Last night CNN featured yet another fun debate in the Republican contest for the presidential nomination. Expectations going in were extremely low. Even though most Republican voters oppose Donald Trump, the lack of consensus means that Trump has secured decisive wins in early primary and caucus states. Conservatives and others not keen on Trump’s morality or policies, such as they are, had begun to give up hope.
The smaller group of candidates enabled more time with each one. Both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz used some of this time to target front-runner Trump. Here are a few of the night’s big takeaways.
1. Rubio, Cruz Show Up and Fight
For some inexplicable reason, previous debates had candidates going quite easy on Trump. Only Cruz and Jeb Bush had tried to land punches, with varying success. But last night, Rubio and Cruz both went after Trump. And they did so relentlessly. They hit him hard on policy, asking him to be specific about how he would Make America Great Again. Given a chance by moderator Dana Bash to explain his health care policy, he declined. After he said he’d done more for Israel than anyone else, Cruz asked him to name one specific thing he’d done. He was unable.
Even more effective, Rubio and Cruz teased him as a lightweight without a command of the facts, interrupted him, and teased him some more. At one point Cruz told him to “relax.” Every time Trump denied saying something he’d previously said or denied doing something he’d done, Rubio calmly encouraged viewers to Google for more information. Here’s a good look at one of these exchanges.
Also note that the audience cheers Rubio’s mockery of Trump for something like 24 seconds.
2. Trump Flailed
For a long time it seemed as if Trump were immune to criticism even when he received it. But during this debate, he struggled. He responded to questions with his trademark juvenility and insults. When people cheered Rubio and Cruz, he accused the audience of being packed with lobbyists. He was petulant, lashing out with even less substance and nuance than usual. And unlike previous debates, he neither landed punches nor succeeded in being funny.
3. So Much Tape to Use
Will any of this matter? There’s a certain subset of Trump supporters who would still support him even if he shot someone on 5th Avenue, as he put it. But there’s another contingent of Trump supporters who are reasonable. They’re leaning toward supporting Trump because they think that he conveys strength and is willing to speak clearly about how messed up Washington, D.C. is. Trump has signaled to them, for the time being, that he will enact conservative-ish ideas. Rubio and Cruz hit Trump on how his actual history — including his extensive hiring of foreign workers over American workers — suggests that he’s not tremendously committed to the ideas he’s currently claiming to support. These attacks will only have a chance of denting Trump, however, if they keep running post-debate. One effective hit on Trump was when Cruz asked him if he ever said he supported universal health insurance. He vociferously denied it. Within minutes after the debate concluded, Cruz’s team had a video up showing Trump effusively praising a government-run universal health insurance program. Watch here:
Even non-candidates got into the act, with BuzzFeed showing that Trump’s defiant debate statements about Libya also weren’t true. See: “Trump Claims He Didn’t Support Libya Intervention — But He Did, On Video.” If Rubio and Cruz are seriously trying to fight Trump, expect more of these videos that call into question Trump’s truth-telling or steadfastness.
4. Religious Liberty Failures
Trump was asked about religious liberty and said nothing before moving on to discuss Chief Justice John Roberts and how much he doesn’t like him. Cruz pointed out Trump had supported Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, and other politicians who oppose constitutional judges. Moderator Hugh Hewitt asked Trump if he could be trusted on religious liberty. He responded by insulting Cruz and asking him to apologize for pointing out his sister is a judge so radical on abortion that she supports partial-birth abortion. Cruz said he’d never apologize for defending the Constitution. Trump ended up using completely discredited Planned Parenthood talking points about how few abortions they perform. And yet Trump’s answer was somehow better than John Kasich’s.
Kasich was asked about religious liberty, and he said that he opposed it. He said citizens don’t have religious liberty unless they’re clergy or otherwise within the confines of a house of worship. He explicitly opposed conscience rights for people not working for a church. It was shameful.
5. The Trump-Clinton Pattern
Speaking of ways in which candidates are indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton, I noticed Trump displayed a Clinton-like tendency when being attacked. When Rubio mentioned that Trump had hired hundreds of undocumented Polish immigrants and had to pay a huge fine, Trump said he was lying and that it was not true. (It’s true. He spent the better part of two decades fighting the lawsuit, eventually settling.) Later, when called on his false statement, he said it was old news and a long time ago.
This is exactly the Clinton campaign’s modus for handling its scandals. Think about Clinton’s home-brew, off-record email server. First she denied any wrong-doing whatsoever, including denying that she’d sent or received classified information. (She sent and received a metric ton of classified information.) After the initial storm passed, she dismissed the scandal as old news.
Now, this is an effective strategy and works with much of the media, but it does make Trump seem very much like a typical politician.
6. Kasich and Carson Should Return to their Home Planets
The three front-runners are interesting. Kasich and Carson’s time to remain in the race is over. Both candidates steered far away from even a hint of criticism of Trump, a tactic that at best marginalized them and at worst made them seem cowardly. Kasich repeatedly acted as a Trump surrogate, critiquing Trump’s real opponents. Listen, if Kasich wants to be Trump’s vice president, he can do that without wasting everyone else’s time. At the very least, no debate host should continue to give time to Kasich or Carson.
7. CNN’s Debate Lows
If there is one thing I’d encourage moderators to understand, it’s that candidates debating one another is not a bad thing. There seems to be this assumption that debates should really just be moderated Q&A sessions. In fact, it’s only when the candidates get into it with one another that we begin to see a debate.
Wolf Blitzer is no Anderson Cooper — surprisingly good at debate moderation — but this debate was fairly substantive. The major problem was that the moderators kept throwing Trump life preservers every time he was on the ropes, to mix metaphors.
This debate was 15 minutes of Rubio crushing Trump, 10 minutes of Cruz crushing Trump and 2 hours of media interrupting to protect Trump.
Flint Crewneck (@PeakLeftism) February 26, 2016
Trump did his childish insults of both Rubio and Cruz and Blitzer threw a question to Kasich. The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney said, “Wolf seems dedicated to giving Trump the last word. That was his third or fourth bailout attempt of Trump.”
Trump is being slaughtered and Wolf has kept Rubio from replying to multiple attacks while letting Trump respond to every single one.
Josh Jordan (@NumbersMuncher) February 26, 2016
Also, doesn’t this look like a giant foot-long hot dog behind the candidates? Eh? Right? I thought so.
8. CNN’s Post-Debate Was Even Lower
Following the debate, CNN provided two lengthy interviews to Trump to allow him to reframe the bludgeoning he took earlier. I wouldn’t say Chris Cuomo’s treatment of Trump was X-rated so much as Skinemax. He was a remarkably generous lover. Since Jake Tapper interviewed Cruz as a journalist would, the disparity was striking. Later, Anderson Cooper was a bit more journalistic in his approach.
Nice of CNN to throw Trump an after party like that…
David Folkenflik (@davidfolkenflik) February 26, 2016
In these interviews, Trump — Yes, Donald Trump — openly stated he hires foreign workers because Americans won’t do the work he wants.
He also said that he’s being audited because he’s such a “strong Christian.” For real. That was during the first lengthy interview. During the second lengthy interview, he was asked if he really believed that, and he said he did not.
9. What’s Remembered?
The conservative tag-team of Cruz-Rubio showed Trump as a lightweight on substance and style. Rubio showed he’s capable of fighting and surprisingly good at it. Cruz showed he’s steadfast. And Trump will have to face increasing questions about Trump University, his continued hiring of foreign and undocumented workers, his false statements about previous positions, and his failure to disclose meaningful financial information.
So expect him to say something outlandish by 10:00AM. His allies in the media fall for it every time.