Game Has Changed Since Debate; Democrats to Face Stronger GOP in Fall, Sanders Must Tone Down Clinton Attacks
Before last night’s debate in Miami, it looked like the Republican Party would be destroying itself between now and the national presidential election in November. Instead, last night’s debate was a clear, surprising, and impressive sign that the Party realized it was committing suicide and would be handing the White House to Hillary Clinton if it continued as it was; last night told us that the Party, however reluctantly, would get behind Trump and end the circus that had been hurting it and helping Democrats. Democrats need to respect the fact that they will be facing a strong opponent in the fall need to now prevent Bernie Sanders from going too far and doing too much damage to Clinton as she goes through the process of winning the nomination.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse March 11, 2016
AMMAN — Liberals like myself were watching the Trump and base-led Republican self-immolation with a sense of glee over these past few months, even as we were disturbed; the crazier Trump, the Republicans, and Republican voters were acting, the better the chances that Hillary Clinton would be president. In one of the most shocking and rapid political surprises I have ever witnessed, the fire seems to have been put out as evidenced by last night’s Republican debate; expectations of the Republican Party’s demise have just been shattered as enough elites in the Party reminded everyone that the famous organization and discipline for which the Republican Party is known are back after seeming to have disappeared for the last half-year. This is bad news for Hillary Clinton and a Democratic Party trying to run damage control in the face of a tenacious and persistent Sanders insurgency.
Marvel in Miami
I came to realize something utterly shocking and terrifying towards the end of last night’s Republican debate. The political analyst in me is incredibly impressed with the Republican Party and its candidates, but the Democrat and American in me is more afraid for America than I think I have ever been in my life except for the days after 9/11.
I realized that, almost overnight, the Republican Party (certainly not all of it, but enough of it) has realized that there is no good way short of a political miracle for it stop Trump without possibly destroying the Party and without certainly making a Democratic presidential victory a near-certainty; in light of this understanding, the Party has decided to stop trying to assault Trump and has signaled that it will simply conduct a relatively “normal” nomination contest from this day forward. In short, it has decided to stop the circus act into which the Republican nomination contest had devolved, and the understood price for this, since the Party knows it is extremely unlikely that Trump can be stopped by normal means, amounts to a tacit, reluctant acceptance that Trump will almost certainly be its nominee.
The Picture Before the Debate
Consider that just a few days earlier the situation consisted of the following:
- Not only Trump, but the big (naïve) hope of “The Republican Establishment,” Marco Rubio, had descended into the gutter, even talking about penis size on the campaign trail (Rubio), while Trump responded to this at a live presidential debate watched by millions.
- Debate after debate, Democrats had been able to present a substantive, relatively polite, rational series of debates by their candidates (including a socialist) who appeared far more adult and presidential than the leading Republican candidates who were often acting like children. Clinton, Sanders, and many others were either only too eager (or, if conservative, were deeply embarrassed) to point out this indisputable contrast.
- There was widespread talk of a brokered convention and/or a third-party to be formed to represent Republicans who did not want Trump to be their nominee, and not just by the media and non-Republicans, but many Republicans themselves. Republicans were saying they flat-out would not vote for Trump against Clinton.
- Mitt Romney, the last Republican nominee, came out with an unprecedented-in-the-modern-era speech blasting Trump, who is the front-runner to succeed Romney, and did so in a way that pulled no punches and was bereft of any hint of civility; he went on a media and speaking tour driving all this home, and the two had been attacking each other viciously on Twitter even before this.
- John McCain, the nominee four years before Romney, joined Romney in criticizing Trump, though far more civilly.
- Paul Ryan, Romney’ vice presidential running mate in 2012 and the current Speaker of the House, had come out a few days earlier vehemently criticizing Trump’s rhetoric and failure to denounce the Ku Klux Klan during a live TV interview.
- Marco Rubio, darling and a great hope to many Republicans, was on the verge of ruining himself as a political animal, and a Republican Party had every right to worry that it brightest young rising star had committed political suicide not just in this cycle but possibly in a way that would ruin his chances for major elected office permanently.
- The Republican Party was clearly in a state of civil war, perhaps at a historic level and perhaps in such a way that the party would destroy itself, with it likely to be limping (fatally?) wounded into a November fight against a strong and prepared Hillary Clinton.
