The Republicans held their sixth primary debate last night. With at least one notable exception — which was kind of awesome in its own dreadful way — these have been good debates, and we’ve learned something new from each one. Here’s what we learned from last night’s Republican debate.
1) Smaller Debates Are Better
And then there were seven.
Fading candidates Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul have been knocked off the stage, and the results are an improvement. With fewer people on stage, there was more time for each candidate to talk, and more extended back and forth among the top candidates. It was more of a debate and less of an exercise in crowd control.
It also helps that after a few more months of debates and campaigning, most of them have gotten better as candidates. Even, I hate to admit, Donald Trump. Not that I like him any better, but he mostly managed not to sound inarticulate and totally uninformed. Mostly.
But not everyone has improved.
2) There Are Still Too Many People on Stage
In the first round of responses, most of the candidates gave you an idea of why they were up there and the reason for their appeal. Even John Kasich gave a good answer about the policy formula for creating a growing economy.
But two candidates didn’t: Jeb Bush and Ben Carson.
Carson was too low-key, which is his big problem. It’s part of the reason he tended to get lost during the evening, though it prompted the funniest line of the night. After Jeb managed to plead for a minute of airtime by pointing out that he was mentioned in a previous exchange, Carson followed with: “Neil, I was mentioned, too.” “You were?” “Yeah, he said ‘everybody.'”
But back to Jeb. (See? This is what it’s like for Carson these days. He gets a mention, but then we move on to somebody else.) Bush’s problem is partly that he seems a bit deflated and dispirited. He was supposed to be the Establishment candidate whose name recognition and big campaign money made him the presumptive nominee. But he keeps getting humiliated by Trump and outclassed by his young, former protégé Marco Rubio, and he just keeps fading in the polls. It looks to me like that’s taking its psychological toll, like he has lost his confidence.
But Jeb’s deeper problem is that he didn’t have anything distinctive to say or any distinctive way of saying it. His opening statement wasn’t bad, but everything in it was said better by somebody else.
At this point, there is nothing Jeb Bush is contributing to the contest — except for a runaway super-PAC that’s running negative ads against better candidates. It’s time to end it.
3) The Detente Between Trump and Cruz Is Over
At the last debate, Trump and Cruz ended up in a cozy little lovefest. This time, as Trump summed it up after the debate, “the bromance is over.”
Both of them should probably wish it weren’t. Take the “New York values” exchange. Cruz clearly got the better of the exchange at first, bringing up one of Trump’s old interviews in which he described his socially liberal views and attributed them to his New York background. But then Trump countered with a personal, heartfelt story about 9/11 and the way the nation rallied behind New Yorkers after those attacks. I’m no Trump fan, but I found it moving and totally sincere. It made Cruz look small, and he had no response.
That’s the risk for these two candidates: mutually assured destruction. Cruz is a very skilled speaker who deftly wields the weapon of sarcasm. He is cutting and effective and can make his attacks on Trump stick, which hardly anybody else can do. But Trump can hurt Cruz in return, and in a way that undermines his whole campaign strategy. Cruz has been sidling up to Trump in the hope of winning over his supporters when Trump drops out. But if Trump is now poisoning his supporters against Cruz, particularly with the birther attack, then Cruz’s strategy was a waste of time. All it accomplished was to alienate people like me, who were disappointed in Cruz for not standing firm against Trumpism.
4) You’re Not Going to Beat Ted Cruz on Negative Attacks
I think Cruz lost the “New York Values” exchange, but that was the exception. He shot down a question on a New York Times hit piece about a campaign loan, and he totally took Trump to the woodshed on the birther issue. Unlike Jeb, Cruz can tangle with Trump and end up looking like the dominant figure in the exchange.
The lesson for the other candidates is that you’re not going to take down Cruz with a negative attack, so don’t even try it. He can take these attacks, beat them down, and turn them back against you.
This is a real dilemma for the other candidates. But I can suggest that there is one way you can turn Cruz’s strength into a weakness. Turn his unflappability and self-possession against him. Make him seem too practiced and theatrical. Make him seem glib, slick, and insincere. This is Cruz’s one big actual weakness. He has a tendency toward sloganeering, and while he always comes into a debate prepared, he can be overly rehearsed, which makes him seem artificial.
And there’s one person in the race who might be able to exploit that.
5) Rubio Has Sincerity, and If You Can Fake That…
Cruz’s strength is his smoothness as an extemporaneous speaker. Rubio’s strength is that he doesn’t just sound like he can talk about the issues. He sounds like he’s doing it in an unpracticed way, speaking frankly and from the heart.
