Politics & Policy

The Trump Slump

Trump greets supporters after Ted Cruz wins the Iowa caucuses. (Joe Raedle/Getty)
Celebrity and wheedling take you only so far.

Donald Trump failed to win the Iowa caucuses this evening, and toward the end of the vote-counting, he was closer to third-place finisher Marco Rubio than he was to winner Ted Cruz.

A few thoughts:

First: This is a reminder that people who hate politics aren’t usually very good at politics. That’s no judgment on the people who hate politics — I myself fall into that camp more days than most — but a vaguely pissed-off disposition isn’t the sort of thing that gets people out in the cold to mill about high-school gymnasiums in order to endure the tedious, unsexy caucus process. People get out and move either because they believe in a particular well-defined issue (our progressive friends and their endless proposals to jack up the minimum wage) or because they fall in love with a candidate, as in the case of Ron Paul or Barack Obama. Trump had twelve paid staffers in Iowa, but they do not seem to have been the saltiest gang of political hands.

RELATED: Ted Cruz Enjoys a Big Win in Iowa

Second, and related: Celebrity goes a long way, but it goes only so far. One of the paradoxes of the first days of the campaign was the fact that voters inclined toward Trump, the anti-establishment insurgent, most often named as their second choice Jeb Bush, generally regarded as Mr. Establishment. (The abuse of the word “establishment” is a subject for another time; I’m giving in for the moment, for the sake of brevity.) The obvious explanation for that is that both gentlemen have very famous names: Bush was a very good governor of a large state, and of course is the brother of one president and the son of another; Trump was a popular reality-television grotesque, and a figure of tabloid interest for some years.

Cruz’s win suggests that principled conservatism is perhaps slightly more attractive than some of us had thought.

Third: Cruz’s win suggests (if we may indulge in a moment of optimism) that principled conservatism is perhaps slightly more attractive than some of us had thought, arguably as much for the principle as for the conservatism. Cruz was practically alone in taking a principled stand against the ethanol mandate, a sacramental bovine of some standing in Iowa. A video showing him arguing with a farmer critic over the subject was widely circulated, and it was vintage Cruz: a little peevish at first, and more debater-ish than one might like, but utterly in command of the issue and its details. Cruz argued that getting rid of the mandate while also getting rid of the artificial restrictions on ethanol fuel would give the market a chance to sort out the issue on its own. And Cruz seems to have changed that critic’s mind, at least for the moment.

#share#Fourth: As Erica Grieder argues in Texas Monthly, what is most misunderstood about Cruz is that while he has made a great deal of hay taking on his own party’s leadership and drawing the occasional line in the ideological sand, he isn’t a wild-eyed extremist, and there is nothing erratic about his combative disposition. He is a deft and steely political calculator.

So the evening goes to Senator Cruz. Senator Rubio’s showing was respectable as well, and both of them will probably have a hard time with Trump in New Hampshire, where he has maintained a large lead in the polls.

#related#One assumes that people in the Republican leadership, in the outside groups, and among the check-writers already are asking themselves and one another what exactly the point is of a continued campaign by Bush, by Senator Rand Paul, by Ben Carson, etc. Senator Paul might be hoping for a bump from a strong showing in New Hampshire, which has an energetic libertarian subculture.

Trump and his wheedling populism remain a noxious presence in the race. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders enjoyed a strong showing in Iowa and is expected to prevail in New Hampshire, where he leads Herself by 18 points in the poll average. Expect hysteria, angst, and wailing, i.e., more or less the usual thing, with a bit more showmanship on the Republican side this time around and a bit more of an ideological hard line on the Democratic side.

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