Things Just Got Weird After Saturday’s GOP Debate

Did you see that clip from the GOP debate, where The Donald went on a tear about what a bloody failure the whole Iraq misadventure was? (If not, here it is — go watch it. It’s not that long.)

What on earth was Donald Trump doing in that debate, calling Iraq a mistake and suffering the boos of the audience (which was apparently stacked by the GOP establishment)?

That’s pretty straightforward: he was turning JEB!’s decision to employ his brother (and ex-President) George in his South Carolina campaign into a huge liability.

But isn’t South Carolina is one of the last remaining bastions of America where people still have warm feelings toward George W. Bush?

Yes — among Republicans, anyway — but here’s a funny thing about South Carolina: it has an open primary. You don’t have to be registered as a Republican. You can be an independent or even a Democrat and choose to vote in the GOP Primary. Besides, I suspect that even among mainstream Republicans, an element of Bush fatigue is starting to set in.

So The Donald just did three things in that debate:

(1) He started to neutralize any bounce JEB! would get out of having GWB campaign on his behalf in South Carolina by reminding everyone about just what a complete disaster the Iraq war was.

(It is an opinion that I share, for the record — with the partial exception of the late Bush-era surge, which only established that if you flooded the place with the army that should have been there in 2003, you could keep order…but only for as long as you maintained that army at strength in the field. While many argue — to some extent correctly — that Obama has more than a share of blame for the Iraq misadventure as well, I’d argue that if the Bush war plan required the American people to continue to elect neoconservatives to the White House who would execute the plan with the level of skill and precision as the Bush White House, well, failure was kind of baked into the plan from the genesis.)

(2) Trump made a play for Independent and even Democrat voters. You’re damned right he did. You know who thinks less well about GWB? Independents and Democrats. Even in South Carolina. And right after the debate, I kept seeing people who hated Donald Trump, who have previously called him things like “disgusting” and threatened to move to Canada if he’s elected, say things like “Well…gosh…I guess he was right here…”

No, those people aren’t going to vote for him. But what if you’re an average, moderate Democrat, faced with the choice of voting for Hillary (who, by the way, came out swinging in favor of Bush’s Iraq War when the resolution came to the Senate in 2002,) or Sanders (who is currently down by 20 points in South Carolina.) Or you could just ask for a ballot and vote for Trump and flip everyone off….

(3) One other thing happened. You know what optic came out of the debate? Donald Trump standing firm against an unruly mob of partisan dead-enders who can’t accept the simple truth that Iraq was a mistake. He couldn’t have scripted that better.

Cue the Grim Reaper

The very next day, Justice Antonin Scalia passed away. He was a brilliant legal scholar, an excellent writer, and I personally mourn his passing. The judiciary and the country is worse off without him.

Scalia’s passing also threatened to shake up the whole campaign. You know who would benefit most from Scalia’s death, politically? Hillary Clinton, JEB!, and Rubio — the ‘establishment’ candidates. (Maybe Ted Cruz, too, though he’s clearly not ‘establishment’.)

Why Would Establishment Types Benefit?

Because it reminds people about the Supreme Court, about how those appointments are for life, that the President gets to pick them. One of the few remaining bits of hard-hitting political ammunition in the pocket of the establishment candidate is the argument that you can count on them to appoint people who have passed some sort of judicial ideological litmus test so that they’ll be more likely to vote in favor of stuff that you like while on the Bench.

What Trump did next was both obvious and bold: he changed the talking points back to himself while bringing up a little bit of Clinton fatigue without even bringing up her name, or even saying much at all. Here’s what he said:

“It’s a horrible topic,” said Trump, “but they say they found the pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow. I can’t give you an answer … I literally just heard it a little while ago. It’s just starting to come out now, as you know, Michael.”

Yep, that’s all it took. The media immediately connected it with all manner of conspiracy theories and all of a sudden the talking point became Donald Trump, what a jerk that Donald Trump is! How dare he be so disgusting as to deal in conspiracy theories! How dumb that Trump is!

(Never mind that what he said wasn’t unreasonable. See, e.g., Washington Post,The death of Antonin Scalia: Chaos, confusion and conflicting reports,” Feb. 14, 2016. There is a limited utility for dispassionate examination of facts in a Presidential campaign.)

And what happened to the bounce that establishment candidates were going to get? Well, it kind of disappeared. Oddly enough, there are two families who are prominently associated with conspiratorial politics in the American public mind at the moment.

Come one, say it with me here.

The Bushes and the Clintons.

It’s kind of hard to not make the connection — even if you don’t want to, even if you think the whole idea is stupid and wildly wrong— between ‘conspiratorial political murder’ and either of those families if you’re an adult in this country with a modicum of political awareness who lived through the ’90s and 2000s. E-mail servers stored in a bathroom. Bush lied, people died. Vince Foster. Vast right-wing conspiracy. Bimbo eruptions. (There’s a reason the phrase “Clinton fatigue” exists in our political lexicon.)

If there’s one thing the country is tired of at this point, it’s scandals and chicanery surrounding the Clintons and/or the Bushes.

And now, any message HRC or JEB! might try to deliver about “Hey! Vote for me and let’s lock down the Supreme Court” to friendly partisan audiences will be muted.

Was it successful?

We wont know for sure until votes are being counted. But in the meantime, would you accept as a proxy for ‘success’ here (where ‘success’ == The Donald doing an end run and starting to win the support of lots of independents and Democrats) seeing someone with at least as much juice as The Donald steps in and tries to slow down that process?

If so, see this article: CNN, “Obama Takes On Donald Trump,” Feb. 16, 2016.

President Barack Obama has a message for Donald Trump — being president is tougher than being on a reality show and the American people are too “sensible” to elect him.
“I continue to believe Mr. Trump will not be president,” Obama said at a news conference in California after a meeting with southeast Asian leaders. “And the reason is that I have a lot of faith in the American people. Being president is a serious job. It’s not hosting a talk show, or a reality show.”
He went on: “It’s not promotion, it’s not marketing. It’s hard. And a lot of people count on us getting it right….”
Obama also appeared to raise the question of whether Trump was prepared to be commander-in-chief.
“Whoever’s standing where I’m standing right now has the nuclear codes with them, and can order 21-year-olds into a firefight, and (has) to make sure that the banking system doesn’t collapse, and is often responsible for not just the United States of America, but 20 other countries that are having big problems, or are falling apart and are gonna be looking for us to something.”
He added: “The American people are pretty sensible, and I think they’ll make a sensible choice in the end.”

It sounds like the President felt he needed to step in to steer wandering Democrats (among whom the President is still very popular, even in South Carolina,) back to the fold, lest the results in the Democratic primary be too skewed.

I make no argument about whether this is a particularly uplifting way to look at American politics. It isn’t. But of course, it was always like this — Trump has just thrown it into sharp relief.

Of course, I could be completely wrong about all of this. I’m just some Mexican with an opinion and a Medium account, after all.

In any event, if you find this post interesting, you might also find Scott Adams’ musings re: the election to be interesting. Start here.