One thing is certain from Tuesday night’s Republican debate on CNN: Whatever polling data the Republicans are reading, it’s telling them that GOP primary voters are worried that ISIS is sneaking in through the air ducts and that the only thing that will save them now is thumping your chest really hard and repeating, “Radical Islamic terrorism, radical Islamic terrorism, radical Islamic terrorism” until the magical spell works and the baddies go away.
Oh, and bombing someone. Definitely have to bomb someone.
So who won this debate, clearly aimed at people who, like Lindsey Graham, really miss the Bush administration and those carefree days when it seemed that all the world’s problems could be solved by bombing some innocent civilians half a world away? Here's an examination:
Winner, Untouchable Division: Donald Trump. Trump came across as a sniveling bully and a consummate bullshitter who clearly just says the first thing that pops into his head and then, when confronted, just doubles down on it instead of admitting he was wrong. But that’s never hurt him in the polls before, and it’s unlikely to do so now.
Bonus points: Trump’s “plan” to bar Muslims from traveling into the U.S. became one of the central points of contention in the debate. Trump continues to amaze with his ability to control the narrative just by flapping his loose jaws while other politicians fail to get a word in edgewise with their carefully constructed talking points.
Loser, Conservatives Are A-Skeered Division: Rand Paul. The crowd was definitely not feeling his attempts to be a maverick by rejecting the security state and (some) war. Paul, never the principled libertarian he plays on TV, did his best to pander to the heightened bloodthirst of the conservative crowd by chasing after Rubio on immigration, but ultimately the moment fell flat, flatter than Paul’s poll numbers.
Winner, Impressing The Political Press Division: Jeb Bush. Bush’s war-mongering and simple-minded posturing would probably not hold up well in a contest with Hillary Clinton. However, he said a couple of things that were true during this debate, such as noting that all this Muslim-bashing is going to undermine our relationships with Muslim allies we need to fight ISIS. This made him look like a foreign policy genius compared to the clowns on stage pretending Syrian orphans are about to go jihad on us, and he’ll probably get a bunch of kudos for it from the political press.
Loser, Actually Getting Anywhere With The Voters Division: Jeb Bush. The audience loved it when Bush said, “Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency,” but only, oh irony, because Trump has trained them over months to react to every feeble insult like it’s the sickest burn they’ve ever heard. But despite landing a couple of blows during the debate, Bush’s concluding remarks were so limp he got bored with them and trailed off. Voters will soon forget that he’s even in this race.
Winners, Tap-Dancing Around The “How Fascist Are You” Question Division: Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio. You can’t denounce Trump’s nutty idea of a Muslim travel ban, because you’ll just drive more of your idiot base into his arms. But you can’t endorse it, either, because it’s unconstitutional and seriously a legitimate threat to national security. So both candidates, when faced with the question, rattled off officious-sounding nonsense to run out the clock. Rubio gave us a history of the San Bernardino shooter and Fiorina gave us a history of social media, but both accomplished the main goal of babbling until the buzzer sounded without either of them actually answering the question.
Loser, What’s This Debate About Again Division: Chris Christie. Christie’s Hail Mary pass in the past few months is to paint himself as a “law and order” type, feeding off conservative hostility to the Black Lives Matter movement in hopes of getting some kind of attention. An entire debate dedicated to Syrian politics did not help him in this mission, even though he mentioned that he’s a federal prosecutor roughly 1.2 billion times during the debate.
Winner, Oh God He Might Actually Win Division: Ted Cruz. He was nearly as maniacal as Donald Trump when it comes to racist pandering and was by far the most convincing in the contest to see who is most eager to kill them all and let God sort them out. This is a man who knows how to fight and claw his way to the top of any trash pile you give him, and winning the Republican nomination is what he was born to do. Be afraid, be very afraid.
Loser, Being Able To Sleep At Night Edition: The viewers. Well, at least viewers who still have enough wits about them to know Barack Obama isn’t a secret Muslim and that chemtrails aren’t mind control. Those viewers watched candidates dedicate nearly 2 hours out of a 2 and a half hour debate to the question of Syrian politics and the most immediate takeaway is not a one of them has the first clue about what’s really going on in the unbelievably complex civil war there.
Oh, the candidates know that Bashar al-Assad is on one side and ISIS is on the other and that Vladimir Putin is being a dick, all of which is probably more understanding that the typical Republican voter has regarding the whole thing. But memorizing these little factoids is hardly relevant when you still think the solution to an intricate civil war that mostly isn’t about us at all is to stand around declaring how tough you are.
Winner, General Election Division: The Democrats. The Republicans look for all the world like they’re going to nominate their candidate based on fears about a country most of them can’t find on a map. Better yet, that candidate will not be chosen based on his foreign policy qualifications, but on whether or not he said the nastiest things about Muslims. Either way, it’s going to be fun for the Democrat to run against this impetuous pick 11 months from now, when the issue of Islamic terrorism has faded from the public imagination and journalists have returned to asking questions about issues that are far more immediate to voters than who has a leg up in the Syrian civil war this week.