Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Politics of Improvisation

Thanks to Donald Trump, we've entered a moment in American party politics in which actors and observers alike have lost their collective bearings almost everywhere you look. It's as if the American political community has been taken hostage and deposited in an unknown land where nobody has ever ventured. As some cast their eyes toward the horizon, squinting to make out familiar landmarks that might guide them back to safety, others have turned to more pressing matters of survival—simply trying to figure out how to make it through every day without being torn apart by hostile packs of hungry predators.

Such a situation will inevitably lead to wild swings of strategy, impulsive decision-making, and regular expressions of strong emotion. It's a politics of improvisation—nobody knows for sure what to do or what will happen, so they will do or say what seems appropriate for the moment, even if the swift parade of events soon contradicts their previous conclusions.

Elite Republicans, long complacent about the probability of a Trump nomination, have been jolted awake by the results of Super Tuesday. As I suggested yesterday, while the outcome of Tuesday's Republican primaries and caucuses decisively confirmed Trump's front-runner status, its most consequential effect was to virtually eviscerate Marco Rubio's chances of winning a national majority of delegates. With second-place candidate Ted Cruz remaining as an unpalatable alternative who has demonstrated significant weaknesses of his own in appealing to Republican voters outside the South, the party leadership is now effectively facing the prospect of a Trump nomination that may only be stopped by denying him an overall delegate majority and proceeding to a contested convention.

Mitt Romney's speech today was noteworthy not only for its argument that Trump was an unacceptable choice for the Republican nomination but also for explicitly endorsing an anybody-but-Trump approach that requires the continued presence of a multi-candidate opposition to hold Trump's delegate margins down across the electoral map. Romney suggested that no other single candidate can accrue a majority of delegates, and thus Trump cannot be stopped prior to the convention itself. (The Rubio and Kasich campaigns now appear to be proceeding under the same assumption.)

Note that this theory of the race directly contradicts the pre-Super Tuesday conventional wisdom, which held that Cruz and Kasich should both vamoose pronto so that Rubio could face down Trump one-on-one. But abrupt strategic reversals are a hallmark of the improvisational character of this political moment. If Trump is as formidable a threat to the Republican Party as his detractors believe, intellectual consistency is a luxury they cannot currently afford.

Cruz is caught in perhaps the most complex strategic dilemma. Does he, too, play the part assigned to him by Romney and the other anti-Trump Republicans, joining in the chorus of attacks against the front-runner with the goal of delaying the resolution of the contest until the convention? Or does he decide instead that a path forward remains for him in the primaries, if Rubio and Kasich can be dispatched from the race after March 15 losses in their home states of Florida and Ohio? In such an event, Cruz would be left as the lone active rival to Trump for the remaining three months of the primary season, and—even if he failed to win a majority of delegates himself—would no doubt claim that any convention bent on blocking a Trump nomination should rightfully turn to him as the party electorate's authorized second choice.

This much is clear: the nomination process is far too complex for anyone involved to claim mastery over its various provisions and dynamics. So the candidates, along with everyone else, are left to grope around as best they can in an increasingly unforgiving strategic environment.