If Donald Trump takes an insurmountable delegate lead in Tuesday’s Republican primaries, perhaps you can take comfort that the winner was the candidate who said, “I will not allow people to die on the sidewalks and the streets of our country if I'm president.”
The possibly sleep-deprived front-runner made that promise repeatedly during a discussion of health care at last Thursday’s debate (transcript), eliciting horrified expressions from chief rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. (Mr. Rubio: “This is a Republican debate, right? Because that attack about letting people die in the streets...”) Mr. Rubio in particular sprayed buckshot in Mr. Trump’s direction all night, accusing him of using undocumented migrant labor and scamming students of Trump University, but the Florida senator didn’t seem to care if voters associated him with corpses piling up in a new bubonic plague. Mr. Trump made the prerequisite pledge to repeal “Obamacare,” but his primary message to voters was that “We’re going to have something much better” (which, to his supporters, means lower premiums and shorter wait times), and to hell with whether conservative think tanks approve of it.
There was poignancy in the appearance of former president George H.W. Bush in the debate audience, and the Bush family may be the most high-profile victim of Mr. Trump’s assault on the Republican Party—even if the Bushes have long benefited from Trump-like character assaults on their rivals. No, a bigger loser would be Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist famous for saying, "I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
Beginning in the Clinton administration, Mr. Norquist has set the tax-cutting agenda of the Republican Party, and even Mr. Trump is proposing a tax cut that would disproportionately benefit millionaires. But Mr. Trump is refusing to entertain “entitlement reform” (i.e., cutting benefits or raising the age of eligibility for Social Security), and few think he’d ever risk his popularity by making real cuts in government spending. The National Review and other guardians of Republican orthodoxy are incensed that Mr. Trump has not used his time in the Republican debates to wag his finger at voters and tell them to expect less out of government.
In a December debate exchange on foreign policy, Mr. Trump said, “We've spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people. If we could've spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges and all of the other problems…we would've been a lot better off." Another candidate, Carly Fiorina, pounced on that with "That's exactly what President Obama said." Even voters who despise Obamacare do not necessarily recoil at the thought of the government fixing bridges, but almost all the Republican candidates have acted as if Mitch McConnell is the typical primary voter, concerned only with scoring points against the Democratic Party.
During last week’s debate, Mr. Trump again enraged conservative leaders by saying, “you can say whatever you want, but they have millions of women going through Planned Parenthood that are helped greatly. And I wouldn’t fund it.” One would think Mr. Trump’s position, that providing abortion services is a deal-breaker for government support of Planned Parenthood, would be a satisfactory one in the Republican Party, but his rivals instead argue that the government shouldn’t pay for any women’s health services. If Mr. Trump were to pressure Planned Parenthood to end any involvement with abortion, his supporters would see it as proof of his ability to get things done, but many of the Republicans now trying to stop his nomination would object that the organization had been left standing at all.
Mr. Trump is not appealing to social justice or the common good when he talks about making “America great again.” He is unconcerned about the support of white supremacists like David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who recently endorsed Mr. Trump. He encourages divisiveness and suspicion of one’s neighbors when he demonizes immigrants and suggests that Muslims be banned from entering the country. (Mr. Trump was helped in last week’s debate by the absence of any discussion of his own assault on religious liberty—no Jeb Bush to bring it up—and by moderator Wolf Blitzer’s questions that took for granted the feasibility of deporting 11 million undocumented migrants.)
His argument that he can cut taxes but and balance the budget by going after “waste, fraud and abuse” is improvised hogwash, reaffirming that most citizens of the United States are more qualified to be president, since the average person does at least minimal research into the duties of the job he or she is seeking. But the other Republican candidates have suffered for their inflexibility, and many primary voters are not buying the idea that Grover Norquist has all the answers.
Rubio offers himself as a more presentable Trump
As some Republicans make peace with the idea of Mr. Trump as their nominee, others are panicking, and party stalwarts such as Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol are vowing not to vote for him in November. They may be figuring that it’s better to try to beat Hillary Clinton as she tries for a fourth consecutive Democratic victory in 2020 than to make Mr. Trump the highest-ranking member of the party for at least four years.
Press coverage of the candidate is also turning more adversarial. On Saturday the New York Times editorialized against the “bully bromance” of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s “sweaty embrace” of Mr. Trump. On the same day, Times columnist David Brooks wrote, “Trump represents the path the founders rejected. There is a hint of violence undergirding his campaign.” (And more than a hint of cyberbullying.)
Probably the only candidate with a chance to—eventually—pull ahead of Mr. Trump is Marco Rubio, who is trying to win delegates in every state on Tuesday even if he finishes second. And Mr. Rubio has decided to adopt Mr. Trump’s campaigning style. Since last week’s debate, writes the Washington Post, Mr. Rubio has “unleashed a string of personal insults that seemed unthinkable when he launched his optimism-tinged campaign in the spring. In essence, Rubio is trying to beat Trump at his own game.” These insults have included the suggestion that Mr. Trump wet his pants during the debate, innuendo about Mr. Trump’s “small hands” and this reference to Mr. Trump’s “spray tan”: “Donald Trump likes to sue people; he should sue whoever did that to his face.”
Though Mr. Rubio is now cast as the reasonable alternative to Mr. Trump, it’s difficult to think of any policy area where he’s the more moderate candidate. Mr. Rubio’s tax plan would not increase the deficit by quite as much, but it’s similarly slanted toward upper-income households. He has more hawkish views on foreign policy and has been at least as cavalier as Mr. Trump about using torture on as an interrogation technique. If he fulfills his early promise and defeats Mr. Trump, the latter will undoubtedly say that Mr. Rubio stole his issues and his persona, and he would be justified in saying it.