Rubio and Trump debating

Images courtesy of CNN

Rubio’s Eleventh Hour War On Trump

| published February 27, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

The siege upon Trump Towers has begun, but it may be late arriving.

Despite months of other Republican candidates using weapons ranging from battering rams to stun grenades in an effort to sideline businessman Donald Trump and his seemingly inexorable rise to the nomination, little has had the desired effect. Conventional weapons are useless, and even many unconventional ones have proven pointless, including attempts to shame Trump into playing fair.

Trump’s incessant rise and continued success—much of it thanks to a fractured and fragmented field overcrowded with mainstream candidates—came despite the well-funded efforts of no less than former Florida Governor Jeb Bush ($132 million spent) and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker ($41.5 million), each at one time or the other regarded by polls as presumed front-runners.

Trump even continued to maintain supremacy despite impressive but brief surges by other never-elected, anti-Washington types, such as former HP CEO Carly Fiorina and retired neurosurgeon and author Dr. Ben Carson. Carson and Fiorina each had moments of glory, basking in poll numbers suggesting they might become the palatable alternatives to the boisterous Trump. Each put dents in Trump’s armor, each briefly channeled the angst of voters away from the billionaire, but after each challenge the template would inexplicably reset, landing Trump right back on top.

The pattern became an old story, one in which the headline and the text in effect remained the same, with only the key players’ names being rotated in or out. Ted Cruz won in Iowa, and was briefly seen as the guy to finally knock out Trump. But that was a month ago, and in primary politics, a month might as well be a year. It has begun to look like Cruz’s remarkable Iowa surge amounts to little more than Bush’s one-time top tier standings last March, or Carson’s powerful surge back in October.

Even demographic insults and “segment shaming” have had no impact on the Trump juggernaut; indeed, no amount of insulting of constituent groups by Trump has slowed his steady climb among the very people he insults, as his political incorrectness becomes a kind of real-time, rolling head-table-roast—the jokes coming at the expense of this group or that group, this person or that person. The media eventually ceases saying it is shocked and appalled, and accepts the new normal. In Nevada, Trump won over even Latino votes, Asians, younger women, older women, union votes, the votes of the college educated and the votes of those without a college degree, young and old alike, and votes from employed and unemployed.

Time and again, the pattern has repeated itself, and with each passing month Trump has moved closer to securing the nomination. After Nevada, Cruz and Rubio seemed permanently locked in a pointless and perhaps destructive battle for control of the all-important second place real estate, the place to be—we’ve been told for months—when the big Trump meltdown finally arrives. But so far, the Trump implosion has never come despite those distant tornado sirens and those constant forecasts by the likes of NBC’s Chuck Todd and CBS’s John Dickerson.

This week, and through the weekend, it was Marco Rubio’s turn to glow. In a remarkable debate performance a few nights ago in Houston, the junior Senator from Florida displayed arguably the most intense close combat with Trump seen to date, in any debate or in any forum. Rubio at times literally had Trump on his heels, the billionaire’s head spinning, and his face seemingly aghast at the thought that someone was delivering blows to the jaw and to the manicured hairline with ferocity worthy of sports comparisons—Jim Braddock taking on Max Baer, Joe Frazier counter-punching Muhammad Ali. A few of the exchanges handed Rubio the loudest applause of the night.

At times the jousting extended beyond the control of the normally impeccably patient and disciplined Wolf Blitzer, the CNN moderator who—though he admitted after the debate he intended to give both Cruz and Rubio some space in the ring to hit Trump on several key issues—had not intended to ignite what clearly become on-stage, live TV chaos, complete with mayhem and impossible-to-decipher cross-talk. “Gentlemen, gentleman, gentlemen,” Blitzer would say as he attempted to intervene, “one at a time, please, one at a time!” It became American political debate as a fusion of UFC, roller derby and Jackass 3D.
Rubio and Trump debating
Though Trump remained upright, and wasted little time with the facial and verbal retaliations, he was clearly flummoxed by Rubio’s aggressive challenges. Most importantly, Trump famously dislikes policy specifics, and Rubio was able to punch holes in the large ship of state that is Trump’s grand luxury liner-sized plan to fix things by dint of his being a savvy businessman and smart negotiator. More than the previous fracases with Bush, Cruz, Fiorina and others in past debates, Rubio set Trump back on his heels.

Experts scored Rubio the winner, with Trump a close second. Most scored Cruz a fair-to-middling score for allowing Rubio to dominate the narrative and steal the scenes, and many observers suggest that the clock is ticking on what remains of the campaign momentums of Carson and Ohio Governor John Kasich. And Rubio may now finally be that rallying point for Republicans of ideological tradition and philosophical anchorage.

But it may be too late.

Most political analysts question why it took so long for someone—anyone—to declare all out blitzkrieg warfare on the billionaire Trump, a candidate whose bombastic style and penchant for the personal insult came with him directly from years of television and street business into the political arena. Decorum and an old-fashioned adherence to gentlemanly ethics may make it uncomfortable and distasteful to the likes of the soft-spoken Dr. Carson or the good-natured Gov. Kasich to step into that dirty playground brawl, but—after all—these people are running for President. One does expect them to have to face potentially bigger bullies and more dangerous antagonists one day. Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, a militarily resurgent China, an apocalyptic ISIS. Rubio may be that “jokester” that Trump says he is, but Rubio seems to have repudiated Chris Christie’s assertion that the young Florida Senator is still running for the school student council.

Imagine if Bush or Walker or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (now a Trump ally) had taken on Trump with such relentless intensity six or seven months ago, when the bullying had already forced roughly half of all Republicans into a broad category summed up by the words “anybody but Trump,” or, as one 30-year veteran of the GOP declared in a Facebook post in late December, “I’ll move to frikkin’ New Zealand before I vote for Trump.” He and his family are, presumably, packing their bags this week.

