APPLAUSE)

It’s going to get built. And by the way, Mexico is going to pay for the wall. I can tell you that. Mexico is going to pay for the wall.

(APPLAUSE)

But — and I used an example. And this isn’t necessarily what was said, but whatever was said, the wall’s 50 feet high. Is it going to be 45 feet or 40 feet? That could very well be. That could very well — he wants it to be higher.

(LAUGHTER)

That could very well be. But there’s always give and take. There’s always negotiation. And the best negotiator that knows what he’s doing will make a great deal. But we need give and take in government. If you don’t have give and take, you’re never going to agree on anything.

(APPLAUSE)

Cruz returned to the off-the-record interview later.

CRUZ: Donald, you could resolve this issue very quickly by simply…

(AUDIENCE BOOS)

… releasing the New York Times tape. Because, listen, maybe it’s right.

TRUMP: This wasn’t on the subject.

CRUZ: … that you didn’t tell them you’re misleading the American people. If that’s the case…

TRUMP: Tapes were not on the subject, but that’s…

CRUZ: If you didn’t tell them that, the tapes will prove you’re innocent.

KELLY: OK.

CRUZ: But if, in fact, you went to Manhattan and said I’m lying to the American people, then the voters have a right to know.

TRUMP: No, no. You’re the liar. You’re the lying guy up here.

(CROSSTALK)

CRUZ: Because we’ve been lied to too many times.

TRUMP: You’re the — you’re the one. You’re the one.

CRUZ: Why don’t you release the tapes? Release the tapes.

TRUMP: You’re the one. Now, let me just tell you. Let me just tell you.

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: Excuse me. Excuse me. I’ve given my answer, Lyin’ Ted. I’ve given my answer.

KELLY: All right. Let’s leave it at that.

(AUDIENCE BOOS)

Let’s leave it at that. We have more to get to.

(AUDIENCE BOOS)

I get what Cruz is doing here, but does he really want to set a precedent that would essentially undermine any future off-the-record conversations between a politician and the press? And, the idea that Trump told  an editorial board that can’t stand him that he doesn’t mean what he says, is not credible. I’m sure what he told them is that everything is negotiable, and I know that is anathema to Cruz, but, ultimately, my guess is Americans would prefer a president who acknowledges, even if it’s off the record, that governing is a negotiation and not a relentless, unyielding purity test.

And maybe, that was enough o get this column today from the  New York Times Paul Krugman:

What Donald Trump has done is tell the base that it doesn’t have to accept the whole package. He promises to make America white again — surely everyone knows that’s the real slogan, right? — while simultaneously promising to protect Social Security and Medicare, and hinting at (though not actually proposing) higher taxes on the rich. Outraged establishment Republicans splutter that he’s not a real conservative, but neither, it turns out, are many of their own voters.

Just to be clear, I find the prospect of a Trump administration terrifying, and so should you. But you should also be terrified by the prospect of a President Rubio, sitting in the White House with his circle of warmongers, or a President Cruz, whom one suspects would love to bring back the Spanish Inquisition.

As I see it, then, we should actually welcome Mr. Trump’s ascent. Yes, he’s a con man, but he is also effectively acting as a whistle-blower on other people’s cons. That is, believe it or not, a step forward in these weird, troubled times.

 

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