GWEN IFILL: Vulgarity, victimhood and vitriol on the campaign trail, and on the debate stage. Why Super Tuesday only added fuel to the fire, tonight on Washington Week.
How low can they go?
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) This little guy has lied so much about my record.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): (From video.) Here we go. Here we go with the personal –
SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): (From video.) Breathe, breathe, breathe.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Lying Ted. (Laughter, applause.) Lying.
SEN. CRUZ: (From video.) You can do it. You can – breathe. I know it's hard.
MS. IFILL: Even as Donald Trump scores seven Super Tuesday victories, drawing ever closer to the nomination, the Republican Party begins to come apart at the seams.
HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R): (From video.) Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.
MS. IFILL: But by week's end, every candidate left standing said they would support the Republican nominee.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) I hate people that think they're hot stuff, and they're nothing.
MS. IFILL: Even if it is Donald Trump.
SEN. CRUZ: (From video.) There is no doubt, if we remain divided, Donald Trump wins. Remaining divided is a path to catastrophe for this country.
MS. IFILL: Covering the Week, Molly Ball, national political correspondent for The Atlantic; Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; and Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for The New York Times.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. Live from our nation's capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. OK, deep breath, everybody. We're going to try to keep it classy here, but it's hard, especially when the leading candidate for the Republican nomination keeps testing us.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) So when little Marco spews his crap about the size of my hands, which are big – the size of my hands. (Boos.) So, I looked at him, I said, Marco – (laughter, cheer, applause). No, I just wanted to – look at that. Those hands can hit a golf ball 285 yards. I backed Mitt Romney. (Boos.) I backed him. You can see how loyal he is. He was begging for my endorsement. I could have said, Mitt, drop to your knees. He would have dropped to his knees. (Laughter.) He was begging.
MS. IFILL: It was a, how shall we say, very anatomical week, a week in which last week's big surprise, the Chris Christie endorsement, became its own meme, forcing the New Jersey governor to actually say this.
NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE (R): (From video.) No, I wasn't being held hostage. No, I wasn't sitting up there thinking, oh my God, what have I done?
MS. IFILL: It turned into the kind of week where Super Tuesday, where actual voters in actual states cast actual votes, faded into the background. And despite all of the accusation and back-biting, last night's GOP debate ended this way, when a Fox News anchor asked the candidates whether they would support the party’s eventual nominee.
SEN. RUBIO: (From video.) I’ll support the Republican nominee.
SEN. CRUZ: (From video.) Yes, because I gave my word that I would. And what I have endeavored to do every day in the Senate is do what I said I would do.
OHIO GOVERNOR JOHN KASICH (R): (From video.) If he ends up as the nominee, sometimes he makes it a little bit hard, but, you know, I will support whoever is the Republican nominee for president.
CHRIS WALLACE (Fox News): (From video.) Yes, you will support the nominee of the party?
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Yes, I will.
MS. IFILL: Am I the only one who thinks that kind of undercut the case the underdogs have been making, Dan?
DAN BALZ: (Laughs.) You're probably not alone on that, Gwen. It was an extraordinary moment at the end of that debate, at the end of a remarkable day. I mean, we never – you know, we keep saying this is a campaign the likes of which we've never seen. We never saw what happened on Thursday before, where the nominee from the past election gets up and denounces the frontrunner as someone who should never be president of the United States.
MS. IFILL: Who had endorsed him four years ago.
MR. BALZ: Who had endorsed him. And then, hours later, every one of Donald Trump's opponents, who have spent two hours trying to say why he shouldn't be president, say they would endorse him.
MS. IFILL: Molly, let's take a long view here. What does this tell us about the state of the Republican Party? They did a big internal look at themselves after the last election, why they lost. And now it looks like they're getting ready for another one.
MOLLY BALL: Well, assuming this somehow ends at some point, yes, there will have to be some other – a new autopsy.
MS. IFILL: Assuming this ends.
MS. BALL: I think, first of all, up until about a week ago, we were watching the Republican Party self-destruct in slow motion. This week, it is no longer slow motion. It is happening very rapidly and all at once. And it feels like it is really fragmenting – shattering into a million pieces.
