During last night's GOP debate, Marco Rubio mocked Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz attacked the billionaire for abandoning conservative orthodoxy. A whole lot of dirty laundry was aired about his business practices. There was much discussion of his tax returns and Trump said he was being audited so he couldn't release them. Rubio smugly accused Trump of repeating himself when he insisted that "getting rid of the lines" was his health care plan, and then hit him with the observation that the Israel/Palestine conflict isn't a real-estate deal. (The Israel/Palestine conflict actually is a kind of real estate deal, but that's beside the point.)
Rubio and Cruz finally focused on the man they actually need to beat in order to win the election. If they had done it three months ago, it might have made a difference.
Here's an excerpt that gives the flavor of it:
BLITZER: Governor, Governor, Governor, he attacked Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump has a right to respond.
TRUMP: Well, look, my response is very simple. There is nobody on this stage that has done more for Israel than I have. Nobody. You might say, you might talk, you're politicians, all talk, no action.
TRUMP: I've been watching it all my life. You are all talk and no action.
CRUZ: Then name one specific thing you've done.
TRUMP: What I've seen up here -- I mean, first of all, this guy is a choke artist, and this guy is a liar. You have a combination...
RUBIO: This guy always goes for...
TRUMP: You have a combination of factors. He can't do it...
RUBIO: This is so typical.
TRUMP: ... for the obvious reason, and he can't do it because he doesn't know how to tell the truth. Other than that, I rest my case.
BLITZER: One at a time, gentlemen.
Governor Kasich, you have the floor. Governor...
BLITZER: You will have a response. But I promised Governor Kasich he could respond.
CARSON: Can somebody attack me, please?
The post-debate analysts all said that Trump was exposed as a lightweight on policy questions, as if that's news. Of course he sounded like a fool talking about health care and foreign policy. But he's never sounded even slightly competent in these debates and it hasn't exactly hurt him. Policy is not his thing, dominance and attitude are and when he said "this guy's a choke artist and this guy's a liar" about the two men standing on either side of him he might as well have pounded his chest and let out a roar.
And you have to give the guy credit for chutzpah, saying after the debate that he might be being audited by the IRS because he's such a "strong Christian" and pretending to be offended by vulgar language used by former Mexican President Vicente Fox when he complained about Trump's plan for a wall earlier in the day. He has no shame. And that's what his fans love about him.
Despite Rubio's belated feistiness and Cruz's focused aggression, they weren't able to rattle Trump enough to make him do something that would change the dynamic, and there's not much time left to do it. If they have any hope at all of stopping his momentum they will have to carry on a sustained attack after tonight, with new information rolling out to feed the press regularly along with some very effective advertising. It's hard to imagine them being able to do that in a coherent fashion before it's too late.
After the debate, the pundits all rolled out the scenarios in which Rubio might still win, but it certainly seems as though it still depends on Trump collapsing, and depending on that thus far has proved to be a big mistake.
But the pundits carry on nonetheless, going on about how Rubio has to win Florida and then something will happen and he'll start winning. Likewise Cruz must win Texas (which seems more likely than Rubio winning Florida, according to the latest polls) and then ... the same thing. Something happens. These media observers even talk as if Kasich could break out if he can just win his own state of Ohio, but nobody seems convinced there's actually a way to make that happen. Basically, they're right back where they started, waiting for that inevitable moment when the narcissistic cartoon billionaire finally says or does something that will destroy his campaign. Good luck with that.
Perhaps the only thing truly surprising about the debate was the fact that the moderators asked the same stale questions that have been asked a dozen times before. Obamacare, Immigration, ISIS, Israel, North Korea. The only thing new was a question about the Supreme Court vacancy in the wake of Justice Scalia's passing, and nobody bothered to ask them what they thought about the Senate Republicans refusing to consider any Obama nominee.
Once again, not one question about climate change, the greatest challenge we face as a planet. Just once it would be nice to hear these Republicans say out loud why they don't consider this something the richest, most powerful nation on earth needs to deal with. Just for the record if nothing else. And even though yet another tragic mass shooting was unfolding even as the debate was taking place, the second time in a week, there was not one question about the carnage taking place in America's cities and towns. Yes, it's almost guaranteed they would all just say the problem is that more people aren't armed, but they should have to answer for this sophistry at times like this, for the sake of the victims of these tragedies if nothing else.
It feels as if there have been 109 debates instead of nine, and the fact that they have finally "winnowed" the field has not improved them. This primary is turning into the political equivalent of the Bataan death march. And it looks as though it's not ending any time soon even, though Donald Trump now seems like the inevitable winner. The GOP presidential clown car has finally achieved something truly unexpected: It's gotten boring.