Now that we’ve seen the barely controlled chaos that was Thursday’s Republican debate — a CNN closed-captioner aptly pegged one exchange as “unintelligible yelling” — we can probably agree this may have been the most important moment in the GOP primary race to date.
Marco Rubio, with a tag-team assist from Ted Cruz, came out swinging at the Donald, mocking him, challenging his character, questioning his conservative bona fides, calling out Trump University for the fraud that it was, getting deeply under the Donald’s skin by repeatedly forcing Trump to try to expand on his often thin policy proposals.
Rubio emptied the oppo research folder on illegal immigration, going back to the early ’80s to hit Trump for underpaying undocumented Polish workers who were helping to build the Trump Tower. That led to this exchange, which more or less set the tone for the night.
“You’re the only person on this stage that has ever been fined for hiring people to work on your projects illegally,” Rubio said.
“I’m the only one on the stage that’s hired people,” Trump replied. “You haven’t hired anybody.”
And so it went. Cruz mocked Trump for giving money to Democrats, for praising Hillary Clinton and for firing Dennis Rodman.
Trump called Cruz a friendless liar. Who could argue?
This was what Jeb! had tried to pull off and failed. This is what conservative pundits were begging Rubio to try, but Rubio had been so intent on beating Jeb! and winning his “lane” that he had apparently failed to notice that he kept slamming into the median.
But after losing the first four contests, after getting embarrassed by Chris Christie as the robot in the race, Rubio was desperate to do something, and so he did. Like this: As Trump and Rubio were shouting over each other, Rubio said, “If he hadn’t inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now? Selling watches in Manhattan.”
It was a case of mocking the mocker and the crowd ate it up.
At long last, this would be the night in which the Trump candidacy was finally exposed, meaning one of at least two things could happen — and both equally momentous.
One, it would mark the beginning of the end of the GOP establishment’s long primary nightmare. And by next week’s run of Super Tuesday contests, Trump’s numbers would finally stall and maybe even start to diminish.
Two, it would mean nothing at all, Trump would emerge unscathed, the strategy would fail and by the middle of March, Trump would basically — and incredibly — have wrapped up the nomination.
If I were a betting man, I’d go with No. 2, taking history as a guide — that nothing touches Trump and that, in any case, Trump gave nearly as good as he got in the debate, and that Rubio’s attacks on Trump might actually help Cruz, meaning the three-way race at the top would continue, and that Trump’s base of support – which once again showed up in the online polls – remains as solid as ever.
Trump may have been flustered a few times, and Rubio may have made the GOP money men happy, but neither Rubio nor Cruz really got at the essence of the Trumpian experience — that Trump’s real promise to his angry supporters is not a plan that would make America great again but rather one to blow up everything that supposedly stands between America and its past greatness. You know, like Mexicans and Muslims and Hillary Clinton.
And whatever else happened, Trump still managed to reinforce his point that Rubio and Cruz are two more members of the political class who wouldn’t change anything in Washington.
You may recall the most Trumpian line of the night: “You politicians, you are all talk and no action …I mean, this guy is a choke artist (pointing to Rubio) and that guy’s a liar (pointing to Cruz).”
As Rubio and Cruz both tried to jump in, Trump said, “I rest my case.”
The question remains who was helped and who was hurt (besides Wolf Blitzer) or if everything stayed the same. We’ll know soon. What we know now, other than the fact that Ben Carson managed to get off a line about the “fruit salad of their life,” is that the night was all about Rubio vs. Trump vs. Cruz vs. Trump.
Here’s a lightly edited version of what the night was like. At one point, Trump was explaining his plan for health-care reform, which some would call incomplete and others would call incoherent. As Trump was giving his usual answer about allowing insurance companies to sell across state lines, Rubio jumped in.
Rubio: Your only thing is to get rid of the lines around the states. What else is your plan?
Trump: You’ll get rid of the lines…
Rubio: So, that’s the only part of the plan? Just the lines?
Trump: The nice part of the plan. You’ll have many different plans. You’ll have competition, you’ll have so many different plans.
Rubio: Now he’s repeating himself.
Trump: No, no, no.
Trump: I watched him repeat himself five times four weeks ago…
Rubio: I just watched you repeat yourself five times five seconds ago.
Rubio: I see him repeat himself every night. He says five things. Everyone’s dumb, he’s gonna make America great again, we’re going to win, win, win, he’s winning in the polls and the lines around the state.
Rubio clearly won the night. But you’ll remember all those earlier debates when he was declared the winner. Trump has had worse debates and easily survived. In this one, Trump stood between Rubio and Cruz for two hours, taking on both, and was still standing at the end. Now we’ll have to wait to see if he can say the same thing Tuesday night.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, Flickr.