Donald Trump won a solid victory in South Carolina made all the more, uh, impressive by a series of what would have been disqualifying statements if uttered by anyone else. He stood by his past position in support of George W. Bush’s impeachment; repeated the poisonous smear that Bush lied us into war; touted his supposedly prescient opposition to the Iraq war before it began, when he had in fact supported it at the time; praised the good work that Planned Parenthood does; and endorsed the individual mandate in Obamacare.
Trump still beat his conservative rivals, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both essentially tied for second, by more than ten points. It is clear that Trump has bonded so strongly with his base of blue-collar supporters and voters repulsed by politics as usual that he might well be able to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not see his poll numbers decline, as he boasted several weeks ago.
The nomination battle is now effectively a three-man race. Jeb Bush, an honorable man who ran an honorable campaign, did the honorable thing by dropping out Saturday night as soon it became painfully obvious he had no path to the nomination. John Kasich and Ben Carson, in contrast, aren’t letting the implausibility of their campaigns stop them from continuing on, and perhaps robbing Cruz and Rubio of valuable votes at the margins. It is hard for us to see what legitimate purpose is served by either of them remaining in the race.
Even in what is a drastically compressed field from what it was three weeks ago, Trump has a distinct advantage.
Even in what is a drastically compressed field from what it was three weeks ago, Trump has a distinct advantage. He will probably win Nevada on Tuesday and then rampage though Super Tuesday a week later. It wasn’t a good night for Ted Cruz, who lost Evangelicals to Trump and finished disappointingly in a southern state where he had staked much. Marco Rubio surged at the end, but he hasn’t won any of the first three contests, and it’s not clear where a victory is in the offing soon.
The race is hardly over. The crucial winner-take-all states don’t arrive until March 15. But it is foolish to believe that because Trump is winning a third of the vote, the remaining two-thirds of the voters are fixed in their opposition to him. Yes, there is more resistance to him in the party than there is to the typical front-runner. But Trump will be beaten only if he is taken down a notch or two, which will require a more concerted and wide-ranging counter-assault from the other candidates and outside groups than we’ve seen to this point.
The case against him must be broader than ideology. In particular, Trump’s spotty business record — something that he is very sensitive about — is a major vulnerability and might dent his populist appeal. Yet it hasn’t received the critical scrutiny it deserves. Trump has gained a reputation as a truth-teller in this race, but his history of exaggeration, duplicity, and backtracking is very long and very current. His opponents need to exploit it. He should be pounded on his refusal to release his tax returns, which one assumes he would be eager to do if they were the testament to his fabulous wealth that he asserts. Trump can’t be trusted even on his core issue of immigration, where he advocates a “touch back” amnesty on a grand scale — promising to roust and deport every illegal alien and then bring many of them back into the country, in one of the largest and most pointless police actions in American history.
Finally, a word on Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio: We admire both men and backed them early in their Senate races. We understand the dynamic of a hotly contested primary race, but much of the back-and-forth between them has been unedifying at best and unworthy at worst. We know it is unrealistic to call for a cease-fire, but an awareness that the larger enemy is Trump and not each other would be helpful. Unless Trump is slowed and diminished, neither of them will win the nomination.
On Saturday, Trump took a big step toward his hostile takeover of the GOP. That should only increase the urgency and focus of conservatives who believe that our ideas and principles are the only way to make America great again.