The Collapsing Center

Donald Trump visits a polling station in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 9, 2016
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Donald Trump in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 9, 2016

In the first two contests for the Democratic and Republican party nominations, in Iowa and New Hampshire, the voters’ choices bear out early indications that they’re rejecting the “establishment,” the status quo, on their respective sides. The center is collapsing. On both sides, the voters are validating extremes. Thus far.

Up to now, most of the campaigns on the Republican side have been essentially substance-free, getting by on fumes in the form of slogans. The two Democratic candidates are emotionally and substantively quite different from each other and so are their constituencies. To the extent that the structure of both parties favored certain candidates—and it did—they weren’t Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. The successful campaigns on each side are far removed from the realities of Washington. Barring an avalanche of Democratic victories starting at the top, the Republicans are likely to retain control of the House; but the Senate is up for grabs, a fact that has almost been lost sight of in the tumult of the presidential race. How the Senate goes will depend a great deal on the outcome of the presidential race.

The current widespread fear among Republicans is that if either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz is the nominee they will lose lopsidedly to Hillary Clinton, still considered the odds-on favorite for winning the Democratic nomination, and take a number of their party’s members of Congress down with them. But some of Clinton’s supporters are feeling shaky as they observe her clumsy campaign, and elected Democrats fear a bloodbath in their ranks if Bernie Sanders were to be their party’s nominee—and it’s beginning to dawn on a few political observers that that’s no longer out of the question. Meanwhile, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg is beginning to lift his head above the parapet, and should he enter the race as a third-party candidate the calculations of who will win the presidential election become more complicated. From which candidate would he take more votes? It’s rare that so much in an election is up in the air.

Donald Trump, the ultimate political self-starter, has demonstrated that he can learn and changeperhaps the traits of the consummate salesman and entertainer. At first, Trump didn’t understand that one can’t simply parachute into presidential politics, can’t bluster one’s way to victory. He didn’t think it necessary to spend large sums to get people who cheered for him in Iowa to go to the caucuses. The caucus process rewards the candidate with the most intense followers, and so the result can end up being unrepresentative of the state. Iowa is unlike any other state to hold a nominating contest: a whopping 64 percent of the Republicans who voted in the caucuses were Evangelicals. And Ted Cruz, who dropped Jesus’s name at every opportunity—and was aided by his father, a right-wing pastor (who said “Obama, go back to Kenya”)—won almost a third of their votes, by far the largest such bloc captured by any of the candidates.

In fact, remarkably few Republican voters—just 5 percent—told pollsters as they entered the caucuses that Trump “shares my values.” His palaver about how rich he is, his use of his splashy 757 jet airplane as a prop, his braggadocio about his glorious business made him an object of curiosity but not someone to invite over for Sunday supper. It was not for nothing that Ted Cruz spoke of Trump’s “New York values.”

Inexperienced in politics, Trump also cornered himself by saying “second place is just the first loser.” His self-portrait was so unremittingly that of a winner that coming in second in Iowa botched his narrative. Trump’s gracious and upbeat comments after the contest showed a shrewdness not often attributed to him—but that shrewdness has sometimes gone missing. His ducking out of the Fox debate before the Iowa caucuses obviously wasn’t, as he pretended, out of fear of Fox star Megyn Kelly asking him tough questions. His real reason for skipping the debate was that, with almost all the polls predicting he’d come in first, he wanted to freeze the situation and not give Cruz, who had briefly led him, and the others another opportunity to attack him on stage. But Trump came off as petulant and he sabotaged his self-definition as a strong leader.

Trump’s basic problem in Iowa was that he seemed to be fooling around with its sacred role in selecting a presidential nominee. Iowans take this role very seriously and he didn’t appear to. Some caucus-goers told reporters that they’d concluded that Trump wasn’t presidential. This made them more perceptive than the number of Washington-based opportunists who persuaded themselves that it wouldn’t be so terrible to have him at the head of the ticket. If the train was leaving the station they wanted to have boarded it early.

Trump was disciplined enough to change his style in New Hampshire. He held few large rallies, instead meeting people in relatively small groups—like fifty or one hundred, tiny numbers for him. He was more subdued, probably from the loss in Iowa. With Rubio the main target in the Saturday night debate three days before the primary, Trump was left alone. He met with no argument from his opponents when he maintained that as president he would reinstate waterboarding and even go further: “Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would. In a heartbeat. I would approve more than that. It works.” (The consensus among the intelligence community is that it doesn’t.)