Reading the Tea (Party) Leaves of Last Night’s Debate
There very likely was a meeting of some sorts, because clearly, a large number of Republican elites, probably including Party officials, donors, candidates, sitting office holders, maybe even conservative media elites and who knows who else got on the same page in the last few days. Facing a historic collapse, a severe self-inflicted tanking of the Party’s national brand and electoral prospects, and a near-certain Democratic victory at a crucial time with so much at stake, enough of these people finally put aside whatever differences they had that were propelling these meteorically destructive trends and came up with a plan to prevent a Party collapse, to begin to do damage control and possibly restore the Party’s national brand and chances of winning competitive elections nationwide in the fall, and to bring back its chances of winning the White House from almost zero into the realm of competitiveness. That these about-faces occurred so suddenly—literally in just a few days—speaks volumes to the Republicans’ legendary abilities to organize and be disciplined, abilities that many, including myself, had thought had now all but disappeared.
Basically, the hijacking has already occurred and after his hostile takeover, Donald J. Trump is the Republican Party’s de facto leader. I won’t speculate that some sort of deal was cut between Trump, Rubio, and Cruz and many of the Party leaders; though possible, I think the looming series of potentially fatal disasters was enough to bring people together out of a sense of shame, dread, and fear.
I’d be willing to wager a lot of money that both the Cruz and (especially) Rubio campaigns had some internal polling showing that Tuesday’s big contests (most of them decisive winner-take-all in terms of delegates) were not going to go well for them; with so much at stake, what else could explain why they did not fight harder against Trump during last night’s debate? If they both know that they are dramatically far behind Trump (and about to be much farther behind), what do they have to gain by further antagonizing their party’s nominee, who is dominating their party and is about to become its nominee, with way more power in their party than they will have for the foreseeable future, and for years, not just months? These low polling numbers would have to include an almost certain defeat for Rubio in winner-take-all Florida. In addition, Cruz must have taken the knowledge that Ben Carson, one of Cruz’s biggest rivals for Evangelical voters who are so crucial to Cruz’s strategy, would endorse Trump as a clear sign that his own already remote chances to win were only going to shrink significantly as a result.
Then again, the public polls were clear enough that perhaps there was no need for internals. Florida is, after all, a closed primary, open only to Republicans, making it far more predictable than this past Tuesday’s Michigan primary, which was open to independents and even members of the other party.
What we basically saw in this debate was more or less a surrender of Cruz and Rubio, though each of them is certainly hoping (praying?) for a miracle.
As I’ve noted before, Kasich, though, is still banking on his longshot bid that begins with an Ohio victory, but this is still, as noted, a longshot. His best bet within the realm of reality is to overtake Cruz for the #2 spot with overall delegates by doing well in the final big contests where, presumably, Cruz would be much weaker.
In other words, as close to what can be called “The Republican party” acted so that now it can be said that the circus is (mostly) over.
Just before the Republican debate, live on CNN, the Republican National Committee Chairman, Reince Priebus, told the crowd that the Party would be united.
During the debate, the candidates completely avoided personal attacks, interrupting, and raised voices; no one called anyone a “liar” for the first debate in a while. Trump himself said “I cannot believe how civil it’s been up here” and spoke in far a calmer tone, a lower volume, and less bombastic language. Rubio, after the debate, said that his family has lost some respect for him because of the types of personal attacks in which he had engaged, that he was embarrassed by his own conduct, that “I’m never going back into that gutter again.” These collective shifts are dramatic and unprecedented in their rapidity in modern political history.
Now, we need to first add an important qualifier: it remains to be seen how Republican voters will reconcile themselves to all this; the worst case scenarios for the Party would have been carrying out some way of blocking Trump at the convention through chicanery that would have resulted in a breakaway Trump candidacy that would have taken his millions of supporters with him; if Trump still managed to win, a breaking away of non-Trump supporters into a third party was possible; either would have been the catalyst for the death of the Republican Party. Instead, by resigning itself to a Trump nomination and focusing on presenting a more mature, civil tone to the general public, the Party preserves the support of all of Trump’s supporters, including many new voters, and begins to allay the concerns of some of the moderate conservatives who are the most horrified by Trump’s candidacy and gives Trump time to win them over with a new, more subdued approach. This approach puts the Party in its strongest possible position for November taking into account the current circumstances.
