A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1802
February 1, 2016

CONSERVATIVES IN TATTERS

MONTPELIER – I sit down to write by the west window. At this moment, farther west, in Iowa, the precinct chairpersons, both Republican and Democratic, are fine-tuning the details of this evening’s party caucuses to decide the distribution of Iowa’s delegates to the nominating conventions of their respective persuasions. I presume there’ll be hors d’oeuvres, coffee, cool cheese, and heated discussions. The national media will be there, breathlessly covering every detail – just as they have been, all day, before anything has actually happened. Luckily, I spent most of it in the car.

It’s probably safe to say that nobody who’s been for any amount of time following Presidential campaign primaries has ever seen one as chaotic as the current one – on one side, at least. While the three Democratic candidates have thus far treated each other personally with respect and discussed their differences largely in terms of issues, the dozen or so Republicans have been thrown into disarray by a single candidate who defines, more than anything else, a bull in a china shop. The resulting melee has been likened to a schoolyard donnybrook; and as we head into this evening’s caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries next week, the bull seems to have the edge.

Does anybody remember 2012? The field was just as diverse – Santorum, Romney, Bachmann, Huntsman, Pawlenty, Cain, et al – but there was no thunderer at the head of it defying the niceties (such as they are) of campaigning. Shortly after Jon Huntsman, the only candidate I thought had a chance against President Obama, (and whom Rahm Emanuel identified as the one the White House most feared) dropped out. I was at my monthly lunch date with a group of distinguished old guys, and asked the prominent Republican chairman present why his party had discarded its best candidate.

“Who’s that?” he asked.

“Jon Huntsman: Governor of Utah, international trade representative, Ambassador to Singapore and China, speaks fluent Mandarin, billionaire moderate.”

“You took the words right out of my mouth,” he said sadly. And we know how that went. The party picked a different Mormon, whose opponents had little trouble characterizing as out of touch with the concerns of “the American people” – a term so slippery that all politicians use it often. A secretly recorded tape of Romney’s remarks to a group of fellow rich guys, as well as news of a garage with an elevator to accommodate all the family’s cars, crippled him irredeemably.

Yet we Americans don’t reflexively hate the very wealthy, primarily because each of us wants someday to join them. John Kennedy managed to do all right, once he blunted the worst of the anti-Catholic bias. But he was elegant and witty, where Romney is wooden and stiff. As any chef can tell you, the presentation is critical.

Which is why Donald Trump has so caught the imagination of the hoi polloi, who’ve been told for years, by talk radio, that the country is in great danger because of incompetent leadership. Curiously, the listeners choose to fix responsibility for political gridlock not upon Congress, where it most likely belongs, but on the executive, who’s battled ill-concealed obstruction at almost every point. Thus a demagogue – in the words of H.L. Mencken, “one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots” – has a wide opening. And they soak it up. When challenged at a town hall meeting in Rochester, New Hampshire, to explain how “we will bring back the American Dream,” Trump responded: “Look. We can bring the American Dream back. That I will tell you. We’re bringing it back. Okay? And I understand what you’re saying. And I get that from so many people. ‘Is the American Dream dead?’ And the American Dream is in trouble. That I can tell you. Okay? It’s in trouble. But we’re going to get it back and do some real jobs. How about that man with the beautiful red hat? Stand up! Stand up! What a hat!” It’s impossible that the folks who cheered that speech had their brains engaged at the time. They waved their signs and jumped up and down. It was like the second scene of the first act of Julius Caesar.

The New Yorker for February first has a cover depicting five past American presidents – Kennedy, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and Washington – watching Donald Trump on television doing the curious rosebud-shaped thing he does with his mouth when speaking. They are clearly aghast.

Ryan Lizza, the magazine’s Washington correspondent and a CNN commentator, has a fascinating article in the same issue: “The Duel,” about the Trump-Cruz campaigns and their implications for the Republican Party. For decades, Lizza writes, the Party’s pundits – Buckley, Kristol, Will, Gerson – have, with some success, trumpeted the virtues of conservative values. Paul Ryan, for example, the new Speaker, might be considered an exemplar of the canon. But suddenly, with the populist irruption of Trump and Cruz, neither of whom expresses any interest in Party orthodoxy or support, the conservatives seem in tatters. Columnist Michael Dougherty of The Week writes, “What so frightens the conservative movement about Trump’s success is that he reveals just how thin the support for their ideas really is.”

We’ll both know more, you and I, by the time you read this, about the likely future of the various campaigns for the nominations. The new dynamic – in the Republican Party, at least – promises an exciting few months. As Ted Cruz said today, in his best ministerial tones, “It’s now in the hands of God.” Assuming God doesn’t make mistakes, I can only hope it is.

Photo by Willem lange