It was another GOP debate with substance tonight, in spite of that regrettable Rubio-Cruz exchange over immigration/amnesty records.
Well, and the Trump attack on Cruz over presidential eligibility. When the subject of Lawrence Tribe’s liberalism comes up as a closer in a GOP debate, you know you’re off-track.
Well, and there was the thing with Trump, Cruz, and “New York values.” Cruz doubled down on his earlier “New York values” jab, actually going on to explain what he meant by it, in a serious vein (being “socially liberal, pro-abortion” and so forth), when what he should have done was have a lighthearted joke ready. You could hear the second-hand slowing down, getting louder and louder, as Cruz made the biggest error of rhetorical judgment I’ve seen from him to date.
(Which in itself is a backhanded compliment to Cruz, if that’s the worst he can manage to do.)
The best humorous riposte I saw was this one suggested by Pamela Geller.
— Pamela Geller (@PamelaGeller) January 15, 2016
So, OK, it wasn’t a perfect debate. But it was lively and full of substance-y talk, zingers, and a few face pops. About three quarters of the way through, this video seemed to sum it up.
Still, I don’t think a single voter’s mind was changed tonight. Trump lost nothing with his supporters, and even gained some respect from non-supporters – in part because he wasn’t asked about the nuclear triad, and in part because his supporters are with him on the virtues of butt-hurt-tariff-shwacking that awful China, regardless of what it does to prices for the working people who shop at Wal-Mart.
Cruz and Rubio both had good nights. Their respective partisans will be certain that one did better than the other, but honestly, I don’t think so.
I do think Cruz got the best of their border-security/amnesty exchange. Rubio started sounding shrill and weird as he levied charge after charge about what “I saw you [Cruz]” do on a series of policy questions – and frankly, no one will even remember what the charges were. They’ll remember Rubio being shrill and seeming to lose his cool.
Cruz landed a big jab, however, when he followed up on Rubio’s explanation that today is a different situation in border security from what it was 24 or 36 months ago. Rubio’s point was that now we have ISIS to worry about. Cruz simply pointed out that we’ve had to worry for years about Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and others crossing our southern border. “The Islamic terror threat wasn’t invented 24 months ago.” That’s what viewers will remember from the exchange.
Everybody else was unquestionably…present. I do think we’ve pretty well exhausted the value of this particular process, however. It’s time for some voting.
Herewith, a comment on each candidate on the main stage this evening.
John Kasich. Bless his heart. He managed to shoehorn references to steel mills, black lung, and his father losing his eyesight into his closing statement. Other than those energizing allusions, his comments were the usual passionate argument for good management, and reminiscences about 1986.
Chris Christie. The more he appears in the debates, the more you realize that he doesn’t speak substantively about very many things. He’s entertaining and good at one-liners, and comes down on the right side of a lot of issues, but I’ll put it this way: he talks a better game than he can make a case for. I don’t know why he keeps limiting his appeal by cheerleading gratuitously for the NSA Big Data dragnet – he keeps bringing it up out of thin air – but he really seems committed to it. He’ll be out within the first handful of primaries.
Ben Carson. Carson continues to give good, smart, informed answers on policy questions, and he’s actually quite adept at rhetorically linking policy symptoms to moral health versus moral disease. It’s been beneficial to have him in the race, even though as crunch time looms, I don’t think he’ll go a lot further. (His discussion of EMP and dirty bombs highlighted his natural affinities as a scientist more than a politician.) I’m glad he hasn’t dropped out yet, and will say I don’t think the public stage of America is finished with him, even though he won’t be the GOP nominee.
Jeb!. Look, I’m just using the logo he keeps sending me in his chatty emails. Sadly, it’s been kind of painful to watch him trying to sound trenchant and tough. He speaks well on national security policy, actually: he says the right things. But he doesn’t convey credibility. He’s wrong for the times. (He needs to leave the trash talk to the competent: calling Cruz and Rubio “Senate backbenchers”? Really?)
No way are the voters going to elect a Republican in 2016 who keeps talking about other people’s mean tone.
Other than tone, what seems to exercise Jeb! the most is whether we might be offending foreign Muslims with our policy discussions about how to keep terrorists out of America. There’s a seemingly unteachable level of cluelessness here. I never had anything against Jeb!, and I’d like to keep it that way. The most effective course seems to be nominating someone else.
Marco Rubio. Almost all the time, he speaks very well and persuasively, and makes inspiring points about the important things. He rarely says anything I disagree with. He’s funny and engaging.
