With the Iowa caucuses less than a week away, on the Republican side this is shaping up to be one of the strangest nomination processes of my lifetime. Late last year, Scott Walker was the presumptive front-runner until he declared, after which his campaign imploded in a rapid and spectacular way. Jeb Bush was likewise a favorite, but having spent well over $100 million he is almost within the margin of error in most polls. Marco Rubio was the next hope for the establishment, palatable to them and most of the base, but his participation in the Gang of Eight immigration amnesty effort has damaged him. Ben Carson is imminently likeable and moral, but his near-comatose demeanor does not inspire confidence that he is ready for a dangerous world.
Chris Christie has been dogged by his anti-gun stance and his post-Sandy tarmac bromance with Obama. Rand Paul has not been able to recreate the fervor among his base that his father was able to. Carly Fiorina has great debate performances but is invisible in between. John Kasich comes across as an angry scold having a seizure. Rick Santorum? Mike Huckabee? No chance for either, but maybe they’ll get a good book deal for their efforts.
And then there are Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, possibly the two candidates least likely to win when this all started. Cruz is loathed by the GOP establishment as a “whack job” because of his unbending allegiance to conservative principles, and for calling out the GOP leadership and establishment for their failures to govern by the same promises on which they campaigned. Trump was the circus sideshow, a lifelong liberal New York Democrat, reality TV star and real estate mogul without a chance of winning the more conservative Southern states, an absolute must for any Republican.
But a funny thing happened along the way. Cruz quietly built up an impressive campaign war chest which made him a force to be reckoned with, and his principled conservative record and message, plus his refusal to attack Trump, led to a steady rise in the polls. Trump has defied all political wisdom and shot up in the polls based almost entirely on his unapologetically un-PC rhetoric and his brash (if inconsistent) populism on illegal immigration, combating Islamic terrorism, and the economy.
As of now it appears the race will come down to Trump and Cruz, with an outside shot for Rubio. Cruz took the lead in Iowa about a month ago, and was immediately the target of the GOP establishment’s – to whom he has been a huge thorn in the side - efforts to take him down. That began to take its toll, and was compounded when the Trump/Cruz détente ended shortly before the last debate, with Trump trotting out another birther conspiracy and an accusation that he is a “nasty” person who can’t get along with anyone in D.C.
It is a testament to just how much hatred there is among the GOP base for the party’s leadership that Trump – who is seen by the vast majority of his supporters as a stick in the eye to the GOP establishment – is the frontrunner. He is the establishment’s creation. He is the byproduct of a conservative base that had to watch government grow under Bush, grow even more under Obama, and see two historic wave elections in the last two mid-terms wasted when Republican majorities in the House and Senate caved again and again to the demands of Obama and the Democrats. Trump is seen by his supporters as a no-holds-barred, take no prisoners candidate who will do whatever it takes to win.
And I believe that. And it concerns me.
Nothing The Donald says or does seem to bother his supporters, even when those things would render any other candidate unsupportable to the conservative base. Conservatives were outraged at John Boehner for not doing enough to repeal ObamaCare, and they drove him out of office. Yet just a few months ago, Trump came out in support of single-payer health care, just like avowed socialist and Democrat candidate Bernie Sanders. In an interview with 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley, in response to a question about fixing the problems with ObamaCare, Trump responded:
“There’s many different ways [to fix it], by the way. Everybody’s got to be covered. This is an un-Republican thing for me to say…I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now….the government’s gonna pay for it.”
Later in the interview, Trump declared that he wants to raise taxes to pay for these and other plans.
Trump was also for defunding Planned Parenthood one week before he was against defunding Planned Parenthood. Likewise, Trump rose in the polls by insulting the GOP establishment and politicians and government in general, yet this week he openly brags that he can get along not only with the GOP establishment, but with Democrats like Reid, Pelosi, and Schumer as well.
The GOP establishment, which not too long ago warned that Donald Trump would be the death of the Republican Party, is now coming out of the woodwork to extol Trump’s deal-making virtues, saying he is someone they can work with to get things done, unlike Ted Cruz. But weren’t grassroots conservatives furious at all of the bipartisan deal-making being done by the GOP establishment, which raised the debt ceiling repeatedly (and suspended it until Obama leaves office), almost gave us amnesty, and that gave us a full funding of Obama’s agenda for the rest of his time in office?
In recent days, Trump has received endorsements or de facto endorsements from the likes of GOP moderates and former moderate losers like Bob Dole, or from Republicans, like Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who are fearful of losing their special privileges under a President Cruz (Cruz has come out against subsidies for ethanol, which brings in enormous federal money into Iowa, and Branstad’s son runs an ethanol lobbying group).
Strange indeed that with an angry, frustrated conservative base, the frontrunner should be a man who holds very liberal positions on a number of issues, who brags about how he can make back-room deals with Democrats and Republicans alike, and who thinks his ultra-liberal, pro-abortion sister (a federal judge) would make a “phenomenal” Supreme Court justice.
One would think that Ted Cruz would epitomize for the conservative base the perfect candidate. He is constitutionalist and a strict constructionist who has argued before the Supreme Court nine times as Texas’s solicitor general. He has been unwavering in his conservative, constitutional principles, even when that means enduring the slings and arrows of not only the leftist media and the Democrats (but I repeat myself), but the GOP establishment and its go-along-to-get-along ways. He is a family man who clearly loves America as the Founders envisioned it. Yet he is trailing Trump in the polls.
Adding another twist in the story is Trump’s announcement that he will not participate in the debate on Thursday because Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, with whom Trump has had a past feud, will be one of the moderators. Ted Cruz has already begun teasing Trump, asking how he will handle dealing with Hillary Clinton or Russian President Vladimir Putin if he can’t handle Megyn Kelly. Cruz has also challenged Trump to a one-on-one debate, which Trump has thus far declined.
Iowa is a strange animal, and the caucuses take much more time, effort, and commitment by each candidate’s supporters than just voting in a primary. It is the die-hards that turn out. Will Trump’s supporters turn out for him and end Cruz’s run at the presidency? Will Trump’s refusal to participate in the debate concern his supporters? Will the embrace of Trump by the GOP establishment as a willing partner to their schemes erode support among Trump’s base? Has Cruz slipped in the polls as much as the media claim? Is Trump inevitable at this point?
We’ll know in less than a week.