Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Eighth GOP Debate: Marco Pole-Axed

Steve is back, debate watching at night, 20K in the morning, review in the afternoon, commenting on the evisceration of Marco Rubio at the hands of a bouncer from Jersey.

This state ain’t big enough for the four us.

That’s been the narrative for months: that New Hampshire would decisively winnow the overcrowded “establishment lane,” in which Kasich, Bush, Rubio, and Christie have been fighting to be the last moderate standing. The theory: the deeply worried donor pool of centrist Republicans would quickly consolidate behind the “moderate” who performed best in New Hampshire on the hope that a well-funded “establishment” candidate could stay in the race, and ultimately defeat the Trump/Cruz outsider bandwagon.

This narrative evolved in Iowa as Marco Rubio’s strong showing made him the presumptive favorite to be the consensus choice of centrists.

So everyone knew one thing: tonight was the night that Rubio’s momentum had to be stopped in its tracks, or only three tickets would be issued for the train South Carolina… Trump, Cruz, and Rubio.

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey took this challenge to heart. And in no debate in my memory have we witnessed a pubic mugging on the magnitude of what Christie pulled on Rubio Saturday night.

There is no doubt that Christie’s clumsy but powerful machete damaged Rubio, who seemed genuinely stunned by the ferocity of Christie’s wildly flying blade. While Rubio settled down over the course of the debate, the damage had been done.

But we doubt that the good people in New Hampshire will reward the thuggish Jersey Boy for ripping Rubio. Rather, the likely beneficiaries were Kasich and Bush, who were both spirited, upbeat, and appealing. Look for Kasich’s stock to soar over the next 72 hours, as he showed more force, more vision, and more gravitas than Bush.

Not twenty minutes into the debate, Christie went directly for Rubio’s jugular, openly taunting the senator’s legislative background as just so much ineffectual speechmaking. Christie cast Rubio as a do-nothing debater who is slick with a sound bite but who has not been involved in a “consequential act” in his entire career in government. He ridiculed Rubio for dodging questions and made fun of him for twice repeating a tightly scripted, clearly memorized “25-second speech.”

Once again Christie leaned into his favorite rhetorical device, in which he dramatically turns to the camera and announces that he is speaking to all the people at home across the United States. “I want the people at home to hear that…  that memorized 25-second speech doesn’t solve one problem… none of that stuff happens in the Senate prepare you to be President of the United States.”

What happened next bordered on surreal. Rubio, apparently deeply flummoxed by Christie’s boldness, actually began to recite that exact same tightly scripted sound bite about Obama for yet a third time. Christie could not believe his good fortune. “There it is again!” he gushed incredulously, “the same 25-second speech!”

Now all this made for great drama for the television viewers across the country, but within the state of New Hampshire, it actually had a much larger significance. Chris Christie has been targeting Rubio in his town halls for weeks, singling him out as the “boy in the bubble,” the heavily scripted candidate who is overly coddled and protected by handlers. Christie has been telling people in New Hampshire ad nauseum that Rubio’s town halls are tightly controlled PR events, with only pre-selected questions and little opportunity for voters to interact with Rubio, and no possibility that Rubio would have to deal with issues spontaneously, openly, and off-the-cuff.

Therefore, when Christie was pummeling him at the debate, Rubio’s robotic retreat into the irrelevant canned speech played precisely into Christie’s broader narrative. It vindicated Christie’s unrelenting and withering assessment of Rubio as the boy among men, the inexperienced rube who had no record of true accomplishment or executive leadership in a paper-thin resume.

Very shortly thereafter, the topic of immigration came up, and Christie reloaded. Poor Rubio is haunted by his flip-flops on immigration; the man has had to hold more positions in an hour than your average Bikram yoga class. Christie pounced again, ferociously clawing at Rubio for failing to support legislation that Rubio himself introduced. “A leader must fight for what he believes in,” Christie sneered.

The one-two punch in the first 40 minutes of the debate left Rubio stunned and stammering; one imagined the donor class quickly counting the lifeboats. The essential question about Rubio’s candidacy – for the electorate and the donor class alike – is whether he is the fresh-faced powerful voice of a new generation, or the baby-faced boy who does not have the experience and gravitas to stand toe-to-toe with Hillary Clinton.

We have observed many times before: any “gaffe” on the debate stage is bad, but when the gaffe appears to prove a candidate’s suspected liability, it can be absolutely devastating.  Rubio’s failing, flailing response under Christie’s howitzers cut to the essential viability of his candidacy. It was a devastating moment. Over the course of the debate, Rubio would regain his footing and settle back into his usual game. But the damage had been done.

All of this is not to say that Chris Christie benefitted from this encounter. Ironically, Christie – in savaging Rubio – may have actually stepped deeply into the liabilities of his own candidacy. Christie positions himself as the tough guy who fights hard to get things done; he was willing to take on the teachers’ union and he was the tough United States prosecutor in the wake of 9/11. But he was also the ham-fisted thug whose minions waged a ruthless personal vendetta against a New Jersey mayor who had the audacity to not endorse Christie’s bid for re-election, which has entered into popular lore as “Bridge-gate.”

When Christie tore into Rubio, he appeared to be just so much the Jersey enforcer; the angry bouncer in some Asbury Park arcade who can’t wait to toss the handsome preppie into the street. In the very act of validating the most negative narrative about Rubio, he validated the most negative narrative about himself.

