This year it's different.
Breathlessly, Republicans await the outcome of today's New Hampshire primary. In times past, New Hampshire was, variously, a check on Iowa, a force for moderation, a safe haven for front runners, a boon to long shots, and quicksand for the presumably anointed. In this unconventional year, it will likely alter the trajectory of the presumptive leaders -- not least because of Marco Rubio's Saturday night train wreck -- as well as of those in the second tier, muddling the contest for "mainstream" candidate while winnowing the brace of also-rans.
But that death knell we are hearing is not just the mercy killing of walking footnotes like Carly Fiorina. It is for the GOP establishment and, more profoundly, for the very idea of what a president should be.
The ruin of the established order -- big donors, lobbyists, and professionals -- has been a long time coming. For decades the establishment has resembled the once proud family who keeps selling off pieces of their estate so they can keep the house. In exchange for lower taxes and laissez-faire, the establishment subcontracted its electoral fortunes to an overlapping -- and increasingly hostile -- compendium of evangelicals, gun rights advocates, Tea Party fanatics, and less educated whites who feel that their security, and their country, are being snatched from their grasp. Now it is no longer enough to surround the mansion -- they want to burn it down.
The incongruous agent of their resentment has been the billionaire Donald Trump, followed by the self-styled bomb-thrower Ted Cruz. But in great measure what empowers them is the establishment's surrender to nihilistic rhetoric directed at Washington DC. A throng of voters willing to shut down the government is unlikely to nurture tender feelings for the grandees of the GOP. Trump has simply focused their free-floating hostility on a larger group of scapegoats -- Mexicans, Muslims, rich Republican donors and financiers and, Lord help us, Megyn Kelly.
In doing so, he has become an unlikely avatar for socially vulnerable whites who feel threatened by forces they can't control. Too late, the GOP establishment has found out what "class warfare" really means, and they are on the wrong end.
Financiers and party professionals feel free to perceive the economic and political upside of resolving the immigration mess. Not so blue collar workers fearful that immigrants -- legal or not -- will take away their jobs, or swell the ranks of welfare recipients who sponge off their hard-earned tax money. For them, the GOP establishment has become another instrument of The Great Sell-Out, the smug proponents of free trade agreements that savage American workers.
Like so many elites who discover that they are widely loathed, the establishment has responded with dithering and wishful thinking. The result is a vacuum that has consumed the very idea of leadership.
A widely respected GOP professional attempted to raise money for a Stop Trump campaign, and found no takers. Even before Iowa, elements of the established order began gingerly propitiating their antagonists -- choosing between Trump and the widely hated Cruz. Bob Dole mused aloud that at least Trump has "the right personality and he's kind of a deal maker"; Mary Matalin hosted a fundraiser for Cruz. And then Iowa reshuffled the deck a bit, with Cruz banishing the panicky myth that Trump was invincible, while Marco Rubio surfaced in third place.
Abruptly, some in the party's elite began clutching Rubio like a human life raft, praying that he emerges from the scrum of New Hampshire as the alternative to Trump and Cruz. Beyond ratifying the impotence of the establishment, their desperation confirms the demise within the GOP of something far more important -- the very idea of what qualifies a person to assume the most complex and demanding office in a dangerous world.
In saner times, there was a general understanding of those elements which might commend a candidate. Sound judgment. A reasonable command of the issues. At least some relevant experience. A grasp of what the job demands which transcends canned speeches and talking points. A balanced temperament. A certain capacity for dignity and grace. At least a few real achievements, not least in the realm of politics.
Add to this the ability to inspire, but also to appreciate the political environment. And something less tangible but no less critical -- some combination of intellectual integrity and emotional health that keeps self regard from spinning into sociopathy turbocharged by power: lying without shame, governing without some genuine regard for the governed, a narcissism so deep that it obliterates all else.
In the recent history of the GOP, there were harbingers that these standards were eroding -- that, among a portion of the electorate, all that mattered was anger and disdain for government. One can cite Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan and, even more ludicrous, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann. But the party's eventual nominees reached the threshold of presidential plausibility -- George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney.
This year is very different indeed. Of the three most likely Republican nominees, none is remotely qualified to be president. Indeed, their unfitness is so patent as to inspire fear.
The challenge with Donald Trump is where to start. Even Ted Cruz pretends that his campaign is about other people. Trump doesn't even get that you're supposed to fake it. His candidacy is, indeed, all about him, his default expression one of aggrieved displeasure at not being "treated fairly," his mouth the pursed "o" of a beached flounder sucking oxygen.
