Moderator Megyn Kelly kicked off the last GOP debate before Iowa by describing Donald Trump as “the elephant not in the room,” and then inviting criticism of the absent front-runner.
It’s a cute line, what with the elephant being the Republican symbol and all, but the real Elephant Not In the Room throughout this bizarre primary has been Mitt Romney.
That’s not because Romney himself is particularly relevant to the 2016 race, despite occasional trial-balloon murmurs about him jumping in at some point. It’s because a great deal of what’s happening right now is a result of Romney’s 2012 campaign.
Trump is the anti-matter universe version of Romney, the rich candidate with tons of political connections – he loves to talk about how much he paid for them, and how he buys from both Democrat and Republican vendors – promising to use his business expertise to pull America out of the Obama slump. Their styles couldn’t be more different, though. Trump is brash, bare-knuckled, and utterly unapologetic about his wealth.
At his counter-event during the debate he skipped, Trump mused, “My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy – I’ve grabbed all the money I can get. I’m so greedy. But now I want to be greedy for the United States. I’m going to grab all that money. I want to grab that money for the United States.”
Mitt Romney would never have said something like that… which is why he got creamed. He let the Democrats say it for him, without the part about putting his ambition at the service of the American voter.
Trump has been soaring since the beginning of this campaign because he seems completely resistant to the Democrat media machine, and he’s particularly resistant to the ankle-biting tactics that brought Romney down. Imagine what Trump would do if a loathsome toad like Harry Reid called him a tax cheat, or some sleazy Clinton campaign operative accused him of negligent homicide in the death of a former employee’s wife.
Obama’s campaign team ruthlessly exploited the tremendous advantage an incumbent President has against a challenger, during the campaign lull after the opposing party’s convention, striking hard with their “kill Romney” campaign to define the Republican and put him on the defensive. Hillary Clinton could try the same thing, enjoying many of the advantages of incumbency, including Big Media marching in lockstep at her side. Trump supporters don’t think such tactics will work on him. There certainly won’t be any “lulls” in the Trump campaign.
During his primary, Romney was the target of many natural and debate-moderator-encouraged attacks as the frontrunner. (When did we ever get the idea that a “debate moderator’s” job is to keep the horse race interesting by encouraging attacks on the frontrunner?) Romney eventually beat all comers, but they each took a piece out of him, and the Obama campaign did a good job of exploiting the wounds they opened.
Trump clearly dodged that kind of swarming attack by skipping the Fox debate, much of which was obviously structured as a trap for him. I say that as someone who went into the debate with grumpy feelings toward both Fox and Trump, for causing the leading candidate to be absent from the last debate before Iowa.
Right about the time a frigging Bernie Sanders supporter popped in via YouTube to ask a loaded question clearly designed to trip up Trump, Fox News convinced me to take Trump’s side in the clash between them. Are the Democrats going to be forced to answer questions from conservative activists in their debates? Let’s roll YouTube videos from a woman who used a gun to defend herself against a rapist, a working woman who lost her insurance to ObamaCare, and a tech professional who was forced to train his foreign replacement to take his job, and see how Hillary and Bernie handle it.
2012’s awful debate moderators begat this 2016 nonsense. “Former” Party operatives like George Stephanopoulos have no business moderating debates. The moderators shouldn’t be trying to make themselves viral-video stars. They shouldn’t be goading the candidates into petty squabbles, or intervening to save Their Guy when he’s getting clobbered. Their job is not to tear down frontrunners so the horse race will last longer. They shouldn’t be trying to “help” either party during primary debates by weeding out candidates they think will crash and burn in the general election. Debates are supposed to be about big issues, not a contest to see which candidate can do the best job of escaping from loaded questions.
With Trump gone, Ted Cruz got to be The Elephant In the Room. It was like one of those Looney Tunes where Bugs Bunny steps aside just as Elmer Fudd pulls the trigger on his shotgun, leaving Daffy Duck to eat buckshot.
Cruz handled it well for the most part, except for the bit where he complained about it. That was a mistake. There are diminishing returns from battling the media during debates, as the experience of another 2012 competitor, Newt Gingrich, illustrated. The first victorious clash is a rousing moment, but it gets old. Cruz did an amazing job the first time he tangled with moderators, using his flawless memory to rattle off a list of the B.S. questions they had been asking. That’s a tough act to follow, and his Thursday night complaint about how everyone else was being urged to attack him, coupled with a scrap over the debate rules with Chris Wallace, didn’t come close to his previous triumph.
Another way Romney’s 2012 run looms over the entire 2016 field is the immigration issue, which still has a way of devolving into candidates alternately accusing each other of being doormats for illegal aliens, or heartless beasts who would slam the gates of America shut in the face of huddled masses yearning to be free.
The Left has done such a thorough job of confusing the American people with Marxist rhetoric, moralistic hectoring, and emotional twaddle on the issue that we can’t seem to focus our combined attention on the simple truths that illegal immigration is a crime, border security is an essential component of national security, the American economy can only support so many immigrants before existing citizens suffer, the first duty of American politicians is toward the American people, and the American people have an inalienable right to decide what their own nation’s immigration policy will be. It takes many gallons of hogwash to bamboozle and intimidate so many citizens into forgetting those truths.
The discussion has been clarified in this election, largely because of Trump, but also due to Marco Rubio’s political vulnerability over the Gang of Eight proposal, the public’s mounting concerns about national security, persistent unemployment and under-employment, and that terrible sense that the American Ruling Class hates its own people.
