BANANAS: All eyes on Trump at the GOP circus.
The remaining five Republican candidates for president convened last night for a debate that resembled a John Cassavetes movie: It was hard to follow, both very funny and very disturbing for ineffable reasons, genuinely shocking and nerve-racking, everyone was yelling and talking over each other, and everyone seemed drunk.
As a reminder, these fellas are running for president.
At one point, Trump kept repeating that he wouldn't "let people die in the streets" if he was president, and Marco Rubio
and Ted Cruz
kept attacking him for that position. It seemed like a moment that really captured the Republican Party in 2016.
My take: all of last night's sound and fury signifies not much. Donald Trump took some punches but came out swinging himself. All of the attention was on Trump, Trump, Trump. He was entertaining, and while astonishingly ill-prepared as a candidate for president, he continued to channel the incoherent rage of the Trumpenproletariat. He was both recognizably human and deeply strange — not to mention wildly unpredictable — which has the effect of making the cardboard-cutout political personalities sharing the stage with him come off as unwatchably phoney. That has worked out well for Trump thus far, and I see no evidence that things have changed.
Trump also continued to commit numerous heresies against GOP orthodoxy that would doom a typical Republican candidate, which had me wondering whether he's already looking toward the general election. More on this in a moment.
The big theme of the debate was that both Rubio and Cruz finally went after Trump. Rubio emptied his oppo folder: He tried to out-do Trump's nativism, criticizing Trump for hiring people from other countries and buying clothes that weren't made in America (Trump said Rubio's never hired anyone at all, and can't manage his own credit cards). Rubio also attacked Trump for his scam school, Trump University, and for his bankruptcies. And he said Trump was just a spoiled rich kid. In the sort of over-rehearsed, canned joke that is Rubio's specialty, he said that if Trump hadn't inherited his money, "he'd be selling watches in Manhattan."
At first Rubio seemed both nervous and over-eager, bouncing in place and refusing to look at Trump when he attacked. It was like a a teenage boy trying out a prepared diss on a girl that dumped him last week. But after 10 minutes or so, he got into his rhythm. He seemed to genuinely rattle Trump, who at times looked like he might have a heart attack on stage. I thought Rubio's tack of telling people to google his attack lines ("Donald Trump and Polish workers," for example) was a clever way of giving more life to the attacks by engaging viewers to do their own digging.
As usual, pundits and many conservative elite types are rushing to declare Rubio the winner. Take this, perhaps, with a grain of salt: This is also what they've done after pretty much every debate (save for the one in which Rubio melted down so completely that not even his fanboys could see the sunny side), after every second-or-third-place finish, after every fawning Politico article leaked by and to hacks. Every moment is a Rubio moment.
But Rubio did make some progress. The pre-planned zingers fell flat to my ears, but Rubio got in some more effective punches when he was able to improv. When Trump said that he'd seen Rubio at a previous debate repeat himself five times, Rubio snapped back, "I saw you repeat yourself five times five seconds ago." When Trump dismissed a charge as something that happened decades ago, Rubio said "oh, there's a statute of limitations on lying?"
Rubio was at his best when Trump was in the awkward position of having to explain his policies. Trump of course knows nothing whatsoever about policy and he started stammering incoherently about "lines around states" when asked for his health plan. Rubio did a good job of pointing out that for all of his bluster, the verbal content of Trump's rants are often just arbitrary collections of words. Rubio (with help from Cruz) kept pushing, demanding to hear his plan, and Trump sounded more and more like an ornery uncle in the early stages of dementia (Rubio cleverly used the "repeats himself" line against Trump in this way). Trump at times came off as frothy and confused.
Of course, Trump's no-nothing qualities make him popular
with his fans (Rubio has to be careful that a haughty, whiz-kid diss of a populist candidate's lack of policy sophistication doesn't accidentally come off as an attack on Trump's voters
). But there's probably nothing Rubio or Cruz can do about Trump's core base of support, which likely gives him a floor around 30 percent or higher in most states. Rubio's target isn't Trump's hardcore fans, it's the 20 percent or so of the GOP that both hasn't decided yet and has a reasonably favorable view of Trump. These are the folks that Trump needs to add to reach his ceiling and get closer to 50 percent or more. If he comes off as a confused, angry old man who talks gibberish and is woefully unprepared to be president, some of the late-breaking deciders might move to more pragmatic choices. For all of his success, there's evidence that this happened to a small degree in South Carolina. It's the anti-Trumpers only hope to stop him going forward, and Rubio/Cruz at least made progress on this front, if not achieving anything close to a KO.