Trump has managed to travel all this way virtually substance-free. He’s offered a vaguely limned tax cut for the rich, he would replace Obamacare with something to keep people from “dying in the streets”—that’s all?—and he would renegotiate trade deals to make them “really good.” People are reading into Trump what they want to see. But in his victory speech in New Hampshire, he was the Trump we’d seen before: noisy, boastful, and playing on nationalist and nativist sentiments. “Do we love our country?” Such has been his impact that 66 percent of New Hampshire Republican voters told pollsters they supported a ban on Muslims from entering the United States.

John Kasich came in a solid second in New Hampshire because he worked it very hard and because he stood out from the rest. As the others went on about the dire straits America is in, Kasich remained upbeat. Not for him appeals to anger. The Ohio governor came across as the genuine article, a common-sense conservative with a heart.  But he had so focused his energies on New Hampshire—a state that suited his outlook more than Iowa would—holding over a hundred town meetings around the state, that at this point no one knows whether his strong showing will help him significantly in the upcoming races in the South, or whether his campaign can build the infrastructure it needs for the subsequent contests.

Until New Hampshire, Marco Rubio had been the candidate the Clinton people most feared as a general election opponent. His having come in third in Iowa was seen as providing the fuel he needed to do even better in New Hampshire and in contests after that. Considered a threat for his Hispanic heritage, his youthful looks, and his oratorical skills, Rubio has often impressed audiences by ending his sentences in a tremulo—to convey that he’s really, really sincere about what he’s saying. But there was a touch of the knife in his talk. After President Obama appeared at a Muslim mosque in Baltimore last week in an effort to heal tensions, Rubio attacked him for just the opposite of what he’d done, saying, “I’m tired of being divided against each other for political reasons like this president’s done.”

After Rubio’s calamitous debate performance three days before the New Hampshire primary, he became a joke, and he came in fifth. He had already been widely seen as the most packaged and tightly controlled candidate of them all before he repeated the same phrase four times in the debate just before the New Hampshire primary. Now there were frequent plays on his name and style, as in Rubiobot. He’d been known in the Senate for speaking in talking points. His penchant for opportunism, even as politicians go, was underscored when, having campaigned against amnesty for illegal immigrants, upon reaching the Senate he eagerly joined the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” to forge an agreement on immigration reform. Their proposal included a generous amnesty, at that time a popular position. But four months after the Senate passed the bill, when conservative opinion swung strongly against providing amnesty, Rubio abandoned it.

This dramatic turncoat act violated the understood rules of political opportunism. A senator who didn’t want to be named in criticizing a colleague told me, “People in the Senate appreciate ‘a switch in time’ on an issue to improve one’s election prospects, but that was a particularly bald and complete reversal on what he had touted as a matter of conscience, which is Senate code for ‘I should get a pass.’” Rubio’s position on abortion is sometimes absolute, with no exceptions for rape or incest or the life of the mother, and sometimes he says he’d approve of it if the mother’s life was at stake.

Ted Cruz can’t seem to help himself from being dislikable. His dirty tricks in Iowa—a flyer sent to individuals that suggested they would be penalized if they didn’t vote; his campaign spreading the incorrect word that Ben Carson was dropping out—were reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s tactics early in his political career. Cruz lies with ease: he said in Iowa that Trump favored an expanded Obamacare whereas Trump had joined the Republican crowd in saying that if elected he’d junk it. On Meet the Press, Cruz declared that Trump was advocating “socialized medicine,” and that “a vote for Marco Rubio is a vote for amnesty.” Cruz wasn’t expected to win New Hampshire—a moderate state and also probably the least religious in the nation, but his coming in third in New Hampshire, where he didn’t make much of an investment, was better than had been expected, and his strength is believed to be greater in the Bible belt states coming up next.

Put bluntly, Hillary Clinton may be miscast as a candidate. She keeps trying on a role that doesn’t quite fit. Her many talents—her formidable brainpower, her seriousness about and knowledge of complex public policy—aren’t necessarily tailored for a presidential campaign, where expressing what one’s about in a clear and easily comprehended way is so highly prized. Her message—to the extent she’s had one—that she’s “a progressive who can get things done” was hardly soaring, especially as compared to Sanders’s sweeping vision: replacing Obamacare with a single-payer system, providing free college tuition for everyone, and cutting back the role of billionaires and big corporations in our elections. (The idea of expanding Medicare into a single-payer system isn’t completely daft. It was backed by the late Edward M. Kennedy and widely supported by the Democratic base. Clinton’s argument is that it simply isn’t feasible to junk the hard-won Obamacare in favor of something Congress is most unlikely to pass. Technically, she’s correct, but the issue has her arguing a negative proposition.)

