The Presidential Race Turns Ever More Bizarre

Just as the campaign seemed to be settling down, it takes a series of dramatic twists.

Jim Young / Reuters

Wasn’t this supposed to be the week that the presidential race stabilized?

The furor over debate hosting was dead—or at least dormant. The Republican debate in Milwaukee was long on policy and short on personal conflict, and it didn’t seem to offer any real race-changing shifts. Marco Rubio was finally rising to the top of the establishment field, as had long been predicted.

As the week ends, things look very different and far more acrimonious. And unsurprisingly, the catalyst for the chaos—as it has been so many times before—was Donald Trump. First, Trump delivered a rambling 95-minute speech (though is there any other kind of 95-minute speech?) in Iowa, lambasting Ben Carson for factual discrepancies in his autobiography, calling the press scum, and hectoring voters in the all-important first-caucus state: “How stupid are the people of Iowa? How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?” Referring to Carson’s story of trying to stab a friend and hitting his belt, Trump offered this:

Then, on Friday morning, the mogul—that’s also his self-chosen Secret Service code-name—released a video attacking Carson as either a “violent criminal” or a “pathological liar”:

Happy Friday the 13th

A video posted by Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump) on

Trump’s bizarre diatribe has some pundits asking whether he has finally gone too far; but then, people have been saying that since July.

After more than a week of this, Carson is an old pro at responding to this sort of thing—he’s spent a week fending off queries from the media. Carson seems to have in many cases successfully turned the story into a discussion of media ethics and bias. The reason Trump is attacking Carson, of course, is that Carson is the first Republican to seriously challenge Trump’s lead in the polls. (How durable is Carson’s support? There have been no polls released since Tuesday’s debate, but Carson might already have peaked—his numbers have slightly dipped recently:

Many political observers are still confident that neither Trump nor Carson has any shot at the nomination. Among the more standard candidates, Jeb Bush delivered a passable performance at the Milwaukee debate, but hasn’t arrested his slide; John Kasich’s bellicose approach was widely panned. So that leaves Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz battling for support. The smart money seems to be on Rubio—helped by the personal antipathy many in the GOP feel toward the Texas senator.

The result has been a steadily intensifying offensive by Cruz against Rubio. It started in earnest during the debate, where Cruz took a hardline against immigration reform and demanded deportation of unauthorized immigrants. He also took a shot at sugar subsidies. While he didn’t name Rubio in either case, the Floridian was clearly his intended target—he was a central element of the failed push for immigration reform, and is close to sugar executives who want the subsidies to stay in place.

On Thursday, Cruz continued to ratchet up the pressure, telling Laura Ingraham that on the issue of immigration, “talk is cheap.” “You know where someone is based on their action,” he said. “When politicians say the exact opposite of what they've done in office and I'd treat that with a pretty healthy degree of skepticism.”

The Washington Post reports that the continued success of Carson and Trump—to say nothing of Cruz’s resilience—has started to freak out Republican Party mandarins.

The party establishment is paralyzed. Big money is still on the sidelines. No consensus alternative to the outsiders has emerged from the pack of governors and senators running, and there is disagreement about how to prosecute the case against them. Recent focus groups of Trump supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire commissioned by rival campaigns revealed no silver bullet.

How bad are things, really? “According to other Republicans, some in the party establishment are so desperate to change the dynamic that they are talking anew about drafting Romney—despite his insistence that he will not run again.”

It’s hard to imagine that Romney could make it any more clear that he’s not running—and hard to imagine that many Republicans would really be eager to see the return of a man whose campaign in 2012 was widely lambasted, beset by bad messaging, strategic miscues, and technological failures.

This must be comforting to Democrats for a couple of reasons. First, they’d love another shot at Romney. Second, it’s a reminder than the Democratic Party doesn’t have a monopoly on “bedwetters,” David Plouffe’s colorful term for party loyalists who scare easily about the party’s chances and candidates. What’s going on with Republicans seems similar. Despite the turbulence this week, it really does seem to have been a better week for the GOP, and the race is still—yes, still—early.

Democrats, meanwhile, are gearing up for their second debate Saturday night. The first encounter proved unexpectedly friendly: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were positively chummy, Martin O’Malley failed to make a dent, and Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb—well, the less said about them the better, but both left the race for the Democratic nomination soon after. The buzziest moment in the debate came when Sanders assured Clinton, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!”

Since then, the Democratic race seems to have stabilized a bit—and not in ways that Sanders likes. Clinton’s polling nationwide ticked up, she gained on Sanders in Iowa, and some polls showed her back neck-and-neck or even ahead of him in New Hampshire. That’s led the Vermonter to take a more aggressive tack against her. He’s begun pointedly criticizing her and his team says he’s ready to do more Saturday. It’s a risky strategy for Sanders: His campaign has been built in large part on his nice-guy appeal, so going after Clinton could either reverse the trend and improve his numbers, or it could accelerate his return to earth.

Clinton has other worries besides Sanders. After her commanding performance before the House select committee on Benghazi, questions about her email faded a bit from view. But reports this week from Politico and Fox News suggest that investigations are ongoing, and could still do serious damage to her.

That’s the 2016 race so far, in a nutshell: Even the boring weeks turn out to be pretty exciting.