Cruz speaks of immigration reform as a rule-of-law issue, while Trump talks about it as a paramount example of how the political class no longer serves the interests of Middle America. They’re both right.
Rubio seeks to renovate his immigration record by talking about border security and national security, which is also right, and resonant at a time of heightened terrorism fears. Unfortunately, it sounds too much like the same old Establishment dodge to oft-betrayed Republican base voters. They’ve been hearing promises of “security followed by amnesty” for generations now, and the security never happens, not even when legislation requires it.
With that history, there’s just no way to convince them to consider a security plus amnesty deal. They know they’ll get swindled again, and they know why: because the Left and the GOP business class actively want more immigrants, legal and illegal, and they don’t think the ugly proletariat should have anything to say about it. Also, the political class doesn’t want to spend money and political capital on border security – it’s a drag that gets them hassled by activists, and doesn’t buy any votes.
The immigration issue is still littered with too many land mines planted by the open-borders crowd, forcing everyone who isn’t completely in the open-borders bag to stumble around the issue like drunks trying to walk quietly through a room carpeted in bubble wrap. Rubio could help himself by admitting he was completely wrong on the issue and has seen the light, turning it into an attack on the Establishment and shifty Democrats who played him during the Gang of Eight debacle… but he can’t quite bring himself to say that, so he’ll always playing defense on the issue.
He knows it, which is why he constantly tries to put Cruz on defense over that poison-pill amendment. Cruz does get a little bruised in those exchanges, mostly because the GOP base is so sensitive about getting screwed on the issue that they’ll even look sideways at the candidate who has most actively courted them. The routine always ends with Chris Christie popping in to declare that senators make lousy presidential candidates because they spend so much time quibbling over legislative arcana, unlike governors.
The Establishment is, of course, another Elephant Not In the Room. Well, maybe it’s more like the Snuffalufagus from Sesame Street, because it’s huge and it’s right there, but everyone acts like they can’t see it. Nobody steps forward and declares, “You’re damn right I’m the Establishment candidate!” Even poor Jeb Bush tried attacking Rubio on immigration, and posing as the alpha-male Trump fighter who was going toe-to-toe with that populist Balrog while everyone else was “in the witness protection program.”
Everyone on that stage has learned the depth of popular discontent with the Republican Party, although few got it until Donald Trump and his supporters explained it to them. “The Establishment” can be a protean term, but the bottom line is that a great many Republican voters think the people controlling their party are either corrupt partners in a Beltway regime dominated by Democrats, conniving opportunists who think their voters are suckers who can be kept on board with repeat performances of Failure Theater, or weaklings who fold up during every confrontation with Democrats and their media.
There is a broader bipartisan chunk of the populace that believes power players are using a rigged system to take advantage of them. It’s not a bipartisan consensus, not at all. The people on the Left side have very different notions of who the power players are, and how their perfidy should be thwarted.
Trump’s electability argument hinges on his promise to bring some of those disaffected Left-leaning voters on board. Cruz argues that he can persuade some of them to see reason on liberty and the rule of law. Rubio offers to charm and inspire them, convincing people of the center-Left to give him a shot at bringing the country back to the center again. If he somehow won the Republican nomination, Jeb Bush would become the latest milquetoast Republican to give a hurt and confused concession speech, wondering how a true-blue coalition-building Act of Love centrist like himself got defined and destroyed as a right-wing madman during the general election.
Let’s conclude with a shout-out to the final Elephant Not In the Room: the Democrats. Of course each Republican candidate spends some time portraying himself as best-suited to tackle the presumptive Democrat nominee, right down to Jeb Bush hilariously claiming he’s seen a poll somewhere that has him mopping the floor with Hillary Clinton. The Democrats, conversely, have pitched their last few debates against Trump. That’s all primary business as usual.
What’s different this time is the sense among the Republicans that a tipping point has been reached. Cruz and Rubio talk about last chances to change course before the nation is locked into an inescapable downward spiral. Kasich is Barack Obama’s man on the stage, accepting the broad outlines of the Left’s agenda and insisting disagreement is sinful, but promising that a skilled manager like himself can deliver the Democrat goods at a discount. Bush talks about holding some of the ground the Left hasn’t taken yet.
As for Trump, his critics say he’s not really conservative, and shows little inclination to dismantle the Big Government machine. His pitch is that he’ll master that machine, and use it on behalf of Middle Americans who have felt ignored and marginalized for years. It’s not exactly a new development that “I will do X, Y, and Z for you” generates more enthusiasm than statesmanship about the proper role of government in our lives, but such appeals work better than ever.
That’s partly because a great deal of effort has been invested in convincing Americans that Big Government is inevitable, and unreformable – the Leviathan State is here to stay, and anyone who tries to fight it will be shredded by swarms of dependents, special interests, and turf-protecting government employees.
Trump’s rise is a direct consequence of the Republican Party’s failure to battle Leviathan before it became unstoppable, their incredible squandering of the 2014 midterm election victory, their tendency to fold in the kind of media battle Trump relishes, and the weary conclusion by many conservatives that the Republican machine is an adversary that needs defeating as much as the Democrats do.
The outcome in Iowa will be determined by whether any of Trump’s competitors can make the same variables work in a different equation. Who knows – maybe Ted Cruz will defy conventional wisdom and help himself by showing Iowans he’s willing to stand his ground on ethanol. This is a season for war elephants, not timid exhibits in a political petting zoo.