Is this actually true? Well, he is a politician, and you know the old saying. Sincerity is the big thing, and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made. So I presume there is some calculation behind Rubio’s manner, too. One thing I’ve noticed that’s new is that Rubio is really managing to muster a sense of outrage about the current state of the country, which is intended to appeal to some of the Trump-Cruz demographic. Yet somehow Rubio manages to do it without seeming angry, mean, or blustering.
6) We Can See How Rubio Starts to Break Out
Rubio is young, charismatic, intelligent, and sincere. But he’s had a hard time breaking out, particularly in a crowded field with the Trump Media Death Star sucking up all the oxygen. You could see in this debate how he could finally begin to do that.
First, he was one of the strongest candidates when questions turned to free-market economics, with his answers on tariffs and the VAT. There are still a lot of voters like me, for whom the free market (and not, say, immigration) is the top issue. And he really drove home a point late in the debate about how Cruz has changed his positions over the years, and that is the big weakness for a candidate who has positioned himself as more-principled-than-thou.
Rubio’s style and his discipline in always focusing on a wider message are paying off. And judging from the audience reaction, they like him in South Carolina. This could turn out to be really important for his strategy, which involves placing a decent second or third place in Iowa and New Hampshire and then breaking out later. If he’s going to do that, South Carolina would be a good place to break out.
The signature exchange of the debate, in my view, was the Trump versus Cruz cage match on the birther issue. If you watch just one thing from the debate, watch that exchange. And note how Rubio comes in at the end, on some thin pretext about his name being dropped, and just steals the exchange by talking with personal passion about how focused he is on the real issues. Here is the transcript of that section of the debate. I’ve left out the first half of the birther exchange, though the whole thing is worth watching, and I’ve cut out a little of the crosstalk to make it easier to follow.
TRUMP: The fact is, there is a big overhang. There’s a big question mark on your head. And you can’t do that to the party. You really can’t. You can’t do that to the party. You have to have certainty. Even if it was a one percent chance, and it’s far greater than one percent…. I mean, you have great constitutional lawyers that say you can’t run. If there was a — and you know I’m not bringing a suit. I promise. But the Democrats are going to bring a lawsuit, and you have to have certainty. You can’t have a question. I can agree with you or not, but you can’t have a question over your head.
CAVUTO: Senator, do you want to respond?
CRUZ: Well, listen, I’ve spent my entire life defending the Constitution before the US Supreme Court. And I’ll tell you, I’m not going to be taking legal advice from Donald Trump. The chances of any litigation proceeding and succeeding on this are zero. And Mr. Trump is very focused on Larry Tribe. Let me tell you who Larry Tribe is. He’s a left-wing judicial activist, Harvard Law professor who was Al Gore’s lawyer in Bush versus Gore. He’s a major Hillary Clinton supporter. And there’s a reason why Hillary’s supporters are echoing Donald’s attacks on me, because Hillary wants to face Donald Trump in the general election.
And I’ll tell you what, Donald, you — you very kindly just a moment ago offered me the VP slot. (Laughter.) I’ll tell you what. If this all works out, I’m happy to consider naming you as VP. So if you happen to be right, you could get the top job at the end of the day.
TRUMP: No — no…I think if it doesn’t… I like that. I like it. I’d consider it. But I think I’ll go back to building buildings if it doesn’t work out.
CRUZ: Actually, I’d love to get you to build a wall.
TRUMP: I have a feeling it’s going to work out, actually.
RUBIO: I was invoked in that question, so let me just say — in that answer — let me say, the real question here, I hate to interrupt this episode of Court TV. (Laughter.)
But the real — but I think we have to get back to what this election has to be about, OK? Listen, we — this is the greatest country in the history of mankind. But in 2008, we elected a president that didn’t want to fix America. He wants to change America. We elected a president that doesn’t believe in the Constitution. He undermines it. We elected a president that is weakening America on the global stage. We elected a president that doesn’t believe in the free enterprise system.
This election has to be about reversing all of that damage. That’s why I’m running for office because when I become president of the United States, on my first day in office we are going to repeal every single one of his unconstitutional executive orders. When I’m president of the United States we are getting rid of Obamacare and we are rebuilding our military. And when I’m president, we’re not just going to have a president that gives a State of the Union and says America is the greatest country in the world. When I’m president, we’re going to have a president that acts like it.
That, in about three minutes, was the essence of last night’s debate.