The big takeaway from tonight’s debate – perhaps ‘confirmation’ is a better word for it – is that Donald Trump can turn the bully boy shtick on and off like a spigot. Watching this debate was like being transported back to the pre-2016 GOP debate world where one candidate ranting “Little Marco” ten times or another putting up his hands to show how big they were was essentially unimaginable. The tone of this gathering made it seem almost unthinkable again.
As everyone has noted, Trump is now trying not only to pivot to the general election but reassure GOP party stakeholders with his restraint and smother his competitors with talk of unity. I thought Trump and Cruz did very well for themselves but in very different ways. Trump owned his frontrunner-dom, didn’t deign to rise to the taunts of his competitors and didn’t let the moderators – especially Dana Bash – orchestrate a confrontation. He didn’t allow himself to get knocked off that game. A bit more tired by the end of the debate, he was a little less able to keep attack Donald under wraps. But overall, he kept it cool and restrained. He kept to his plan.
Cruz was attempting something very different.
He knocked Trump a few times here and there. But that wasn’t his main goal. Most of what he was trying to do he could have done even if Trump wasn’t on the stage. Cruz’s main goal was to talk to the audience, to engage in a soliloquy of conservative purity and drive. There is a big basket of anti-Trump votes out there. And Cruz’s goal was to scoop them up. So attacking Trump, except to set up his own perorations, was basically irrelevant. He was trying to swoop up the existing anti-Trump vote, not pull Trump’s supporters away from him.
He was also looking for ways to drive home the point that there are only two candidates left who can be the nominee. In that goal he had Trump as an ally. Cruz is a consummate bullshit artist. But on his hand-raising gyre, shifting from Trump’s heil-hand-raising rallies to raising his own hand at his inauguration next January, that was some quality bullshit. No question. There’s a certain earnest, unironic and treacly sentimentality that is like mother’s milk for traditionalist American conservatives – think Ronald Reagan, embodying an American eagle, on a flag background, on a blue sky. Cruz was deep in that groove tonight and I think he helped himself.
Rubio and Kasich both had some good moments. But they’re both basically out of the game. Rubio certainly is. Kasich probably is too. Plus, his non-craziness and lack of a personality disorder don’t stand out as much against a calmer, more substantive debate.
Two other points stood out to me. Despite the advent of civil and dignified Trump, he held nothing back on his animus and exclusion of Muslims here and abroad. If anything he extended it beyond much of what he said before. Rubio and Kasich pushed back on this; Cruz did to a lesser extent. But they did not in ways that would remotely hurt Trump with his supporters.
Much the same was the case on the topic of crowd beatings at Trump’s rallies. Yes, he said the punching incident was unfortunate. But he noted again that there are so many people at his rallies and barely anyone gets beaten up. And more pointedly, no one should be violent. But people are angry about bad trade deals and losing. His supporters have “anger that’s unbelievable,” which seems accurate enough. And sometimes, well, that anger gets the best of them. God bless’em.
The general message was: they’re my people. They’re angry. They love America. And with that much anger and love, stuff happens. And besides, those protestors, he seemed to say, are some bad mofos who probably have it coming. To use his own words, “We have some protesters who are bad dudes, they have done bad things. They are swinging, they are really dangerous and they get in there and start hitting people. We had a couple big, strong, powerful guys doing serious damage.”
So Trump didn’t “condone” the incident that got John McGraw charged with assault. But the general message was: the trade deals are bad and the protestors are worse. So stuff’s going to happen.
The upshot is that Trump has decided he has little need to attack his opponents any more and much to gain by smothering his opponents and defanging GOP stakeholders with expressions of unity and demonstrations of restraint. On the driving themes of his campaign though, economic nationalism, xenophobia and revanchist anger at losers, freeloaders and protestors, there was no shift at all.
Everything I saw tonight made me think that Trump is well on his way to becoming the GOP nominee. I see no big obstacle stands in his way. Just as important, if for whatever reason Donald Trump isn’t the nominee, it is now extremely difficult to see how the nomination won’t go to Ted Cruz. Maybe you can steal the nomination from one factional, plurality winner. You can’t steal it from the guy who came in a close second too. That just won’t fly.