Matt Bai on the wild Republican race: ‘It’s very hard to know what we’re living through’

     Dick Polman (right) spoke with political columnist Matt Bai at the University of Pennsylvania's Kelly Writers House on Thursday. (Amy Quinn/WHYY)

    Dick Polman (right) spoke with political columnist Matt Bai at the University of Pennsylvania's Kelly Writers House on Thursday. (Amy Quinn/WHYY)

    These days I’m often asked, “What’s gonna happen in the Republican race?” Frankly, I have no idea. Given the unruly volatility in the party — and in our infotainment culture, especially — it’s truly impossible to predict. That strikes some people as a cop out, but rest assured, I’m not the only journalist who abhors the guessing game.

    Take Matt Bai, for instance. He logged 10 years as chief political correspondent for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. He currently writes weekly columns for Yahoo News. He punditizes on Meet the Press …. And even he says it’s futile to read tea leaves in this wild Republican race.

    I hosted Bai the other day at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House. We talked about a lot of stuff — the new power of digital media (his recent Yahoo interview with President Obama got 8 million page views), the idiotic comments posted by trolls (“I don’t read them …. If I want to be popular, I’ll drive an ice cream truck.”), the Democratic race (“Hillary’s history is, things usually don’t go swimmingly,” so things could get rocky again) — but we spent the most time on the GOP. As you might expect, given the Trump-Carson spectacle.

    So I asked, “What the hell explains this Republican race?” In other words, have Republican primary voters lost their minds, anointing two frontrunners who have no qualifications and no business running in the first place?

    Bai said, “We don’t know [what’s going to happen]. We live in a time when everything is changing. Nobody knew about Uber three years ago. And we don’t know when we’re at the moment when suddenly the voters really do want someone who doesn’t know anything about politics, when they’re really not going to go back to electability (as the key criterion), when they really are going to pick someone like Donald Trump ….[Until 2008,] a lot of people who cover politics thought it’d be impossible for an African American to win the nomination for the presidency. Nothing’s possible until it’s possible.

    “So do I dismiss the idea that Donald Trump or Ben Carson could be the nominee? Who today, I understand, has made it clear that he thinks the ancient pyramids were used to house grain? That’s possible, sure.”

    But he’s alarmed by that possibility. (By the way, Carson just got caught lying again.) Bai says that Trump owes his rise to “a not terribly engaged electorate, and a subset of that electorate is driven by celebrity. It has watched the guy on TV, it’s angry about immigration — all those things have come together to build a base of support.” We live in an era when “our public discourse has become indistinguishable from our entertainment” — as foreseen 30 years ago by culture critic Neil Postman, author of the prescient book Amusing Ourselves to Death. And even though Bai questions whether Trump really wants the job, he fears that Trump is plowing ground for a future entertainer “who sounds less crazy than this guy.”

    Bai, while loath to predict, believes nonetheless that the Republican race will trend toward sanity: “I don’t think Trump has been ‘winning’ this race, ever. I think that everybody else has been losing. He’s never been over 30 percent [support] with any consistency, and nobody has ever been nominated with 30 percent of the vote. His support hasn’t grown, and there’s no evidence that it can grow ….

    “I think people are going to focus in, and there are several good candidates who will emerge over the next 8 or 10 weeks as serious alternatives.” The problem is that the “good” candidates Bai deems most qualified are all candidates with governing experience — “and the rift in the Republican [electorate,” he says, “is between governing and non-governing.” A lot of Republican voters “view government experience as counterproductive. They’ve taken Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric to its logical extreme.”

    So who are Bai’s serious candidates? He’s skeptical about Marco Rubio, despite the new Washington media narrative that anoints Rubio as the latest It Guy. “There’s no statistical basis for that narrative. None,” he says. And Rubio’s dodgy finances — he used a Republican Party credit card to repair the family minivan, stuff like that — are fresh grist for scrutiny. Plus, the conservative media hates the fact that he once flirted with immigration reform.

    And Bai suspects that Jeb Bush is DOA, that Jeb, who’s still touting the decade-old gubernatorial tenure that nobody cares about, is a classic case of a guy bedeviled by bad timing. He says that Jeb “is relying on New Hampshire, which has not been kind to his family. And he has a much more crowded, talented field” than John McCain and Mitt Romney had to contend with. (Jeb is also stuck with the Bush family baggage, which got heavier in the past 24 hours, with his dad blaming Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld for brother W’s horrific presidential failures.)

    Bai singled out two candidates with room to grow. He thinks Ohio Gov. John Kasich is solid — he says Kasich has made creative moves to spur job growth — and Kasich has now reached double digits in New Hampshire. Indeed, Bai rightly says that the New Hampshire polls are the only surveys that matter. He says that New Hampshire will determine the shape of this race. Iowa is a joke (the last two GOP winners were Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum), and the national polls (on which the debate organizers mistakenly rely) are “worthless” because most respondents aren’t paying close attention to the race (“all they know is Donald Trump and his hat”).

    Bai says the other candidate to watch is Chris Christie.

    Yeah, he knows that everyone thinks Christie is toast (I too have written such things), and, indeed, Christie got bumped from next Tuesday’s Fox Business debate. But Bai thinks he’s “underrated.” He points out that Christie is polling far better in New Hampshire than nationally — and that he’s currently getting buzz about his comments on drug addiction. Bai says that, Bridgegate baggage and lousy Jersey economy notwithstanding, Christie is still “the best pure retailer in the Republican party .. .the only one who has the ability to change minds in a room.”

    So are the Republicans really poised to nominate one of its charlatans? Or will they come to their senses — and perhaps shock convention wisdom by picking the likes of Christie?

    Bai says it’s all possible. Assume nothing. In his words, “It’s very hard to know what we’re living through, because we all have our faces pressed up against the window.”

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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