And, you know, you mentioned the autopsy from 2012, the recommendations for how they could avoid another loss like Mitt Romney suffered. And what has happened to this party is they've gone in exactly the opposite direction. The recommendations of that autopsy were to do more outreach to minority voters, and to younger voters, and to women, and to take a gentler tone, and to enact immigration reform. Certainly not to, you know, build a wall.
And so the party, if Trump becomes the nominee – I mean, so – and Dan mentioned that it seems utterly abnormal that these candidates are saying they would back the nominee. That’s actually the most normal thing that's happening. What's interesting is if you had a candidate with kind of delegate lead, who just won seven of 11 states on Super Tuesday, normally there would be a bigger bandwagon effect. It wouldn't just be Chris Christie out there jumping on board with him, and a couple of members of Congress. You would see everybody start to coalesce.
MS. IFILL: In fact everybody’s doing this instead.
MS. BALL: But it is testament to the disruptive force that Donald Trump represents that that is not happening.
MS. IFILL: Jonathan, Donald Trump's answer to this is that he's actually bringing people in. And in fact, there has been record turnout in some of these early elections. But a lot of the remaining standing Democrats – or, Republicans are saying, is he's driving people away. Which is it?
JONATHAN MARTIN: Both. He's bringing lots of people into the process. Some of them aren't Republicans. If you look at the states where he's done well, they're so-called open primary states where anybody can vote, Democrat, independent, or Republican. And I think that he is expanding the electorate, bringing in a lot of people who are either apolitical or maybe were Democrats at one point in their lives. And that has expanded the electorate.
At the same time, I think, he has turned off folks in the party, and he has drawn people to the polls to vote against him as well. And what a lot of folks fear in the party is that that would be magnified twentyfold this fall if he's nominee, that people would come to explicitly vote against him. The way that I've heard it described is he’d be kind of the lever for the Obama coalition in reverse, almost – that instead of having Obama on the ballot for a third time, you'd have the same impact. But instead of folks coming out to vote for Obama, they’d be coming out to vote against Donald Trump.
MS. IFILL: It is fair to say that there is a freak-out going on. How deep does it go in the Republican Party, this fear that they are, as Marco Rubio I think likes to say, handing this election to Hillary Clinton?
MR. BALZ: Well, Rubio said today that if Donald Trump is the nominee, the modern conservative movement will come to an end.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. BALZ: And I think that they’re –
MS. IFILL: That's pretty apocalyptic.
MR. BALZ: That is a very apocalyptic statement, but it is one that a lot of people feel. I mean, when this campaign started out – this Republican campaign, it looked like it would be a very tough, bitter fight between the mainstream establishment and a Ted Cruz-like figure, the populist insurgency. That’s still there. That still exists. But Donald Trump has come in and kind of knocked everything else off the table.
MS. IFILL: Gleefully, I might add.
MR. BALZ: Gleefully.
MR. MARTIN: He's transcended those divides.
MR. BALZ: Yes. He's created another dynamic within that race. And the prospect of him becoming the nominee now, as we saw this week, is so alarming to people that they're trying to figure out which direction to go and how to – how, if it's going to be possible, to stop him.
MS. BALL: And no matter what ends up happening by the time we get to the Republican Convention in July, it is hard to imagine these fractures healing. If Trump gets enough delegates to take the nomination outright, we already have a very large faction of conservatives and Republicans saying they would never support him, and talking about potential alternatives or attempts to take over a third party.
MS. IFILL: Doesn’t that all sound kind of – but honest to goodness, doesn't that all sound kind of desperate and –
MS. BALL: They are desperate.
MS. IFILL: Well, I know, but I mean, they didn't see this coming is what we’re saying, at all.
MS. BALL: They’re absolutely desperate. They didn’t. Nobody saw this coming, right? I didn't see it coming. You didn't see this coming. And that is why Donald Trump has been so tremendously educational, right? There is a whole sentiment out there in the electorate that was not being expressed, this large block of disaffected, mostly white, working-class voters who did not feel they had a voice in this process until Donald Trump came along. And that is why people are coming out to vote for him that have never voted before – never voted in a Republican primary.
