Aside from CBS's odd decision to hold Saturday night's Republican debate on the old pink and orange set of "The Dating Game," the production of the event was more professional than the last one on ABC. (At least everyone made it on to the stage without a major gaffe.) But the sparring among the candidates turned into a downright nasty pro wrestling match. The field having narrowed to Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Bush, Kasich and Carson, they all apparently felt it was time to start slinging some South Carolina mud.
Unfortunately for the GOP, Donald Trump may not be a polished debater or have even the slightest clue about most policy questions, but he is the only candidate in the race with real life WWE experience. And he put that experience to very good use. He mugged, he shrugged, he interrupted, he insulted, he accused and he abused. The rest of the pack tried to get a few licks in, but he dominated throughout with his trash talk and insults.
Has there ever been a presidential debate in history in which one candidate repeatedly accused others of being liars to their faces? Where the same candidate insulted one rival for having his family on the stump with him? In which another candidate was attacked for not being able to speak Spanish in an exchange over who had the harshest immigration policy? It was such a free-for-all that the moderator threatened to "turn this car around" if they didn't straighten up and fly right.
There were many bizarre moments, from the realization that Ben Carson somehow remains in the race, continually whining that nobody pays attention to him as he delivers one non-sequitur after another, to the continued insistence by the so-called sunny optimist John Kasich that war with Russia is somehow a moderate position. But the real fireworks came from the other four as Trump attacked Cruz and Bush, Rubio defended Bush and attacked Cruz while Cruz attacked Trump and fended off Rubio. It was a mess.
Then there was the moment when Trump criticized former president George W. Bush not only for Iraq, which he's done before. He also went where no Republican has gone before:
TRUMP: George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.
DICKERSON: But so I'm going to -- so you still think he should be impeached?
BUSH: I think it's my turn, isn't it?
TRUMP: You do whatever you want. You call it whatever you want. I want to tell you. They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.
DICKERSON: All right. OK. All right.
Governor Bush -- when a member on the stage's brother gets attacked...
BUSH: I've got about five or six...
DICKERSON: ... the brother gets to respond.
BUSH: Do I get to do it five or six times or just once responding to that?
TRUMP: I'm being nice.
BUSH: So here's the deal. I'm sick ask tired of Barack Obama blaming my brother for all of the problems that he has had.
BUSH: And, frankly, I could care less about the insults that Donald Trump gives to me. It's blood sport for him. He enjoys it. And I'm glad he's happy about it. But I am sick and tired...
TRUMP: He spent $22 million in...
BUSH: I am sick and tired of him going after my family. My dad is the greatest man alive in my mind.
BUSH: And while Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe. And I'm proud of what he did.
BUSH: And he has had the gall to go after my brother.
TRUMP: The World Trade Center came down during your brother's reign, remember that.
Bush was so lame following that exchange that his nemesis Marco Rubio was compelled to rescue him by interjecting that he and his family thank God every day that it was George W. Bush in the White House and not Al Gore. (Bush went on to clutch his pearls and tell Trump that he was taking back his invitation to a rally with George W. Bush.)
But it's intriguing that Trump went there at all. He pointed out that 9/11 happened on Bush's watch, putting the lie to this mantra that "Bush kept us safe." And he said that Bush and company lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Both of those ideas are articles of faith on the left, but nobody in GOP electoral politics has ever said such thing in public, much less in a nationally televised presidential debate. That he did it to Jeb Bush's face is pretty astonishing.
Trump is, by all accounts, an instinctive politician, not a strategic or tactical thinker. (If his vaunted business career has been run this way, he's been very lucky indeed.) So his decision to attack the Bush legacy in South Carolina, one of the most conservative states in the union which has a long history with the Bush family and a powerful military tradition, was likely made on the fly. It's doubtful that any political professional would have advised him to do it. Indeed, the debate postmortems are uniformly stunned that he did it, many of them assuming (again) that he's finally gone too far.
We'll know soon enough. The most recent polling, which happened before the debate, shows Trump over Cruz, his next rival, by over 20 points. Over the next few days we'll see if this was the death blow people are assuming it was. There is good reason to doubt it. Trump's appeal all along has been based upon his taking on sacred cows. That he does it to their faces reads as courage. And this is one yuuuuuge sacred cow.
Or is it? If you're Donald Trump you look at Jeb Bush and figure that if his brother was such a big success and everybody revered him so much, why isn't Jeb doing better? Sure his personality is pretty uninspiring but it's logical to assume that even with that Jeb's doing as badly as he is at least partially because of his brother. And that may very well be true. In fact, Jeb more or less admitted it when he decided to run without his last name and waffled on the question of Iraq, just as Trump pointed out.
It is possible that Trump's instincts about the Republican base are much more finely honed than all the data and the models the professional strategists have put together. If he's right and this latest heresy doesn't destroy him, we will know that the Trump Party is rising from the ashes of the old GOP. And it's a very different beast. It has no dogma, it's not ideological and it's based on white resentment, celebrity worship and nationalism. And whether they want to admit it or not it's far from clear that the Democrats will be any better at dealing with it than the Republicans have been.