WASHINGTON – In a world where bullying is interpreted as strength, Donald Trump and Bobby Knight would be kings. One of them is testing the proposition.
Not Knight, though some in Indiana might prefer him. It is the hidden vice of polite, congenial Hoosiers – like the vicar with a fetish – that they regard the profane, chair-throwing, player-assaulting former Indiana University basketball coach as a legend. In a state where basketball is the fourth monotheistic religion, Knight’s public embrace of Trump – comparing him to George Washington and Harry Truman – might be one of those rare endorsements that make a difference, in a primary that Trump probably needs to win to secure the GOP presidential nomination on the first ballot.
“Trump and Knight are politically incorrect,” one Indiana political insider told me. “They make mistakes. But they have the image of being winners.”
Ted Cruz, in contrast, looks less like a winner every day. At the gym where home games in the movie “Hoosiers” were filmed, Cruz referred to the basketball hoop as a “ring.” That is like this vicar spilling the communion wine all over the cathedral floor – a combination of clumsiness and blasphemy. The gaffe was particularly damaging because it reinforced a perception that Cruz is a political panderer, and an inept one.
At first glance, Indiana – an electorate heavy with conservatives and religious people – would seem to be favorable ground for Cruz’s last stand. But this interpretation ignores the current complexity of Hoosier politics.
Indiana’s Republican governor, Mike Pence, should be in dominant position as he campaigns for re-election. The state’s economy is booming. Pence can take credit for the second-largest budget surplus in Indiana history. Yet a recent poll has the governor under 50 percent support and barely ahead of a politically mediocre Democratic challenger. More Hoosiers think their state is on the wrong track than the right one.
The explanation for Pence’s underperformance? He has been entangled in bitter culture war controversies – on both gay rights and abortion – that have alienated a significant portion of his predecessor’s political coalition.
Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels famously called for a “truce” on social issues in order to focus on more practical economic matters. Under Pence – a religious conservative who previously represented a homogeneously conservative House district – the truce ended. Local politicos see warning signs for Pence in Hamilton County, a wealthy, conservative community north of Indianapolis. Daniels carried the area with 70 percent of the vote. Pence now polls there in the high 50s.
The implication for presidential politics? “Pence and Cruz have the same appeal, a strong emphatic faith and an emphasis on social issues,” another Indiana political figure explained to me. “These are important parts of the Republican coalition. But you can’t assume that people who would have voted for [John] Kasich will vote for Cruz. They are not really Cruz people because they are struggling to be Pence people.”
This calls into question the viability of the Cruz/Kasich strategic voting alliance, which involves Kasich essentially ceding his Indiana support to Cruz. “Hoosiers don’t like being told what to do,” a Hoosier politician bristled to me. Cruz has the added drawback, in a state tired of culture war controversy, of having the manner of a television evangelist. For this reason, some socially moderate Republicans may well feel attracted to Trump (somehow ignoring or forgetting that Trump has publicly mocked a disabled reporter and based his campaign on ethnic stereotypes and religious bigotry).
All of this adds up to a rather obvious point: The only serious alternative to Trump is a tragically flawed and weak candidate. At this point, Hoosier voters who want to defeat Trump would need to provoke a bitter convention fight in order to benefit a candidate they don’t particularly like (or can barely stand, as the case may be). I think this is precisely the choice Hoosiers should make. But we can’t pretend it is an easy one.
This is, perhaps, the most disturbingly remarkable feature of a disturbingly remarkable presidential election. After starting with one of the strongest Republican fields in recent memory – including some of the nation’s most successful governors – voters winnowed the options down to two of the most justly reviled politicians in America. There is more than a dime’s worth of difference between them. One, Cruz, would cause the GOP to lose. The other, Trump, would corrupt the party beyond recognition. But Hoosiers (and other Americans) deserved better options.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.