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What We Learned from the South Carolina Republican Debate


The latest Republican debate over the weekend moved forward the primary contest in some important ways. For those who missed it—and whose idea was it to start holding debates on Saturday nights, anyway?—here are the crucial developments that will change the contest going into the South Carolina primary.

1) The Supreme Court? Whatever

The big news Saturday was the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a development that threatens to tilt the Supreme Court to the left and sets up a kind of political Armageddon over the nomination of his successor. All of the candidates pretty much agreed that the Senate should refuse to confirm a replacement for Scalia until after the election.

But we didn’t really get a chance to differentiate the candidates on this issue, because moderator John Dickerson asked only one round of questions and let it go at that. No further follow-ups, no elucidation of differing constitutional interpretations or parliamentary tactics, no pushing back about whether it would be possible for President Obama to find a consensus nominee or whether Republicans could really resist confirming a new justice for a whole year.

This is an issue that has just leaped to the forefront of the election, and Dickerson pretty much dropped it. It was a big wasted opportunity.

But precisely because we didn’t get to explore this issue, it wasn’t the big news of the night.

2) Putting the ‘Rubot’ to Rest

The biggest news was probably Marco Rubio’s performance. In a damaging exchange from the last debate, Chris Christie accused Rubio of repeating the same rehearsed stump speech, and Rubio replied by doubling down on the repetition.

The gotcha moment didn’t exactly help Christie, who dropped out after the New Hampshire primary. But it helped Rubio’s detractors create a narrative that he is a shallow, unthinking “Rubot.” Anyone who’s been following Rubio knows there’s not much to this, but it hurt him in a very close contest, knocking him down into a narrow fifth place in New Hampshire. Afterward, Rubio promised his supporters this debate malfunction wouldn’t happen again.

Boy, did he fulfill that promise Saturday, delivering strong, well-informed responses on the Supreme Court, on foreign policy, and particularly this one on his experience making decisions in a crisis.

Well, let me tell you what has happened a couple of years ago. One of the hardest decisions you’ll ever make in Congress is when you are asked by the president to authorize the use of force in a conflict, because you are now putting your name, on behalf of the people of your state, behind a military action, where Americans in uniform could lose their life. So, in 2014, Barack Obama said he would not take military action against Assad unless it was authorized by the Senate, beginning on the Committee of Foreign Relations, where I am one of its members. And it was hard because you looked at the pictures. I saw the same images people saw. I’m the father of children. I saw the images of these little children [who] had been gassed and poisoned by their own leaders, and we were angry. Something had to happen, and there was the sense that we needed to seek retribution. And then I looked at Barack Obama’s plan. Barack Obama’s plan, which John Kerry later described as unbelievably small, and I concluded that that attack would not only not help the situation, it would make it actually worse. It would allow Assad to stand up to the United States of America, survive a strike, stay in power and actually strengthen his grip. So it was a difficult decision to make and when we only had a few days to look at and make a decision on it and I voted against Barack Obama’s plan to use force, and it was the right decision.

That was about the best response he could give to address the deficiency of not having executive experience (which most of the top Republican candidates lack).

Donald Trump is beginning to sound like a drunken robot.

By contrast, you know who’s really beginning to sound like a robot—though maybe a drunken robot? Donald Trump. We’re getting to the point where nine debates have exhausted his fund of campaign slogans, and he is beginning to answer every question with a collage of recycled phrases. You know the ones: “one of the worst deals I have ever seen negotiated,” “attack the oil and keep the oil,” “we have to rebuild our country,” “we don’t win any more,” “I’m leading in all the polls,” and so on.

It’s getting to the point where it would be pretty easy to put together a Random Trump Rant Generator that would stitch together rambling paragraphs out of a database of Trump’s favorite phrases. The task would be made easier by the fact that the results don’t need to coalesce into complete sentences.

But there was something new from Trump last night, which is that Trump finally had the meltdown we’ve all been waiting for.

3) The Trump Meltdown

Yes, I know, there are many of us who think Trump’s been having one continuous meltdown since the day he started running for office. But up to now, he’s really just been doing his regular reality TV/professional wrestling act, saying outrageous things and insulting people, playing to the cheap seats and making a show of being politically incorrect.

