There’s not a lot shaking down at the Gold Dome yet, with one legislative day out of 40 marked off the calendar. In the meantime, there’s plenty on the national political scene to talk about, starting with the news that the GOP debate stage Thursday night will be missing a couple of occupants.
Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul have been dropped from the primetime event to a “kids’ table” debate that really need not take place at this point. Paul is boycotting the undercard, trying to fire up his supporters with the snub; I saw at least two tweets from his campaign account yesterday encouraging followers to give money to show those meanies in the media he’s still a viable candidate. But the fact is, he isn’t a viable candidate. What some of us thought* would be a step forward for the Paul family brand — building on his father’s modest success with a broader appeal — instead seems to have backfired for the Kentucky senator. He just doesn’t have any traction among any portion of the electorate. Paul hasn’t been above 5 percent in a single national poll (among those in the Real Clear Politics average) since an August poll by CNN; he hasn’t been in sole position of even fifth place but twice in the past few months. There’s really no argument that he’s been particularly harmed, compared to other candidates, by the disproportionate media attention paid to Donald Trump. He has taken more shots than other candidates at Trump in the debates, to no effect (or no good effect, anyway). He’d do well to turn his attention to winning re-election to the Senate, where he can play a more influential role than presidential also-ran, and hope the much-discussed “libertarian moment” returns before Halley’s Comet does.
Whether up or down, Fiorina has been a constant surprise in this campaign. She showed strong debate chops early on, earning her way into the main debate stage and blowing away the other candidates when she finally got there. Then … nothing. She was completely unable to build on that momentum and attention, and has slid steadily down in the polls and in terms of her presence in the subsequent debates. I attended a town hall she held at Georgia Tech last month, where she received polite applause from a decent crowd but showed no signs of going back on an upswing. People talk about catching lightning in a bottle in politics as well as sports, but it doesn’t do any good if the bolt blows right through the bottom of it. At this juncture, I would say Fiorina has even played her way out of serious consideration as a running mate for the eventual nominee.
The remaining group on stage Thursday night — Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and John Kasich — is still too large in my view. Carson’s star has burned out, and there is no reason to think he can reignite the fire at this point. Kasich is on the stage despite registering less than 2 percent in national polls, simply by virtue of his current third-place standing in New Hampshire. But in the debate as in that primary, the most likely effect of Kasich’s continued presence is to detract from someone who can still emerge from the pack with the support of “the establishment.” To the extent that’s true, Kasich is helping Trump and Cruz.
Finally, the most surprising contribution to the hopes of Trump and Cruz this week comes from none other than Jeb Bush. His super PAC has launched an advertising assault on Rubio based on — wait for it — the latter’s immigration stance. This is political malpractice in more than one way, not least because Bush in the past praised Rubio’s work in the Gang of Eight and because the attack on Rubio comes not from the center but from the right. I understand everyone is revising their past positions on immigration at this point, but it simply isn’t believable that Bush is on Rubio’s right on the issue. What’s more, like Kasich’s campaign, the main thing the Bush campaign can accomplish at this point is to drag down Rubio (and maybe Christie) to the benefit of Trump and Cruz. I have a hard time believing Bush’s financial backers are comfortable with that. Certainly, “the establishment” that once was expected to consolidate behind Bush can’t be happy about it.
* Boy, is that piece depressing to read in retrospect …