MS. IFILL: So it's not possible to beat him at his own game? I mean, to try – that's usually the – they see that something's appealing, and they say, well, we'll try to grab those folks too by sounding like him. That's what Hillary Clinton, people say, is doing with Bernie Sanders.
MR. MARTIN: Yes. And that's the tradition in American politics.
MS. IFILL: But that’s not happening.
MR. MARTIN: Is that somebody's message is co-opted by somebody else, right?
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. MARTIN: So Bobby Kennedy comes in and co-opts Gene McCarthy. John Kerry co-opts Howard Dean against the war. That’s what happens. Mainstream candidates co-opt the message of a more ideological candidate. It hasn't happened this time because it was too late once folks realized this thing is real. I can recall talking to folks in the party in November of last year, and they were pulling their hair out because they couldn't get the donor types to come to terms with the fact that it was real.
MS. IFILL: They still can’t.
MR. MARTIN: People were in denial for so long. Well, they are now that he's won, you know, a few states, but it was just – it took so long to get people to realize he was at least a threat. And now it's happening. Just real fast, though, what's striking to me is there are two sort of layers of concern. One's ideological. I was at CPAC, the sort of long-running conference today of conservatives that’s happening here in D.C. And what is on the minds of folks there is he would sort of unmoor the party from conservatism. It would not become the sort of Reagan coalition anymore.
MS. IFILL: What Rubio was saying.
MR. MARTIN: Which you hear all the time. A that's a profound concern. What’s even darker, what struck me about Romney's speech, Gwen, was that he was talking about Trump taking the country down a path away from democracy. I mean, that's the kind of language you don’t hear in American politics, saying somebody would actually move America, you know, down towards the –
MR. BALZ: Let me pick up on one point about the effort to co-opt his message. I think part of it is, people – his message is mostly stylistic. And, you know, we saw Marco Rubio try to adopt that last weekend, and in the debate prior to this week. And it turned out to be a failure. It took Marco Rubio down to the level of Donald Trump, without having, in a sense, the strength that Donald Trump projects. So it's very difficult for them to do that.
MS. IFILL: And it doesn't seem like the debate stage is the place where that works anyhow. These debates have devolved to the point where nothing changes in terms of who's a winner or loser at these debates, and they don’t actually – no one can actually catch up. Why –
MS. BALL: Yeah, well –
MR. MARTIN: So true, yeah.
MS. BALL: Well, you know, the one constant in all the debates is that attacking Donald Trump has been a recipe for disaster basically, right? All of the candidates who are now out of the race took their run at Donald Trump and bounced off of him like an electric fence, and they're gone now. And so the only ones remaining on the stage are the ones who hadn't attacked him until recently. It says a lot about this race that, you know, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz really began attacking Donald Trump in earnest a week ago – after Iowa, after New Hampshire.
MS. IFILL: Well, here’s an example of how that doesn't work. We heard – you mentioned Mitt Romney getting out there and finally using very tough language against Donald Trump, and even forecasting what would happen next. Let's listen.
MR. ROMNEY: (From video.) Watch, by the way, how he responds to my speech today. Will he talk about our policy differences or will he attack me with every imaginable low-road insult? This may tell you what you need to know about his temperament, his stability, and his suitability to be president.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) So you help somebody, and then he turns. Now, I will say this – I will say this – I will say this. He probably had a right to turn, because nobody could have been nastier than me in getting him not to run by saying he's a choke artist.
MS. IFILL: That’s his new favorite term, choke artist. And that's the mild version of what he's had to say about people. Does this kind of inability to – I guess, to make Donald – to stop Donald Trump in his tracks – does it also close off the avenues for people like Ted Cruz, people like Marco Rubio, John Kasich? What is the path left for them realistically?
MR. BALZ: Realistically, it seems as though the only path left is for the remaining candidates, first of all, to win their home states. Ted Cruz did that on Tuesday in Texas. Marco Rubio has to win Florida on the 15th of March. And John Kasich has to win Ohio. But then – so that's the first step. And I think if that were to happen, we would be having a somewhat different conversation in a couple of weeks. But beyond that then, they have to accumulate enough delegates collectively to prevent him from having 1,237, the amount you need to be the nominee, before the convention, and then figure out a convention strategy that would deny him the nomination. It is a series of difficult steps.
