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The day is approaching — and Sept. 17 is probably it — when the nabobs of the Republican Party must come to grips with the reality they thought was farcical back when the last rains of spring fell: Either Donald J. Trump will be their nominee for president or he will have the biggest say about who it will be.
Sept. 17 is the day after the second Republican debate, and everyone will know then with some finality if Trump is capable of saying something so shocking or so contrary to conservative dogma or if someone has recorded something so reprehensible about the old playboy's sordid private life that voters will flee from him like he was global warming's next Katrina. After the Reagan Library debate, the four remaining debates before Iowa will be watched by fewer and fewer people who will care less and less.
The narratives of a vanishing Trump in the fall and winter have given comfort to blueblood and bluenose Republicans alike and Democrats as well, even while polls show Trump with a big and growing lead over the other 16 Republicans. The Monmouth poll this week showed Trump outpacing our man Mike Huckabee 23 to 1 in Iowa, which Huckabee counts on giving his hapless candidacy a glimmer of life, as it did in 2008.
The common theory has been, and still is, that Trump is a flash in the pan, like Michelle Bachmann and Howard Cain in 2012 and Rudy Giuliani (America's mayor) and Alan Keyes in 2008. Well before New Hampshire they were rendered ciphers by their own daffiness and ineptitude or, in Cain's case, his secret past. So it will be, they all hope, for The Donald.
But they're wrong, unless they can bring him to bay in this month's debate for promising higher taxes on billionaires, hedge-fund managers and corporations that send jobs overseas and shelter the profits from taxes. Higher taxes on anybody is the ultimate apostasy for Republicans, and there seems to be panic in the "growth" wing of the GOP that Trump will get away with that, too. I think he will. Who now, besides the Club for Growth, will dare ride to the defense of billionaires and job exporters?
If Trump continues at 20 to 25 percent in the polls and the early voting, he will be the nominee and Democrats may start to rue praying for such an outcome. After Iowa, New Hampshire and then the Southern primaries, where Ted Cruz, Trump's style twin, should get a big lift, most of the primaries will be winner-take-all, where the plurality winner will get all the delegates, not merely his proportional share. Republicans will be looking at a field of Trump, Cruz and two or three trailing conventional candidates, like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and John Kasich.
Conventional wisdom has it that once Rupert Murdoch turns all the guns at Fox News, not just Megyn Kelly, loose on Trump like it has on Hillary Clinton, his poll numbers will fall to Huckabee and Lindsey Graham levels. It won't happen once Murdoch and Trump find that they have more in common than their inherited fortunes.
The notion, or the mere hope, that Trump is just another greenhouse plant that won't withstand the searing heat of a campaign is based on two false assumptions: that most voters trust someone who has proven they can get the job done and that they look at the candidates' fidelity on a set of issues they care about, whether it is abortion, gays, taxes, immigrants or Muslims.
Monmouth University's poll showed that the leaders in Iowa were the only three of the 17 Republican candidates who had never held a political office: Trump, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, the failed corporate CEO who was fired in 2005 for crashing Hewlett-Packard's stock. Their numbers comprised most of the voters. All the governors and former governors who boasted about having made government work — Rick Perry, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Jim Gilmore and George Pataki — were at 3 percent or lower, or, like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, heading in that direction. The lone exception was Ohio's staid Kasich, who was inching up.
But the biggest delusion is that voters care uppermost about the issues. Once Republican voters learn that Trump not long ago stood for the opposite on most of the big issues of concern to them — he favored European-style socialized medicine for all, a woman's right to an abortion, banning assault weapons, protecting Social Security and Medicare from Republican tampering, and legalizing drugs — they would abandon him in droves.
Issues are illusory. We like theater. Most of us prefer a showman to an ideologue, or even a statesman, if any there are in the vast panoply of Republican and Democratic candidates. Trump is America's consummate showman, which is why the first debate set a record for viewers. We tuned in to see the ringmaster goad the animals through their acts and we weren't disappointed.
Last month, Trump began to talk about God, and the old serial adulterer surged into the lead among evangelicals. "It may be over," a former congressman told me.
Everyone is a little antsy about what Trump would do as president. Would he actually carry out his dangerous boasts about kicking around the other world powers and tiny dominions alike with threats and bombs, or govern modestly?
We have been there before. The last showman who was elected president, Ronald Reagan, was going to shove the Russians around, balance the budget, slash taxes, never allow a tax increase, and curb the growth of Social Security and Medicare, which he hated. He collaborated with the Russians on arms control, pulled U.S. troops out of Lebanon after a terrorist attack, raised taxes repeatedly after once cutting them, put Social Security and Medicare on surer footing with higher taxes, and sent deficits to unseen heights.
So what's to fear from Donald Trump? Anyway, let's enjoy him while we can.
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