The two biggest stories of the day in presidential politics are so obvious that I only wish I had bothered to predict them.
One, Bernie Sanders as Liberal Rock Star’s Midsummer Threat to Hillary Clinton’s Inevitability Campaign.
Two, Donald Trump as, well, Donald Trump.
The two stories are often told in the same (very long) breath because they seem to be about the same thing – two unlikely figures simultaneously, and unexpectedly, climbing in the polls before what will almost certainly be their inevitable crash.
But what really ties the two stories together is that these unlikely — and very unalike — figures are doing precisely what we should have seen coming.
Clinton needed a rival, Democratic crowds needed a true believer, and Bernie is the most benign of summer flings. He’s part Gene McCarthy, part Howard Dean, but mostly part Jefferson Smith (do the Google if you don’t get the reference). Of Bernie’s many parts, only Jefferson Smith wins in the end, and that was in a movie.[pullquote]The truth of the enormous Republican field – some of them at least semi-legit – is that it’s difficult to get noticed except in gaffe mode.[/pullquote]
The reason Sanders can draw, say, 7,500 people in Portland, Maine, is that supporting him is a freebie. He won’t hurt Clinton, who will win the nomination, and probably the presidency, because Republicans insist on demonizing her and Democrats will insist on defending her.
That’s an old story. Bernie, meanwhile, is an old codger. He is a self-described socialist, although not the kind who wants to own the steel companies, because why would anyone want to own a steel company these days. But he doesn’t like Wall Street and thinks big banks are a big problem and says, unlike the poll-driven Clinton, exactly what he thinks.
Sanders’ popularity is not a mystery. He’s, in effect, the Elizabeth Warren surrogate. He has forced Clinton to go populist, which is where she needed to go, and has so far allowed her to stay hawkish which is where she thinks she can win the election.
And in Sanders, millennials, meanwhile, get another chance at political romance. Obama turned out to be a politician. Rand Paul turned out to be a Republican. Chris Christie is running on telling it like it is, but Sanders actually does. Clinton, meanwhile, is roping off the media at the same time she says she wants to finally connect with the people.
But here’s the funny part: Conservatives are now seen siding with the hated roped-off liberal media in what is yet another take on the old enemy-of-my-enemy principle. It’s the same principle, by the way, that will bring Democrats back to vote for Clinton in the end.
Which brings us to Part 2, The Donald, who (I’m reasonably sure) will never make it to the Iowa caucuses. Come on, this is the same irresistibly mockable Donald that the late, lamented Spy magazine famously called, on each reference, the short-fingered vulgarian. That was in the ’80s. And today, all these years later? It’s the same Donald that George Will mockingly wonders how he would act any differently if he were, in fact, a Clinton mole. Mocking Trump has long been a national pastime, but only because he insists we do it.
But now it’s serious, if you’re a Republican anyway. We’ve all known that Trump, as candidate, would soon do something so noxious that everyone – except Ted Cruz and the saddest 10 percent of the Republican Party – would have to reject. We weren’t sure it would happen this soon. But, soon enough, he was going full Tancredo, calling illegal immigrants coming from Mexico “rapists” who bring with them drugs and crime, although he did manage to say that some of them might be all right. It was so The Donald, which is why Will calls him a one-man Todd Akin Show, except with billions (maybe) of his own dollars, although a few dollars less now that the job creator is losing so many of his own.
For the immigrant bashing, Trump found himself being Bush-bashed and Rubio-bashed and Christie-bashed and even Romney-bashed, upon which time Trump, in retaliation, retweeted a Tweet (or someone did it for him) saying that Bush “has to like the Mexican illegals because of his wife.” Columba Bush was, of course, born in Mexico. You can see the problem.
The truth of the enormous Republican field – some of them at least semi-legit – is that it’s difficult to get noticed except in gaffe mode. Rick Perry makes a great speech on race, and, oops, it’s gone. Not so with Trump, who abhors any vacuum not named after him. It’s the perfect time for him to step in, or step in it, which is what he always does, grabbing the headlines as he trips. No one can match him.
Suddenly, the stories are all of Republicans in disarray. Even Republican-leaning columnists are asking whether the party will ever embrace the present century, the one in which gays can marry, health insurance for all seems a worthy project, and Confederate flags must come down.
And even the pope, apparently unfazed by the recent Supreme Court decisions, is out there pleading for the world to heed the science on climate change, meaning it looked like science and religion were in accord. Why not Republicans, too?
The answer is not simply Trump, of course. The problem runs much deeper, but Trump makes for a handy symbol in case you’re not up on, say, the latest Ben Carsonisms. Or the latest from Huckabee. These guys, writes Byron York, are now all in the top tier.
And just wait for the debates. Well, I can’t wait for them anyway. Here’s the early betting line: The Donald wins by simply showing up.
Of course, the only way he can win in the end is to drop out before a single vote is cast. He can then claim victory by saying that his job was to focus the debate. What Republicans must fear is that, for once, Trump could actually be right.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, Flickr.