Confessions of a Primary Insider

Trying to make sense of the primaries, I reached out to someone on the inside and got the enclosed reply:

“I am flattered that you think I have any insight into the mud wrestling that is our primary season. The fact is, if I were doing lines with Bill at Studio 54 (seventies allusion, so you might not get it) or cutting Melania’s hair, I wouldn’t know much more about the election than Carly’s stay-at-home husband.

“Okay, I have changed planes in Vegas (more slot machines than security scanners in the airport) and looked at some of the polling numbers in South Carolina (no, not brain surgery). But I have no more insight than you do at what makes Jeb! run (must be a mommy thing?) or why everyone bailed after Don & Ted’s excellent adventure in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“Since you asked for my take, here it is. All I ask, if you use any of this material, is that you make me more anonymous than either Deep Throat or some mob informer. I am like everyone else in this Marriott Courtyard—what I want for all these nights on the road is one of those assistant secretary positions that comes with a car, credit card, and personal assistant who can get me a table at The Palm that doesn’t have an unobstructed view of the swinging door to the kitchen. Instead of a Christmas bonus, I will take face time with Megyn Kelly, talking the talk about ISIS or gun control. So please don’t turn me in.

* * *

“It all starts with Hillary. For the Republicans she’s their worst nightmare—Obama in a pants suit or Bill back in the White House, chasing down their votes (remember triangulation?) and interns.

“The reason the GOP had all those strategy sessions back in 2012 was to come up with a plan and a candidate to drive a knife in her back and, while they were at it, throw some dirt in Bill’s legacy direction.

“For that all they needed was someone like Christie or Jeb!, someone with good right-wing street cred, but not a tub thumper on immigration, God, or the Fed, and someone to attract enough moderates or atheists to win in swing states such as Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina. They would even have taken Rubio as a vice presidential candidate, if he could deliver the goods in Florida and stopped looking like a bystander on Girls Gone Wild.

“That was the winning ticket until Trump showed up with his unscripted reality show, which, by comparison, made the partnership of Bush & Christie look like a funeral home. Mind you, the Republicans would take Trump in a heartbeat if they thought he could beat Hillary and drop off some swag bags in DC, but the fact is that not many in the corridors of power think Trump is anything more than a promoter of professional wrestling. And they fear that if nominated he will make the electoral votes of Barry Goldwater or Alf Landon look like landslides.

* * *

“Fortunately for the Republicans, Hillary 2016 is the 1962 New York Mets of presidential campaigns. (You may not remember them, but in one game ‘Marvelous’ Marv Throneberry hit a triple but was called out, on appeal, for missing first base. When manager Casey Stengel went out to argue the call with the umpire, a coach stopped him and said: ‘Forget it, Case, he didn’t touch second either.’)

“If ever you wanted to see a campaign in a death spiral, look no further than Hillary’s. Remember ‘its our time’ and all that, and then it turns out she’s even losing the women’s vote in New Hampshire.

“At the last minute the Clintons summoned the graven image of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright so that she could send all those female Bernie supporters down a walk of shame.

“Here’s Hill losing in all categories (women, kids, men, you name it) to a Brooklyn socialist who for a while lived in a Unabomber cabin in Vermont, and all she can think of doing, to deliver ‘her message,’ is to drag out a few has-been careerists from DC or Hollywood.

“It speaks to the bigger problem that Hillary’s staff is cut off from ‘the family.’ They want her to ‘stand for something; other than Bill’s Risorgimento or Chelsea’s foundation inheritance, but every time they give her a speech that outlines the future of America, she is back in 1992, with that couple from Cheers or dancing the Macarena with some state senators.

“For all I know she’s even happy having The Devil and Miss Paula Jones back in her life (you saw the Paula selfie with Donald, I assume?). Nothing like a good, safe menace, now is there?

“I would tell you that Bill is the 800-pound gorilla in the Hillary campaign, except that he looks like a ghost and sounds like the nostalgic Joe Namath, talking about glory days. The staff hated having to bring him into New Hampshire. (Think of the Yankees going to Mariano Rivera in the fifth inning.) Bill wasn’t on the trail for fifteen minutes when he was caught in a Twitterstorm about ‘his past,’ and suddenly Hillary looked like she was running as Mrs. Bill Cosby. Heck of a job.

“Don’t believe for a minute that the loss in New Hampshire was a bump in the road on the way to her coronation. It was worse than Cam’s beatdown in the Super Bowl. It showed her base is limited to cat ladies, and you have to wonder how many of those there are in South Carolina and Nevada.

“Yes, they are more conservative states, but Hillary goes into them looking like a younger version of Gloria Steinem (bet that will turn out the bubbas in SC), who can’t beat a professional outsider whose resumé is limited to Burlington bike lanes.