(Side note: While I am pretty skeptical that Rubio moved the needle with voters, he likely moved the needle with donors. The establishment class was very eager to see someone take on Trump and Rubio delivered.)
Cruz, meanwhile, also came after Trump, although his prosecutorial style doesn't work all that well when Trump just responds with dismissive insults (the Socratic method is no match for someone throwing feces in reply). He did get in one strong zinger when Trump (in an uncharacteristic Jeb-like move), asked him to apologize. "I will never apologize for defending the Constitution," said Cruz.
While Rubio dug through Trump's dirt, Cruz to challenge Trump for GOP heresies. This has generally been less effective; one thing Trump has proved is that a big block of GOP voters simply don't care as much about Republican orthodoxies as the donor class might imagine. Still, you can see what Cruz was trying to do. He really needs to route among the True Conservative types in the South on Super Tuesday, so his best bet is to peel off evangelicals nervous about the libertine Trump's dalliances with liberal social positions (and more generally any movement conservatives tempted by the cult of Trump). I suspect that Trump gave him some material that might allow Cruz to persuade late-deciding right-wing voters.
This gets me to what was by far the most astonishing part of the debate: Trump continuing, often unprompted, to go out of his way to give a strong defense of the value of Planned Parenthood. "Millions and millions of women," he said. "Cervical, breast cancer, millions and millions of women are helped by Planned Parenthood." He hammered this point over and over. Being Trump, he also said that he would defund Planned Parenthood because he disagreed with them on abortion. But still, he simply would not back down on PP's value and all it does to help women with lots of health care services that have nothing to do with abortion. This kind of defense of PP would be death for any other Republican candidate.
One thing I wonder is whether Trump has decided (not implausibly!) that he's got the GOP nomination in the bag, and he is now doing what frontrunners do: moving toward the middle and positioning himself for the general election. Planned Parenthood, after all, polls pretty well among the general public! So does ending foreign entanglements in the Middle East and a rejection of Bush-era neoconservative adventuring. As does at least paying lip service to trying to achieve peace, instead of reflexively dismissing any thought of diplomacy. See also his statements on health care. Incredibly vague, granted, but notice the focus: making sure people have coverage, the importance of protecting people with pre-existing conditions. He said that if elected president he wouldn't let people die in the streets. Rubio and Cruz argued that this shows Trump is insufficiently conservative, but not letting people die in the streets is a pretty good posture for the general election!
It's hard to see because Trump is so incoherent — and has so little fluency for policy — but if you squint, Trump looks like a guy very cleverly positioning himself as the moderate. That's a smart move both for the blue states to come in the Republican primaries and looking ahead to the general.
Trump, I should add, also got insults in of his own. "This guy's a choke artist and this guy's a liar," Trump said, pointing at Rubio and Cruz, respectively. Just as he settled on "low energy" for Bush and "liar, nasty guy" for Cruz, Trump debuted his bullying routine on Rubio: he's a choke artist, a lightweight, an inexperienced child, and he sweats. Trump could not stop talking about how much Rubio sweats in a post-debate interview. The subtext: He's a chicken.
Trump also swatted away Cruz: "Don't get nervous," he said. And later: "I'm relaxed. You're the basket case." When Cruz said that Trump was a Washington-style dealmaker, Trump said yeah, good deals
. Trump added, "I get along with everybody, you get along with nobody. You should be ashamed of yourself."
As you can see from this recap, Ben Carson and John Kasich were invisible (sometimes literally: the CNN camera often showed just the three candidates in the middle).
At one point, Carson, desperate for time, whispered, "Can someone attack me please?" He also said that "America is heading off the abyss of destruction." Be that as it may.
Kasich said his dad was a mailman.
Revealing moment came after the debate when Trump did an interview with CNN. He said that maybe the IRS kept auditing his tax returns year after year because he was "such a strong Christian." This is such a baffling bit of nonsense that we can't help but report on it, and laugh at it, and gawk away. And so the cameras stay on Trump. To the extent that he has a plan, that's his plan. He's a master of theater of the absurd.