On Friday night I swung by Sean Hannity's show on Fox News to chew over Thursday's GOP debates. You can see the video here.
We discussed Hillary Clinton's weakness re Bernie Sanders, and then moved on to the Republican side of things. The debate attracted an audience of 24 million people, the highest cable-news rating of all time, versus an audience of three-and-a-half million for the allegedly iconic Jon Stewart's farewell show (his second highest audience ever) and the highest non-sport cable rating in history.
Much of it was generated, presumably, by non-political types tuning in to check out frontrunner Donald Trump. Of course, much of the party doesn't accept him as a genuine "frontrunner". On Thursday, a lackluster Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, the Number 2 and 3, seemed to see themselves as the real frontrunners, playing it safe. I don't think that was a smart move, as I said to Sean:
"Donald Trump â€” you would have to drive a stake through him. So simply because no one did drive a stake through him, he survived, and therefore, he won. So he's still in the game and he's still locking down whatever it is, 25 percent, 32 percent I think it is in South Carolina now. So he's the guy to beat. I thought most of the others did well within their own terms, although they're actually quite narrow terms. And the disappointment, I think, was with the number two and number three because I think Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, in a sense, were both sitting on their non-leads. They both of them, I think, took a sort of conscious decision to kind of do a low-key don't-frighten-the-horses thing and hope that when Trump implodes, that they're still in the number two or number three slot and they're the ones who take over. And I don't think that'll work, frankly."
We keep being told by the experts that Trump is a divisive figure with a low ceiling, but the ceiling keeps going higher - 22, 24, 26 per cent, over thirty per cent in certain states, which is impressive in a 17-man field. But I pointed out to Sean that a lot of those other candidates are also "divisive" and have low "ceilings" of their own: Rand Paul is a libertarian isolationist, Lindsey Graham is a Big Security State interventionist - not much overlap there. How about the rest? Mike Huckabee is a Big Government social conservative, Jeb Bush is a fiscally conservative open-borders fanatic, John Kasich is a Medicare-junkie government-grower. In terms of the Reaganite trick of uniting the fiscal conservatives, social conservatives and the national-security right, a bunch of those guys come with pretty low ceilings - maybe lower than Trump's.
The celeb candidate made news in the first five minutes by refusing to commit to supporting the eventual GOP nominee. However, he was willing to say that "if I'm the nominee, I will pledge I will not run as an independent". So if he's the Republican candidate he's willing to pledge not to run as an independent candidate. Presumably, if he's the Republican candidate, he'd also be willing to pledge not to run also as the Democrat candidate.
Sean and I analyzed the meaning of Trump's non-pledge in negotiating terms: when the party establishment is treating you like dog feces on their shoe, why roll over and play the house-trained poodle? But, setting aside low cynicism, let's also put it in principled terms. Parties are useful vehicles for promoting certain ideas ...but they can also outlive that usefulness. Unlike parliamentary democracies, America does not have a dynamic party system. In the Canadian party leaders' debate hosted by my old chum Paul Wells last night, there were representatives of four parties on stage: the Liberals go back to 1861; the NDP is a century younger, founded in 1961; the Green Party dates from 1983; and the Conservative Party in its present incarnation goes all the way back to 2003. I pointed out a few weeks back that in the the 1868 election every single constituency in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales elected either a Conservative or a Liberal. Since then a bewildering variety of Celtic parties have proliferated and in England the Liberals have been largely supplanted by Labour.
Only in the US have the parties been set in aspic for a century-and-a-half. Unlike either Commonwealth or European countries, America has a rigid, institutionally entrenched two-party system. If you're an American first and a Republican voter second and you seriously believe in the central proposition of Trump's candidacy - that the endless flood of mass unskilled immigration is putting the very nation at stake - why would you put party over country? Why commit to supporting, say, Jeb Bush who thinks illegal immigration is an "act of love"? Many electors agree with Trump - that America is dying before their eyes. If that's the case, why should fealty to a party that bears a large measure of responsibility for that decay take precedence over love of country?
The reality is that the GOP establishment, after their appalling behavior in the Hastert years, were given a second chance by the base in 2010, and a third chance in 2014. Now they're demanding a fourth chance - and people go, well, say what you like but a Republican president will at least get to appoint rock-ribbed Supreme Court justices, like, er, John Roberts, who constitutionalized Obamacare, and, um, Anthony Kennedy, who gave us federally mandated gay marriage. Boehner, McConnell, Kennedy, Roberts... Not much to show for a party that's been supposedly dominant for 35 years, is it?
The GOP thinks the issue is Trump; much of the base thinks the issue is the GOP.
You can see my full Hannity interview here.