It’s been a long — though thankfully not as long as the previous cycle — slog through the Republican primary debate schedule, and it appears it’s finally over. Thursday saw the final debate on the schedule, and it certainly didn’t go out with a bang.
Which is not to say the debate had no value. As opposed to the fireworks-filled knife fights the previous two debates devolved into, this one was entirely substantive and contained lots of highlights.
So much so, in fact, that it was hard to name a clear winner. All four candidates had solid moments, though in a quieter setting all four also had pulled punches.
If there was a clear winner, it was the image of the four candidates as plausible presidents. With some qualifiers — John Kasich had a few momentary lapses into his former odd identity as a Spastic Octopus with inexplicably flailing arms, Donald Trump reiterated his claim of fitness as Israel’s foremost ally in the race based on having been the grand marshal of a parade down Fifth Avenue — the demeanor, behavior and rhetoric was mostly on a level commensurate with someone capable of delivering speeches from the Oval Office.
Kasich, who some polls indicate will win his home state of Ohio on Tuesday and therefore will survive beyond March 15, clearly operated on a strategy based on not screwing up his chances in the Buckeye State. He made no gaffes, but on the other hand he did nothing to shake up the race or score any points against the other candidates. After having lost a second-place finish in Michigan to Cruz, who spend only $1100 in the state, one would have expected Kasich to take the opportunity to debut something new. He didn’t. He continued with the “adult in the room” persona, complete with a recitation of his achievements in Congress for the umpteenth time.
And these statements served to illuminate two truths: first, that Kasich is a perfectly plausible presidential candidate who in a normal year would be perfectly suitable to run as the Republican nominee, and second, that Kasich is completely unsuitable for the current anti-establishment, anti-incumbent mood of the electorate and moreover couldn’t be troubled to fit his message to the times.
He’ll do fine in Ohio and deny Trump the 66 delegates in the winner-take-all primary there, and then he’ll be out of reasons to continue running other than as to act as a minor blocking force to Ted Cruz’s attempts to surge past Trump in the second half of the primaries.
Marco Rubio had a much shinier performance, and he needed it — Rubio’s campaign has fallen on such dire circumstances that rumors have run rampant this week of his imminent withdrawal from the race. It appears the Rubio campaign is going to hold out until the Florida primary on Tuesday in hopes that a victory over Trump will keep him alive there. And while that’s a decidedly unlikely result, he did at least give it the college try — Rubio’s answers to vacillating statements by Trump on Israel and Cuba were some of the best of his campaign. He also stayed away from the locker-room antics of the previous two debates which had caused so much commotion (and, it appears, damage to Rubio’s campaign), instead hitting Trump with a more substantive critique. It helped that Rubio appears to have gotten beyond the flu bug that had dogged him over the past two weeks at precisely the wrong time.
Trump was less a victim of barbs from Rubio and Cruz, though he did suffer from a few substantive exchanges with the two. He told a flat-out, nonsensical lie about Cruz’ position on ethanol, stating that Cruz had “changed his position” on the ethanol mandate in order to curry favor from Iowa voters. As campaign fibs go, that one was hard to defend; if you’re going to change a position on ethanol to romance the voters there you’re going to favor it, not oppose it as Cruz did. Trump managed to get off somewhat easy on the question, as Cruz uncorked a soundbite on fighting the Washington cartel that Trump has helped fund as a response and didn’t take the opportunity to shred Trump’s statement.
He did less well on Israel, when he tried to reiterate his defense of his statement about being “neutral” between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Rubio drilled him on that neutrality being effectively an anti-Israel position and Cruz was able to bring up a young Texan ex-serviceman and graduate student recently murdered by a Palestinian terrorist as an example of how vapid the idea of neutrality appears given that the Palestinian Authority incited the terrorist incident at hand. And Trump proved the old political maxim of “if you’re explaining, you’re losing” by selling his neutrality as a fraud he would need to convince the Palestinians of in order to serve as an honest broker between them and the Israelis. Does he not believe the Palestinians were watching the debate?
And on trade, Trump suffered at Cruz’s hands. Asked about his threats of 45 percent tariffs on Chinese goods, he said those are potential sticks to employ in the event the Chinese misbehave. But Cruz, whose suggested reforms to the tax code involve a 16 percent business flat tax similar to the Texas corporate franchise tax that would replace corporate income taxes among other things and would not apply to exports but would apply to imports, took him to task. Cruz noted that a 45 percent tariff would be a 45 percent tax increase on the American consumer whose standard of living is stagnant if not reduced over the past generation, and questioned what the value of that tariff would be to the average American.
Trump’s response wasn’t terrible; he said the effect would be to incentivize manufacturers to bring their factories back to America and the jobs with them. But if a company is manufacturing in China chiefly to escape high labor and regulatory costs in America and finds itself caught in a Sino-Trumpian trade war, why would that company not relocate to an India or the Philippines to take advantage of the same low costs and no punitive tariffs? As a stick to beat the cheating Chinese, it’s not bad, but as an economic development vehicle, Trump’s tariff seems a bit of a sieve.
Trump also deftly handled a question about the trickle of violent incidents flowing through his recent campaign events, saying that he hopes he hasn’t done anything to provoke such behavior. Post-debate punditry criticized the other GOP candidates for not lecturing Trump about the unsavory caliber of his rallies, but those pundits give poor advice. For one thing, to wade into that question would invite a Trump riposte to the tune of “nobody’s even showing up to your rallies”; for another, while the smart set recoils at the rough-and-tumble, a large majority of the public sees a Trumpster cold-cocking a disruptive #BlackLivesMatter protestor and feels no small bit of satisfaction after Ferguson and Baltimore. There is no political profit in wading into that question.
Still, this wasn’t the ranting, raving, bombastic stream-of-consciousness Trump we’ve come to either love or hate. He certainly didn’t have the detailed command of the issues that Cruz, Rubio, or Kasich had, but he at least looked like a sober candidate for high office.
And then there was Cruz, whose answers on substance were nearly flawless and whose joke in his closing statement that the debate featured the son of a bartender, the son of a mailman, the son of a dish washer, and… a successful businessman was subtly and deftly delivered. But the best line of the debate, the one that scored a perfect 100 among self-identified conservatives and as high as 96 with moderates in the focus group Frank Luntz conducted for Fox News analyzing the debate, was this line:
Hillary Clinton says she’ll cut waste, fraud and abuse. If only we had smarter people in Washington, that would fix the problem. You know what? That is the statement of a liberal who doesn’t understand government is the problem.
Here’s my philosophy. The less government, the more freedom. The fewer bureaucrats, the more prosperity. And there are bureaucrats in Washington right now who are killing jobs and I’ll tell you, I know who they are. I will find them and I will fire them.
That was as succinct a formulation of Cruz’s best message to the Republican electorate — Cruz as the constitutional conservative committed to getting a tyrannical government off its citizens’ backs — as he’s given. And if he gets the head-to-head matchup he’s pining for after Florida and Ohio are finished, it could be what carries him home in the GOP primary.
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