Donald Trump has cut many sharp deals on his way to Billionaire’s Row. Most of them were legal, maybe all of them were within what his lawyers told him they could successfully defend. But the Donald knows about sandbags and shortcuts. It’s never personal, just business.
He’s learning what every newcomer to politics learns the hard way. Politics is no kinder or more compassionate than business. The rules are full of holes, put there by clever lawyers descended from generations of Swiss cheesemakers. The Donald is getting the votes, and Ted Cruz is getting the delegates.
Nobody, least of all Donald Trump, should be surprised. Maybe he didn’t get the lecture on how babies are made. Somebody counted the bricks and the sacks of cement he bought to build the Trump Tower in Manhattan. Why wasn’t somebody assigned to find a lawyer who could read the fine print in Colorado, where Ted Cruz stole his lunch? What Ted Cruz did was not illegal, nor even unethical, as ethics are defined to the credulous and the confused. Ethics, as a wise man once said, are like virgins. You might find one in business or politics, but that’s not the most promising place to look.
A month ago, an inquisitor from MSNBC-TV suggested to Curly Haugland, a member of the Republican National Committee, that if the leading vote-getter in the presidential race were denied the nomination just short of the 1,237 delegates needed to win, there would be “deep anger” in Cleveland in July. Mr. Haugland gave the inquisitor a benign smile, and set out those elusive and delicate facts of life.
“The media has created the perception that the voters choose the nominee,” he said. “That’s the conflict here. “Political parties choose their nominees. Not the voters.”
This puzzles and disappoints voters who believe what they see and hear on the television screen, and some of them even believe what they read, which is usually more reliable, but not infallible. Good guys sometimes win, but that’s not always the way to bet.
The rage and venom against Donald Trump from the media and the Republican establishment is hardly unprecedented, but over the past week, the volume of it has been unusual. The Republican elites — and to a lesser degree the Democratic elites as well — are determined to put down the uprising by the peasants, to teach them once and for all that their role is to vote when, where and how they’re told (and sometimes, how often).
Remote control of delegates is not new. Once many years ago, when I was a young reporter on a newspaper far away, I could not get assigned to cover that summer’s Democratic convention. So I took my vacation, emptied my modest bank account and hitchhiked to Los Angeles with no credentials, no credit cards, no place to stay and very little cash. I bumped into a friendly lawyer for one of the delegations and asked him to help me get a pass to the convention floor.
“Not possible,” he said, “not unless you’re willing to be a delegate. Someone in our delegation didn’t show up.” I quickly accepted, but explained that I was not a voter in his state (or any state) and did not even live there. “No problem,” he said. “The governor tells everybody how to vote, anyway. Don’t get any big ideas.”
That’s the way it used to be. The primaries have been around for almost a hundred years, but not so long ago nobody paid much attention to them. They were like straw polls. But slowly the primaries and caucuses grew important, and the smoke-filled room of legend and recollection went the way of the streetcar and the landline telephone.
Now the powers-that-be (or powers-that-were, after the Donald and Bernie Sanders broke some of the dishes) want to go back to the old days. The old days were not all bad. Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman came out of smoke-filled rooms.
But flouting the rules at the last minute can raise an awful stink. The elites are cheering Ted Cruz now, because he seems to have stalled the Donald, but if the Donald wins New York and Pennsylvania the tune will change again.
Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, is the real choice of the establishment elites. He’s impatiently waiting in the wings, just as he waited there to be the new speaker, insisting to everyone that he didn’t want it. Nothing illegal about that, either, because blowing up the party is not illegal. The lawyers are at work on how to get around the rules. If all else fails, a stampeded convention can always suspend the rules. Nothing illegal about that, either.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.