POLITICS
01/22/2016 07:00 am ET

Voters Wanna Rumble, And They're Looking For A Bruiser-In-Chief

Sense and the Constitution be damned.
Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are competing to see who can slam the GOP establishment harder.
Erik Kabik Photography/MediaPunch/IPX
Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are competing to see who can slam the GOP establishment harder.

So, that happened. As we near the Iowa caucuses, a chaotic campaign is starting to reveal some constants. For Republicans, their elite candidates are adrift, as outsider firebrands Ted Cruz and Donald Trump lead the race. For Democrats, former sure-thing Hillary Clinton is getting pressed in the polls by Bernie Sanders. It's rough going for anyone who's positioned as a defender of a brand or a faith.

On this week's podcast, we discuss how the bases of both parties want to go on offense and how all of them are being promised the same scalp: the Republican establishment.

This has become a dreadful period for Republican elites, who now find themselves in a pickle: Do they go with Donald Trump, a candidate with no obvious fealty to or facility with the philosophical underpinnings of conservative governance, or Ted Cruz, the dutiful student of those philosophical underpinnings who's managed to alienate nearly every single one of his colleagues?

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham characterized the choice like this: "It's a lot like being shot or poisoned: I think you get the same result." But other Beltway notables, too personally stung by Cruz's egomaniacal predilections, are starting -- to use Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch's words -- to "come around a little bit on Trump." One wonders what sort of monster Cruz is to work with, given Trump's obvious egomania.

Lindsey Graham thinks between Cruz and Trump, there's no good option.
John Raoux/Associated Press
Lindsey Graham thinks between Cruz and Trump, there's no good option.

Both Trump and Cruz depict the GOP establishment, and its legislators, as the real monsters. They've both exploited the fact that Beltway Republicans have never managed to convince their base that their power is, in fact, constrained by President Barack Obama's veto power. The Republican base remains hopping mad that retaking Congress hasn't amounted to much in the way of progress toward a conservative agenda, and in their minds, the GOP has become a party of squishes. 

As Jonathan Chait notes, "Cruz demagogically blames fellow Republicans for results that are the Constitution's fault." Trump has taken advantage of Cruz's demagoguery to persuade GOP voters that the Ron Fournier Fallacy -- willpower always begets "winning" -- is actually true. Now, the two men are in a heated competition essentially to see which one can apply the thickest coat of tar and feathers to GOP elites. (It could be that what mattered most in this contest was who secured Sarah Palin's endorsement.)

Over on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has asked voters to view her as a bulwark against a GOP Congress that would roll back the accomplishments of the Obama administration -- a preservative president who would protect Obamacare from harm and save the future from conservative Supreme Court justices. It's a message tailor-made to garner the support of her own party's elites and their donors.

And it's a message that resonates with Clinton's core supporters, who greatly admire her resilience under attack. If you're a Democratic voter who's sized up the state of play as one that requires a Democratic president who's ready to take a licking and keep on ticking, you're drawn to Clinton, and you probably still hold her all-day Benghazi-hearing endurance test as a totem of your faith.

But what Bernie Sanders is promising his supporters is that they're going to get in a few licks of their own.

Bernie Sanders, too, promises to lead the people in a grand battle.
Brynn Anderson/Associated Press
Bernie Sanders, too, promises to lead the people in a grand battle.

Yes, Sanders' candidacy stands aloof from the Democratic Party (how could it not -- he's an independent, not a Democrat). But he's not promising voters that he'll take a torch to party headquarters. Instead, he's telling voters that they don't have to settle for a preservative presidency. A transformative presidency is possible, as long as the mass movement he gathers is sufficient to the task of running roughshod over the obvious obstacle: a Republican Party that's well-entrenched in the legislative houses.

For all the talk of similarities between Sanders and his front-running GOP counterparts, the one likeness that really sticks out is that he, too, imagines a world in which the constitutional hurdles that lay in the way of enacting a grand agenda are more easily defeated than advertised.

Clinton promises to be the lonely guardian of liberal accomplishment, and when she makes that case, it is compelling. But there's no way for the base to imagine themselves in that picture. Rather, it's Sanders who wants to sign the people up for a great national mission. Sure, the futility of that particular mission may reveal itself under close analysis, yet as campaign rhetoric, what Sanders is doing is working.

It's a funny thing: Whoever becomes president will take an oath full of verbs like "preserve," "protect" and "defend." In this primary, though, there's a growing number of voters who aren't interested in any of that. They want the fight.

Elsewhere on this week's podcast, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has reached a fever pitch, as 2016 candidates weigh in and various emergency declarations get made. We're going to step away from the sideshow and attempt to figure out how all of this actually came to pass. Joining us to discuss this is a man who was there when the fateful decisions were made, former Flint City Councilman Josh Freeman.

Finally, Washington, D.C., played host to the U.S. Conference of Mayors this week, and the scene was more electric than usual. Flint's lead pipes, Baltimore's inequality and Chicago's policing woes brought attention and protest. The Huffington Post was there, so we'll tell you about it.

"So, That Happened" is hosted by Jason Linkins, Zach Carter and Arthur Delaney. Joining them this week is former Flint City Councilman Josh Freeman. Also joining are Huffington Post reporters Ashley Alman and Julia Craven.

This podcast was produced, edited and engineered by Christine Conetta.

To listen to this podcast later, download our show on iTunes. While you're there, please subscribe to, rate and review our show. You can check out other HuffPost podcasts here.

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