The GOP Primary Is Heading Toward a Train Wreck: Trump 'Reinvents' Himself While Ted Cruz Makes a Deal

Lindsay Graham is hysterical. As usual. He appeared on John Catsimatidis’s radio program on Sunday and declared,”I have never been more worried about the Republican Party breaking apart than I am today.” This is par for the course for Graham. He’s what Trump would call a panic artist, running around in circles declaring the sky is falling over virtually every issue. But in this case, he’s probably right. The Republican party is in big trouble and nothing says it more clearly than the fact that it is necessary for the presidential frontrunner’s campaign manager to appear before GOP officials and reassure them that their client is a total phony.

As the New York Times reported on Friday:

Donald J. Trump’s newly installed campaign chief sought to assure members of the Republican National Committee on Thursday night that Mr. Trump recognized the need to reshape his persona and that his campaign would begin working with the political establishment that he has scorned to great effect.

Addressing about 100 committee members at the spring meeting here, many of them deeply skeptical about Mr. Trump’s candidacy, the campaign chief, Paul Manafort, bluntly suggested the candidate’s incendiary style amounted to an act.

“That’s what’s important for you to understand: That he gets it, and that the part he’s been playing is evolving,” Mr. Manafort said, suggesting that Mr. Trump was about to begin a more professional phase of his campaign.

The weekend featured a number of new signs that the party is not ready to reconcile itself to the nomination of Donald Trump, regardless of how many makeovers or second acts his new handlers prescribe, and no matter how much the media may be thrilled with the new storyline. And some of them are very thrilled indeed. As Eric Boehlert noted last week:

“He actually called him Senator Cruz!” gushed ABC World News Tonight’s David Wright. “The consummate deal-maker changing his sales pitch to close the deal. The tone, more presidential.” (Old habits apparently die hard — within a day, Trump was back to calling Cruz “Lyin’ Ted.” […]

Meanwhile, note that candidates who try to unveil a new look mid-campaign usually get called out by the media’s authenticity police. But there’s been very little of that regarding Trump this week; very little mocking of him for attempting to construct a new public persona on the fly.

That’s yet another example of Trump’s “exceptionalism” in American politics. Anyone else would be excoriated if his campaign managers announced that their candidate had been putting on an act and pledged to change his personality so as to be more acceptable. But this is Trump and, as usual, none of the rules apply. Despite the fact that Paul Manafort, the man Trump has put in charge of his campaign going forward, is a longtime associate of Roger Stone, one of the most malevolent, mendacious dirty tricksters in politics, many in the press seem willing to take this “pivot” at face value.

There are exceptions. A very skeptical Chris Hayes of MSNBC interviewed Esquire’s Charles Pierce who predicted that Trump would run a successful con on the press until the nomination is secured:

“He is going to campaign like a thug, win, be gracious on election night, go to another state and start the whole thing all over again and every time he accepts a speech and comes within an area code of civility, a lot of the elite political press is going to get fooled and say look, it’s the new Donald Trump. And this is a great scam. He can run this all the way to the convention.”

The Washington Post editorial page urged people to remember the incendiary rhetoric and authoritarian policies that got Trump this far by printing a long list of reminders that amounted to a bill of indictment. On CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday, journalist Carl Bernstein compared this attempt to remake Trump’s image to 1968’s press obsession with “The New Nixon,” and he’s right. This report from the North American Review of September 1968 will sound quite familiar:

“Is there a ‘new Nixon’?” One of Richard Milhous Nixon’s own advertisements in a New Hampshire newspaper poses the question. Tune in on a television interview, the ad says, and see for yourself. Political pundits coast to coast have been “tuning in on” Nixon’s latest campaign for the presidency seeking the answer, watching every and phrase to determine if the really is a new Nixon, this vigil has become such a standard procedure in the Nixon’s campaigns that newsmen covering the primaries speak of the “new Nixon, Mark VI.”

Trump’s pal Roger Stone has Richard Nixon’s face tattooed on his back. For real.

But the real question is not whether the media will accept this alleged reinvention of Trump. They’ll cover the spectacle regardless and that’s all Trump requires. It’s Republican officials and party functionaries who are the real focus of this make-over. And so far, it doesn’t seem to be working:

Ted Cruz notched another delegate landslide Saturday, stretching his advantage in a competition that might never occur: the second ballot of a contested Republican National Convention in July.

Cruz won at least 65 of the 94 delegates up for grabs Saturday (he may have won more than 65, but Kentucky’s 25 delegates haven’t revealed their leanings). The Texas senator has so thoroughly dominated the fight to send loyalists to the national convention that if frontrunner Donald Trump fails to clinch the nomination on the first ballot, Cruz is well-positioned to surpass him — and perhaps even snag the nomination for himself — when delegates are free in subsequent convention rounds to vote for whomever they want.

This will all be for naught if Trump manages to hit the magic number before the convention. New polls in California show him at nearly 50 percent, which could put him over the top (assuming he competently manages the complicated delegate rules).  And polling does suggest that voters believe that whoever comes in first should win regardless of the threshold, so if he comes close he’ll probably have the public behind him if he makes that pitch.

But seeing as Ted Cruz is successfully recruiting delegates to his side for a second ballot, it appears that many of the party activists and officials who will be at the convention don’t exactly have their hearts in the Trump campaign. Under those circumstances, anything could happen.

And late Sunday night, it was revealed that the Cruz and Kasich campaigns are now coordinating to prevent that from happening. As Fox News reported:

In a pair of simultaneously released statements, the campaigns announced that Kasich would pull out of Indiana to give Cruz “a clear path” ahead of that state’s winner-take-all primary May 3, while the Cruz campaign will “clear the path” for Kasich in Oregon, which votes May 17, and New Mexico, which votes June 7.

“Having Donald Trump at the top of the ticket in November would be a sure disaster for Republicans,” Cruz’s campaign manager, Jeff Roe, said in a statement. “To ensure that we nominate a Republican who can unify the Republican Party and win in November, our campaign will focus its time and resources in Indiana and in turn clear the path for Gov. Kasich to compete in Oregon and New Mexico, and we would hope that allies of both campaigns would follow our lead.”

Talk about a desperate Hail Mary. When have we ever seen rival campaigns working together to stop another?

Meanwhile, the Koch brothers are taking to the airwaves to send a strong message to the Republican party that the money will not be forthcoming if they don’t get their act together. It’s hard to know how many others of the Big Money class are feeling the same way, but it spells trouble for the Party if they decide to lay out. Trump has given no indication as to whether he’s prepared to finance a general election campaign (and the press has inexplicably failed to press him on the subject), but he may find that he has no choice.

So yes, Lindsey Graham’s hysterics are well founded for once. His party has a problem. And it’s getting worse by the day.


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