Donald Trump’s loss in Iowa wasn’t just a victory for conservatives, but a loss for the mogul’s routinely low and dishonest style of campaigning.
The rap on a stereotypical career politician is that he will do or say anything to win. Trump has mastered the method and, true to form, done it with a grotesque garishness.
There was nothing subtle about his disgraceful attacks on Ted Cruz’s eligibility to run for president, although Trump at times tried to wrap them in a hilariously transparent tissue of concern about Cruz’s welfare. He accused Cruz of being in the back pocket of Goldman Sachs for an above-board loan (Cruz failed to disclose it on one form, but reported it on others), even though Trump’s own highly leveraged business career would have been impossible without ungodly bank loans. He pandered all he could on ethanol, stopping just short of promising to fuel Trump Force One with the stuff.
And yet Trump lost. He came in a relatively weak second after saying he would win and leading almost all the polls in the final weeks.
There was no doubt that the disappointment stung. Trump managed to control himself for about 36 hours. He dragged himself through a brief concession speech Monday night. He stayed off Twitter in the early-morning hours after the caucuses, avoiding a meltdown and, through his absence, briefly elevating the nation’s political discourse a notch or two.
Then, he returned with a message to anyone who thought he might acquit himself more rationally and honorably after kicking away an Iowa lead, in part, with low-rent melodrama: Never gonna happen. Trump blew through several political norms — against acting like a sore loser, against making ridiculously unfounded allegations, and, as always, against juvenile name-calling — by lashing out at Cruz for allegedly stealing the Iowa caucuses in the political crime of the century.
The basis of the charge is that Cruz’s team used a CNN report about Ben Carson leaving the campaign trail to suggest that Carson was exiting the race and caucus-goers shouldn’t waste their votes on him. It turns out Carson was just getting a change of clothes (no suitable haberdashers can be found in Iowa or New Hampshire, apparently). The Cruz tactic wasn’t admirable, yet it is hardly unprecedented for campaigns to spread rumors favorable to their interests. The Carson vote had been falling for weeks regardless, and the retired neurosurgeon finished almost exactly where you would have expected from the polling.
The cheating charge is typical Trump, who has a reptilian political conscience. If he thinks something will work, he’ll use it, truthfulness or integrity be damned. In this case, it’s hard to know where the line is between political calculation (regaining control of the media narrative, driving a wedge between Cruz and Carson, etc.) and the elemental desire for revenge against a competitor who bested him.
As far as I am concerned, Trump the political candidate can’t go away fast enough. But his critics shouldn’t get carried away with Monday’s results, nor should Republicans yearn for a rapid restoration of the pre-Trump status quo.
First, Trump is not dead as a candidate, even if we now know that he won’t be a runaway train. You would expect New Hampshire to tighten after his unexpected Iowa loss, but he has built a big cushion there and the state should be more favorable to him than Iowa.
Trump won among moderates in the Hawkeye State, but they were only 14 percent of the electorate, whereas in the 2012 New Hampshire primary 47 percent of voters were moderate or liberal. Trump beat Cruz among independents, but they were only 20 percent of the Iowa electorate, whereas they were 47 percent of voters in the New Hampshire primary in 2012. In other words, Trump could well benefit from a less conservative, less Republican environment in New Hampshire, which, after all, voted twice for another dissenter from conservative orthodoxy, John McCain, in 2000 and 2008.
If Trump wins in New Hampshire, he probably would have as good a shot as anyone to win South Carolina and, at the very least, make a run deep into the primary season.
Even if Trump fizzles, though, the passions and discontents that have fueled him shouldn’t be ignored. This would be tempting, given that Trump himself is such a disreputable politician, but it would still be a mistake.
The fact is that the Republican Party can’t be dependent on working-class voters at the same time that it’s default economic agenda has little to say to them. If Trump has opened up the space for a conversation in the GOP about how to connect with these voters and their concerns, then his carnival show will have had some significant upside. If he goes down and the Republican political class carries on as if nothing had happened and conservative pundits who have twisted themselves into knots to justify Trump go back to hewing to the verities of the 1980s, nothing will have been gained except a more entertaining primary season than usual.
In this scenario, Trump voters will have been ill-served by his buffoonery, and the gatekeepers of the Republican Party will have been ill-served by their own lack of imagination. What Donald Trump has identified out there in the country is too important to be left to Donald Trump.
RICH LOWRY (Rich Lowry is editor of National Review)