It seems to me that the broad consensus of the pundits is, for once, right. Barring an indictment, Hillary Clinton is moving smoothly to the nomination over the compliant body of Bernie Sanders, who wants to make a point but neither a revolution nor a GOP victory. On the Republican side, Trump won a substantial victory (but not a triumph), and his less than smooth progress towards the nomination will be through the gaps in a GOP divided between three other candidates who all did well enough to justify their staying in. That said, here are a few clouds we can see on the distant horizon:
‐ Trump is mortal. He underperformed in comparison with the polls and even suffered actual losses. It is just possible to sketch out a scenario in which he is denied the nomination. Once that perception takes hold — and it will be encouraged by both his rivals and the party establishment — he could suffer continuing losses simply by virtue of not being invulnerable. He’s Achilles with vulnerabilities all over the body, not just at the heel. His victory speech, which was uncharacteristically gentle and effectively conversational, suggests he knows this and is moving quickly to adapt to this more hostile political environment. In addition to being mortal, Trump is shrewd, flexible, and quick. He’s already made inroads into demographic areas of the electorate that no one expected, and there is no certainty that he cannot make further such gains. But he may face Hillary’s problem, fighting an election distracted by legal difficulties– not criminal indictments (as in Clinton’s case), to be sure, but not candy-floss either.
‐Cruz may have won because of his character rather than his electoral strategy. It always struck me as odd that he was presenting himself not as the most electable genuine conservative but as the most fervently conservative of them all. That’s not necessary. Anyone who can hear realized a long time ago that Cruz was reliably conservative and a man of principle. His speaking style, which amounts to an imitation of a Baptist preacher — the description leveled at him by my Alabama wife — probably put off many voters from elsewhere without apparently winning him his target voters in the South. He did well yesterday (in my view at least) by having been a dignified and courteous but unbending critic of Trump and a principled advocate of a civilized conservatism. People are learning to trust him. He can and should confirm this more moderate image by reminding the voters that he has a stellar record fighting conservative cases in the courts, including before the Supreme Court. You ask: run as a Washington lawyer in an atmosphere of anti-Washington populism? Of course. Populist leaders almost always emerge from the establishment — look at Trump, who’s running as a reformed billionaire! Cruz can win as the lead lawyer in the People v. the Establishment. But he’ll have to adopt a more relaxed and conversational style of speaking — one of Trump’s strengths — without Trump’s or Rubio’s occasional vulgarity.
‐Rubio is no longer plausible as the most electable Republican. He now has two drawbacks instead of only one: In addition to the impression he gives of being a lightweight, he is now a prisoner of the establishment. This is not really Rubio’s fault — establishment figures are the ones leaking stories on how they will come to his aid. But Rubio has not repelled the embrace (understandably enough, given his setbacks), and the establishment’s embrace has much the same effect as the Midas touch. It turns everything to gold, which is useless and even counterproductive in an atmosphere of angry populism. He might recover and — though this is highly unlikely — capture the nomination. But the Midas touch would then kick in and he would find himself leading a divided and shrunken party with not enough time to establish a new identity. He might end up looking like a shining New Republican in a post-Republican age.
‐As even the pundits are beginning to realize, the numbers voting in Republican primaries are rising sharply and they are composed of many voters new to the party. (Democratic numbers are, in contrast, shrinking, and we should look at the primaries in that light: If Hillary is getting a larger share of a shrinking total, that’s a very big problem for her in the general election.) It seems to me that Trump is one of the reasons, maybe the main reason, for this growing and more enthusiastic Republican voting bloc. He is also arousing strong opposition in large sections of the electorate, in the GOP establishment, and among conservative commentators. The obvious aim of those latter groups (and Trump’s rivals) should be to detach Trump supporters from Trump and to keep them while denying him the nomination. Last night’s results suggest that this might just be possible. It could only succeed, however, if Trump were beaten in a fair fight according to the rules in such a way that he remained on board with the presidential nominee. And the nominee would need to reach out to him and his voters. Any other result would mean the Trump volunteers leaving the GOP and a reconfiguration of political parties in a way that’s unforeseeable at the moment — and Hillary Clinton winning what would be a transitional election to a new political structure that, as president, she would have at least some influence in determining.
‐Trump and Rubio as leaders would both find it hard to lead a united party. Rubio would look like the last man standing in an exhausted, retreating establishment that had just passed up an opportunity to make the GOP the natural governing party of the U.S. Trump would also preside over a divided party facing the formidable difficulty of winning over voters in groups that currently give him mountainous disapproval ratings — but he would at least generate excitement and uncertainty and the possibility of an upset. Only Cruz at this point seems capable of uniting a Republican convention (if not the congressional Republicans in Washington) and holding an election campaign that keeps new and old Republicans on board.
To do that, however, he will have to start showing the voters the anti-establishment “establishment man” who won cases before the Supreme Court and who will win victories for them.