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.
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.
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 that Carson was just getting a change of clothes. 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 about where you would have expected from the polling.
The cheating charge is typical Trump, who has a reptilian political conscience. 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’m 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 isn’t dead as a candidate, even if we now know that he won’t be a runaway train. Trump will presumably well benefit from the less conservative, less Republican electorate in New Hampshire, which, after all, voted twice for another dissenter from conservative orthodoxy, John McCain, in 2000 and 2008.
Even if Trump fizzles, the passions and discontents that have fueled him shouldn’t be ignored. The fact is that the Republican Party can’t be dependent on working-class voters at the same time that its 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 can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.