All this is very, very bad news for Democrats, who need to realize that many, perhaps even most Americans, are only just starting to pay attention to these races or have yet to do so.
The Picture Post-debate
I sure hope Democrats were paying close attention to this debate because now, the current picture has changed dramatically. In general, but especially in regards to someone who is just beginning to pay attention now or will be starting to in the coming weeks, consider these points:
- Compared to the last two Democratic debates, this Republican debate was more civil and less contentious.
- Compared to a few days ago, the Republican contest is becoming less rancorous even as the Democratic contest is becoming more so.
- Compared to a few days ago, the Republican Party has signaled that it is ready, willing, and going forward with a healing and unification process, while Democratic infighting is increasing.
- Compared to a few days ago, now the Republican candidates seem resigned to the fact that most of the fighting is over, while, especially after Bernie Sanders’ surprise Michigan win, there appears to be plenty of fighting left in the Democratic nomination contest, with the potential to get nastier and more personal.
- Compared to a few days ago, when it looked like Democrats were going to be able to start unifying and winding down their race soon and that the Republicans, in a state of anarchy and/or civil war, were going to continue to tear each other apart all the way through the convention and possibly into the general election, now, Democrats are now looking at competing with a Republican Party that will be farstronger than the mess it was a few days ago.
While the Democrats were in a commandingly superior position a few days ago, the picture emerging from last night’s debate has suddenly shifted that balance greatly, even if not necessarily outright favoring the Republicans. I am personally still very confident that Hillary Clinton will defeat Donald Trump in November, but with the current situation as of last night’s developments, I think the edge is significantly smaller for Clinton and that Trump’s chances have improved dramatically compared to before last night. And this terrifies me; too much is at stake and this is too close for comfort for me by far.
The Democrats Must Consider All This Moving Forward
A whole lot rests on how Bernie Sanders decides to behave and the most important questions of the Democratic contest now lie with him, not Clinton:
- Does he really believe he has a chance to win (data makes it clear he does not), and even if he does, how far does he go in tearing Clinton down over the next few months?
- Doe he continue his trend of becoming testier, less respectful, and stepping up his attacks on Clinton, most of which are based on insinuations and implications about her trustworthiness and character, including increasingly aggressive attempts by him and his campaign to portray her as corrupt, insincere, and being part of “The Establishment,” which he blames for all the evils in America more than other group except for Wall St. CEOs and the wealthiest 1%?
- Does he continue to do nothing to stem the loud choruses of boos coming from his crowds whenever he mentioned Clinton at his rallies?
- Does he do more to reign in his extremely aggressive supporters and their vicious attacks against Clinton, many of which are sexist, selective, mean-spirited, and/or blatant distortions?
- How much will Bernie create divisiveness even as the Republicans begin to come together?
- When will Sanders put the Democratic Party ahead of his own agenda, or will he ever do so?
- How much will Bernie focus on his issues and how much will he focus on attacking Clinton?
- How hard does he try to convince his most die-hard supporters—the “Bernie or bust-ers,” to support Clinton in November?
The behavior of Sanders in regards to these questions will do much to shape the race in November and much to affect the relative strength with which Hillary Clinton heads into her nominating convention and the ensuing general election. The main concern for all liberals, progressives, Democrats, and anyone who wants to make sure Trump and the Republicans do not win the presidency in November must now be to make sure that Sanders’ candidacy moves forward in a way that minimizes any potential medium and long-term damage to Clinton and the Democratic Party, as well as maximizes Democrats’ chances of winning in the fall.
Not a moment too soon for their own electoral prospects, the Republicans are playing the long game already while Bernie is still playing a short-term game that is half admirable for highlighting the causes he cares about and half self-delusional narcissism that is unhelpful to the Democrats’ chances of winning the White House in November. Especially with a Republican Party on the mend, the luxury of being able to have a long ideological fight throughout the Democratic nomination process without it possibly causing major damage has pretty much disappeared. Sanders and his supporters would do well to understand how the game has changed since last night’s Republican debate, as well as how the game is played in general, before they go too far and empower both Trump and the Republican Party that he now leads.
Here are many more articles by Brian E. Frydenborg. If you think your site or another would be a good place for this content please do not hesitate to reach out to him! Feel free to share and repost on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter (you can follow him there at @bfry1981)