MS. IFILL: It’s very narrow. Let's take a look at the delegate count because that’s, I think – you mentioned 1,237 needed. And as we speak now, the latest AP count has 329 people – 329 delegates for Trump, 231 for Ted Cruz, 110 for Marco Rubio, and 25 for John Kasich. Now, what is really interesting about those numbers is that from here on in, we have what is called a winner-take-all kind of election, which people can't really compete in the same way that they could. It favors the person who's ahead already.
MS. BALL: It does. And that potentially helps Trump. But at the same time, look at that delegate count. Trump is less than 100 delegates ahead of Ted Cruz. And what I think gave a lot of people who are trying to stop Trump hope this week was that on Super Tuesday he was leading in the polls in 10 of the 11 states. He ended up only winning seven of them. And it was Ted Cruz who won some unexpected victories and came closer than expected in some other states. Cruz won his home state of Texas by a much larger margin than many of the polls had said. He won Oklahoma and then he won Alaska. And there wasn't a lot of good polling in a lot of these states.
But we do see some evidence that Trump's momentum may be stalling, that Cruz may be getting a surge, particularly in some of these Southern states. And that's a lot of who’s going to be voting on Saturday. And we see Trump going out to Kansas to try to score a win in the caucuses there. There’s still a lot of delegates in play. And as Dan said, the main strategy of the people trying to stop Trump now is for everyone to stay in the race. At one point it was for everyone to get out of the race. Now it's for everyone to stay in the race.
MR. MARTIN: Although, Cruz – actually, Cruz wants folks to get out of the race. I think Cruz still wants a –
MS. IFILL: He does. Not him, but everybody else.
MR. MARTIN: Still wants a one-on-one shot at Trump, because he's convinced, because he’s –
MS. IFILL: Doesn't everyone want a one-on-one shot?
MR. MARTIN: No, I think Rubio and Kasich are now open about the fact that it's better for everyone else to stay in and go to the convention. Cruz still believes that if he can get Kasich and Rubio out of the race, they would lose their home states, Ohio and Florida, that he would have a chance to beat Trump in delegates before the convention. Now, that's a long shot, but the Cruz folks have totally rejected this idea of, well, Kasich takes Ohio, Rubio takes Florida, we'll split delegates, and we’ll kick – you know, hold off until the convention. Cruz doesn't want to do that. He's playing in Florida.
MS. IFILL: But here's the thing. Step back for a moment from, you know, the gamesmanship to get to the convention, which we love. But does it matter at all that Donald Trump can't answer policy questions? For instance, last night he talked about what accounted to war crimes, saying he would order the military to kill the wives and families of terrorists, something which the Geneva Convention would frown upon. He, in front of our eyes, flip-flopped on an immigration issue on the debate stage last night. None of that seems to hurt him. And in fact, the exit polls show that most people who voted for him don't really care about immigration. So they’re voting for him for other reasons.
MR. BALZ: Well, I think a lot of them actually do care about immigration.
MS. IFILL: Yeah, it’s how you phrase it.
MS. BALL: It may not be the top issue.
MR. BALZ: It may not be, for instance, as the top issue.
MS. IFILL: Yeah, top issue.
MR. MARTIN: They care about it, yeah.
MR. BALZ: But, of course it matters. I mean, I think that in the end people will make some sort of judgment about the capabilities of the two nominees and their ability to lead the country and to handle crises, and whether they have confidence in them to do it. But up to now in the Republican debate, and the Republican fight, issues have been a secondary aspect to the projection of personality, strength and kind of a formidability as a candidate.
MS. BALL: Well, what we hear – what you see Trump doing is giving all of the answers to every policy question. It's not that he doesn't answer.
MS. IFILL: (Laughs.) That’s a good point.
MS. BALL: He gives simultaneously contradictory answers. So he says he’s going to commit war crimes and torture people, and then he comes out the next day and says, of course, we’re going to follow the law. And people hear whatever they want to hear in that.
