Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party is pretty much complete – after Nevada it was all over – but there was one last debate before the multi-state-primary Super Tuesday extravaganza scheduled for the first day of March. Not that that big day was going to make much of a difference – polls showed that Marco Rubio would lose his home state of Florida to Trump, in a Trump landslide. Ted Cruz might win his home state of Texas – the polls were ambiguous – but if he did he’d win nowhere else. Rubio would win nowhere. Trump was going to run the table. Why even hold this last debate before the inevitable? Nothing would come of it – but the idea seemed to be that something would come of it. Rubio and Cruz could chip away at Trump. The buffoon might be slowed down a bit. Stopping him was another matter, but first things first.
That made this debate one for political junkies only. It was a very late first step, and the New York Times reported it this way:
Senator Marco Rubio, alarmed by Donald J. Trump’s ascendancy and worried that his presidential chances were slipping away, unleashed a barrage of attacks on the real estate mogul’s business ethics, hiring practices and financial achievements in Thursday’s debate, forcefully delivering the onslaught that Republican leaders had desperately awaited.
In a series of acid exchanges, a newly pugnacious Mr. Rubio, long mocked for a robotic and restrained style, interrupted Mr. Trump, quizzed him, impersonated him, shouted over him and left him looking unsettled. It was an unfamiliar reversal of roles for the front-runner, who found himself so frequently the target of assaults from Mr. Rubio and Senator Ted Cruz that he complained it must have been a ploy for better television ratings.
This may not matter, but Rubio was no longer the bewildered man-child:
From the opening moments of the debate, Mr. Rubio pounced. Deploying his own up-by-the-bootstraps biography, the Florida senator assailed Mr. Trump for hiring hundreds of foreign workers at his tony resort in Florida and passing over Americans who had applied for the same jobs.
“My mom was a maid in a hotel,” Mr. Rubio said. “And instead of hiring an American like her, you’ve brought over 1,000 people from all over the world to fill in those jobs instead.”
Moments later, Mr. Rubio moved to cast Mr. Trump as a huckster who outsourced the manufacturing of the clothing that bears his name to countries like Mexico and China even as he promised to wage a trade war against those countries.
When Mr. Trump tried to protest, Mr. Rubio interrupted right back.
“Make them in America!” he demanded.
Cool, but then it fell apart:
The two-hour rumpus frequently devolved into unmediated bouts of shouting, name-calling and pleas to the seemingly overwhelmed moderators for chances to respond to the latest insult. “This guy’s a choke artist,” Mr. Trump declared, pointing to Mr. Rubio. “This guy’s a liar,” he said, swiveling toward Mr. Cruz.
CNN got more than they bargained for. There was a thirty-second period where the screen crawl read “unintelligible yelling” – CNN couldn’t keep up. Rubio and Cruz didn’t go after each other. This time they went after Trump, and it kind of worked:
Mr. Trump’s usual self-assurance gave way to a less nimble performance. After a tense exchange with Mr. Cruz over the depth of their conservatism and fidelity to the Constitution, Mr. Trump awkwardly asked for an apology.
Mr. Cruz refused, instead seizing on Mr. Trump’s values.
“Donald, I will not apologize for one minute for defending the Constitution,” he said.
The audience broke into applause.
Something was up:
For a single night, it seemed, the dynamic among the candidates shifted, not only because Mr. Trump appeared off-balance at times, but because his rivals seemed looser, more comfortable and even delighted to take him on. Mr. Rubio smiled as he issued biting dissections of the less savory chapters of Mr. Trump’s business history and even questioned the very essence of Mr. Trump’s success story, saying he was simply the heir to a vast fortune.
“If he hadn’t inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now? Selling watches in Manhattan?” Mr. Rubio said, as the audience erupted in laughter.
“That is so wrong,” Mr. Trump said, plaintively.
When, at another point, Mr. Trump said that Mr. Rubio did not know “anything about business,” the senator responded: “I don’t know anything about bankrupting four companies,” an allusion to Mr. Trump’s liberal use of bankruptcy protections over the years.