A half-hour or so after the Christie v. Rubio knockout, the second heavyweight match of the evening would begin between Jeb Bush and Donald Trump.

This was triggered by a question about the policy of “eminent domain,” the government’s legal power to appropriate land for the purpose of the public good.  It is a lively issue in the land of “live free or die,” as New Hampshire residents are split as to whether the state government should be seizing private land for the purpose of building a pipeline that could expand the state’s capacity to generate electric power.

The question went to Trump, the professional real estate developer, who spoke forcefully and knowledgably about the vital need for government to possess the power of eminent domain. Simply put, he explained, government must have the ability to seize private land for the public good, in order to build schools, roads, and infrastructure.

Jeb Bush, however, saw this fast ball coming. He leaned in and pointed out that Donald Trump himself petitions the government to use public domain not for the “public good,” but so that he can build bigger parking lots for the limousines of high rollers in Trump’s Jersey casinos. Indeed, Bush pushed on, the Donald had in one such case forced the eviction of an octogenarian grandmother.

Whenever afforded the option of a reasoned rejoinder or a personal insult, Trump cannot resist: he immediately began taunting Bush about his energy levels, lending new meaning to the phrase “bully pulpit.” This time, however, Jeb Bush hung tough, refusing to stand down. In the exchange, Trump was booed lustily. It may have been Jeb’s single most glorious moment of a very painful campaign.

But Trump doubled down. Hearing the boos, Trump had to insult the audience, as well.  Trump explained to the TV viewers at home that the tickets for the auditorium “had been reserved for campaign donors,” and since Trump has no donors, he mused, the audience with packed with the donors of other candidates. “That’s why they don’t like me,” he explained. The audience was only too willing to concur with his appraisal of their feelings if not his explanation for it.

Trump had a mixed night. He was spared the usual fury directed at the front runner, simply because the sub-plot – the battle for the mantle of the establishment lane – was actually much more critical to four of the seven candidates on the stage.  Trump neither helped himself nor hurt himself, but the strong performance by the establishment wing in total is certain to drain his poll numbers going into Tuesday. And that will be problematic for a candidacy that is showing surprising weakness just as the voting actually begins.

Ted Cruz failed to capitalize on whatever Big Mo he might have wished to leverage from his caucus win.  Indeed, the only mention of Iowa quickly proved embarrassing, as ABC’s David Muir raised the murky issue of whether Team Cruz had intentionally misled Iowans about an erroneous CNN report that Ben Carson was “leaving the race,” and then encouraging voters to abandon Carson and caucus with Cruz. Demonstrating exactly what kind of captain steers the Cruz ship, Ted was quick to disavow any knowledge of his underlings’ underhandedness, and he turned and made a broadly theatrical apology to Carson. Dr. Ben, however, didn’t let Cruz off easy; insisting that CNN had corrected its reports within minutes, but that the Cruz operation made no effort to relay the correction. Unfortunately for Cruz, that was his sound bite for the night.

In what was a truly adorable moment that somehow captured the full zeitgeist of Ben Carson’s campaign, the good doctor somehow failed to hear his name being called out by the moderators at the opening of the debate. Thus, fully on camera, he stood uncomfortably offstage as the other candidates strolled past him in wonder.  Finally, Carson had to be coaxed out my Martha Raddatz and David Muir. The image of Dr. Carson, sleepy-eyed and befuddled, hesitantly peering out onto the stage as the other candidates streamed by, was a delicious metaphor for the manner in which he has squandered an early lead. Believe me, the next time I try to tell someone that a difficult task is not as hard as it looks, I am going to think long and hard before I say “well, it isn’t brain surgery.”

However, the real winner of the evening was Governor John Kasich of Ohio.

Governor Kasich has proven to be a patient and eminently likable candidate. He brings together a mix of real world grit – working knowledge of how to get things done and how to find common ground among competing interests – with a decidedly upbeat worldview, and profound belief in the need to unify rather than divide.

He was particularly effective Saturday evening, as he repeatedly elevated the quality of the discussion, citing the need for Republicans to be a party that cares about all citizens. He spoke movingly of the need to help those in need; to view drug addicts as people who suffer from disease rather than as criminals. He spoke of the need to be Americans first, and members of a political party far second. In a campaign that has been more characterized by fear, hatred, and exclusion (that would be of immigrants, Obama, and Muslims), Kasich stands alone as a unifier; a plain spoken man whose idea of making America great again does not involve walls, bigotry, and bloodlust.

When the moderators teed up the profound issue of the intense tension between police and minority populations all across America, Donald Trump made an unapologetic and unalloyed statement of faith and belief in the police. In contrast, Kasich eloquently spoke of the bipartisan taskforce he had created in Ohio of police, community leaders, and public safety officials.

Most interesting of all, Kasich was animated with passion to get things done. “I will push so much legislation in my first 100 days,” he vowed, “you should head out and buy a seatbelt!”

It will of course be fascinating to see what happens in New Hampshire on Tuesday. There’s really not much time for big changes, and Trump, Rubio, and Cruz have very strong positons.

But if anything could possibly have been done to create a seismic shift in the tectonic plates of Republican politics, this debate had it all.

And if – just if – Governors Kasich and Bush do indeed emerge from New Hampshire with a big lift, I hope they have the good sense to send Chris Christie a bottle of champagne.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent as always, Steve! And your comment about brain surgery has me laughing out loud here.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Woodward and Silver move over, the Gardner brothers are in town!!

    ReplyDelete

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