The GOP’s July Crisis

Republican presidential candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and businessman Donald Trump argue during a Republican presidential primary debate at Fox Theatre, Thursday, March 3, 2016, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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This was the first GOP debate where I saw them make Donald Trump bleed. I really don’t know whether he ‘won’ or ‘lost’. I suspect his support is too ingrained at this point to be easily shaken. But this time Rubio and Cruz and mainly the moderators knocked Trump off his stride.

It’s not a matter of catching him in some logical contradiction or baloney answer. That’s happened a hundred times and it’s irrelevant. The issue is that his opponents are sharpening a number of attack lines that are commonsensical, direct and understandable: the scam of Trump University, importing foreign labor for the ‘short season’ at Mar-a-Lago. It’s hard for him to smack people down on these attacks with a single broadside.

In part it’s because these attacks are simple and understandable enough that he can’t bank on people not knowing the details of the question or why the underlying substance might be important. People are also used to Trump’s style by now. They’re not silenced by the first rhetorical wallop. More than anything though, everybody on the stage tonight, including the moderators, but with partial exception of John Kasich, was openly and unabashedly out to get Trump.

That’s hard to fight.

In the earlier debates the “little Marco” or “liar” Cruz jabs were bracing, so out of bounds of political debate that people couldn’t adequately respond to them. But now we’re at the stage that, say, Jeb got to toward the end of his campaign. He’d learned to expect Trump’s attacks, not be totally rattled by them and fight back. In this debate, though I don’t have the transcript in front of me, I feel like there were several times where Trump was reduced to or ended up just repeating “little Marco” over and over as Rubio spoke, just to drown him out or bludgeon him. That comes off less as dominating than a bit embattled, frustrated. It’s not a smackdown but a full on brawl.

Having said all this though, I come back to something I wrote after one of the earlier debates. Once Trump pulls you down to his level, even when you fight back, you’re still down at his level. And he’s better at this than you are.

There was one point maybe in the 3rd quarter hour of the debate where Rubio and Trump were basically just yelling at each other. It was very messy. Trump was clearly unable to dominate the stage. And yet, as I watched, I thought: this is not doing Marco Rubio any good. It may be bloodying Trump but not to Rubio’s benefit. They knocked him off his perch a bit but they looked like ridiculous animals wrestling with him on the ground.

The other thing I wonder about tonight is the effect of Fox News’ attacks on Trump. Trump’s the frontrunner. His dirty laundry is only now really getting a close look from the press. It makes sense that the moderators would press him more than the others. But it went well beyond that. They were out to get him. No one could watch this debate and not get that. Given how much Trump’s base constituency is driven by resentment against ‘establishments’ and perceived unfairness to themselves and those they support, will this redound to Trump’s benefit? Will it at least not hurt him? I think it’s definitely possible.

I have little doubt that the cross-country exchange with Romney today actually did help Trump. If you’re for Trump, you’re against the establishment and all it stands for. Romney is the establishment wing of the establishment and even the attack itself was fairly feckless. It only confirms Trump’s message. On a stage he owned, a short while later in Maine, Trump mutilated Romney in his response. I’m much less sure this debate helped Trump in the same way.

My cautious, initial take is that all the attacks combined didn’t do much if anything to shake Trump’s support. But they may have started to put an actual ceiling on that support. It may have stopped him from building on his current numbers. I’m truly not sure. This debate was such a mess, so full of moments that even weeks ago would have been considered totally outside the range of acceptable behavior, that it’s very hard to read how it will effect the state of the race.

You may have noticed that during the debate audience members in the line of sight behind the moderators were giving thumbs ups, making faces or just aping for the cameras like you’d expect to see as a football game or a wrestling match. We’ve never seen anything like that. The pro-wrestling mania of the Trump rallies is seeping into debates, like a virus spreading through a host body. And I tend to doubt that those people were all Trump supporters. It doesn’t matter. Creeping Trumpism is taking over his opponents from within.

The upshot of the last forty eight hours is that the GOP actually seems to be groping its way toward a strategy of doing anything possible to prevent Trump from getting to the convention with 50+% of the delegates. Just what that gets them isn’t clear and I don’t think they have any idea. They are on the one hand saying he could destroy the party and grievously damage America while still saying they’ll probably support him if he’s the nominee. (Note that Romney nowhere ruled out eventually supporting Trump.) Still that seems to be the emerging plan. You’ll note that Romney wasn’t asking anyone to drop out. Quite the contrary. He wants everyone to stay in and use strategic voting to keep Trump from amassing more than half the delegates. With that strategy this debate made perfect sense, a brutal war of attrition meant to grind down an opponent who cannot actually be beaten.

Right now it’s Trump vs the stakeholders of the institutional GOP, represented by Rubio, Cruz and Romney in the wings, like two vast armies wheeling around for a decisive combat over a small town or village. Trump’s army is clearly stronger, but not unbeatable. Whatever happens, there’s no way the village doesn’t get brutalized and probably destroyed in the process.

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