Hillary Clinton gives a concession speech at her New Hampshire Primary Night Party in Hooksett, February 9, 2016
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Hillary Clinton during her concession speech in Hooksett, New Hampshire, February 9, 2016

Clinton’s insistence, realistic as it may be, that progress can come only incrementally isn’t exactly inspiring, especially with Sanders pronouncing to excited crowds that they’re wreaking a political revolution. In addition, Clinton and some of her advocates don’t get it that many women are not flattered by the suggestion that they should back her because she’s a woman. As it happens, Clinton lost to Sanders among women in New Hampshire by eleven points. Clinton loses the youth vote overwhelmingly to Sanders; young people find his authenticity and his message of protest against the lopsided distribution of wealth and the big corporations very appealing. Sanders’s strength is also in part derivative of sentiment on the left that Obama wasn’t bold enough. Though Obama did proceed with an inherent caution, this argument overlooks the political setting in which he had to govern, and how much he did get done.

Clinton’s squeaking victory in Iowa, essentially a tie—her ultimate margin over Sanders there was 0.25 percent—and the thumping she took in New Hampshire, where he defeated her by a very wide margin, capturing 60 percent of the vote to her 38 percent, left Bill and Hillary Clinton angry and frustrated. In an echo of 2008 (though she had then defeated Barack Obama in an upset in New Hampshire), they were intent on making personnel changes in her campaign. The Clintons give no sign that they consider it possible that it’s the candidate and not the campaign that’s coming up short.

Then there are the selfimposed problems. Hillary Clinton and her campaign tried to brush off her reckless decision as secretary of state to handle her email on a private server at her home in Chappaqua, New York, as of little interest to the public—a usually futile but oft-attempted gambit by politicians when they’re caught in some imbroglio that they want to go away. But people attending her campaign events asked her about it, and her approval ratings went from net positive to net negative in the months in 2015 after the existence of the server was discovered. Amid all the Clinton camp’s complicated explanations and evasions one simple fact prevails: a secretary of state perforce receives and responds to classified information. (For example, any information given in confidence by a foreign government to a State Department official is automatically considered classified.) How could she not have known this? Clinton’s legalistic evasion that “none of the information sent or received” on her server “was marked classified at the time” falls apart on close examination.

The State Department has two email systems by which it sends messages: a classified one and an unclassified one, and classified information cannot be transmitted on the unclassified system. It’s up to the sender of information to decide whether it should be treated as classified and at what level of secrecy. Clinton’s private server couldn’t receive information from the classified email system. Her top aides, who’d been cleared to see classified messages, had to deliver the information to the secretary by other means: orally; by printing out messages from the classified system and giving them to her; by sending her an unclassified summary on the unclassified system. Thus, she wasn’t sent information that had been “marked classified.” Employees of the State Department were assigned to review the some 32,000 emails Clinton turned over to the Department. Famously, she said that the rest–about another 31,000–were personal and had been destroyed. (Or so she thought. Some were later found to still be on the server.)  On occasion some emails from her private server were referred to other agencies such as the CIA if its interests were involved. (A few inter-agency disputes arose because the CIA was more rigorous—some State Department people thought excessively so—about classification.) This process uncovered  more than a thousand emails that that they believed should have been classified and they retroactively marked them as such. 

When the State Department’s Inspector General announced in late January that twenty-two “Top Secret” emails—so sensitive that they couldn’t be made public—had been found on Clinton’s server, the reaction of her campaign and its surrogates was painfully familiar. They questioned the integrity of the State Department inspector; they criticized the system of classification (a campaign aide called it “over-classification run amok”). In fact, Secretary Clinton had appointed no permanent inspector general throughout the entirety of her tenure.

Her campaign is now shadowed by the questions of whether the FBI director will recommend prosecution—not just of her, but also her aides—for mishandling classified information, a standard that requires knowledge and intent, and if that happens, what the Justice Department and the White House will decide. But if she’s the nominee, Republicans are likely to make the server an issue in the fall. In his “victory” statement on the night of the Iowa caucuses, in which he came in third, Rubio said that by relying on an unsecured email server in her home Clinton had “disqualified herself” for the presidency. Other Republican candidates have mentioned it.

In addition, by pointing out repeatedly that Clinton had received $675,000 for three speeches to Goldman Sachs alone, Sanders, who had brilliantly encapsulated his message that the economic system is rigged against you and is held in place by the campaign finance system, has had Clinton back on her heels about her close connections with Wall Street. The Clintons’ galloping greed had made them very wealthy—together they earned $153 million for speeches from 2001 until she launched her presidential campaign—and rendered her vulnerable. Calling Sanders’s insinuation that a person who’s paid so much money for a few speeches is going to be sympathetic to the host an “artful smear,” Clinton challenged him to prove the impossible and irrelevant: “You will not find that I have ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation I have received.” It’s well understood that what by far most investors in a politician are seeking is access.

And now the road show that has been the 2016 nominating contest moves into far more complicated territory. With it goes the future of the country.