Ouch. But Rubio had something to prove:
Mr. Rubio’s performance appeared to be pitched most directly at skeptical party elites and donors, who are banking on him as an alternative to Mr. Trump and have grown increasingly impatient watching his sometimes passive performances. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, on the other hand, seemed to be making a broader appeal to the hearts of Republican and independent voters as he heaped praise on former President George Bush, who sat in the audience with his wife, Barbara Bush, by his side.
Mr. Kasich infused his message with sympathy for the downtrodden and overlooked, and offered a surprising olive branch to gay voters, saying he was uncomfortable with restrictions, advocated by conservatives, that would allow businesses to deny service to same-sex couples who wish to wed.
Actually he said this:
If you’re in the business of commerce, conduct commerce. That’s my view. And if you don’t agree with their lifestyle say a prayer for them when they leave and hope they change their behavior.
If he mattered, the other candidates would have asked him why he hates Jesus, but John Kasich doesn’t matter, nor does that other guy:
Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon whose once-promising candidacy has fizzled, leaving him on the far edges of the campaign and the debate stage, used his rare moment in the spotlight on Thursday to complain once again about how little attention he was receiving. “I’m going to whine,” he said languorously, scolding a moderator, Hugh Hewitt, for not asking him about subjects ranging from Israel to taxes.
But this was Rubio’s show:
Near the end, the debate disintegrated into an almost comedic cascade of cross-talk and confusion.
Mr. Cruz urged Mr. Trump to “relax.”
Mr. Trump called Mr. Cruz “a basket case.”
“Don’t get nervous,” he told Mr. Cruz.
In a sign that Mr. Trump’s aura of invulnerability, at least for the evening, was in doubt, Mr. Cruz quipped, “I promise you, Donald, there’s nothing about you that makes anyone nervous.”
Ouch again, and at the Atlantic, David Graham has more:
It was Trump’s worst debate of the campaign, and the defeat came largely at the hands of Marco Rubio, who hit Trump early and often. The climactic moment arrived during a discussion of health insurance. Every candidate has promised to repeal and replace Obamacare, but with what? Trump’s answer was that he’d allow the sale of insurance across state lines. Rubio pressed him: Is that all you’ve got? When Trump tried to slap back, Rubio was ready.
“He’s repeating himself!” Rubio exclaimed with a grin, echoing the very attack Chris Christie used so effectively against him just a few weeks ago. “I’m not repeating myself. I’m not repeating myself,” Trump insisted, but he was practically drowned out by the huge round of applause sweeping the hall.
Rubio was onto something:
As Rubio noted, Trump repeats a familiar set of slogans over and over: Make America great again. Build the wall. Win. Stop losing at trade. Force Trump away from those mantras, and he tends to get lost and confused. Of course, it’s also a wonder that no one has attacked Trump so directly before in debates, and especially that Rubio hasn’t done so. Right from the start on Thursday night, though, the Florida senator unloaded line after line of opposition research. He noted that Trump had paid $1 million to settle a court case over use of Polish illegal-immigrant labor. He pointed out that Trump is being sued for fraud over the so-called Trump University, a glorified real-estate seminar. He said that without his father’s inheritance, Trump would be “selling watches in Manhattan.”
It was an incredible barrage. Only Jeb Bush had tried anything like it, and Trump easily talked over him. Unlike Bush, Rubio kept hammering, interrupting Trump and getting under his skin. And unlike Bush, who seemed deeply unhappy attacking, Rubio seemed to be having a blast slashing Trump. It all raised a rather uncomfortable question: What if Rubio had gone after Trump earlier, before Trump became the clear frontrunner with Super Tuesday just days away?
That hardly matters now, but it was a bad night for Trump in general:
On Wednesday, Mitt Romney – remember him? – demanded that Trump release his taxes. Asked about that Thursday, Trump responded with an amazing unforced error, saying that he couldn’t yet release them because he was being audited by the IRS, adding that he’s regularly audited. It’s a fascinating admission: Why is Trump regularly audited? Is there some reason the IRS has questions about his returns? Trump was even made to look foolish by lead moderator Wolf Blitzer, who otherwise repeatedly lost control of the debate. Blitzer asked how Trump would cut the federal budget, and Trump mentioned eliminating the Department of Education and the Common Core, cutting environmental regulation, and eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse. Blitzer quickly noted that this would barely make any impact at all on federal spending.