“Politically, besides being tied to Bill, Maddy, and reruns of Cheers, Hillary is caught in something of a political straight-jacket, even if it is one of beautiful, hand-crafted worsted wool. (At least she no longer looks like she’s clothes shopping at Target.)

“If Hillary tacks left into Bernie’s new world order, she will look like an opportunist, especially with all those cancelled checks from Goldman Sachs in her handbag. If she turns to the right and says, ‘Ok, I give up. I love banks and giving speeches for a million bucks,’ she’s a warmed-over, Democratic Nixon, with a message that could work for VA gov Jim Gilmore (12 votes in Iowa votes, but he’s still in the race). At the very least, she might think of changing her theme fight song from Eye of the Tiger to Stuck in the Middle With You.

“Finally, she can’t exactly run against Obama, now can she? Her fingerprints are all over the Osama snuff film, the Syrian mess, Obamacare, and Benghazi. Hell, she probably drove him over to the bowling alley when he rolled that 37, costing her the votes of all those Little Lebowski Urban Achievers now voting for the first time.

* * *

“If the Republicans had their flanks covered (with tea partiers and Rockefeller Republicans both happily inside the GOP tent), they would be celebrating the decline and fall of the Clinton empire as if they had shares in Visigoth Inc. But just when they thought it was safe to go back in the presidential waters, Bernie turns up with his populist campaign, which, in its way, is as implausible as Trump’s, and just as unpredictable.

“Inside-the-Beltway Democrats hate the idea of Bernie as much as country club Republicans despair over Trump (for whom think of Rodney Dangerfield as Al Czervik in Caddyshack, shouting: ‘Hey everybody, we’re all gonna get laid!’).

“Keep in mind that Bernie is an ideological purist who is living in Plato’s cave, not the real political world. Free tuition might pack in the student vote at Keene State, and dissing Wall Street is an easy soundbite in primaries when most voters are not hedge fund owners. But Bernie is an outlier, as much of a shock jock talk-show host as is The Donald with his Fox and friends.

“If there was a national primary on one day, Bernie would be a 7% guy, maybe, but now he has these advantages over Hillary: he’s raking in piles of money, and his campaign team doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. They’re pros.

“Even people who, on normal days, would hate a socialist agenda (turning America into East Germany, complete with Trabants instead of Teslas) admire Bernie for his ‘refreshing honesty’ and the impression that he’s there to turn out the money changers from the political temples.

“I would also ignore the polling figures that have Hillary way ahead in South Carolina and Nevada, and in the Super Tuesday states. That was when she was still breathing or, as the accountants say, Clinton Inc. was still a ‘going concern.’ Now it’s in receivership, and Bernie’s the only one in the field who is a declared creditor. Will that change?

* * *

“Playing the role of a white knight could be Joe Biden, who dreams about being summoned by his party, on a warm convention night, to carry the fallen, tattered Obama-Clinton escutcheon into battle with the evil Republicans, especially if they are led by the errant Sir Donald Trump.

“Despite all those articles you read about Joe grieving and working out a cure for cancer, he’d love nothing more than to jump into the presidential race, even if his political staff was limited to a few out-of-work Amtrak train conductors at the Wilmington station.

“Here are the problems with all the Biden-to-the-rescue scenarios. It only works for him if Hillary is out of the race, and she only leaves the campaign trail if she quits in disgust (dream on), gets sick, or is run out of town with a few indictments downloaded from her Best Buy server. Are any these options possible?

“Nothing is impossible to imagine in 2016, but most likely the only way Hillary gives up is if Barack frogmarches her to the Justice Department, so that she can hang from a cross of Petraeus thorns. (Remember the amorous general? His crime was to preen to a mistress-biographer about his surging accomplishments in Afghanistan, and he mailed her some classified documents and, presumably, a few buffed-up selfies.)

“For the moment, no one thinks Obama is ready to feed Hillary to the Public Safety Service. The frenzy would make him look bad, as well. But imagine if the storyline of the 2016 general election turns out to be a fight inside the Obama administration about whether the FBI ought to be allowed to throw the book at nominee Hillary for server-ing up state secrets to Russian and Chinese hackers.

“In that food fight, Obama gets a lot of pie, and, instead, he might choose first to throw Hillary to the Justice wolves (‘we’re a nation of laws….’) and to replace her at the head of the ticket with the compliant Biden, especially if Axelrodworld convinces O that only Uncle Joe can beat a full house in Atlantic City. (Even the premiums on legacy insurance have gone up.)

* * *

“Another option being floated is that Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York and a wolf of Wall Street, might jump into a race that may only have the extremes of Trump and Bernie.

“As you know, Bloomberg has his own billion dollar fortune, and an ego to match fund it. Under this scenario he can pay for an independent run for the presidency as easily as Trump can add gold trim to some his New York towers.

