Democrats tell the American people what they want to hear. At their best, Republicans tell the American people what they need to hear. Tuesday’s GOP presidential debate showcased this divide, with Donald Trump leading the pack as a principled voice for sound positions on minimum wage, illegal immigration, and a sensible foreign policy, free of the naïve neocon nonsense in which Fiorina, Rubio ., and Bush trafficked.
Trump’s performance was enhanced by his restraint. In other debates, he allowed himself some immature antics. Not in this one. For the most part, he remained quiet as others spoke. There was one welcome exception: he shut down Kasich’s holier-than-thou jackassery on illegal immigration by noting that the Ohio governor’s oh-so-compassionate pro-amnesty policy shows no compassion to legal immigrants.
Needless to say, Jeb Bush came up a cropper yet again. Looking a bit like Grandma Barbara Bush, Jeb feebly attempted to attack Trump from the ideological left on illegal immigration. Sounding like those crack strategists who handed victory to the Dems by pushing Dole, McCain ., and Romney, Bush mumbled something about how Dems are salivating over the prospect of running against Trump’s immigration stance. Right. It is more likely that the Dems are quaking in their boots at the prospect of Trump poaching independents and white hard-hats from them.
Rubio’s rah-rah neoconservatism on foreign-policy issues guarantees him some good press and praise from inside-the-beltway pundits in the Jennifer Rubin mold, but the truth is that he still looks like a callow fortysomething who can’t pay his credit card bills.
Fiorina’s anti-Putin posturing was also tiresome. It fell to Trump to be the grown-up in the demagogic room by observing that the U.S. should welcome Putin’s strikes on ISIS and that the “rebels” are a hell of a lot worse than Assad.
Ben Carson acquitted himself well and bloodied Hillary’s nose on her baldfaced deception about Benghazi. “Where I come from that is a lie,” he said, noting that Hillary told daughter Chelsea in an e-mail that terrorists killed Ambassador Chris Stevens while publicly blaming it on a YouTube video.
Cruz . was impressive and solid but had one unfortunate moment when he tried to rattle off the government agencies he would zap. It wasn’t exactly a Rick Perry “oops” moment, but it didn’t look great as he garbled the succession of agency names. But who cares? He is as smart as a whip and the moment means nothing in the long run.
A far more curious unforced error came from Rubio when he took after “philosophers” for no apparent reason. He declared that modern America needs more “welders” than philosophers. Why is he picking on seekers after wisdom? In our increasingly mindless times, we need as many sound philosophers as we can get.
A Republican nominee who tries to score populist points by treating philosophy as a punch line isn’t much of a conservative. Rubio’s philistine crack makes sense; he doesn’t strike one as the kind of “conservative” who has ever studied Aristotle’s Politics or Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution. His conservatism is of a more recent and shallow vintage. Maybe he reads a magazine or two but it is doubtful that the classics have ever figured in his intellectual formation.
Trump, ironically enough, seemed less shallow and more serious than rivals who have been carping about his bombast and celebrity past for months. Don’t look now, but Trump is maturing as a frontrunner and could very well get the nomination. He spoke with a measure of authority, especially on such matters as trade with China with which he has had real dealings. Even more than that, he projects leadership, which makes him more impressive than bloviating senators with no governing experience or a failed Senate candidate cashiered from a CEO’s job.
Trump won the debate, as did Fox Business, which conducted it (and the undercard debate) with professionalism and good sense. Chris Christie shined for the most part in the first debate, though he and Huckabee looked a bit jowly, overfed, and pasty under the glare of the lights. Huckabee is still, to borrow the title of his memoirs, digging his grave with a fork, which explains in part his lackluster campaign despite his often witty and effective comments.
The most annoying participants in the debates were Kasich and Jindal, both of whom were trying much too hard to gain notice from the media by sabotaging their opponents.
In previous debates, it was Trump who appeared too excitable. But in this one he exhibited a sobriety and resoluteness that makes him a plausible nominee, particularly in a field of establishment lightweights and wobbly “conservatives” who still don’t understand the Reaganite nationalism into which he has tapped.