My favorite moment of GOP Debate Night V — and I know it doesn’t reflect very well on me — came when Ted Cruz let his inner Cruz shine through.
This is the real test for Cruz. The outer Cruz can be, well, trying. The inner Cruz is another thing altogether.
We know he’s smart, cynical and ruthless in a way that reminds history buffs of the early Nixon (for you non-history buffs, that was a particularly nasty Nixonian chapter). We know he’s the only candidate gaining ground on Trump — and that’s he doing it by presenting himself as a slightly more palatable version of whatever it is that makes Trump work. We know his campaign is going just the way he had planned it because Cruz can’t stop explaining to anyone who will listen exactly what his game plan is.
And so, he will bear-hug Trump — at debate’s end, Trump was literally patting Cruz on the back and saying how much he liked him — and he will savage whoever tries to get between them.
Which brings us to Marco Rubio. The contest for No. 2. — Rubio vs. Cruz — was the headliner. Those who expected Cruz and Trump to attack each other have not been paying attention. Their Mr. Outsider/Mr. Really Outsider alliance has worked for both of them, and especially Cruz, who is just beginning his assault on Rubio. He didn’t exactly carpet-bomb him, but you can see it coming.
The assumption has been that when the field narrows, Trump loses and someone else wins. It’s the assumption that the entire GOP establishment is counting on, while praying (yes, prayer is required in all cases) that the someone else is not Cruz. Let’s just say this may also be a test for Rubio and also for prayer.
With the stakes so high, Cruz and Rubio went after each other hard — on how to deal with ISIS, on how to handle immigration, on how to collect metadata on would-be terrorists (and the rest of us), on what should or should not have been done in Libya. Rubio is trying to cast Cruz as an isolationist who would weaken America’s ability to deal with terror at home. Cruz is slamming Rubio on his Gang of 8 immigration plan and for being a neo-con who enables ISIS by wandering the world toppling strongmen.
It was an interesting debate, with Rand Paul often siding with Cruz. The debate is at the heart of where the GOP is heading on foreign policy, which is important, of course.
But for our purposes, it’s how Cruz, the college champion, debated that matters.
He called Rubio’s attacks “knowingly false” and, better, “Alinskylite” — and who wasn’t hoping that Saul Alinsky would somehow reappear in this campaign? Cruz didn’t simply tie Rubio to Obama, to Clinton, Chuck Schumer or to any other convenient name Republicans use to scare their children. Cruz called for an “America-first” policy that had to concentrate on destroying ISIS “rather than creating opportunities for ISIS to control new countries.” And then he took the debate to its logical, Fox News, talk radio conclusion by comparing Rubio to, yes, Woodrow Wilson — saying that “instead of being a Woodrow Wilson democracy promoter,” we needed to “hunt down and kill” terrorists.
Obama, Clinton, Schumer, Wilson. Check, check, check and check please. If Democrats worry that Rubio is the GOP version of Obama, Cruz will happily embrace the notion.
Rubio held up pretty well. Rubio doesn’t get flustered when attacked – note to Jeb! — he just moves to the next argument. I mean, Cruz had to defend himself on his call to carpet-bomb ISIS without, you know, also killing all those inconvenient innocent civilians. Nobody asked him about his pledge to find out whether enough bombs can make the sand glow at night, but it was hanging up there for someone to swing at. Rubio made his case that bombs are not enough to defeat ISIS and that, in any case, Cruz couldn’t call for 24/7 bombing while also making votes against defense spending.
But Cruz’s point was that he doesn’t want to get into another 10-year war in Iraq, but that, unlike Obama, he does want to hunt and kill the terrorists, particularly if any of those terrorists are killing Christians.
The post-game analysis was generally that there was no real winner in the debate, which probably suited Cruz fine. He’s happy at No. 2 for a while. Rubio is probably happy at No. 3.
It’s hard to see another possible contender on the stage outside of maybe Chris Christie and somehow Jeb! — only if Rubio slips.
Christie is making something of a comeback by continuing to insist that being governor of New Jersey somehow is especially qualifying for the presidential job, and that as a U.S. attorney he had beaten terrorists, meaning they knew not to mess with him. Is that working for anyone?
And Jeb!? Poor Jeb!
Jeb!’s reasonably good debate performance came about four debates too late. Unfortunately for him, this debate wasn’t about The Donald at all. But nobody gave Jeb! the memo.
We’re not surprised by Trump any more, not by his lead or by whatever absurd or dangerous thing he says. If he spends his debate night defending his proposed ban on Muslims or his idea to “take out” terrorists’ families or his suggestion to shut down parts of the Internet, that doesn’t even merit a headline. It’s just Trump.
And so Bush saying that Trump is chaos itself, well, that might get a headline, but it doesn’t change anything. Remarkably, something like 40 percent of Republicans like Trump that way. Frank Lutz’s focus group likes Trump that way.
And as the year comes to a close, even Ted Cruz likes him that way. After all, if enough Republicans can like unhinged Trump in 2015, who’s to say that they might not settle for the unlikeable Cruz in 2016?
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, Flickr.