Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

Here, in a nutshell, is why Donald Trump is on the verge of completing his hostile takeover of the Republican Party, or at least badly rupturing it along the way: It turns out he’s better at scamming Republican voters than GOP elites are.

That’s the clear message that emerges from a big piece the New York Times published today that reports on how GOP elites lost touch with GOP voters’ economic concerns, resulting in them getting caught off guard by Trump’s rise. The piece features Republican observers acknowledging a phenomenon we’ve repeatedly discussed in this space: Trump is succeeding in part because he’s offering economically struggling GOP voters something more than the promise that free markets and limited government contain the keys to their economic salvation.

Speaking at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, July 18, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said "our country's going to hell." (Reuters)

As the Times piece reports, Republicans are realizing that the GOP elite donor agenda can no longer be sold to GOP voters: The Republican elite “abandoned its most faithful voters, blue-collar white Americans, who faced economic pain and uncertainty over the past decade as the party’s donors, lawmakers and lobbyists prospered.”

But this one anecdote captures this whole phenomenon as perfectly as any other that I’ve seen. Last March, GOP lawmakers met privately to figure out how to sell the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which GOP elites support, to Republican voters who were suspicious of it:

For help, the lawmakers turned to Frank Luntz, the Republican messaging guru. For two decades, Mr. Luntz had instructed Republicans on how to talk about thorny issues. Do not say “estate tax.” Say “death tax.” Do not privatize Social Security. “Personalize” it.

Few issues were now as dangerous to them as trade, Mr. Luntz told the lawmakers, especially a trade pact sought by a president their voters hated. Many Americans did not believe that the economic benefits of trade deals trickled down to their neighborhoods. They did not care if free trade provided them with cheaper socks and cellphones. Most believed free trade benefited other countries, not their own.

“I told them to stop calling it free trade, and start calling it American trade,” Mr. Luntz said in an interview. “American businesses, American services — American, American, American!”

Most of the ingredients paving the way for the rise of Trump are on display here. GOP lawmakers, faced with the problem that economically struggling GOP voters might not believe freer trade would help them, asked for guidance on how to better message it. Luntz also personifies longtime Republican efforts to sell the GOP drive to end the estate tax (a boon mostly to wealthy families) and the longtime GOP drive to reform Social Security. Broadly speaking, the GOP elite agenda has included free trade deals, tax changes that would deliver windfalls to top earners, and entitlement reform that would reduce benefits, and for many years, Republicans have messaged these things as good for American workers.

(Yes, many Democrats also have supported free trade deals, including the Obama-backed TPP, and yes, the Dem establishment is currently paying for that in the form of the Bernie Sanders challenge.)

But GOP voters don’t appear to believe this messaging any longer, if they ever did. A national poll of Republican voters conducted recently by political scientist Alan Abramowitz found that majorities of them favor raising taxes on the wealthy and oppose cutting Social Security and Medicare. The poll showed an overlap between Republicans who hold those positions and support Trump. Exit polls have also shown GOP voters are suspicious of trade deals.

Trump appears to have exploited this disconnect. He does not reflexively defend free trade and vows not to touch entitlements. Now, Trump is peddling GOP voters a bill of goods: While he conveys the impression that he’d go after the favorable tax treatment of top earners, his tax plan would actually shower them with large windfalls. He oversimplifies the effect of trade deals on American workers and does not meaningfully detail policies that might actually help them. And Trump’s con job relies heavily on persuading struggling GOP voters that the way to remove a major economic threat to them is to carry out mass deportations.

But as James Pethokoukis points out, Trump at least seems to speak to these voters’ desire for a proactive agenda to address challenges arising from globalization and technological change. Yet when Paul Ryan was directly asked about this disconnect, he responded with more of the same 1980s-vintage rising-tide-lifts-all-boats dogma. There is a lot of talk about how Ryan and Trump now represent warring opposites inside the GOP, and that’s true. But if anything, what this polarity really illustrates is the paralysis of GOP elites in the face of Trumpism’s appeal. Not even clever Luntzian messaging may be able to bail them out this time. Trump is peddling a scam, but at least it’s a new scam.

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* BERNIE WINS BIG, BUT THE DELEGATE MATH REMAINS DAUNTING: Bernie Sanders racked up big wins on Saturday in Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington State, with the latter giving him the big victory in a big state that he needed.

