I find it hard to know quite what to say about this debate. It was chaotic and disordered. Lots of candidates called each other liars. Donald Trump used variations of the actual word numerous times. Our initial count from the rough transcript has Trump saying “single biggest liar” twice, “this guy lied” twice and “why do you lie” no less than three times. Rubes said Cruz “lies” a handful of times. And that was just the start of it. I don’t think there’s ever been a presidential debate where so many of the candidates have called each other liars so many times. At some moments the trash talking and chest-puffing and general drama got so intense I thought this might be a fair approximation of West Side Story if you’d written it about two battling country clubs, the plutocrats versus the plutocrat flunkies.
Since the battle has gotten so intense between them, the big thing I was expecting out of this debate was a mud slinging match between Trump and Cruz. About half way through I was marveling that that hadn’t happened at all. Of course, I hadn’t waited long enough.
At one level, this was the debate where Donald Trump finally succeeded in bringing the whole party down to his level. You could see how Jeb Bush has finally recovered his senses after the initial fusillades Trump sent his way months ago and also how he could be in a different place if he’d not let Trump dominate and humiliate him so easily in the early debates. Jeb clearly got Trump’s number on the bankruptcy issue. He finally found out how to get in his face and under his skin. He got Trump mad. It was classic Trump that he kept coming back to Bush spending so much more money than he did in New Hampshire and losing. That’s the biggest dig in Trump’s moral universe: You’re a loser, you’re pathetic and I won.
(I would be remiss if I did not mention that my strong conviction Jeb! had a new hairstyle. But no one on our team seemed to agree with me. So I’ll need to see what you the reader thinks.)
And yet when you step back from who got in what punch, it was simply a grand and fairly ridiculous spectacle. When you come down to Trump’s level, you’re still playing a game that I think he’s a master of. He’s going to come out well. And he basically did. Perhaps too it wasn’t just Trump’s game. This debate captured some of the essence of the very blue blood South Carolina GOP (and in some ways the state itself), strong concern for proper behavior, decorum, respect for people like the Bushes from quality families – and all this being an outer shell of an inner reality of violence and brutality.
One thing that did somewhat surprise me is how much Trump has doubled down on his attacks on the Bush 43 presidency. Saying the Iraq War was a mistake is one thing. The majority of Republicans get that invading Iraq was an epic error. Trump’s just the only one up there willing to say it. But when you get down to blaming George W. Bush for 9/11 and saying we were lied into the Iraq War, you’re coming up against things most Republican partisans have invested a huge amount in not believing.
Weeding out the also-runs has squared us away to what a few weeks ago I identified as an almost historic, transcendent battle between two avatars of assholery: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The only surprise is that Jeb Bush has joined up too. The other big reveal is that with the partial exception of Ted Cruz, no one really bothered to attack Marco Rubio. Not terribly surprising. I think he’s done.
I still don’t think John Kasich has the temperament to get this nomination. Anger and resentment is the coin of this realm. And he’s a pauper in that economy. But he was the only one to stand out in this exchange from the general scrum. He may do better in South Carolina than we imagine.