This was a good debate, in as much as a number of the candidates were either on their game or more on their game than they’ve been in previous debates. Jeb Bush was more spirited and didn’t let Donald Trump slap him around quite as badly as he did in previous debates. In their own ways, Trump and Cruz did well too. Rubio was roughly how he’s been in earlier debates but several opponents landed real punches on him on issues like immigration.
But all of that pales in comparison to the global picture of a country, at least a major fraction of a country, totally unhinged by ISIS and the gruesome massacre in San Bernardino, California. Certainly the first half of the debate was roiled by repeated invocations of fear, the celebration of fear, the demand that people feel and react to their fear. This was logically joined to hyperbolic and ridiculous claims about ISIS as a group that might not simply attack America or kill Americans but might actually destroy the United States or even our entire civilization.
Politically, the GOP has an interest in whipping up this kind of hysteria. But a substantial number of people in this country also clearly need this fantasy vision of a great clash between good and evil which is in its own way only slightly less apocalyptic and unhinged than the philosophy of ISIS itself. We hear these slogans again and again about World War III and the rest. So we become acclimated to them. But they are really quite nuts. We’ve somehow been transported back a decade, zeroed in on the small magazine and blog right wing fever swamp of ‘Islamofascism’ and World War III. But now that’s the mainstream GOP. I note as I did in the live blog that each of Donald Trump’s opponents conspicuously declined to really attack Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States. They didn’t agree precisely, they had a more focused approach, Obama made him do it. But all seemed to proceed on the knowledge that the great majority of Republicans like the idea and frontally criticizing it would be a bad idea. As much as Trump seemed to lose his temper a few times in this debate, my read was more a calm but fierce confidence that he is defining and controlling the entire shape of the primary debate. And he’s right. He is.
My own sense is that this debate will see Trump and Cruz continue to show strength and leave Rubio more or less where he is, perhaps even slip a bit. Rubio is polished but you can see in the split screens a guy who’s studied up but basically insecure and unsure of himself in debate. That’s not Trump or Cruz, to put it mildly. Bush definitely did better, showed more life in him. But even when he does better, there’s just no rationale for his campaign, none that makes sense or resonates in this political moment. His platform seems to be: I hear what you guys think is messed up; I’ll fix it; and I won’t get weird. That argument just goes nowhere.
I give the night to Cruz and Trump. I’m less certain about Rubio, but I suspect he’ll still struggle to break through. Bush did much better but his campaign has no argument in its favor. Christie did well. But Bridgegate. He’s been dead politically for going on two years. Fiorina seems increasingly pissed that her campaign is going nowhere.
Trump’s closing brought the whole thing full circle. It’s clear, direct; it resonates. We don’t win any more. We’re losers. I’ll make us win again.