MILWAUKEE — There are no ordinary weeks on the trail of Campaign 2016. One week brings insults over spouses and salacious allegations from a supermarket tabloid. Now it’s a campaign manager charged with battery, a candidate offering an alternative reality about the charge and a Republican Party ever more threatened with chaos, depending on its nominee.
What this is about is clear to all — an unstable Republican coalition, the disruptive candidacy of Donald Trump and an alarmed GOP “establishment” that has proved (not surprisingly) to be powerless or helpless in the face of unfolding events. Where it ends is anybody’s guess. The party that champions free markets is now hostage to the volatile political markets of 2016 and to the disparate consumers who in one way or another identify with the GOP brand.
From a distance, the various elements of the Republican coalition appear irreconcilable. Establishment Republicans are appalled at the prospect of Trump as nominee. Those in the establishment who have rushed to support Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas have done so because he has managed to beat Trump more than anyone else. They have done so with grave reservations, given his history of tormenting party leaders.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, meanwhile, attracts what has been called a Coalition of the Formers, ex-politicians who remember him from his days in Washington in the 1990s, but he has far less support from the party of today. His support among rank-and-file voters trails that of Trump and Cruz. He has but one victory behind his name this year.
Meanwhile, the thousands who showed up to see Trump in Janesville, Wis., on Tuesday afternoon appear unwilling to fall into line behind anyone other than the New York billionaire and current GOP front-runner. Their loyalty is to the man.
On Tuesday, Trump was appearing in the home town of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), no greater symbol of the party establishment and someone who has decried the tone and tenor of the Republican presidential campaign though without naming Trump in his criticisms.
When Trump mentioned Ryan’s name, the hotel ballroom erupted in boos. “Wow,” Trump said, seeming surprised, though perhaps he wasn’t. “I was told to be nice to Paul Ryan.” A voice rang out from the audience: “Paul Rino,” the man said, “RINO” being shorthand for “Republican in name only.”
Trump responded: “He’s the speaker. He’s a nice guy. Wow. Are you all Republicans?” Another chorus from the audience: “Yes!” “Are you mostly conservative?” Trump asked. From the audience came another round of yeses.
There is no way to know the ideological leanings or true loyalties to the Republican Party of the audience that had gathered to hear Trump in a town that would seem to have a ready-made Trump constituency. It is famously blue collar and just as famously hard hit by the decline in manufacturing in America over the past quarter-century. The thousands who showed up were there for Trump.
For months, the GOP candidates maintained a patina of cohesion as their dialogue fell further and further from any sense of civility. Everyone remembers the moment in the debate in Michigan when, after nearly two hours of slinging mud, the candidates were asked whether they would support Trump as the nominee. Those on the stage said they would. Their pledges came months after all the candidates were asked a similar question, and Trump’s opponents all said yes.
Those pledges fell apart on Tuesday night, during a round-robin series of interviews at a town hall in Milwaukee hosted by CNN and moderated by Anderson Cooper.
Would you support Trump as nominee, Cooper asked Cruz. “I’m not in the habit of supporting someone who attacks my wife and attacks my family.” Pressed to answer directly, Cruz dodged. “Donald is not going to be the nominee,” he said. Pressed again, Cruz held firm. “I think nominating Donald Trump is a disaster, and so the answer to that is not to scream and yell and cry and attack him. The answer to that is to beat him at the ballot box,” he said.
Kasich was more direct. He backed away from the earlier pledge and indicated that none of the candidates should have answered when first asked about it long before the Michigan debate. When Cooper said that sounded as if Kasich was no longer ironclad in the pledge, the governor replied, “I got to see what happens. If the nominee is somebody that I think is really hurting the country, and dividing the country, I can’t stand behind them, but we have a ways to go.”
Trump, sandwiched between Cruz and Kasich, totally abandoned the pledge he signed in the presence of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus at Trump Tower. Cooper asked if he continues to pledge his support to whoever the Republican nominee is. “No. I don’t anymore,” Trump replied. Asked a moment later about that, he said, “I have been treated very unfairly.”
Cruz and Kasich hold out hope that events still will break in their favor. Cruz thinks he can amass more delegates than Trump before the convention or, if necessary, deny Trump the nomination on the floor of the conventional hall in Cleveland.
His goal is to start here in Wisconsin. A new Marquette University Law School poll shows him leading Trump 40 to 30 percent, with Kasich at 21 percent. The Marquette poll is considered the most reliable in the Badger State. The Real Clear Politics average of all recent polls in Wisconsin shows a tight race, with Cruz at 35 percent, Trump at 32 percent and Kasich at 23 percent.
A Cruz victory in Wisconsin would again change perceptions and some of the calculus of the state of the Republican race. Trump remains the favorite, but every loss will take away some of his luster, just as his recent interviews about foreign policy have raised serious doubts about his readiness to be president. The calendar still looks better for him than Cruz, and he has the lead in delegates. Cruz’s task is clear and challenging.
Kasich’s only hope is a brokered convention that turns to him after the first or second ballot or however many ballots it takes. He is hardly the master of his own fate. Hanging on until Cleveland is his strategy at this point.
Cruz said Tuesday night that a Trump nomination would be “an absolute train wreck” that would “hand the general election to Hillary Clinton.” But if Trump enters with more delegates and is denied the nomination, the party faces a potential train wreck internally, as millions of voters who have backed the New York billionaire decide whether to fall in line or stay on the sidelines in November.
Words and pledges are cheap right now, tossed about by candidates and party officials with little conviction or lasting meaning. Events are in control, and everyone knows it. Cleveland is still months away, as the campaign grows ever more strange.