Well, that was awful. The third and, sadly, not final 2016 Republican primary debate wrapped up a short while ago and it was, from start to finish, a roaring trash fire. The big storyline going into the debate was decline of Jeb Bush and the ascendance of Marco Rubio, and that narrative got a huge boost with this evening’s cacophonous disaster.
Early on in the festivities, Rubio was asked about his Senate absenteeism, which gave Jeb the opening he needed to spring the clever trap he’d been planning and publicly telegraphing. “You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job,” Jeb said. “There are a lot of people living paycheck to paycheck in Florida as well. They are looking for a senator that will fight for them each and every day.” Rubio was ready, telling Jeb that the only reason he was attacking him over this is “because we’re running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.” The crowd went wild.
And that was it for Jeb. He came into the evening needing a standout performance, and the attendance jab at Rubio was clearly supposed to be his big moment. Rubio handled it easily and made Jeb look ridiculous in the process. From that point on, Jeb was his same uninspired self, mechanically reciting the bullet points of the record he put together in Florida a decade ago that no one really cares about.
As for Rubio, he’s going to be crowned the winner of the debate. He got his talking points in, he got the favorable contrast with Jeb he wanted, and he was helped out by the moderators, who asked him aggressive questions about his Senate attendance record and personal finances. Rubio, with the help of Ted Cruz and Chris Christie, used the tone and content of the questions to turn the crowd against the moderators and score some cheap digs against the “bias” of the mainstream media.
When it came to one issue that Rubio is vulnerable on – his wildly regressive tax plan that completely undermines his middle-class-man-of-the-people message – John Harwood got railroaded by Rubio, who insisted his plan was “pro-growth” and even boasted that he would eliminate taxes on investments. That probably would have been a good time for Harwood to point out that zeroing out taxes on capital gains is a massive windfall for the super wealthy, who draw most of their income from investments, but he passed.
As for the rest of the field, there weren’t many surprises. John Kasich kicked off the debate by reiterating his complaint that candidates like Ben Carson and Donald Trump are ridiculous clowns, and then largely disappeared for the remainder of the event. Rand Paul was a nonentity, Christie got a couple of shouty tough-guy moments in, and Huckabee popped off some folksy zingers. Carly Fiorina spent the evening sermonizing about the evils of government without ever veering into specifics. Ben Carson somnambulated through the night and made clear that his grasp of complex economic issues is tenuous at best. Trump was Trump – nothing you haven’t seen before.
Ted Cruz, on the other hand, probably did do himself some favors. He got the moderator hate-fest rolling by ducking a question about the budget deal currently before Congress and instead listing off all the evil crimes of bias the CNBC personnel had committed to that point. When he finally did answer the question, he railed against the Republican leadership that “joined with every single Democrat to add 80 trillion to our debt to do nothing to fix the problems.” He stimulated all the anti-establishment nerve centers of the conservative brain, and was far more effective at communicating his message than Rand Paul, who made many of the same points.
With Rubio and Cruz turning in solid performances, you could sort of start to see how the contours of the race might eventually take shape. Right now you have Jeb barely hanging on as the establishment favorite in the race, while Trump and Carson have the hearts and minds of the “outsider” bloc of voters. All three are, to varying degrees, weak candidates: Jeb doesn’t seem to even know why he’s in the race, Carson’s campaign is an elaborate fundraising scam, and Trump is a blowhard and obvious bullshit artist. If you assume that all three will eventually collapse, then establishmentarian Rubio and “outsider” Cruz are well-positioned to pick up their support networks.
Of course, that assumes Trump’s support will collapse or Jeb will pull the plug anytime soon. Even if they don’t, tonight’s terrible debate helped clarify who the serious candidates are.