Just when some in the Republican establishment were reportedly falling for the hypnotic allure of Donald Trump, he’s gone and broken the spell.
Until now he was all about winning.
That was his formula for making “America great again.”
It was the very style and substance of his campaign, reducible to Vince Lombardi’s quote, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
“We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning!” he promised.
And for Trump, winning was also the ends that justified the meanness.
Everyone was meant to recognize that the misogyny, the racism, the xenophobia et cetera, were simply the behaviour of a winner. Winners don’t make time for political correctness.
It seemed such an effective brand, that winning thing.
And then Monday night he didn’t win. He came second.
Even Trump wouldn’t argue that a silver medal is the new gold.
Now he lives under the shadow of another great Lombardi dictum: “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”
Onward and upward to New Hampshire
Humility and introspection are not Trump’s natural strengths, so he won’t dwell on Iowa. He’ll soon put it in the past, as will his most devout followers, and onward they will go.
Ted Cruz didn’t win Iowa, he stole it. That is why all of the polls were so wrong and why he got far more votes than anticipated. Bad!
But for the rest of us, it offers an opportunity for some rethinking.
Trump blood in the water gives pause to reflect on how the race has changed this week now that reality has brought the wild expectations for Trump to heel.
Cruz sealed a victory in the Republican Iowa caucuses, winning on the strength of his relentless campaigning and support from his party’s diehard conservatives. (Chris Carlson/Associated Press)
But his strength in Iowa is presumed to have been among evangelical voters, and there won’t be many of them turning out for the New Hampshire primary next week.
There is a small cluster of candidates who are starving for oxygen and whose campaigns may live or die on the New Hampshire result — governors Chris Christie, John Kasich and Jeb Bush, as well as Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul — all long shots.
But Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, isn’t a long shot anymore.
Ticket out of Iowa
There is something called the “three tickets out of Iowa” theory (retailed by Iowans) that says if you finish in the top three in the Iowa caucuses you’ll have a chance to make it to the White House. If you don’t, you won’t.
Rubio got a ticket out of Iowa.
Now he’s poised to become the standard bearer for the Republican establishment.
It’s the first time anything like it has happened in this race.
Trump’s loss Monday was big, in part because of how dangerously close he came to finishing third behind Rubio (Trump, 24 per cent, Rubio 23 per cent).
Not for months has a candidate from the so-called establishment lane come anywhere near to cracking through the 20 per cent barrier in public opinion.
One reason Trump has dominated the polls for so long is that the establishment lane is crowded with candidates divvying up the available support.
In another time, Rubio might have been thought too far from the mainstream of the Republican Party to be an establishment candidate.
He was elected to the Senate in the Tea Party wave of 2010, is a rigid opponent of abortion rights and the Supreme Court’s ruling on same sex marriage, and even wound up opposing his own immigration reform bill a few years ago.
But such is the state of the party in 2016 that Rubio might be the establishment’s last best hope for heading off a Trump (or Cruz) insurgency.
The long game
Assuming that’s still what they want to do. It might not be.
Just as a way out of their mess appears on the horizon, there are at least some Republicans who think that the best way to manage the crisis in their party is to not manage it at all.
The murmuring in the corridors of Iowa’s caucuses this week went like this:
A Rubio nomination would frustrate grassroots Republicans and millions of them might not bother to vote in November, putting the Democrats back in charge of the White House and probably the Senate too.
If that’s what the future looks like, then why not lose with Trump (or Cruz), and let the hankering for revolution get spent, rather than lose with Rubio and see the internal roiling that’s bedevilled the party since 2008 continue for another election cycle.
That seems a desperate solution. But Republicans who have been horrified by what they’ve seen their party go through this season recognize they can’t move past the problem by pretending it will just go away, and this seems one route to resolving it.
Another route, of course is President Trump (or Cruz).