While the details are fresh in my mind, let’s get to it.
Moderators: In sum, I thought the moderators were. . .okay. Major Garrett and Kimberly Strassel both asked good, pointed questions and tried to follow up with folks who refused to answer. They should have moderated the entire debate. John Dickerson, meanwhile, was fidgety and injected himself into the debate several times. I liked the moment of silence for Justice Scalia and the full segment of questions devoted to the daunting task of replacing him on the court.
Bush: Bush had one of his strongest nights. He’s finally figuring out how to get under Trump’s skin. Unlike Christie, who had been tiresomely repetitive in his criticism of Senators, Bush gave a quick, amusing criticism of the bickering between Rubio and Cruz over obscure details about a bill that didn’t actually pass. Bush is to the left of where both Senators stand on this issue, but he is out and proud, as it were, and made their petty squabble look childish. His one substantive mistake, I think, was attempting to attack Kasich directly; it didn’t work. He made oblique references to Rubio’s cutting and running that I doubt most first-time viewers caught, but otherwise, he had a strong night. I doubt, though, that it will be enough. For Bush to come out on top, he would need a three man race between him, Cruz, and Rubio, and for them to keep pounding away at each other instead of running circles around him.
Carson: We got whining and platitudes again from Carson; it’s no small wonder he’s polling dead last in South Carolina. Also, I’m pretty sure his Stalin quote is mostly false attribution.
Cruz: Cruz, for the most part, had a strong night. He rattled Trump badly, causing him to admit that he supports Planned Parenthood and, one imagines, funding for it. He chose to attack Rubio for the eighth time on immigration, rather than answer Kimberly Strassel’s question about revoking the President’s Executive amnesty. I’m torn over this choice. On the one hand, I’m tired of his feud with Rubio, and it annoys me deeply when candidates don’t answer questions. On the other hand, most viewers don’t watch every single debate every cycle, and so they may not be as fatigued by this exchange as most of us here. It was amusing to hear Rubio accuse Cruz of being unable to speak Spanish, only for Cruz to engage him immediately in the same. There’s been some debate over how decent Cruz’s Spanish was; my wife is nearly fluent and knew exactly what he meant. To me, it made Rubio look extremely petty and caused the sunny, optimistic mask he wears to slip a bit. We’ll see how it plays out.
Kasich: Barring the unusual, Kasich will finish fifth in South Carolina ahead of Ben Carson. His attempts to be the adult in the room were transparent and irritating. If somehow he manages to endure after near-last finishes in South Carolina, Nevada, and Super Tuesday, he will be shredded endlessly for his support of Medicare expansion by critics of that move.
Rubio: Readers here will know that I find Rubio’s canned speeches to be shallow and annoying. He helped himself, however, by showing mastery of complex foreign policy issues immediately after Trump gave a vapid answer on the same issue. Some will say he won the debate, largely on the grounds that he avoided fire most of it. His one tussle with Cruz, however, revealed that Rubio, at least, despises Ted Cruz. When faced with more sustained fire over his support of the Gang of 8 bill, he couldn’t debate Cruz on substance, and instead attacked him personally, calling him a liar and suggesting he couldn’t speak Spanish. I have no idea whether Cruz fudged on Rubio’s Spanish speech concerning executive amnesty, but the fact that Rubio went personal immediately suggests to me that Cruz drew blood there. If the campaign ever winds down to a Cruz vs Rubio debate, I expect Cruz to knock Rubio’s mask off repeatedly and shamelessly. It’s ugly underneath.
Trump: Trump was Trump. I knew it was going to be a bad night when Dickerson quoted Trump on his first question, and Trump immediately contradicted himself. I knew it was going to be a bad night when the three questions he would ask on foreign policy were “Who, What, When?” or whatever vapid nonsense he gave. Like Rubio, Trump wears a mask. Rubio’s is sunny optimism. Trump’s is faux-populism, authoritarianism, and conservatism. Last night, he was exposed, and he doubled down on his exposures. He revealed himself to be deeply out of touch on 9/11. He attacked Lindsey Graham in South Carolina. (I don’t care much for Lindsey “Let’s Invade All the Countries!” Graham, but I know better than to do that.) He revealed himself to be an advocate for Planned Parenthood. He said “I’m not in love with eminent domain,” when he has been quoted repeatedly saying that he loves it. The ads write themselves. When asked how he would get Congress to agree to tax businesses leaving the country, he simply said, “They’ll agree with me.” Beneath the spray on tan, small hands, and bad hair, under the mask, there is no populism, no authority, no conservatism. There is only a throbbing id, a petulant child, a surly bully. We saw it in full form tonight, and he was not under constant direct fire yet. If Republicans don’t manage to defeat him in the primary, he will be a miserable embarrassment he when he faces month after month of media scrutiny and Democratic attack ads.
Summary: I hope to high heaven Trump’s performance tonight is enough to cost him the South Carolina primary, especially with George W Bush coming to campaign actively for Jeb. W was a deeply flawed President, make no mistake, but I adore the man personally, and I expect many people in South Carolina do as well. Barring a massive polling shift, however, I’d expect Trump’s collapse to benefit Cruz chiefly. My pie in the sky prediction for South Carolina? Cruz, Trump, Rubio, Bush, Kasich, Carson, in that order. I’d love a third place finish for Trump, but I won’t hold my breath. I’d love Kasich to get enough steam from New Hampshire to beat Bush for fourth place, but I don’t expect that to happen, either, with George W hitting the campaign trail.