Rarely has a debate outcome so closely tracked the recent polls. Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz dominated the debate, with Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Chris Christie fighting for the other, bronze medal, spot on the final platform. If you tried to put yourself into the mindset of a typical Republican voter, you would have received plenty to confirm your attitudes towards whichever candidates you like, and nothing to cause you to change your mind.
The first twenty minutes were bizarre. The moderators asked softball questions that allowed each of the candidates to jump into their stump speeches. Nothing of value was learned. There were no follow-up questions to press the candidates on their sweeping claims. And, in a bizarre twist, Trump was the last candidate on the stage to get a question. The whole thing had the feel of a Fox News infomercial for the GOP which, come to think of it, is precisely what it was. Shouldn't the RNC have to disclose those twenty minutes of airtime as an in-kind contribution? Then the fireworks began.
There were two key exchanges between the frontrunners Trump and Cruz. On the issue of whether or not Cruz is eligible to be president because he was born in Canada, Trump spoke as he does at his rallies: He was not concerned, he was not raising the question, but he was hearing the concern raised by other people, and the Democrats were surely going to raise it. Very passive-aggressive. Cruz shot back with a quote from Trump back in September when the businessman-turned-politician had dismissed the issue, then adding, “The Constitution hasn’t changed since September, but the poll numbers have.” In what was the most winsome moment of the whole evening, Trump acknowledged that it was precisely Cruz’s rise in the polls that caused him to raise the issue.
I say “winsome” for a reason. People are tired of politicians lying and almost lying. They are tired of the passive voice: “Mistakes were made.” They know that when they raise their children, and teach them how to apologize, if that child were to try “I am sorry if you were offended” is not an apology at all. The great thing about Trump is he doesn’t try and obscure his megalomania. When confronted with these disparate comments about Cruz’s eligibility, he admitted the obvious: Yes, he was raising this now, and didn’t back then, because Cruz was now doing well in the polls. Cruz still won the exchange on balance – and I have no idea why Trump cited Lawrence Tribe in a GOP debate – but Trump did not lose it.
The same cannot be said for the other most memorable moment in the debate, when Cruz was asked to clarify his negative comments about “New York values.” Oddly, he did not seem prepared for the question and merely repeated what he had said previously, that people in New York are more socially liberal than the rest of the country. He didn’t even have a funny line like, “What I was getting at is this: When you walk through the streets of Des Moines or here in the South Carolina low country, you don’t encounter a lot of people who describe themselves as ‘metrosexuals.’” Or, he could have inoculated himself from what he surely knew would be Trump’s response about the New York values on display on 9/11. Cruz only had to finish his 90 seconds by saying something like, “Of course, the firefighters and first responders who rushed into the twin towers on 9/11 proved that whether you are in downtown New York or downtown Dubuque, your values are something to celebrate.” Instead, he let Trump trot out the 9/11 riff, and Cruz had no reply.
Over the course of the night, neither candidate said anything that is likely to hurt them with the people already inclined to support them, although all of the candidates said something that will make it into an attack ad in the general election should they become the nominee: The meanness, the sweeping claims, many of them false, the blithe acceptance of some truly kooky ideas, all were on full display. When the candidates were asked if Trump was right to propose a temporary ban on letting Muslims into the country, all the candidates except former Gov. Jeb Bush qualified their opposition. Even Gov. John Kasich, who normally displays his decency, began his response by noting that he is opposed to admitting Syrian refugees.
Sen. Marco Rubio is widely considered to be in third place in this race, a placement that could change if he is bested by Christie in New Hampshire, or Carson in Iowa. I do not think he helped himself last night. His performance was almost identical to what he offered in previous debates, and it is wearing thin. In the first and second debate, he appeared confident and hopeful, his answers were crisp and fluid. Now, they appear canned. The words are the same. The cadence in his voice is the same. The inflections, the determined look into the camera, the steely look at anyone who challenges him, all were the same. Last night he looked like the actor he is, reciting his lines, and reciting them well, but very few people go to see the same play more than once. Rubio’s performance, which is what it is, does not earn him high marks anymore, certainly nothing that would propel him in the polls
Ben Carson touched all the points his supporters want to hear. He denounced political correctness. He extolled Judeo-Christian values in one breath and then seemed to vitiate them in the next with his angry talk. He suggested that the media was not treating him fairly. I suspect that all along, this was a book tour pretending to be a candidacy, and Carson will not figure strongly in the race after Iowa, but if he holds on to his nine or ten percent in Iowa, that may be enough to keep a Jeb Bush or a Marco Rubio from getting the finish they need.
As mentioned, Bush was the only candidate to stand up to Trump on the issue of banning Muslim immigration. Last night was his best performance to date, but it was also obviously too late to rescue his candidacy. Rarely did the conversation get back to him. Trump barely recognized that he had been challenged by Bush, a marled difference from his response to challenges from Cruz. Even at his most passionate, Bush appears too, dare we say it, “low energy” on a stage with the likes of Trump, Cruz and Christie. Christie had a good night, but nothing to catapult him onto the platform in Iowa or New Hampshire. He has to hope that all the time he has spent in New Hampshire will pay off, and last night surely did not hurt him. Kasich, who has also fared well in Iowa polls, started last night more crisply than in previous debates, but by the midpoint of the debate, he had reverted to form: disjointed answers, an unsteady demeanor, an inability to connect the policy dots with the personal anecdotes. Friends in New Hampshire say that Kasich and Christie are, by far, the best in a small group, town hall setting, but debates are unkind to Kasich.
“If you strike at the prince….” Trump and Cruz went into the debate leading in the polls and last night’s performance confirmed them in that placing. I would give a slight edge to Cruz on points. Those two head into the final stretch of campaigning as the clear leaders, which is kind of frightening. Christie, Rubio and Kasich are vying for the third ticket out of Iowa and New Hampshire. But, by then, when the race returns to South Carolina where last night’s debate took place, it is hard to see how any of the establishment trio will be able to stop Trump or Cruz. If you found last night scary, prepare for more of the same.