MR. MARTIN: It’s post-policy.
MS. IFILL: It’s post-policy. (Laughter.)
MS. BALL: It’s postmodern in a lot of ways.
MR. MARTIN: Yeah. It really is.
MS. BALL: It’s a post-structuralist campaign. I have, in fact, quoted Baudrillard with regard to Donald – (laughter) – in an article in The Atlantic.
But you know, so I’ve met people who say, I’m a moderate Republican and I support Trump because I think he’s a moderate who would make deals and get things done. And then you meet people who say, well, he’s a right-winger just like me, you know, and he’s going to make sure that we don’t let in the Muslims and the Mexicans. And so people hear what they want to hear.
MS. IFILL: So when –
MR. MARTIN: Are you saying he’s the Obama of 2016, Molly?
MS. IFILL: Now, now, now. (Laughter.)
MR. MARTIN: Because that was the Obama thing, in a way.
MS. BALL: That’s true, too.
MS. IFILL: That was the rap on him.
MS. BALL: There’s a cult of personality that blinds people to whatever they don’t want to see, absolutely.
MS. IFILL: Except that Rubio’s point last night was flexibility is not conservatism, that’s not the soul of what this party is supposed to be.
MS. BALL: Well, but that’s the point for some people. And you know, Trump’s speech on Super Tuesday in Florida at Mar-a-Lago – I was there – his main point was I’m going to make deals with Congress and get things done. And he’s not wrong when he says there are issues that Republicans and Democrats actually agree on, and they still can’t get it done because there’s this gridlock and this partisan opposition. And so he actually is selling something that is not the ideological conservative line of, you know, resist at all costs and stand on principle. He’s saying I’d go in there and I’d do deals.
MR. MARTIN: And that’s the most eye-opening part of this whole, you know, affair for a lot of conservatives.
MS. IFILL: Including, say, Sarah Palin, who endorsed him, and you wouldn’t think that’s her worldview.
MR. MARTIN: But it’s not about ideology. And I think for a lot of conservatives, to see how their own party cares so little about actual fealty to ideological principles is so revealing.
MS. IFILL: Is it their own party, or is it –
MR. MARTIN: Well, they thought it was, you know.
MR. BALZ: Well, I think it’s – I think it’s a part of the party. It’s part of the – of the coalition that Republicans aspire to have. I mean, I think there’s still obviously a very strong strain of conservatives in the Republican Party. Let’s not – you know, let’s not pretend otherwise. But I think the bloc of voters that Trump has appealed to are much less ideological than the traditional Republican as we have thought about them, particularly primary voters.
MS. BALL: And it will have been a great irony for the Republican Party if their establishment ends up being victim of a rebellion against intransigence.
MS. IFILL: Mmm hmm. And does that mean the “stop Trump” window’s closed? Very briefly, yes?
MS. BALL: I don’t think we know. I don’t think it’s closed.
MR. MARTIN: It’s not closed, but that window is coming down pretty fast.
MR. BALZ: I agree. I think it’s coming down fast. But I – given everything else that’s happened in this campaign, I don’t rule out the ability of, you know, Trump to be stopped.
MS. IFILL: So we’ve all stopped predicting things. (Laughter.)
MR. MARTIN: Absolutely.
MS. IFILL: Which is wise.
MS. BALL: And if this cycle stops pundits who don’t anything from predicting things, it will have been a blessing for this country.
MS. IFILL: It won’t, though. (Laughter.) Thanks, Molly.
MS. BALL: Is that your prediction?
MS. IFILL: That’s my prediction. (Laughter.)
MR. MARTIN: Safe.
MS. IFILL: Thanks, everybody. We have to duck out a few minutes early this week to give you the chance to support your local PBS station, which in turn supports us. And because we couldn’t possibly get to everything that happened this Super Tuesday week, we’re sticking around for an extended webcast where we’ll get to all that stuff we missed, including the Democrats. You can find that at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And who knows where we’ll be this time next week. It’ll seem like a long time has passed, again. We’ll keep track for you. Keep up with daily developments every night on the PBS NewsHour. We’ll see you here next week on Washington Week. Good night.