The candidates were chummy before the debate, but when the cameras came on, things got heated. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Thursday night's mud-wrestling match on Fox News was an experiment that seemed doomed from the start: a debate without the centerpiece and frontrunner, a television event without a star, a showcase for candidates no one really likes all that much.
With 35 percent support nationally, Donald Trump always brags about how hard he's crushing everyone in the polls. He's got a point. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Rand Paul, and John Kasich all have their fans, but the most popular among them, Cruz, has about 20 percent support nationally among Republicans. Paul and Kasich are down around the 3 percent range. (Cruz is close behind Trump in Iowa, then comes Rubio, with everyone else an afterthought.)
Unlikable protagonists may make for good cable dramas, but not for great debate fodder. It doesn't help that after six—six—pre-primary debates everyone who cares is pretty well-versed in who these seven men are and what policy positions they have. (Mostly, they want to bomb ISIS, limit immigration, and get rid of Obamacare.) But there were still lessons to be learned from the debate. For instance:
This Campaign Is Going to Be Brutal
Fox News is obviously the most right-leaning basic cable channel out there, but it was fairly aggressive in going after the candidates on their misstatements and contradictions. Moderator Megyn Kelly told Christie he was wrong about the details of what the neighbors of the San Bernardino shooters saw, and the network ran clips showing how both Cruz and Rubio had contradicted themselves during the immigration debates of the past several years (both candidates squirmed away by saying, "I didn't say what those clips show I said"). At another moment, Cruz was asked why so few of his fellow politicians had endorsed him—or, in other words, why no one who worked with him liked him—and he replied, smarmily, "You are right that I am not the candidate of career politicians in Washington."
Even without Trump on stage there were a number of testy exchanges, including Cruz vs. the moderators (on unfair questions), Cruz vs. Paul and Rubio (on Cruz being unlikable and inauthentic), Paul vs. Rubio (on whether the NSA needs to be reformed or beefed up), and Rubio vs. Bush (Rubio: "You used to support a path to citizenship [for immigrants]!"Bush: "So did you!"). The candidates are mostly alike in their policies, so what's inevitably going to separate them is the strength of their personalities—and clearly everyone wants to be the toughest, straight-shootingest, least flip-floppingist son of a bitch on the ballot. Add to that a group of politically aware primary voters who hate nothing more than a phony conservative, and you have plenty of incentive for name-calling. Attack ads are on the rise, and we've still got a long primary campaign ahead of us. If the presidential election is a reality show, and it is, none of these guys came here to make friends.
ISIS Is Bad
Throughout the night, there was competition to see who could talk the most loudly about war. Rubio promised to "rebuild" a military that Cruz said had been "dramatically degraded" by Obama; the Cuban also promised multiple times that he would send captured ISIS affiliates found at home and abroad to Guantánamo Bay—which would include US citizens, I guess? Cruz, not to be outdone, promised to "carpet-bomb" ISIS, by which he just means "bomb more." Christie even found a way to pivot from a question about Kim Davis, the infamous gay marriage–denying county clerk, to a line about how bad ISIS was. On this the Republicans can agree: ISIS is bad and we need to bomb it and also arm the Kurds to fight it, and also maybe coordinate with undefined Arab allies (so I guess the Saudis?), or something.
Rand Paul Fans Are the Loudest
The Kentucky senator is hopelessly far behind in the polls, and you can see why. On Thursday he talked about topics no other candidate would touch, including NSA reform ("I don't think you have to give up your liberty for a false sense of security") and ramping down the war on drugs (a segment that made him the only candidate to say the words African-American or refer to black people at all). He's obviously out of touch with an electorate that favors Trump and Cruz, but there were a bunch of his supporters in the audience, and they cheered at every remark he made. Somewhere out there, there's an alternate universe where he's at the helm of a very different Republican Party.
Ben Carson Is the DJ Khaled of the Campaign
Sometimes when you take psychoactive drugs like magic mushrooms you get to this place where you are constantly forgetting what happened a second ago, making conversations impossible—you'll start a sentence, lose your train of thought in the middle, and by the end you're just hoping what you just said made sense. That's how Ben Carson talked on Thursday—he meandered, he made points that you sensed were probably incorrect but were also incomprehensible, he uttered the phrase "Putin is one-horse country, oil and energy," which became the line of the night. Has anyone else in America made a career out of utter nonsense? I can only think of one man, and I can't help but think that he'd poll pretty well among GOP voters:
There Were a Lot of Guys Onstage Who Won't Be President
Carson is too odd, Kasich is too moderate, Paul is too out of step with the base, and Bush, despite not having a bad debate, is probably too unpopular and has an albatross of a last name. Christie says the right sort of stuff at these debates, but it's unclear who his constituency is. That leaves Rubio—vulnerable to charges of changing his positions as the wind shifts—and Cruz, who is despised by his colleagues. If Trump ever gets around to watching a tape of this debate, chances are he's not going to be too scared. And that's scary.
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