Is Blitzer allowed to say that? Expect Trump to go to Twitter War with CNN now. He did go after Fox News, and Graham adds other detail:
Rubio didn’t have a perfect night. Early on, moderator María Celeste Arrarás scored a direct hit by asking him about a statement he’d made, in Spanish, on Telemundo, where he said that DACA, President Obama’s plan to allow “DREAMers” – undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children – to stay in the U.S. must end, but that it would be unfair to end it immediately. On Thursday, he insisted he would end it on his first day in office. It was hard not to conclude that Rubio is either saying different things to different audiences or has changed his position.
And there was this:
Blitzer started off the night asking about vows by Trump and Cruz to deport all the immigrants who are illegally in the country, but he never asked either how they would execute that promise, which is uniformly considered fantasy by experts. While Rubio was right to call out Trump for having no health-care plan beyond allowing interstate insurance, there was precious little detail from any other candidate on stage, either. A lengthy discussion of “religious liberty,” mostly served to show the narrow and euphemistic way the term is deployed in Republican discourse, where it mostly applies to Christians: The candidates discussed whether bakers should have to provide cakes to gay weddings, but there was no discussion of Trump’s call to bar Muslim refugees, and perhaps other Muslims, from entering the country.
Of course there was no discussion of that. This was a Republican debate, but Frank Bruni found something else more troubling:
How much does the vagueness of Trump’s proposals matter? It was predictable that Rubio and Cruz would portray Trump as someone whose campaign contributions over time, comments from yesteryear and herky-jerky swerves in the present all call into question how committed and trustworthy a conservative he is.
But they lavished nearly as much energy on revealing Trump as an empty suit – as someone who cannot provide any policy details because he doesn’t have any detailed policies. They asked for those details. Again and again. He responded with insults and boasts.
The moderators pressed him for those details. He responded with boasts and insults. And at one cringe-inducing moment, he batted away a question from Hugh Hewitt by saying: “Very few people listen to your radio show.”
Trump never got around to explaining how his health care plan would keep people from dying in the streets without committing the government to significantly increased spending. He never got around to explaining much of anything. …
“We’re going to win a lot,” Trump said, for the millionth time.
“Believe me,” he said, for the trillionth. Those two evasive words sounded smaller and sillier than ever.
Heather Parton puts that this way:
Trump is a circus clown, a WWE sideshow of a candidate who has no idea about policy and apparently no knowledge of how the U.S. Government actually functions. He seems to think the president’s job is to order police agencies and the leaders of foreign countries to do his bidding. He apparently believes the job is Emperor of the World. So, perhaps it’s understandable that none of his rivals or the rest of the Party thought he could possibly last. He would step on his own tongue one too many times and that would be that.
However, it’s been obvious for some months now that this guy was the definition of a Teflon Don. And that’s because whenever he insults someone, whether it’s war-hero John McCain or Fox news anchor Megyn Kelly even the Pope, it’s all about that “display of dominance.” (On one of the cable networks they asked Nevada Trump voters about the pope dust-up and one of them simply said, “The pope started it” which is exactly how a schoolyard bully’s posse would respond.) They should have shifted gears a long time ago.
They didn’t, and that made this debate kind of useless, as Josh Marshall notes:
Let’s state the point clearly: Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz failed utterly to put a dent in Donald Trump or his seemingly clear path to the Republican nomination. In their defense, it was a huge challenge. If Trump does as well on Tuesday as the current polls suggest, he will likely be unstoppable. Not necessarily because the numbers will make him inevitable but because the pageantry of winning will continue to elevate Trump and overwhelm Rubio and Cruz. To prevent that, one or the other needed to land a devastating blow – something on the level of what Chris Christie did to Rubio before New Hampshire. Frankly, it needed to be even worse. They didn’t come close.
This isn’t to say they didn’t land some punches. Early in the debate Rubio surfaced a number of scandals that could potentially be very damaging to Trump. I think the “Trump University” scam is ultimately the most damning – a clownishly crooked scam that exploited people who didn’t have a lot of money but bet it all on Trump’s razzmatazz. He also landed some hits on Trump’s inability to say anything specific about his health care plans other than allowing people to purchase insurance across state lines – a tired nostrum the only practical effect of which is to end all regulation of health care insurance and make the system wildly more unfair than it was before.