It’s too late in history to postpone honesty, however. He’s a “Senate gang” guy. Hovering over Rubio is the aura of a youthful, earnest fellow who believes everything he says, but who is going to end up making excuses for why he didn’t follow through on it all – because fighting, if it means standing alone, is not what defines him.
I don’t say this because I dislike Rubio. Political judgment isn’t about liking or hating people. This isn’t fourth grade. Political judgment is about expectations. Rubio comes across as the kind of charismatic Republican you can work with, a useful and positive presence for many purposes. I’d pick him over most of his fellow GOP senators. But I wouldn’t pick him to hold the pass at Thermopylae – or lead the fleet in a make-or-break battle everyone’s scared of losing at Salamis.
Ted Cruz. The reason the GOP “establishment” dislikes Cruz so much is that he is the guy who would fight at Thermopylae – or take the fleet to Salamis. I’ve written in this vein before. Cruz always reminds me of what Lincoln said about Grant: “I can’t spare this man – he fights!” Cruz fights. He gets that the willingness to fight is the only thing that will save the American political idea. He gets that the fight for that idea is already underway, and America has been losing it for a long time now.
Cruz isn’t as polished as Rubio; he’s a mild, centered guy, not tightly wound, but he has a sharper edge. There are things he doesn’t get right, like always talking past the timer bell. I don’t think his 16% “business tax” is a good idea: it’s not a VAT, technically, but it does come uncomfortably close to functioning like one. Rubio landed some hard, valid punches on the danger of a VAT, and Cruz didn’t defend it that well because it is problematic.
But one thing Cruz gets very right is discussing the philosophy of limited government and American liberty. No matter how far he’s pushed, there’s foundation and substance there – not just the right words and talking points, but the meaning behind them. The only other candidate who hits a similar note of depth and seriousness in this realm of moral philosophy is Carson.
If Cruz’s GOP critics want to know why he’s on the rise with voters, the more the voters get to know him, the critics should go back to the Lincoln line: “He fights.” Not seeing that the time has come to fight – politically, for what is necessary to preserve liberty and a government of laws – is a disqualifier for leadership today. More and more of the people see it. Those who don’t need to step down, and let the fighters have their day and win the battle.
Donald Trump. Trump seemed to have his best debate so far tonight. He has too much of a businessman’s detailed perspective on tariff policy to keep himself out of a wonky do-loop on that topic, but I guarantee you, he didn’t lose any of his base during the tariff rant. What they heard is that he’s going to stick it to China. He didn’t back down at all on his call for a temporary suspension of Muslim immigration, and that played well with his base too.
Trump comes across as a fighter because he doesn’t shrink from the implications of his most clearly articulated positions. Now, I don’t think he is a fighter in the way Ted Cruz is. Trump has a native hard-headedness that serves him well in many situations, and he has the admirable, indispensable quality of moving forward: dropping old baggage, believing in renewal, creation, and a better future. He doesn’t recognize any such concept as permanently “losing.”
But that’s not the same thing as having a vision in your head of what ordered liberty is supposed to look like for humanity, and knowing what kind of “good ideas” you have to stand against for the use of government, because those ideas never work out the way their advocates insist they will.
Trump is used to managerial ideas working out – or not, and then you liquidate the bad idea and do something else. I perceive Cruz to be the one guy on that stage who knows, with such certainty that he will say no to things on principle, that this dynamic doesn’t apply to government and never will. You will always regret even letting it get started.
Cruz won’t be misled about ideas for tweaking government and “managing” it better. (The Jeb! and Kasich mantra.) He recognizes that mankind already knows as much about government as there is to know, and the verdict is in on the eternal hope that managing government better will enable us to make it bigger without hurting ourselves.
Trump doesn’t even use the same lexicon or frame of reference to have that discussion. He can be misled – and my prediction is that he would be – because to him, measuring the size of government is mainly about what size the tax bite is, and whether the government is catering to the unions or the business owners today.
But in the meantime, he sure sounds like a fighter to a lot of the voters in 2016. It’s time to start having the votes, and seeing where the people really stand. The only prediction I make is that voters will not be flocking to the candidate(s) who strive for the safest and most reassuring, mainstream profile. Business as usual – the magic Romney, McCain, or Dole the RNC back-roomers always long for – would mean more of the suck people are having to embrace right now, and that’s not what voters want.