Rubio’s declaration of war—and not the “war on e-cigarettes” or the “war on food additives” kind of war, but the real deal, 72-point all-caps banner headline stuff evoking battleships and bombers—has arrived, sadly, about 45 days late. Trump set the ground rules from the moment he entered the race last spring, and it should have been clear almost from the get-go that he had no intention of putting on the gloves or taking off those brass knuckles. Worse, a wide swath of the mainstream media was sucked in like bystanders and spectators at a medieval beheading—feigning faces of shock and appall and incredulity all the while unable to turn away. Reporters became unwitting dupes (is there any other kind?) in a process that actually encouraged Trump’s eccentric behavior and extreme bombast: by blaming Trump’s seemingly magical staying power on angry and frustrated Republican voters, the media participated in what has been arguably the biggest backlash against the press ever seen in a Democracy, forcing even the generally conservative Fox News into the ditch, and causing its own pundits to be pelted with tomatoes, paper wads and rotten eggs…for being too mainstream. One would not have thought that possible.

But Trump’s ground rules (translation: there are no rules) came with him from the beginning, and included one simple and obvious caveat—less a loophole than an opening for anyone audacious enough to seize the opportunity. It’s called the Putin Claus. Putin succeeds by bullying, but what he fears most is another bully; therefore Putin respects strength. Imagine Rubio delivering Trump that sort of thrashing six months ago, or four months ago. Imagine Bush, as far back as late last summer, hammering Trump on some of the same basic points raised by Rubio.

Polling has consistently indicated what math and metric analysts call “pauses” in this GOP election cycle: often breathtakingly brief interludes in which support for Trump seems to slip away, not so much a part of an actual erosion as instead a mere breathing period during which time GOP voters consider the fluid and shifting nature of the field, weigh alternatives, and reconsider the realities of a world with Trump at the top. These pauses should have, under normal circumstances, been enough space for any one of the anti-Trumps to inject themselves into that gap, where Trump’s ceiling of support is less visible than his “floor,” that tipping point where voter distrust or dislike of Trump exceeds that of any other candidate.

Anecdotally many Republicans we know, or those we come in regular contact with—through emails, social media, text messaging, or in person—are beginning, however, to acknowledge that the unthinkable may be soon upon us. There is little reason to expect a change in the upcoming math. Trump already leads in the delegate count, having won three out of four primary or caucus contests. Trump is also measurably and steadily drawing-in support from groups which—or so the media told us—would not likely ever support the billionaire. And regardless of the snarky interdictions of Telemundo’s Maria Celeste Arraras, those “aberrant” entrance and exit polls in Nevada reflect no aberration at all: Trump has started to chip away at the hearts and minds of segments of the GOP previously thought hostile to his message. That includes, paradoxically, even Republicans who describe themselves as Hispanic or Latino, though in a general election Trump will still find it challenging to draw in that majority of Latinos who identify as Democrats.

Super Tuesday’s math will likely add fuel to Trump’s now fast-moving train. Eleven states will vote on March 1, and the outcome could be a dramatic shift; several polls, including one recently conducted by Bloomberg and polls conducted just days ago by CBS News, show Trump leading in at least seven of those 11 states. In some of those states, Trump’s lead is similar to what he experienced in Nevada, where he will have a two-to-one lead over Cruz and Rubio, each locked in tight battles for second.

Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Tennessee all look solid for Trump. In Alabama, according to Real Clear Politics, Trump leads with 36% to Rubio’s 23%; in Massachusetts, Trump leads with 40%, ahead of Rubio and Kasich each tied at 19%. In Georgia, RCP’s average shows Trump with 37%, to Rubio’s 21.3 and Cruz’s 18.3.

As Trump begins to win more of the primary states with winner-take-all delegate counts, the distance he opens up between himself and the two closest challengers will grow vast. Cruz and Rubio now each face a very difficult few weeks, with Cruz facing the possibility of barely winning his home state of Texas, and Rubio staring at a double-digit gap he must make up in Florida before March 15, where Trumps leads him by roughly 20 points.

Despite a wide flurry of GOP elders and establishment endorsements for Rubio over the last two weeks (Mitt Romney, Bob Dole, Nikki Haley, Rick Santorum, Asa Hutchinson, Tim Pawlenty, just to name a few), Chris Christie’s embrace of Trump may more clearly indicate the supreme challenge Rubio will face in derailing Trump. Some party pragmatists may give up trying to defeat Trump, and may choose instead to embrace the inevitable—preparing the path toward those eventual debates between Clinton.

Meanwhile, Trump and Rubio sparred all day Friday and most of Saturday at their campaign appearances. The insults were being fired back and forth like fireworks on the Fourth of July: who sweats more, who has the bigger ears, who lies more, who is the lightweight, who is the worst speller on Twitter, who wet their pants, who choked…or “chocked,” as Trump unwisely misspelled it in a tweet. At rallies on Saturday, Rubio mocked Trump’s spray tan, Trump mocked Rubio’s penchant for sweating on stage.

Rubio’s war on Trump has arrived, and may drive many in the GOP to pick sides in an increasingly ugly and improbable donnybrook. The question some observers are asking: did Rubio declare war a few weeks too late to stop Trump before the billionaire’s train to Cleveland reaches cruising speed?

Related Thursday Review articles:

Republicans Spar in Wild Pre-Super Tuesday Debate; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 26, 2016.

Clinton, Trump Have Wide Paths to Nominations; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 23, 2016.