It started slowly—and the moderators' first thought, Brett Baier admitted later, was: uh-oh. Maybe these guys need Trump to put on their best show. It was clear that Ted Cruz could not hold center stage. He simply wasn't very compelling. And it was clear that the Marco Rubio windup-toy, spouting perfectly honed couplets from his stump speech, was compelling, but in a perfectly predictable, not very spontaneous way. He certainly wowed Frank Luntz's focus group, which doesn't mean nothing: in fact, it may mean a lot. None of the other candidates ignited the rocket they need to become relevant in Iowa.
It got better as it went on, though not for Cruz. The three—Bush, Christie and Kasich—had good nights, especially Bush, who schooled Rubio on immigration cowardice. The immigration section, which Fox (weirdly) held until the second hour, was the most informative and entertaining. As in the first debate, it was the result of some fine research by the Fox team: two video collages showed Rubio and Cruz taking more humane positions on immigration than the ones they now avowed. It was difficult for them to slip away from the evidence on tape; their squirms were revelatory. Cruz seemed more of a politician than a true-blue conservative. Bush, by contrast, seemed—for once—more a statesman than a statue.
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For the record, we should make the real immigration distinctions clear. Both Rubio and Bush were in favor, at one point, of a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the U.S. Bush wrote a book in which he stepped away from this position at the beginning of the campaign, saying that he favored legal status but not full citizenship—you can stay and pay taxes, but you can't vote—for the undocumented. Cruz also favored legal status but not citizenship. But both Rubio and Cruz have since scampered away from any plausible answer for what to do with the 11 million, in response to the nativist craziness in the GOP. Bush has remained in favor of legal status, which has made him a wimp and an easy mark for Trump, who wants to ship them all back to Mexico….
The previous paragraph was not the most scintillating I've ever written, but it is accurate. I'm not particularly proud of it, but it does fulfill one of my responsibilities as a journalist, which is to tell you the differences between the candidates. Of the three politicians involved, Bush has been most honorable and consistent—and he has gotten clobbered for it, mostly by Trump, but also by Cruz, who goes around shouting "amnesty" as if it were not an occasional American immigration tradition, last exercised by, uh, Ronald Reagan.
And here we come to the crux of the problem: Donald Trump has diverted us from all these important, if not scintillating, details. It was fun watching Bush, finally, landing an uppercut to Rubio's jaw; it was interesting to see that Rubio staggered a bit, but came back strong, unlike Bush, who seemed to deflate, when Rubio threw a haymaker at him in a previous debate. There was real satisfaction, entertainment value and information in the exchange. These are the nuances that provide the drama of politics in a complicated democracy; they are what give political debates value.
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Donald Trump has done violence to all that. Bush and Rubio were arguing policy. Trump's attacks have been all about masculinity ("low-energy" is a euphemism for you know what) and menstruation and silly-birtherism. None of his attacks have been substantive; all have been personal. They have been a smokescreen for his utter lack of knowledge, for how profoundly inappropriate it has been for a charlatan like him to haunt the presidential stage.
His refusal to participate in the debate was a profound act of cowardice. And yet, many of my colleagues will spend the next days chewing over whether his ploy succeeded or failed, whether he "won" the day. Trump wins every day that the media allow him to define the playing field. I suspect the good citizens of Iowa spent the evening watching the debate, not him.
In the event, Luntz's focus group probably does represent down-home Iowa GOP reaction: Rubio won. He speaks very clearly and simply, and declaratively. He never mentions a program or a principle that average folks don't understand. Bush, by contrast, gave a completely incomprehensible answer about the political and economic status of Puerto Rico. Kasich compressed his impressive history of dealing with criminal addicts into jargon that could not be understood by people residing outside the State House in Columbus. Christie is more accessible than the other two, and hammers Hillary relentlessly, but never is very clear about what he would actually do as President.
Rand Paul and Ben Carson also attended.
I have no gut feeling about what this last debate will mean over the next four days. I think Trump was hurt by not attending. I think Cruz was hurt by not prevailing. I suspect Rubio will finish stronger than has been expected, but I'm not sure his Iowa performance will help him much in New Hampshire. Bush's performance may give him a bump in New England.
In the end, the debate was worthy, but a bit of a substantive fizzle. There were practically no questions asked about economics, deficits, taxing and spending. Something was missing, other than Trump.