Imagine year upon year of crudity, petulance, self-preening and puerile bluster. Imagine Americans' sickening realization that they are trapped in a dysfunctional relationship with a boorish narcissist who has no idea of how to protect their interests, and whose only interest is himself. Imagine the face of America in the world as the face of Donald Trump.
That's for openers. Trump understands nothing that a president needs to understand. His nationalistic promise to "make America great again" is hucksterism devoid of substance. He has no idea of governance. He has no coherent policy for anything -- the economy, foreign policy, ISIS or trade. His "solution" to immigration is fantastical and racist.
He measures his candidacy by Nielsen ratings. He exudes sexism. He demeans anyone who displeases him -- opponents, reporters, women, a wide assortment of ethnic groups, even the disabled -- the hallmark of a thin-skinned bully wholly focused on himself. Forget Megan Kelly. Imagine Trump's conduct of a press conference -- let alone a summit conference.
But then imagine a president who is flat out ignorant of the world. You can't make "great deals" if you don't know what the deal is about, let alone negotiate with counterparts you've made no effort to understand. Even an intellectual pygmy like Scott Walker tried to memorize a world globe. Trump can't be bothered. The ego that empowers such obliviousness is a dangerous thing -- even more dangerous when dealing with adversaries in treacherous times. One cringes to imagine the fallout when ISIS or Putin decline to treat Donald fairly.
Thus it says a lot about Ted Cruz that his colleagues would prefer to jump into the abyss with Trump. Indeed, one of the striking features of the GOP debates is his fellow senators' visceral loathing for their peer.
If Trump is Huey Long without a program, Cruz is Elmer Gantry without the charm -- oleaginous, transcendently phony, relentlessly manipulative, and intellectually dishonest to the point of demagoguery. His triumph in Iowa was buoyed by dirty tricks -- including lies on caucus night about Ben Carson's fictitious "withdrawal," which Cruz then tried to cover up up by repeating more blatant and deliberate lies blaming CNN for his campaign's "mistake." He is the dank Prince of darkness, playing on the resentments of evangelicals and others who feel marginalized -- without offering them, or anyone else, an uplifting vision of the future.
Even on the campaign trail, he seems to exist in emotional isolation, viewing voters less as people than interchangeable pawns. One-on-one, he responds to voters' heartfelt expressions of concern about their lives not by answering in kind, but by reciting right-wing boilerplate from his stump speeches. There is something deeply disturbing in his disassociation, a lack of empathy which suggests a barren inner landscape.
To study Cruz is to entertain the possibility of emotional disturbance. How else to evaluate his combination of self-absorption, grandiosity, disdain for others, and disregard for truth? What else to make of a graduate of Princeton and Harvard who deliberately plays to the lowest intellectual common denominator for his own ends, with neither compunction nor shame? One hesitates to wander too deeply into the thickets of long-distance psychoanalysis -- it is all too easy to be all too wrong. But whether in verbal combat or miming amiability, at times one imagines glimpsing a faintly feral, wounded look in his eyes, the hint of a damaged soul.
Whatever drives him, there is a certain scary fascination in watching an exceedingly smart and calculating man condescend to his audience by playing dumb. Cruz exalts homophobic Kentucky clerk Kim Davis as a martyr. He lies about the science surrounding global warming and compares himself to Galileo. He says that he will carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion, well aware that this is laughable as strategy. He claims that President Obama only uses military force "if it benefits radical Islamist terrorists." He doubles down on Trump's nativism in the hope of stealing votes.
In his self-scripted political psychodrama, Cruz casts himself as a lonely ideological purist surrounded by spineless sellouts. Routinely, he castigates the "Washington DC cartel," portraying the GOP establishment and its leaders as self-serving liars, the better to galvanize the embittered voters of the right. But this is a matter of convenience, not principle -- far from being a true believer, Cruz sought establishment support for years, and his villainization of them now is a cold eyed tactic. His only permanent loyalty is to his own ambition.
Perhaps the most frightening thing about Cruz's act is that it is so transparently that -- an act. His stump speeches are performances, scripted down to the last breathy pause, and delivered with the histrionic stage whisper of a grade B evangelist entranced with his own performance. All this cloaked in a cloying religiosity, often capped with an invocation to "awaken the body of Christ to pull this country back from the abyss."
