Here are five things I noticed in last night’s debate:
1. Donald Trump has made fools of us all.
The consensus among the talking heads afterward was that Trump had done fine, maybe helped himself a little, certainly hadn’t hurt himself with his constituency. What were they watching? By any objective standard, Trump had a terrible debate. He said nothing substantive. He made faces–elementary-school faces—when he was attacked. He displayed his powerful ignorance: He had no idea what Hugh Hewitt was talking about when he was asked about the “nuclear triad.” This really is presidential politics for dummies: Control and use of our nuclear arsenal is perhaps the most serious presidential responsibility. Nuclear weapons are deployed in three ways—in land-based silos, in submarines, by aircraft. Three ways. The nuclear triad. This guy is running for president without the most basic vocabulary about weapons that could destroy the world. I suppose this doesn’t matter to his nitwit constituency—but it should. And if that constituency becomes a majority of our electorate, we are truly cooked. That the talking heads think Trump did okay because he didn’t offend his supporters represents journalistic malpractice…but I guess we’ve all been burned by predicting Trump’s demise in the past. The fact that he survives doesn’t make him any less disastrous.
2. Senators Cruz and Rubio lost when they were right.
Their mini-debate was fun to watch. Both are intelligent and articulate—although I think Cruz has a better strategic sense of what he is doing and is running the smarter campaign. It is a testament to the current incoherence of the Republican constituency that each man’s “weakness” was actually a strength. Rubio was entirely candid about immigration. He offered a realistic solution to the problem—but his solution does not involve the deportation of 12 million illegals and so he lost that particular debate to Cruz, who summoned the newly terrifying spectra of Chuck Schumer and called the plan “amnesty.” For his part, Cruz is absolutely right to be wary about “regime change” in the Middle East. It’s been a disaster. But that won’t help him in a party where neoconservatives now control the foreign policy debate.
3. The Governors won.
In fact, Chris Christie put both Cruz and Rubio in their place when he said after a Cruz-Rubio exchange: “If your eyes are glazed over like mine, this is what it is like to be on the floor of the United States Senate…I mean endless debates about how many angels on the head of a pin from people who have never had to make a consequential decision in an executive position.” Christie’s toughness is an informed version of Trump’s posturing. It is simple, compelling, and probably not as dangerous as it sounds–asked if he would shoot down Russian planes if they violated a Syrian no-fly zone, he said yes. This is the sort of tough talk that Ronald Reagan deployed successfully…while simultaneously signaling to the Soviets that he was ready to negotiate seriously with them. The will to bluster was the difference between Reagan and George H.W. Bush. It’s the difference between Christie and Jeb Bush. Both Bushes were better informed than their rivals, but less given to melodrama–although, over time, according to Jon Meacham’s biography of Bush the Elder, even HW came to appreciate the role Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric played as a negotiating tool. (Jeb Bush had some very good moments in the debate, directly attacking and flustering Trump–but he has too much respect for the process, is responsible to the point of abstraction in his answers and his opening and closing statements were close to incomprehensible.)
4. The others lost.
Carly Fiorina’s act has grown old. Rand Paul is smart, and generally reasonable on foreign policy, but he belongs to a different party than the Republicans. As Michael Scherer pointed out in his reliably sharp minute-by-minute account of the debate, John Kasich was done in by his spastic karate chop hand motions–he may been the first candidate I’ve ever seen who was rendered incoherent by his own body language. Ben Carson offered a moment of silence for the San Bernardino victims; he has never belonged on this stage–but then, neither has Trump–and Carson, at least, wreaths his presidential incompetence in dignity.
5. Fact Check.
Three persistent errors or elisions should be pointed out. The first is the matter of the defense cuts–the Republican party agreed to these as part of a deficit reduction maneuver called the sequester, because it opposed the tax increases (or loophole closing) necessary to make an actual deal with the Democrats. The GOP thereby showed its priorities: low taxes were more important than national security–a point that Hillary Clinton will doubtless make in the fall (although I’m not so sure that defense spending on weapons we don’t need–i.e. more ships–will increase our security). Second, the much ballyhooed “flood” of illegal immigrants doesn’t exist; indeed, the numbers of illegals crossing the border have declined drastically during the Obama years. Third, Iran will get sanctions relief–an estimated $100 to $120 billion–only after it complies with the nuclear agreement and destroys its enriched uranium stockpile, dismantles 75% of its centrifuges and makes other significant concessions. If Iran doesn’t do those things, there will be no sanctions relief.