Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Fifth GOP Debate: Tea Party for Two

That last night’s Republican debate was staged in Las Vegas draped an appropriate metaphor over the proceedings, as the candidates each seemed to have made a strategic bet about how to play his or her hand. While there were no seismic eruptions that will fundamentally reshape the campaign, what happened in Vegas is not going to stay in Vegas, and there will be lasting consequences for the race. Ben Carson is fading into irrelevance, and Jeb Bush and Chris Christie may have staved off extinction. But the core narrative centers on the odd mating dance between Trump and Cruz, who sought to make the evening into a tea party, just for two.

Let’s start with the smooch fest between the two polling leaders, Cruz and Trump. Both made sound strategic bets last night. Cruz saw absolutely no benefit in attacking Trump, as the entire Cruz game plan is premised on acquiring The Donald’s supporters if and when Trumpty Dumpty has a big fall. Trump, on the other hand, is happy to chum up to Ted so that the Cruz missiles will rip into Rubio, who is emerging as the most dangerous rival to both. If Trump and Cruz were corporate entities, they would have been hauled in for anti-trust violations, as they had clearly winked and nodded into a mutual non-aggression pact in order to hasten the process of clearing out the weaker players.

So Cruz – who memorized the constitution in high school – was unwilling to condemn Trump’s recent torpedo to the first amendment proposing that Muslims who are not citizens be barred from entering the United States. When challenged to repeat in public the questions about Trump’s judgment that Cruz had aired in a supposedly private meeting with donors, Cruz weaseled his response – and Wolf Blitzer chose not to press the matter. In turn, Trump, who only days ago characterized Cruz’s behavior in the Senate as that of a “maniac,” did a triple salchow, pirouetting (which is very different from a Romney “flip-flop,” mind you) into the most ardent defender of Cruz’s statesmanlike demeanor. Their agenda was clear: there’s another debate in January, and they are both content to wait until then, find out who is really leading in Iowa, and only then attack if falling behind.

It’s my party, cry if you want to.  The other very big news from Trump was his seemingly spontaneous, off-the-cuff promise to not run a third-party candidacy. Now, we all know that a promise from Donald Trump is worth only the hot air with which it is blown hard, but this is actually a very big deal. Trump’s threat of a third party candidacy absolutely terrified the party machinery, as that was the scenario that everyone agreed would hand the White House – if not all of Congress – to the Dems.  Trump’s threat gave him amazing leverage: no one wanted to anger him so much that he would actually bolt. Now, the PAC-MEN of every Republican candidate can feel free to start dropping anti-Trump bombs with less worry that they are digging their own graves.

Much will be made of the sharp elbowing that took place between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz last night, as many pundits seem ready to predict that these will be the last two candidates standing. Cruz tried to stamp the name “Schumer” (no, not Amy; this was an entirely different kind of train wreck) onto Rubio’s forehead, and Rubio squirmed to put forward a justification for distancing himself from his red-stated-hated “Gang of Eight” immigration fiasco.  Rubio followed the tried-and-true Republican formula of when in doubt, blame Obama: “The problem is that the people don’t trust this government to do anything about legal immigration until it has proven that it can secure the border.” Cruz is clearly never going to let go of his advantage over Rubio on immigration: “I understand that Marco is trying to muddy the waters. But it’s like saying that the arsonist and the fire-fighter are on the same side because they were both at the same fire.”

The two squabbled and accused each other of advocating legislation that weakened our surveillance capability, having inconsistent or ill-considered policies for regime change, and making poor choices in their advocacy for differing aspects of the military budget. In a campaign that has been generally denigrated for its breathtaking scope of vacuous bombast, there was real substance and detail in these exchanges.

Perhaps too much so: Unfortunately for these two policy wonks, their debate got so into the weeds that it gave Chris Christie a spectacular opportunity to stomp on them both, and the big guy landed hard. “Are your eyes all glazing over?” he asked the audience. “This is the U.S. Senate!” He proceeded to excoriate the two senators as “debaters,” which Christie spat out as if it was a disorder to be treated with Viagra, before concluding that only a governor who actually had to make tough decisions could possibly be qualified to be Commander-in-Chief.