But as is often true of genuine hypocrites, this patina of piety covers the meanness beneath. He savors insults and revels in his own slurs, no matter how gratuitous. Hence his mockery of the last GOP nominee: "I'm pretty certain Mitt Romney actually French-kissed Barack Obama." Truly Christian; sublimely presidential. Quintessentially Ted Cruz.
And so it comes to this -- the last, best hope of the establishment is Marco Rubio.
Here one struggles to capture the depths of his shallowness, a task akin to grasping at vapor. For it is grim testament to Trump and Cruz that they can frighten grown-ups into proposing Rubio as presidential hardwood.
In debate and on the stump, Rubio increasingly tries to compete with Trump and Cruz through hyperbolic excess directed at Obama. With a slightly unhinged zeal, he claims that Obama is so "completely overwhelmed" that he has "deliberately weakened America." Like his indictment of the president as an enemy of the Constitution and the free enterprise system, this over-the-top rhetoric is shamelessly stolen from the hysterical alternate reality of talk radio. "When America needed a bold plan of action from our commander-in-chief," Rubio proclaims, "we instead got a lecture on love, tolerance and gun control designed to please the talking heads at MSNBC."
But the effect Rubio achieves is not that of a prospective commander-in-chief, but that of a callow aspirant who is over caffeinated, shrill, and willing to say anything -- a man wholly lacking in balance or intellectual ballast. One thinks not of a leader, but of an overambitious sales guy looking for a promotion he doesn't deserve -- say, perhaps, to district manager.
That marks a deeper problem. Supporters excuse the swiftness of Rubio's attempted rise by comparing him to Barack Obama. But unlike Obama, in Rubio there is little sign of a deep intellect or even keen intelligence -- as opposed to a certain gift for reciting a memorized sales pitch. Thus Rubio is the most cosseted of candidates, his campaign designed to protect him from exposure.
His speeches are canned, recited from a script; he "debates" by repeating whole chunks from memory. Confronted by Chris Christie in Saturday's New Hampshire debate, he at last displayed for a national audience what has been obvious up close -- repeating the same utterly irrelevant attack on Obama four times, almost verbatim, each repetition increasingly panicky and unresponsive. It was dreadful to watch; worse to think of him in the Oval Office.
But this is Marco Rubio, the pretender who would be president. He meets reporters guarded by a press aide who selects those permitted to ask the androidal candidate a question. Observing this unearthly phenomenon, one reporter was reminded of "a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points." As political insults go, Christie's characterization of Rubio as "the boy in the bubble" is particularly apt. One wonders if he knows or cares that he appears to have so little pride or substance -- or, in truth, whether he has the capacity to be any better then this.
He switches positions on a dime. Most notoriously, he came to the Senate as an opponent of a path to citizenship, then signed onto legislation proposing such a path when it appeared politically advantageous, then denounced his own legislation after the GOP base rebelled. He has swapped his once inclusive rhetoric on immigration -- including the legal variety -- for a calculated echo of the barely veiled bigotry and nativism deployed by Trump and Cruz. Thus the deeper shame of his attack on Obama for speaking to American Muslims at a mosque is that, coming from Rubio, it was no surprise.
Here, as elsewhere, one searches for his principles. To appease the right, Rubio opposes abortion in the case of rape or incest, then hints at a softer line. Once the proponent of green energy, he flipped and coined the great dodge of climate deniers -- "I'm not a scientist, man." Formerly not given to public pieties, when asked in debate whether he was the "Republican savior," he intoned, "There is only one Savior and it's not me. It's Jesus Christ, who came down to Earth and died for our sins." Including, one assumes, a reflexive political malleability driven by unwarranted ambition.
Indeed, it seems quite clear that Rubio's only reason for becoming a senator was to run for president -- not on the basis of any real accomplishment, but by repeatedly reciting an uplifting biographical speech that has little or no bearing on his policy positions. Beneath that is a spotty voting record and an unseemly eagerness to appease wealthy donors, often to fund super PACs whose activities verge on the illegal.
So what, one might ask, is Rubio all about? What are the political passions that drive him? When has he ever done anything courageous, or even hard? And where, in all this, can one locate a president?
Yet, come November, it appears likely that one of our two major parties will ask Americans to imagine a President Trump or Cruz or Rubio. One can but hope that, in its collective good sense, the electorate will experience a massive failure of imagination.