Wednesday morning, in the aftermath of the New Hampshire primary, my colleague Dave Mann and I exchanged a few emails about our initial reactions, and found several points of agreement. It was a great night for Donald Trump, who won the primary with 35 percent of the vote—twice as much as Ohio Governor John Kasich, who finished second. It was also a good night for Ted Cruz, who outperformed expectations to finish in third place. But, for the GOP itself, the New Hampshire primary was a wretched, unmitigated disaster.
Dave, however, did not seem to think the results were unduly alarming for the nation writ large. So I’d like to explain why I do. Since Trump announced his campaign, in June of last year, I’ve come to a couple of basic conclusions about his candidacy, and its potential consequences.
1) It would be a severe problem for the nation, and the world, if Trump were to become president. Ultimately, the problem isn’t his policy agenda, such as it may be, or his character, despite its lavish defects. It’s that Trump is emotionally reactive and seemingly unable to accept realities that conflict with his preferences. The separation of powers has historically provided the nation with some protection from presidents prone to volatile behavior, bad ideas, and even malign intentions. It would continue to do so if Trump becomes president. But the Constitution does allocate some powers to the president. Even if Trump would try to use them for the good, he’s proven himself incapable of doing so thoughtfully.
2) It’s debatable whether Trump would be likely to win the general election, should he become the nominee. But there’s at least some possibility that the Republican nominee will win the general election. Therefore, it would be potentially catastrophic for Trump to become the Republican nominee.
3) Trump has been the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for six months, according to nearly every national and state poll that has been conducted in that time. Obviously, he could win the nomination. In fact, he will, unless someone else wins it. Therefore, it’s in the best interests of the party and the nation for someone else to win it.
The most contentious of those conclusions is the third. At first, this was because people refused to believe Trump could be a competitive candidate for the Republican nomination. More recently, it’s because they refuse to believe that Ted Cruz would be an acceptable one. The fact that so many in the GOP establishment would prefer to see the party nominate Trump rather than Cruz, if it comes to that, strikes me as a damning example of the willfully delusional attitudes that have led their party to the brink of failure in the first place. It also seems like a dangerous perspective, because Cruz is the only Republican who’s managed to beat Trump thus far, and the one best positioned to deny him the nomination in the end. But as long as some in the GOP establishment persists, it’s in everyone’s best interests for the party to find an alternative to Trump other than Cruz.
Except New Hampshire just made that a whole lot harder.
As I noted Tuesday, the New Hampshire primary had high stakes for three of the four Republicans hoping to emerge as the establishment alternative. Marco Rubio, who finished third in the Iowa caucus, had a bit of breathing room, but for John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie, a strong showing would be critical—chance to assert themselves as the most credible alternative to the forces of chaos, as personified by Trump and Cruz.
Christie came up short and suspended his campaign on Wednesday. But that was the extent of the winnowing. By the end of the day, there were three Republicans planning to persevere with their plans to emerge as the establishment alternative.
The problem is that all three—Kasich, Bush, and Rubio—can plausibly argue that they are best positioned to prevail in the end. But none of them are planning to prove it any time soon. All three are more likely to succeed, and to rack up delegates, in states that are, for the most part, holding their primaries later on in the process. Kasich has already announced that he’ll consider Michigan critical to his candidacy, but that primary isn’t until March 8, nearly a month from now. He’s also the governor of Ohio, which has 66 delegates and will hold its primary March 15. Florida, which has 99 delegates and would surely matter quite a bit to both Bush and Rubio? Also March 15.
And so Jonathan Chait, writing in New York, is exactly right: this is a tragedy of the commons. It’s entirely possible that Kasich, Bush, and Rubio are going to spend the next month straggling along from South Carolina (February 20) to Nevada (February 23) to Super Tuesday (March 1), picking up a few delegates here and there, dividing the voters who might otherwise coalesce around one of them, and preventing each other from emerging as a non-Cruz alternative to Trump.
In theory, I suppose, any of them could. But a reminder is in order: there was a widespread consensus, in the Republican establishment and media elite, that Trump would win the Iowa caucus—and if not for Cruz, he would have. Even so, many observers took Trump’s defeat as a sign that the polls had exaggerated his strength, as they suspected all along. It was a comforting story, especially for those whose qualms about Trump are accompanied by an aversion to Cruz. As we now know, that’s all it was. New Hampshire was a wake-up call.
Or, depending on your perspective and your metaphor of choice, the nation’s first primary was a bucket of water, or a home invader. It remains the case that there’s only one Republican actually standing in Trump’s way. Though Cruz has been steadily rising in my estimation, as a result of the fact that he’s proving himself to be far more competent than most of his critics, when it comes to tackling this national crisis, I realize many readers disagree. So I’ll add that until Kasich, Bush, and Rubio finish slugging it out with each other, none of them is going to emerge as a non-Trump alternative to Cruz