“Would Bloomberg have a chance? I don’t think so, for these reasons. The race already has a New York billionaire and a liberal Brooklyn politician, both with claims of ideological purity similar those on which Bloomberg would run.

“In a race between two already successful New Yorkers, could the savior possibly be another New York master-of-the-universe who is already a hybrid of the two in the race?

“Besides, Bloomberg would be forced to run as a third-party candidate (Bull Moose? Know-Nothing? Free Soil?), and I think he would be lucky to get 5 percent of the vote.

“Would a Bloomberg candidacy throw the race to one party? It might, if he got between Hillary and Trump, and drained off Hillary supporters.

“Bloomberg says he will only jump into the race if the choice is between the extremes of Bernie and Trump. But the nominees might not be known for months (Cruz could well win some Western primaries, and Jeb! might recover his B or C game), which would force Bloomberg to wait on the sidelines.

“Then if he jumps in, it would at the last minute, and his impact could be that of James B. Weaver (FYI, the Greenback Party candidate in 1892, but you knew that).

* * *

“So what happens now? In South Carolina, the Trump ground game is clear. He wants to knock Jeb! out of the race, and to weaken Cruz by bucking up Rubio, much as one might—in a French foreign legion movie—prop up a corpse on the ramparts of a desert fort under siege.

“Rubio is useful to Trump if he can divide the young, articulate, Tea Party senatorial vote, depriving Cruz of key far-right support.

“Trump’s people think Rubio is the perfect, made-to-order stalking horse. He’s angry at being played for the Christie fool in New Hampshire, and his goal is to push Cruz from the race, so he becomes the One No Trump.

“The Trump people, however, believe that if the final contest is between Donald and Rubio, ‘make America great again’ will sound a lot better than ‘I didn’t know they were GOP credit cards.’

* * *

“Jeb! is also auditioning for the role of Trump snake poison. His problem is that he shook the Bush money tree for $113 million (or thereabouts) and all he has to show for it is a fourth in New Hampshire and sixth in Iowa, which isn’t exactly what the insiders thought they were buying.

“Now Jeb! can go back to the money orchard and make the claim that only the Bush brand stands between the Republican establishment and a casino operator with tilted wheels.

“But campaign donors aren’t there for capital gains (they’re day traders), and I think they are weighing their in-the-money options between Trump and Cruz.

“If Jeb! was a race horse (which I can assure you he is not; think of one of those carriages in Central Park), they would say he’s no good in the mud.

* * *

“How about John Kasich, I hear you asking? What are his chances? Before anointing him the next Ohio president (Warren Harding was the last in that line), keep a few things in mind.

“Kasich did well in New Hampshire because instead of running for president of the United States, he was standing as the mayor of Manchester. He practically moved to the state (so did Carly and some others) and tooled around in his campaign bus to more than a hundred events, preaching a gospel of Midwest optimism based on family values and moral leadership (while waving the bloody shirt over the specter of ISIS).

“The rap on Kasich is that, under the patina of George Babbitt, there’s a politician as angry as Richard Nixon yearning to break free and tell the world his mother was a saint. (As a college kid, Kasich managed to talk his way into Nixon’s oval office, where he stood for one of those Elvis photos with the Bowler-in-Chief.)

“His relatively strong performance in New Hampshire was because many voters had met him, heard his half-time homilies about teamwork and love, and figured at least he wasn’t as far ‘out there’ as many others. But Super Tuesday is about TV, and his cable plan is basic.

“John’s not as vitriolic as some others about immigration or Obamacare—a moderate even—although as a Czech-Croatian Catholic (now Anglican) he can sound like the Pope on abortion, and with ISIS, as singer Randy Newman might twang, he’d ‘drop the big one now.’

“Please don’t kid yourself that Kasich would be Mr. Smith going to Washington, although for now he’s been taking enough chill pills for some voters to think he could be the next Garfield, McKinley or Hayes, decent men from Ohio who the machine lifted to the presidency.

“And remember: you know more people in South Carolina or Nevada than he does. As I write, his bus is heading south on I-95, with aides in the back clicking on eHow Web sites, ‘How to win the South Carolina primary.’

* * *

“What about Rubio? Is he gaffe toast? I think he is. He’s good on his feet (sometimes, at least when it’s just a room full of wealthy donors or adoring women), but with the bright lights on, Marco’s deep passes tend to wobble like Peyton Manning’s. (Did you see the awful Super Bowl? Imagine winning the big game and all you want to do is to shill for Bud Light and Disneyland? This guy will be governor of Indiana before you can figure out how to pronounce Ndamukong Suh.)

“Rubio’s problem is self-loathing, in that he despises the current administration, yet he’s the Republican Obama doppelgänger—a first term, celebrity-obsessed senator whose claim for the presidency can be found in the flickering verse of a teleprompter.

