Before Thursday night's Republican debate in Charleston, South Carolina, the overarching narrative was that the GOP race was down to three candidates: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio.
Trump and Cruz are vying for the anti-establishment vote and Rubio has emerged as the default favorite on the establishment side. If last night clarified anything, it's that the pre-debate narrative is accurate.
Let's start with Trump. This was arguably his best debate. He stumbled early on the birther question, for which Cruz was clearly prepared, but that was his only low point. For the vast majority of the debate, Trump – and I can't believe I'm saying this – almost looked like he belonged there (although that says more about the GOP than Trump). In previous debates, Trump has offered half-baked responses to questions about his positions, but that wasn't the case last night. When asked about Nikki Haley's implicit criticism of him, Trump was ready:
“She [Haley] did say there was anger. I'm very angry because our country is being run horribly and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger. Our military is a disaster. Our health care is a horror show. Obamacare, we're going to repeal it and replace it. We have no borders. Our vets are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people. And yes, I am angry. And I won't be angry when we fix it, but until we fix it, I'm very, very angry.”
By Trump's standards, this is a remarkably cogent response. Of course, he has no idea how to fix anything, but that's irrelevant. GOP voters have shown no interest in policy specifics up to this point, and so this is all Trump needs to do. Bottom line: He held his own all night. There were no obvious gaffes and he handled himself surprisingly well – that's more than enough.
Ted Cruz was also a winner. He had two tasks last night: Continue to dog whistle to his base and avoid being damaged by the other candidates, and he accomplished both. He clashed multiple times with Trump and Rubio, and while he didn't necessarily win those exchanges, he didn't lose them either. Ideologically, Cruz is a fringe candidate, but he's managed to occupy an odd space between Trump and everyone else. In many respects, Cruz is as buffoonish as Trump, and he appeals to the same constituencies. But he's a U.S. Senator and somehow feels more credible than Trump, if only slightly. Last night he satisfied his base, preserved his frontrunner status, and took no direct hits from his opponents. That's a victory by any measure for Cruz.
Rubio continues to dominate the establishment lane of the party — that was evident last night. He challenged the other frontrunners, especially Cruz, and he stood his ground against Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and John Kasich. Rubio is very well-positioned moving forward. He's utterly vacuous, but he's discovered how to use that to his advantage. Because he speaks with a youthful exuberance, his platitudinous monologues are rarely seen for what they are - indeed they're celebrated. Here's a classic Rubio statement from last night's debate:
“This is the greatest country in the history of mankind but in 2008 we elected a president that didn't want to fix America. He wants to change America. We elected a president that doesn't believe in the Constitution. He undermines it. We elected a president that is weakening America on the global stage. We elected a president that doesn't believe in the free enterprise system. This election has got to be about reversing all of that damage. That is why I'm running for office. Because when I become president of the United States, on my first day of office, we are going to repeal every single one of his unconstitutional executive orders.”
There is so much gas and disingenuousness packed into that paragraph that I'm not even sure where to begin. Take the notion that Obama doesn't believe in the free enterprise system. This is part of the popular – but patently false – trope on the right that Obama is a socialist. Even the Wall Street Journal, hardly a communist rag, acknowledged that Obama has presided over an era of record profits for Wall Street. The last eight years have been awfully kind to the 1 percent. And so Rubio is either full of shit or Obama is the worst socialist in the history of socialism - you decide, America.
Again, though, Rubio is fine. He sounded confident while lying, and that's enough to maintain his frontrunner status. His success shows that looking and sounding the part is far more important than getting it right. For Rubio to slip last night, one of the other mainstream candidates – Christie, Bush, or Kasich – had to land some punches. None of them did, and so the campaign moves forward with Trump and Cruz on one side and Rubio, largely uncontested, on the other.