Monday, September 21, 2015

The hunting of the presidency 2016 (Part 4):
The shakeout gets started

THE LATEST CNN/ORC poll of Republican presidential contenders is out and the news isn’t good for most of them. But what’s bad for most of them will be good for the American voting public, which before long won’t have so many Republican candidates making promises they can’t hope to keep. Because they won’t be candidates anymore.

The poll, completed and released in the days since the undercard and main-event debates on Wednesday, shows how, for Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump, politics is a zero-sum-game experience. Fiorina took second place in the GOP field in the wake of a second strong debate performance, and the controversy created by billionaire attention enthusiast Donald Trump ... with Fiorina basically gaining what the Donald lost.

Trump remains the frontrunner in the Republican field of candidates; the poll finds him with 24 percent support. But the poll finds an 8 percentage point drop for Trump from just earlier in September. That’s when an earlier CNN survey had him at 32 percent.

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Fiorina’s now in second place with 15 percent support -- up from 3% in early September. She's just ahead of pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, who basically held serve, slipping by one percentage point into third place (14 percent).

It hasn’t happened completely yet, but as new polls come in and some candidates wake up to the prospect of more months of hotel chicken Kiev, and those candidates take a hard look at themselves in the mirror, it’ll be clear that the shakeout has started, the process of separating those with an outside chance of gaining the Republican nomination from those who never should have declared at all.

Some time in the next few weeks, and maybe sooner if their campaigns aren’t any more robust than that of Rick Perry (who folded his tent a while back), the bottom feeders will stop the bleeding and formally suspend their operations, shutting down what are already Campaigns In Name Only.

That’ll leave us with something a lot more manageable than the horde of contenders we’ve got right now. Whenever that happens, though, it’ll follow the breakthrough process that’s inevitable in a field this large.

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SOMEONE had to break out of the pack of 1 and 2 and 3 percenters that characterize most of the Republican field, and for right now, and maybe for a while to come, it’s Fiorina. Something in the interaction the former Hewlett-Packard CEO had with billionaire attention enthusiast Donald Trump resonated with women in particular and Republicans in general. They may not say so, but they’re getting tired of Trump’s reflexive bluster, his insensitivity, his vacuous policy positions.

You know what happened, of course. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Trump condemned Fiorina for her physical appearance, with comments that couldn’t be more insulting. “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” Trump said. After the story appeared, Trump tried perceptual damage control, saying he was taken out of context and that he wasn’t referring to her physical features.

Payback’s not a bitch, it’s a sentence that is the perfect rejoinder. At the second Republican debate on Wednesday Fiorina was asked if she had a response to Trump’s comments. The former Hewlett-Packard CEO’s reaction was, rhetorically and imagistically, pitch perfect.

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Fiorina replied: “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” The crowd at the Reagan Library & Museum burst into spirited applause, clearly siding with Fiorina, and loudly endorsing a realpolitik rule of thumb: Sometimes the best way to deal with a bully is to bully a bully right back.

That explains why, moments later, eggs Benedict still on his face, Trump said, “I think she’s got a beautiful face and I think she’s a beautiful woman.”

It’s episodes like this proving that when it comes to retail politics, Donald Trump is a mile wide and two inches deep. He is not a retail politician. There’s little empathy, real empathy, for anyone who’s not like him. He doesn’t even like to shake hands. What serious American politician doesn’t want to shake hands, for God’s sake?

Trump is the archetypal rich Republican, the plutocrat from central casting, the little bastard in spats and cutaway coat who runs the board in Monopoly. And when he talks about women, he might as well be one of the characters from “Mad Men.” He proved that with his “look at that face” comment about Fiorina, and that’s what people reacted to in the CNN/ORC poll.

Trump believes that, to one degree or another, he’s immune to the gravitational pull of American politics. In his political cosmology, the poll numbers always go up, the situation breaks his way, the rules don’t apply to him. That towering hubris was what made his breathtakingly callous remarks about Fiorina possible in the first place.

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AND MILLIONS of American women, victimized by the fashion industry and the rest of the self-improvement industrial complex, know exactly what Trump meant when he said what he said. And they’re certainly some of the 1,006 people who responded to the CNN/ORC poll.

Other poll responses also point to a shakeout. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio burnished his prospects for the nomination with an on-point, generally polished performance on the debate stage on Wednesday. He seemed comfortable in the spotlight, at one point proving himself good at self-deprecation, with a staging of his disastrous bottled-water break in a Republican rebuttal to President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address.

Rubio is in fourth place overall with 11 percent in the CNN/ORC poll, way up from the 3 percent in a similar earlier poll, and up from the low- to mid-single digits Rubio got in previous polls.

Anything can happen. We know that from the debates. And from that poll after the debates that found that 31 percent of Republicans who watched them thought Trump was the loser — and 52 percent thought Fiorina was the winner.

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“Look at that face”? No, The Donald. Look at that life. CEO of a major international corporation. Breast cancer survivor. Someone who with her spouse mourns the death of a child. A human being more than acquainted with failure. A person who’s lived a life that most people could relate to — in the Reagan Library & Museum, and everywhere else in the country.

For certain candidates, levitation is about to be revoked. The great GOP candidate shakeout has started. The CNN poll has former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in firm command of fifth place, at 9 percent.

The cliff of numbers gets steeper after that, fast. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee follow with 6 percent, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has 4 percent, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has 3 percent support, Ohio Gov. John Kasich has 2 percent, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum brings up the rear with the last whole number, with 1 percent.

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ACCORDING TO the poll, five other candidates got true bupkis, less than one-half of 1 percentage point: former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the union-busting darling of the Koch brothers.

You may resist doing it on general principles, but Rick Perry recently showed himself to be politically prescient enough to read the handwriting on his own campaign wall. Gaining no ground, leaking money like a sieve, unable to make enough of a difference, incapable of standing out in the most crowded Republican field in a generation, Perry pulled the plug on his latest presidential bid on Sept. 11.

He’s about to have company on the sidelines. A lot of it.

Image credits: Fiorina: Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press. Carson, Trump and Bush: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters. Trump Rolling Stone cover: © 2015 Wenner Media. CNN/ORC poill snapshot: Via The Washington Post.

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