But the delegate math remains very tough for Sanders: Clinton has 1,243 pledged delegates and 469 super-delegates, for a total of 1,712. Sanders has 975 pledged delegates and 29 super-delegates, for a total of 1,004.

* THE REALITY OF THE DELEGATE MATH: NBC’s First Read crew crunches the numbers:

Clinton must win 34% of overall remaining delegates to reach the 2,383 magic number. Sanders must win 66% of overall remaining delegates to reach the 2,383 magic number.

That would require Sanders to not just win a lot of the remaining states, but also to win big in them.

* WHY BERNIE STILL FACES A STEEP CLIMB: FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten points out that Sanders has mostly won caucuses, while mostly losing primaries, and the bad news is that there are only two caucuses remaining, while all the rest are primaries:

Given that Sanders is still so far behind in the delegate count, he needs to outperform his delegate targets by a lot. How likely is that? Well, he’s behind by about 6 percentage points in Wisconsin…That’s not a huge deficit, and it wouldn’t shock me if Sanders won Wisconsin….Sanders, though, will likely have more difficulty in later primaries in April, such as Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania, where African Americans make up more than 10 percent of the state’s population.

While it’s always possible Sanders’s big wins changed the race, recall that he lost five big ones on March 15th after winning Michigan, which was also touted as a potential game changer.

* BERNIE HOPES TO PEEL AWAY SUPER-DELEGATES: On CNN’s State of the Union, Sanders explained how he’ll make up his huge delegate deficit — by getting super-delegates to abandon Clinton:

“When they begin to look at the reality, and that is that we in poll after poll are beating Donald Trump by much larger margins….A lot of these superdelegates may rethink their position with Hillary Clinton. A lot have not yet declared. And then you have got superdelegates who are in states where we win by 40 or 50 points. I think their own constituents are going to say to them, hey, why don’t you support the people of our state, vote for Sanders?”

This scenario is far-fetched on a number of levels — the super-delegates are unlikely to conclude Bernie is the stronger general election candidate, for instance — but not impossible.

* WHY GOP IS HOLDING FIRM IN COURT FIGHT: Politico reports that Republicans may have no choice but to continue refusing to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, even if it damages GOP senators among moderates and independents, because:

The activist right has been galvanized by Mitch McConnell’s quick and forceful insistence that the Senate will not take up a high court nominee for the rest of Barack Obama’s presidency….Tea party groups that have dissed McConnell for years as an establishment sellout are singing his praises. It’s safe to say all of that would end the instant Republicans agreed to take up Merrick Garland’s nomination. And the fire would turn inward at the worst possible moment for Republicans, as the party is scrambling to save its narrow Senate majority in November.

This is all about galvanizing the GOP base to save the GOP Senate majority. But Trump could blow up this plan by rupturing the GOP base and causing millions of GOP voters to stay home.

 * OBAMA’S APPROVAL CONTINUES TO RISE: He hit 53 percent in Gallup’s weekend tracking.

* OUR VOTING MESS COULD MAR PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION: E.J. Dionne discusses the disaster that attended Arizona’s decision to dramatically cut down on polling places, and envisions a full scale voting rights fiasco marring the 2016 elections:

The Brennan Center reports that 16 states “will have new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election.” Imagine voting debacles like Arizona’s happening all across the country. Consider what the news reports would be like on the night of Nov. 8, 2016. Are we not divided enough already? Can we risk holding an election whose outcome would be rendered illegitimate in the eyes of a very large number of Americans who might be robbed of their franchise?

A feature, not a bug?

 * A PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION ABOUT TRADE: Paul Krugman explains that Trump is dumbing down the impact of free trade deals, and notes that his Dem opponent will be able to make a nuanced case for policies, beyond mere protectionism, that actually help displaced workers, such as boosting worker bargaining power and strengthening the safety net:

The Democratic nominee won’t have to engage in saber-rattling over trade. She (yes, it’s still overwhelmingly likely to be Hillary Clinton) will, rightly, express skepticism about future trade deals, but she will be able to address the problems of working families without engaging in irresponsible trash talk about the world trade system. The Republican nominee won’t.

It’s yet another way that Trump is scamming GOP voters.