Last night’s Republican debate was a bittersweet moment. It was, finally, the debate we were hoping for; the one where we thought we would bask in the promise of a deep bench of good Republican candidates — before a certain coiffed publicity-seeker entered the race, and it became all about him. It was bittersweet because it may not last, and because we have to wonder who might still be in the contest if the debates had been like this from the very beginning.
Here are a few quick takeaways from the event.
1) Nobody Missed Trump
At about 10:30, my wife said something about Trump not being there, and I realized that I hadn’t even thought about him for probably an hour. During a Republican primary debate. He wasn’t there, and he wasn’t really missed. Out of sight, out of mind.
That’s really, really bad for him, and it confirms that it was a yuge mistake to sit this one out in a fit of pique. For Trump, the old Oscar Wilde line is true: the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. And for the next day or two, we’re not going to be talking about him very much, just as Iowans are making up their minds about the caucuses.
2) Ted Cruz Is the Best Debater, As Far As That Goes
The only big reference to Trump during the evening was right off the bat when Cruz put him away with this line: “I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly. And Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon. Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way….”
It was funny, it was cutting, it was true, and it effectively banished the ghost of Trump for the rest of the debate. This is what Ted Cruz is really good at.
He was clearly the most polished and unflappable debater on stage, and he had an answer for every question. One very effective thing the moderators did was to put together montages for Rubio and Cruz showing the evolution, so to speak, of their past views on immigration reform. Rubio struggled a bit at explaining his flip-flops, while Cruz was smooth at explaining his. It’s very impressive.
Then again, style isn’t everything, and as I’ve suggested before, Cruz’s very unflappability could be his weakness.
3) Rand Paul Found Cruz’s Kryptonite
Some of my colleagues think Rand Paul won the debate. I don’t really see that. He gave some good responses, including an excellent one on criminal justice reform, an issue the moderators promptly buried by going straight into a break. But “winning” for him at this point has to be something much bigger, a game-changer, and for the most part he was playing small ball. You could see this especially with his early attacks on Cruz for not voting to audit the Fed and on Rubio over bulk data collection. Yes, he has a point. No, it’s not going to move anyone’s vote.
My theory on this is that Paul’s radical libertarian views — on entitlements and if he were to go for the full-blown anti-war stance like his father — are just too far out there. They’re too unpopular even among Republican voters. So while in theory he should own the big picture, he ends up fighting too often on small issues.
Yet there’s one thing he did last night that was a total revelation. He figured out how to attack what might be Cruz’s one real weakness: his holier-than-thou attitude about being the One True Conservative and his tendency to dismiss everyone else as a RINO. Here was Paul responding to the exchange about Rubio’s and Cruz’s positions on immigration:
I was there and I saw the debate. I saw Ted Cruz say, “we’ll take citizenship off the table, and then the bill will pass, and I’m for the bill.” The bill would involve legalization. He can’t have it both ways. But what is particularly insulting, though, is that he is the king of saying, “you’re for amnesty.” Everybody’s for amnesty except for Ted Cruz. But it’s a falseness, and that’s an authenticity problem—that everybody he knows is not as perfect as him because we’re all for amnesty.
What I found interesting is that when you hit Cruz for acting more-conservative-than-thou, he responds by acting more-conservative-than-thou. It’s his default mode, and he might not be able to change it, even if it begins to make him look bad. Paul found a line of attack which, if another candidate can figure out how to use it, could really stick.
4) Rubio Versus Cruz Hurts Both
I had expected this debate to be largely a Rubio versus Cruz matchup, and it was. I didn’t expect that it would diminish both men a little. In their exchanges on immigration in particular, Cruz and Rubio managed to make each other both look like flip-floppers, while making themselves look petty.
One or both needs to find a way to avoid this sort of mutually assured destruction. They need to find that Reaganesque way of criticizing the other fellow more in sorrow than in anger and seeming like the bigger man.
5) The Debate Was Not That Ideologically Diverse
Yes, this was more like the Republican debates we had hoped to see. But not quite, because five months of campaigning has allowed the candidates to gauge where Republican voters stand, so it has ossified the ideological debate a little bit. That was most noticeable when some of the YouTubers selected by debate partner Google asked the candidates about Republican rhetoric toward Mexican immigrants and Muslims.
In the fall, this might have been an opportunity for one or two candidates to get on a soapbox about being more welcoming and accepting of diversity. And I’m sure some of them would revert to that in the general election. But at this point, they’re too scared of letting someone get to their right on terrorism and immigration. So with the exception of Bush (and to a lesser extent Rubio), they blew off the questions and repeated the hard line.
6) Rubio Put In a Good Audition for the General Election
Rubio’s best moments were when he took a question from the moderators, pretty much ignored it, and then went on to preview a bunch of devastating arguments against Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. His best line of the night was when he nominated Sanders for president of Sweden (though I have a feeling Venezuela would be more his style).
It started right off the bat when Rubio was asked how he could possibly unite a badly fractured party, and in effect he answered: by rallying everyone against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Hillary Clinton cannot win this election. Hillary Clinton this week said Barack Obama would make a great Supreme Court justice. The guy who systematically and habitually violates the Constitution, on the Supreme Court? I don’t think so. If I’m our nominee, I will unite this party and we’ll defeat Hillary Clinton and we will turn this country around once and for all, after seven years of the disaster that is Barack Obama.
By the way, Clinton’s comment about Obama on the Supreme Court was an enormous gift to Republicans and will go a long way toward motivating a recalcitrant conservative base in November.
It’s clear that Rubio would be a very effective general election candidate, if he can make it through the primaries. That has always been Rubio’s biggest selling point, and he made sure voters saw it last night.
7) Are the Voters Looking at What We’re Looking At?
I didn’t think this was Rubio’s best debate performance, but Frank Luntz’s focus group of Iowa voters absolutely loved him. Maybe that’s just Luntz, and I’m inclined to take it with a grain of salt, particularly because it’s telling me what I want to hear.
But we should probably take it as a reminder that actual voters, many of whom are just tuning in to this race for the first time and who don’t score debates on points the way we do, might respond very differently from professional pundits. They’re not necessarily looking for who gave the best zingers or who delivered the best response on the latest thing all the pundits have been discussing. They’re looking at who seems more sincere, or more likable, or more presidential, and that might lead them to draw different conclusions from the debate than we do.
With the caucus only days away, we’ll know the answers soon enough. But it sure was nice to have a debate that looked like a debate and gave us a calmer and more rational way to decide among the candidates.
Follow Robert on Twitter.
Copyright © 2016 The Federalist, a wholly independent division of FDRLST Media, All Rights Reserved.