06 April 2016
Does Trump know his own strength?
Donald Trump lost badly to Senator Cruz in Wisconsin yesterday, and as with every setback people ask whether this was the beginning of the end for the Republican front-runner. The answer depends on how you account for Trump's loss. The simplest explanation is that it follows a week of bad news for the billionaire, from the assault charge against his campaign manager to his perceived gaffe about punishing women who have abortions. It's entirely possible, however, that those embarrassments had little to do with the Wisconsin result. Thanks to Gov. Walker's anti-union campaigns and the attempt to recall him, Wisconsin may be the most ideologically polarized state in the nation -- a fact that apparently benefited Senator Sanders as well. It may be that Republicans in Wisconsin are such true believers that most automatically ruled Trump out as a heretic, and it's even more likely that Walker has developed an effective get-out-the-vote machine that was put at the service of Cruz. Another factor ought to be considered: Trump's new disinterest in debates. He doesn't seem to want to face either Cruz or Governor Kasich, preferring rallies where the spotlight stays on him exclusively. I think this is a mistake on several levels. First, debates have helped Trump remain a dominant figure on the news; the casual observer may pay more attention to them, given their competitive atmosphere, than to Trump's speeches. Second, to duck debating Cruz, presumably because the Texan has a reputation as a master debater, makes Trump look afraid, which can only hurt him with his base. Third, Trump himself may not appreciate that his success in past debates has had little to do with his own forensic skills. Let's be blunt; Trump's fans respond to him on a primitive level. When they watch the debates, they want to see Trump show dominance, which he has done not by outwitting his rivals but by insulting them. They probably won't be able to tell if Cruz has outwitted Trump in a debate, but they'll be impressed if Trump doesn't appear to back down to the Senator. For the moment, Trump is tweeting away about Cruz being a Trojan horse for the Establishment. But Twitter is no substitute for the sort of face-to-face encounter that might expose what Trump's followers would take to be Cruz's true character, whatever that may be. There's an evangelical smarminess, a plastic sanctimony, a contemptuous smugness to Cruz that's obvious to all but the true believers, yet I don't think Trump has really exploited any of that in all his attacks on "Lyin' Ted." He should. It might seem irresponsible of me to coach Trump in his campaign, but I have to admit that Cruz, not Trump, is the candidate I least want to see as President. The ideal scenario for any conscientious American now is for Trump and Cruz to bleed each other white, to make each other even more toxic (if possible) than they are now, so that somebody else -- and we can still debate who that should be -- can win the general election. But if Trump doesn't confront Cruz on the debate stage, he could collapse faster than anyone expects, giving Cruz crucial time to consolidate his position and maneuver for the fall campaign. It's like rooting for Stalin against Hitler in 1941 and really wanting both to lose -- though who is who in that analogy I leave for you to decide.