Let’s state the point clearly: Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz failed utterly to put a dent in Donald Trump or his seemingly clear path to the Republican nomination. In their defense, it was a huge challenge. If Trump does as well on Tuesday as the current polls suggest, he will likely be unstoppable. Not necessarily because the numbers will make him inevitable but because the pageantry of winning will continue to elevate Trump and overwhelm Rubio and Cruz. To prevent that, one or the other needed to land a devastating blow – something on the level of what Chris Christie did to Rubio before New Hampshire. Frankly, it needed to be even worse. They didn’t come close.
This isn’t to say they didn’t land some punches. Early in the debate Rubio surfaced a number of scandals that could potentially be very damaging to Trump. I think the “Trump University” scam is ultimately the most damning – a clownishly crooked scam that exploited people who didn’t have a lot of money but bet it all on Trump’s razzmatazz. He also landed some hits on Trump’s inability to say anything specific about his health care plans other than allowing people to purchase insurance across state lines – a tired nostrum the only practical effect of which is to end all regulation of health care insurance and make the system wildly more unfair than it was before. Still, I don’t think any of these attacks mattered much. The only thing to emerge from the debate which I think could possibly hurt Trump was entirely self-inflicted: his announcement that he can’t release his tax returns because he’s in the midst of a multi-year IRS audit – a point which is both nonsensical on its face and highly problematic from any politician operating in the gravity universe. I think there was little follow-up from the moderators because they were simply gobsmacked by what Trump was saying and couldn’t think of how to respond.
But again, with the possible exception of the audit thing, I don’t think much of it matters at all. The two senators had an almost impossible task – landing a decisive blow against a player who has been entirely impervious to decisive blows and is simply a better debater than either of them. The need to land that decisive blow created a series of visuals, set pieces and mini-dramas in which they gave their absolute all to take him down and inevitably failed. On balance, that made them look small and confirmed the pervasive impression of his strength and their weakness. They’re being crushed by a guy who by any normal political calculus is a joke.
In virtually every instance, Cruz or Rubio would launch some slashing attack, often both of them in succession or even at the same time only to see an unflappable Trump raise his index finger to the moderator, wait his turn and calmly slap his attackers down and reiterate his basic mantra. ‘I’ll make us great. I’ll win. I’m winning. We’ll win.’ Since Cruz is a bit shorter than Trump and Rubio is substantially shorter than Trump, the visual, with Trump in the center, often had the look of one of those old Bugs Bunny or Popeye cartoons where one tough guy is holding two runts at bay with outstretched arms to both sides.
Toward the end of the debate, even Cruz and Rubio seemed to lose their enthusiasm for the fight. The attacks degenerated into arcane discussions of Supreme Court jurisprudence between Cruz and Hugh Hewitt, whether John Kerry is worse than Hillary Clinton and arguments over the 2004 election. It was like overhearing a Federalist Society meeting at a cigar bar – all completely irrelevant to the politics of the moment.
During the debate and during the infomercial-esque Chris Cuomo interview after the debate, Trump said again and again that he was enjoying himself and that his opponents were losing badly. These are perhaps the most credible things Trump has ever said.
It was a bad development for the Democrats that Rubio managed to slip into second place in South Carolina. For a moment it seemed that his arrested ascent in New Hampshire might be on again. Perhaps a cleared field could put him into a drawn-out but winning race with Trump. But in a million tiny ways in the week since South Carolina that illusion has melted away. Rubio can’t even clearly get into second place vis a vis Cruz, who shows absolutely no signs of dropping out. Why should he? He’s doing better in his home state vis a vis Trump than Rubio is. Meanwhile, Kasich and Carson are there to sop up votes. The simple truth is that the idea that all the people not currently supporting Trump are actually opposed to Trump is nonsense and defies everything we know about politics.
Sure, most of Bush’s supporters will go to Rubio or Kasich. But not all. Trump will get a good chunk of them too. The same with Kasich’s and Carson’s supporters and certainly Cruz’s. Pundits and campaign operatives in denial think in schematic terms. Bush is the anti-Trump and vice versa. So Trump won’t get any of Bush’s support. But it’s never so clear cut. The nature of a campaign at this point is a ratification effect where subsequent primaries tend to ratify the nomination of the person the party seems to be choosing. The only oddity of this race is that actual Republican voters are choosing a candidate who horrifies most professional Republicans. But they’re are choosing him nonetheless.
The truth is that no nominee actually goes over 50% when a race is still on-going, certainly not when there are five candidates in the race. Not ever. Look at any remotely comparable primary campaign. And yet since South Carolina there are a number of states where Trump is getting close to it. This is not over. But the idea that the winnowing of the field will consolidate anti-Trump voters around a single candidate who will perforce beat him is nonsense. ‘Momentum’ isn’t really a thing. The ratification effect is. And for now, Trump has it.
Leaks today from the Rubio camp saying they’re prepping for a contested convention is just a sign of denial and desperation. Maybe the tax thing will break his stride. Maybe ‘Trump University’ will grow into a scandal. But if he dominates Super Tuesday the way the current polling data suggests, he will be close to unstoppable. If he crushes Rubio in his home state, what possible argument for Rubio’s candidacy will be left?
The debate was a mess. Much of what Trump said made no sense. But his basic message, both in words and in visuals and in an effortless denigration of his opponents delivered concisely the message that has brought him this far. He won hands down. It can’t possibly be happening but it is happening. Something else big will have to happen to break his drive to the nomination.