Littwin: Republican candidates on immigration show party rifts

When the GOP debate was finally over and the Fox Business Network softballs were all put away, the last thing I expected to be thinking of was something that Jeb Bush had said.

But there it was.

The hottest topic of the debate turned out to be illegal immigration, and Jeb! had joined John Kasich in double-teaming The Donald. If Bush and Kasich both seemed a little desperate, it’s only because they were.

It may have been that each of them needed a signature debate to find a way back from single digits and into the GOP race. But I’d like to think – because, you know, I’m an optimist at heart — that it also could have been the future of their party, and maybe even of their country, that they had in mind.

Whatever the motive, Trump was going on about deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants because either we’re a country or we’re not, whatever that means. Someone had to say something. I mean, Trump had even brought Dwight Eisenhower into the debate, talking about how Ike had deported a million or more back in the ’50s. I guess that was supposed to counter the Reagan amnesty. Does Ike trump Reagan?

Well, Trump didn’t mention that likable Ike’s campaign was called Operation Wetback or that, during the operation, children would die in the desert or that, in any case, a million was probably a Ben Carson-like embellishment. It was a shameful chapter in the country’s history – one that, now, might make it into a Jeffco history book.

Kasich said Trump’s plan wasn’t a plan at all, that it was “silly,” that it “makes no sense,” that it wasn’t “adult.” He said to think of the children, which seemed like an obvious point, if one that Ike had apparently missed.

Bush, meanwhile, was begging for a chance to speak. When Trump said it was time to give Bush a turn, Bush said, “Thank you, Don­ald, for let­ting me speak at the de­bate. Really nice of you. I appreciate that. What a gen­er­ous man you are.”

The crowd laughed, maybe because it was silly or not adult.

But then Bush said of Trump’s non-plan that it represents the opposite of what America is supposed to be about: “It’s just not pos­sible … and even hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion sends a power­ful sig­nal: They’re do­ing high fives in the Clin­ton cam­paign when they’re hear­ing this.”

He was right, and it wasn’t just because Trump’s hot rhetoric on immigration has probably chased away any Latino who might have considered voting Republican. It was also about the state of the race.

Once, when we were much younger, we might have thought that Trump’s exchange would be a disaster for … Trump. But, no. We know much better. Trump had put away the rapist card long ago. He still had the wall and he still had the country of laws and he still had the Trump swagger and he still had the best plan anyone had ever devised.

Does anyone think Trump lost that argument? Does anyone think that Trump is going anywhere in the polls?

For that matter, does anyone think Carson is going anywhere in the polls? His debate night was a minor disaster, or would have been in a normal world. He defended himself nicely on the embellishment front — thanking the moderators “for not asking me what I said in the 10th grade” — but then stumbled through a series of policy questions that left the sympathetic crowd rooting for him, a brain surgeon, to make it to the end of the sentence. I thought he’d never find his way home in trying to answer a question on ISIS and Syria and Afghanistan. And yet. And yet.

The smart money keeps saying Trump and Carson are bound to go away eventually, but, as The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson pointed out the other day, no one ever says how.

Jeb finally showed some life, but just a little. Can he possibly recover? Kasich showed a lot of life, but the focus groups found him aggressive and rude, which is quite a feat when you’re sharing a stage with Trump and Ted Cruz. The other establishment pick is Chris Christie, who dominated his debate – the kiddie table debate.

Two other things happened during the immigration discussion, by the way. Marco Rubio — who had helped write the comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate before he turned his back on it (the bill and the Senate) — didn’t say a word, and the much-praised moderators didn’t bother to call him on it. For him, that was a win-win. Meanwhile, getting the last word was Cruz, who spoke out against amnesty, the one word guaranteed to energize the base. That’s when he wasn’t talking about the gold standard or maybe privatizing Social Security.

Rubio and Cruz were the consensus winners of the debate because, it turns out, they’re the best debaters on the stage. They won the last debate, too. They’ve both moved into the low double digits in the polls, and the betting markets now have Rubio as the establishment favorite and certainly the one candidate most worrying to the Democrats. Cruz’s plan, meantime, is to capture the Trump/Carson vote when/if they implode.

We’re at halftime, more or less, in the GOP primary season. It’s five weeks before the next debate. It’s also, uh, holiday season. And we’re looking at what: If it’s not Rubio v. Cruz, is it Rubio v. Cruz v. Carson v. Trump?

I haven’t asked the Clinton people or the Bush people, but how many high fives do you think that’s worth?


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