What was different Saturday night is that for the first time in these debates, he wasn’t doing it on his terms. He was doing it reactively, being pushed and goaded by the other candidate. What is worse is that he once again found himself on the defensive against Jeb Bush, who before now has lost every exchange with Trump until one brief moment in the last debate where he hammered Trump on his abuse of eminent domain. He hit that theme again this time as well as hitting Trump on his views on Iraq and 9/11. Trump was left sputtering and protesting and just trying to interrupt everyone all the time and shout them down, setting up Ted Cruz to shoot back, “Donald, adults learn not to interrupt people.”

Trump is losing his sense for what plays with the crowd.

Perhaps more important, Trump seems to be losing his sense for what plays well with the crowd. This time around, he claimed that George W. Bush was to blame for 9/11, coupled with the full Code Pink, “Bush lied, people died” view on the Iraq War. For the second debate in a row, when the audience booed him, he turned against the crowd and accused them all of being “Jeb’s special interest and lobbyists.”

When Trump wasn’t flailing and angry, he sounded like a crazy left-winger. When he wasn’t doing that, he just looked like he wasn’t having fun anymore.

I’ve been predicting Trump’s imminent demise for a while now, and you could write that off as wishful thinking, but I regard it more as an expression of faith in my fellow man, a confidence that a third of Republicans voters won’t continue to be taken in by this carnival barker.

And there’s more to this than vague hope. The single best analysis of the Republican primaries used John Boyd’s theory of the “OODA Loop” decision-making cycle to explain how Trump’s entry into the race disrupted all of the traditional candidates’ strategies, and it has taken too long for them to absorb this new information and adapt. But Trump himself does not have an OODA Loop. He doesn’t absorb new information and adapt—he just keeps doing the same old shtick. So eventually other candidates are going to learn how to get under Trump’s skin and set him off balance, and that’s what we started to see Saturday night.

4) Cruz vs. Rubio: It Begins

As a sideline to the Trump vs. Everyone shouting match, this debate had one exchange that highlighted where the race might be headed: a tense showdown between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. That’s because if Trump is not the nominee, these two men are the most likely alternatives.

The real rap against Rubio is not that he robotically repeats talking points. It’s that he is all-too-eloquently telling us what we want to hear, but that he will sell us out once he actually gets into office. By contrast, Cruz presents himself as the true conservative whom we can trust to really mean what he says. So the most relevant and effective counterattack against Cruz is that he is actually unprincipled, playing fast and loose with the facts when it serves his own political purposes.

Who knew that in a Republican debate you could be attacked for not speaking Spanish?

Thus, when Cruz accused Rubio of secretly being soft on immigration in Spanish-language interviews—a debunked claim based on a poor translation; in reality, Rubio’s position on the issue in question is similar to what Cruz proposed in 2014—Rubio shot back with, “I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision, because he doesn’t speak Spanish.” It’s a tale of two Hispanic immigrants and two immigrant traditions—one that discouraged the children of immigrants from speaking their parents’ native language and one that maintained a bilingual culture. But who knew that in a Republican contest that began with harsh anti-immigration rhetoric, one of the top candidates would end up being attacked for his lack of fluency in Spanish?

This was part of a larger attack on Cruz for distorting or exaggerating his opponents’ records, while glossing over parts of his own, in order to make himself look like the only ideologically pure option. Here was Rubio’s central line of attack:

When that issue was being debated, Ted Cruz, at a committee hearing, very passionately said, I want immigration reform to pass, I want people to be able to come out of the shadows. And he proposed an amendment that would legalize people here. Not only that, he proposed doubling the number of green cards. He proposed a 500 percent increase on guest workers. Now his position is different. Now he is a passionate opponent of all those things. So he either wasn’t telling the truth then or he isn’t telling the truth now, but to argue he is a purist on immigration is just not true.

The fact is that all of the Republicans have changed their position on immigration, taking a more conciliatory stand a few years ago, then moving to the right as they went into the primaries.

The danger of this is the old problem of mutually assured destruction. In fighting off the accusation that he is lying to voters, Rubio is making the case that Cruz is also lying to voters. The danger is that both men will succeed, and voters will conclude that they are all liars. I don’t have that much of a problem with this, by the way, because it’s just what I expect from politicians. Of course they’re going to change their views to try to match the mood of the voters. In other news, the sun will rise tomorrow. At the very least, our politicians should exercise a little discretion and not try to sell us on really obvious lies.

At any rate, that’s our preview of how the contest is likely to play out if or when the election winnows down to Cruz vs. Rubio. That remains as my top hope for the next few primaries: to get us as soon as possible to a three-man race that moves in two parallel tracks: the non-serious debate of Trump vs. the world, and the policy debate of Rubio vs. Cruz.

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