9:52 am May. 17, 20112
A conversation with Salon news editor Steve Kornacki about the post-Trump-episode Republican presidential field.
Josh Benson: So what tipped you off that Donald Trump wasn't actually going to run? He had a platform and everything!
Steve Kornacki: Yeah, maybe we should just chalk this one up to dumb luck... Also, the well-established fact that when Trump threatens to run for president he (a) has something he wants to promote, and (b) doesn't ever go through with it.
The other piece of it, of course, is something that Alex Pareene pointed out early on: If Donald Trump ever actually ran for president, he'd have to reveal, eventually, what he's actually worth. And then the world would probably find out that this guy who plays the character of Ultra-rich Oligarch on television is actually just a rich guy whose net worth pales in comparison to, say, Michael Bloomberg's.
Josh: That's the part I couldn't quite figure out, actually. It never made sense that he was going to run, but the pretend-run didn't make sense as a promotional stunt either, did it? I mean, his fake runs in the past might have, when the fake runs weren't really about anything. But the overlay of xenophobia on this one—the thing that made Trump too extreme and embarrassing for the Republican Party—probably isn't so great for business, I would have thought.
Steve: Definitely. I mean, my theory was that he'd done it before, he knew the media would love speculating, and figured it would help his brand, broadly speaking. Then his tone-deafness just kicked in. It's not that he calculated that birtherism and claiming Obama is an affirmative action case would boost his brand value by $XX—it's just that he genuinely had no idea how poisonous this stuff was. Like Al Campanis or Jimmy the Greek talking about race and sports. My sense is that it was genuinely a revelation to him that someone would call him a racist for spreading misinformation about the academic record of America's first black president in an effort to make it look like he only got into college because of white liberal guilt.
In 25 years as a celebrity before this, he said plenty of dumb, offensive things. But it was never in the realm of politics. It was calling Rosie O'Donnell a pig. So when he'd get blowback, it never really hurt business. He was just a bombastic celebrity. But it took on a totally different edge in the context of a (fake) presidential campaign, and he wasn't ready for it.
Josh: Which is shocking. But anyway, now that he's announced that he's staying in the private sector, even though he's sure he could have won, what are the Republicans left with? And how much of a setback has it been for them to have had the field of actual candidates overshadowed, for this long, first by the noncandidacy of Sarah Palin and then by the noncandidacy of Trump?
Steve: Well, I guess the optimistic Republican would say that at least Trump distracted attention from all of the Paul Ryan/Medicare stuff. And actually, I do think Trump inadvertently did the G.O.P. a favor. He forced influential Republicans to distance themselves from the themes he was stressing in a definitive way—something many of them had been unwilling to do, for fear of offending the base.
Even before Obama released the birth certificate, you had guys like Karl Rove and Charles Krauthammer really pushing to marginalize Trump. And they were succeeding.
It was instructive to me: It showed the G.O.P. "elites" are very mindful of nominating an electable candidate and very ready to nip any fringe movement in the bud if it threatens to get out of control.
I think they did something similar in late '10/early '11 with Palin. And they'll do it again if, for instance, Michele Bachmann suddenly starts moving in the polls. (Not that she will.)
Josh: So have they succeeded in their attempts to bring some logic and discipline to this field? How electable are the candidates the Republicans are left with at the moment?
Steve: My read is this:
Romney, Pawlenty, Daniels and Huntsman are electable. If the economy is bad enough that voters want Obama out and the G.O.P. nominates one of those four, my money is on the R's taking the White House.
Every other name now in the mix—Bachmann, Gingrich, Santorum, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Buddy Roemer, Gary Johnson—is unelectable. Even if the economy is bad and voters want Obama out, they'll still (grudgingly) reelect him if the G.O.P. nominates any of these candidates. But I see almost no scenario in which the G.O.P. actually does that.
Maybe (and it's a big maybe) one of those unelectables will perform surprisingly well in Iowa. But it wouldn't last. For instance:
Let's say Bachmann wins Iowa. The political world goes insane. She's all over the news, money is flooding into her campaign, her poll numbers are surging. At that point, the same party elites who just worked so hard to marginalize Palin and Trump would immediately and forcefully do the same to her. And they'd rally behind whichever one of those four electable candidates is at that point the most viable.
The best parallel is to 1996, when Pat Buchanan won New Hampshire. Ironically, it was a good thing for Bob Dole (even though the result itself was humiliating)—because the party establishment freaked out and he won just about everything after that.
Josh: OK, so let's just assume that one of the Plausible Four wins the nomination. What happens to the birther vote if no one's catering to it? And for that matter, what happens to the Tea Party? They're not voting for Obama, obviously. But must attention be paid, somehow?
Steve: I think a certain portion of that is beyond anyone's control. Even if, say, Romney locks up the nomination early, the Bachmann/Cain/Santorum/etc. group will still probably gobble up 20 percent or so wherever they're on the ballot. But it won't really matter.
I think this is where the "elites" come in—activists, elected officials, commentators, opinion-shapers whose views trickle down to the G.O.P. voters. Right now, there's not any concerted elite engagement behind anyone. But that will change.
Like if elites start realizing in November and December that Romney is probably their best bet after all (sort of like they did with McCain in late '07), they'll start coming up with the story to sell the base. It will mean Sean Hannity saying: "You know, I was as skeptical as anyone about Mitt, but I've really come around. He can win—and if he does, the bottom line is ObamaCare goes away." For instance.
Josh: What do you find more amusing: the idea of Sean Hannity coming around to supporting a universal-health-care-supporting former governor of Massachusetts, or the idea that Donald Trump has been kept down by a bunch of elites?
Steve: Ha. Probably the Trump one—because, unlike Hannity, I bet he realizes the irony and is enraged by it.
The stories about him and Krauthammer are classic. Trump thought he could get him on the phone, wow him with his celebrity, and get a friendly column out of it. Instead, Krauthammer called him a turkey, over and over. And when Trump fought back, he couldn't land a punch. The right already knows and loves Krauthammer.
Josh: One more thing here: you don't think any of this paves the way for Rudy Giuliani to try again? I hear he's keeping the door open.
Steve: If only there were a chance he'd actually try.