None if it mattered, except for this:
The only thing to emerge from the debate which I think could possibly hurt Trump was entirely self-inflicted: his announcement that he can’t release his tax returns because he’s in the midst of a multi-year IRS audit – a point which is both nonsensical on its face and highly problematic from any politician operating in the gravity universe. I think there was little follow-up from the moderators because they were simply gobsmacked by what Trump was saying and couldn’t think of how to respond.
Otherwise, the whole thing was a fool’s errand:
The two senators had an almost impossible task – landing a decisive blow against a player who has been entirely impervious to decisive blows and is simply a better debater than either of them. The need to land that decisive blow created a series of visuals, set pieces and mini-dramas in which they gave their absolute all to take him down and inevitably failed. On balance, that made them look small and confirmed the pervasive impression of his strength and their weakness. They’re being crushed by a guy who by any normal political calculus is a joke.
In virtually every instance, Cruz or Rubio would launch some slashing attack, often both of them in succession or even at the same time only to see an unflappable Trump raise his index finger to the moderator, wait his turn and calmly slap his attackers down and reiterate his basic mantra. “I’ll make us great. I’ll win. I’m winning. We’ll win.” Since Cruz is a bit shorter than Trump and Rubio is substantially shorter than Trump, the visual, with Trump in the center, often had the look of one of those old Bugs Bunny or Popeye cartoons where one tough guy is holding two runts at bay with outstretched arms to both sides. …
Trump said again and again that he was enjoying himself and that his opponents were losing badly. These are perhaps the most credible things Trump has ever said.
And the eventual outcome isn’t even debatable:
Leaks today from the Rubio camp saying they’re prepping for a contested convention is just a sign of denial and desperation. Maybe the tax thing will break his stride. Maybe “Trump University” will grow into a scandal. But if he dominates Super Tuesday the way the current polling data suggests, he will be close to unstoppable. If he crushes Rubio in his home state, what possible argument for Rubio’s candidacy will be left?
The debate was a mess. Much of what Trump said made no sense. But his basic message, both in words and in visuals and in an effortless denigration of his opponents delivered concisely the message that has brought him this far. He won hands down. Something else big will have to happen to break his drive to the nomination.
No one now can imagine what that will be, but Kevin Drum noticed this:
Trump had a minor hiccup when he claimed that the US has the highest taxes in the world. He probably meant to say that we have the highest corporate rates, which is close to true if you look at statutory rates – but instead he insisted that this applied to everything: “We pay more business tax, we pay more personal tax. We have the highest taxes in the world.” That’s basically the opposite of the truth. But I suppose this is the kind of flub that never seems to hurt him.
That’s just the way it is, and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie explains why:
Earlier this week in Nevada, I attended two events for Trump. One, at an arena in the south of Las Vegas, was a last hurrah before the caucus. The other, the next night, was to celebrate Trump’s massive victory in that caucus. When I spoke to Trump supporters, at both events, I heard a single refrain: Trump says what we’re all thinking; Trump doesn’t talk down to us.
These aren’t idle comments. Trump has ideas and beliefs, but he’s not winning because Republicans back his policies or hold his ideology. He’s winning because, like the most effective demagogues, he’s built an emotional bond with his audience.
Somehow, pundits don’t see this… They don’t care that Trump doesn’t have specifics, that he can’t give details on the wall with Mexico, or his trade war with China. What they see is that Trump is like them. He talks like them. He jokes like them. He shares their anger and their prejudice. He shares their fear. He even talks about the government like they do. Majorities of Americans think their tax dollars go largely to foreign aid; they think we spend too much on other countries when there are problems in the United States that need solving. When Trump says, “We’re losing so much with Mexico and China,” he’s speaking directly to millions of Americans who think they’re funding adversaries and enemies, at the cost of their own opportunity and success.
On the same score, Trump speaks to a deep fear of loss, a product of the trauma of the Great Recession. It’s the basis for his entire riff on health care. “We are going to have private health care,” he said, “but I will not allow people to die on the sidewalks and the streets of our country if I’m president.”
All of this is why Cruz and Rubio will fall flat with their attacks.
And they did. Some things aren’t even debatable, even if they keep having these debates. Why? Donald Trump had already made the traditional Republican Party irrelevant. Now he’s made political debates irrelevant. What’s next?