Chris Christie had a good night. Yes, he is a blowhard; and to hear him talk about his role as a United States Attorney for New Jersey after 9/11, you’d think Osama Bin Laden’s true goal was to take out the Garden State from the Outerbridge Crossing clear down to Cape May. But Christie connects with the audience. While Trump appears to be take stances and calculate his comments solely to elicit the most press coverage, Christie grounds his fervent exhortations in passionate belief. The Jersey Boy’s second sterling moment came when Rand Paul seemed incredulous that Christie declared unequivocally that he would shoot down a Russian plane if necessary after delineating a Syria no-fly zone. “Yes, I would,” Christie snarled, declaring that he is “not the same feckless weakling that we have in the White House now.” You lefties might find this an obscene characterization of the guy who did, after all, kill Osama Bin Laden, but then again, a Fox News commentator called Obama a “pussy” last week on national TV. Safe conclusion: In Tea Party Town, it is simply impossible to be too disrespectful to Barack Obama.

Rand Paul, whose antipathy for Christie is well documented quickly turned to the audience and noted, “Well, if you are in favor of World War III, you have your candidate… this type of judgment is incredibly important… like shutting down a bridge because they don’t like democrats.” Poor Rand. When your big take-down is aimed at a guy whose own campaign is in the ICU, you are on a fast track to the kiddie table.

It’s probably too late, but Jeb Bush finally seemed to find his voice last night. Pressed to defend his characterization of Trump as “unhinged,” Bush did a brilliant job of explaining that Trump’s anti-Muslim immigration stance aided and abetted the enemy, pointing out that defeating ISIS will require a coalition of Middle East nations. “If we are going to ban all Muslims, how are we going to get them to fight with us? Donald is a chaos candidate and (would be) a chaos president. He would not keep our country safe.”

Later, when Trump spoke about treating the families of terrorists as fully complicit and therefore fair targets, Jeb called it “another example of a lack of seriousness… Trump is not a serious candidate.” Trump’s retort was to once again question Jeb’s “energy,” and Bush crushed it. “Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the Presidency.” A few minutes later, Bush teased Trump for getting his information from the weekend morning shows, though he noted that he “was not sure Trump watched on Saturday or Sunday.” It was a Colbert-quality one-liner, deftly delivered.

My theory: Bush may have already resigned himself to the fact that he will not be the candidate. But now – finally – he has a sense of purpose for his candidacy. He is determined to take Donald Trump down. Trump has been messing with the Bush legacy, and Jeb is going to make him pay for it. And Bush staying in the race hurts Trump in many ways… the most concrete being the simple math: More candidates means a greater chance of a brokered convention.

Ben Carson had another night of enigmatic and puzzling fuzzy-speak; it is getting to the point where his non-sequiturs outnumber his sequiturs. More important: Ever since Paris and San Bernardino made testosterone the lingua franca of a fractured party, Ben’s slow-it-down, heavy-lidded Yoda act is suddenly the wrong pace at the wrong time. 

Carly Fiorina had a defining moment last night. During a particularly intense verbal pile-on that involved Trump, Bush, and others, the shouting and interruption reached a level of unruliness not previously witnessed in these debates. At that point, Fiorina hurled herself into the fray, condemning this behavior as exactly the sort of thing the electorate is sick of. Unfortunately, she did this by shouting even louder and interrupting more forcefully. The irony appeared lost on her. She, like Rand Paul and John Kasich, are beginning to appear desperate at their lack of traction.

There is one candidate who had a particularly outstanding night, but unfortunately no one knows. Lindsey Graham’s performance in the undercard debate was one of the most assertive, compelling, and principled presentations we’ve seen from any candidate. He at one point apologized on behalf of the United States to the Muslim world. He spoke passionately about his long-standing belief that the United States must send troops to defeat ISIS. It is a pity that he will in all likelihood never get a shot at the main stage, because he may be the one guy who is not afraid of going up Donald Trump’s nose, and has the debating skill to pull it off.

A quick word on CNN: Wasn’t it delightful to watch a two hour Republican debate and not have a single instance of a candidate vilifying a moderator as the evil elite East-coast establishment media incarnate? Give points to Wolf Blitzer, Dana Bash, and Hugh Hewlitt. There were no painfully overt “gotchas,” just good hardball. And CNN was much, much tougher about cutting off the time violators (Cruz and Fiorina are consistently the most egregious offenders) than any network thus far. Bravo.

When they cashed in the chips in Vegas last night, the ingoing odds held. Rubio continued to perform very well, and although he took some direct hits, he continues to solidify his position as the consensus choice of the centrists. For the rest of the candidates, it is crunch time. We expect Bush and Christie to score small gains at the expense of Paul, Fiorina, and Kasich.

The biggest crisis after last night is Carson’s: If he does not do well in Iowa, his game is over.

And give the devils their due: The Trump and Cruz “Tea Party for Two” strategy worked. It will enable them both to float along on top of the polls for the next month until they have their reckoning in Iowa.



   

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