“Voters want to like Marco, as he’s good looking (in a Joseph A. Bank window mannequin kind of way) and occasionally glib, while mounting the bully pulpit for the National Security, lockdown state. But when asked to vote for him, all the voters see in front of their hand on the lever is, to use Nicholas von Hoffman’s droll phrase, The Last Encampment of the Grand Army of the Bay of Pigs or maybe a grown up Elián González.

“Marco would love to cut a deal with one of the winning candidates (probably not with Bernie, but who knows?), in which he delivers millennials and Florida in exchange for the vice presidency. I don’t think he has enough high-test in his jet ski tank for such a deal. Carly hung around to be the GOP antidote to Hillary venom and to rally the women’s vote against her. But she gave up when it was clear that Hillary only had the backing of a Richard Simmons exercise class.

* * *

“Cruz is harder to write off, I must say, as he’s heir to the political fortunes of Senator Joe McCarthy, and his head is as full of dirty tricks as the Watergate Plumbers.

“Yes, he apologized to Ben Carson over the ‘he’s-leaving-the-race’ e-blast, but only after Tail-Gunner Ted had won in Iowa, and Cruz hid his own cancelled checks from Goldman Sachs (the real winners here, with all their bases covered in IOUs!), while serving up Tea Party outrage over corporate greed.

“Next up, I am sure, is that his Keep the Promise PAC will give him a puppy, which he will name Checkers. (‘According to the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments, I don’t have to explain how and why I named my dog as I did.’)

“I am not convinced that Cruz is all that fussed about Donald’s birther attacks—yeah, he’s born in Canada and maybe he’s the lost Hanson brother in Slap Shot—because the charge is easy to deflect, points up Cruz’s background as a constitutional law and Supreme Court expert, and reminds people that many of Trump’s political positions come from call-in radio programs. (‘Hi, this is Donnie, from Queens. I have a question about D-Fish, Mrs. Barnes, and Syria…’)

“South Carolina, however, is a must-win state for Cruz, because if he loses by twenty points to Trump or places behind Jeb!, he will quickly run out of non-PAC funding and get marginalized on Super Tuesday.

“A win in South Carolina or Nevada might turn the Republican contest into a battle between Trump and Cruz. In that run-off, Cruz’s bet would be on his ideological faithfulness to the Tea Party and the strong odds that Donald Trump will go down in the flames of some casino scandal. (Report: Escorts Frequented Trump Atlantic City…)

“Not helping Cruz in the primaries, however, is his reputation for playing poorly in the Republican sandbox. He’s perceived by his peers as nasty and defined only by naked ambition. Because he speaks in the grammatically correct sentences of Princeton and Harvard Law School, his sharp elbows are less pronounced in the debates, but in the smoke-filled rooms, I can assure you, Cruz always has to sit with his back to the corners.

“I almost forgot Dr. Ben, but then I wonder if he will even make it to South Carolina, Nevada or Super Tuesday. He was a summer flower, and they rarely last through the winter frost. I haven’t met him, but everyone says he’s a nice and thoughtful man, and a good doctor (assuming you don’t have to talk politics with him in post-op). In his house there’s even a painting of him with Jesus, both in bathrobes, like two guys heading to the pool at the Breakers. Carson reminds me of a wealthy friend who was always getting into costly, expensive deals that had no chance of succeeding. After one of them, a mutual friend said: ‘Well, he’s had his $20 million of fun.’

* * *

“So where does all this leave us? I think Trump wins in South Carolina, big time, and also Nevada. He should be a favorite son in a gambling state. What will change hearts and minds between now and then? Not a lot, and certainly not another debate with Rubio and Cruz. Jeb!? He folds his tent after Nevada, before Super Tuesday, but don’t tell his mother.

“Hillary? I think her problems will continue, on all fronts, until the Biden option is being openly discussed. There’s a new expression in politics: ‘It ain’t over until Madeleine Albright speaks.’ One way or another, Hill will leave the race, and don’t rule out the possibility of some court orders.

“Meanwhile, Republicans will begin to think they can win it all with Trump, who will slowly evolve from a gong-show TV host to someone who ‘isn’t so bad’ and then someone ‘we can work with.’

“I think Bernie will have a good primary campaign—less so in the general, when negative ads would paint him as Lenin’s lost poster child. Bloomberg is a no-go, if you ask me. Too many stars would need to align for him, despite all those billions sitting in his savings bank, to make a run of it.

“Finally, as they used to say in the 1970s, the only thing that could stop Trump is if he is found in bed with ‘a dead woman or live boy’ although Cruz is probably capable of providing him with both options, which should make the Republican race close until the springtime.

“Keep in touch. I’m off early to Vegas. I am hoping David Copperfield can make all this go away. Best…”

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.