Last night on the debate stage, those of us desperate to see (almost) anybody but DT win the nomination got a breath of fresh air. Whether in the end it changes the outcome has yet to be determined, but there is now at least a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. In order to figure out if that light is an exit to the tunnel, or instead an oncoming train, we need to look objectively at what really happened last night and the state of the race in general.
Who objectively won the debate depends on your perspective, and what you consider a “win.” First of all, let’s dispense with the obvious. Carson and Kasich do not enter into the equation at this point, and the only purpose they served on stage last night were for the moderators to throw Trump a lifeline. Whatever their motivations at this point (and theories abound on that), they will not get the nomination.
Marco Rubio came out and scored some good points on DT. Largely he stayed away from Cruz, training his fire on the frontrunner. I LOVED the bit about the watches. The repeating himself line was good too. Combined with DT’s reaction, Rubio left a mark on him. This is why some of the pundits call Rubio the winner. He had good sound bytes, he had great responses that can be reduced to short clips or 140 character social media bursts. Given that these days there are fewer people reading deep into things, this is not to be underestimated. Rubio wins on style, no questions asked.
Ted Cruz demonstrated a command of the facts, leadership ability, and the ability to set and spring a verbal trap. On pure substance, both breadth and depth, Cruz displayed a clear superiority to anyone else on stage. As if he was cross examining a hostile witness, he laid bare that the charges of “liar” are emanating from a sociopath, who does not even CARE that he’s been caught in multiple lies. On debate points, facts, and substance, Cruz wins hands down.
Trump. He was still Trump. He was taking shots left and right. Objectively, he had a horrible night. He didn’t get in any real shots against Cruz or Rubio by comparison. The ones he did were hollow, and lacking in substance. This morning his Twitter feed was full of misspelled words, and he was being mocked. Then comes his rally. He gets a suspiciously timed endorsement from Christie (really??) and in so doing he does what he’s done the entire race…takes all the oxygen out of the room with the help of a willing media (see McCain, 2008). The narrative of the day changes on a dime from how he got destroyed in the debate last night to, somehow, how awful Rubio did in the debate against Christie in New Hampshire. Problem solved. In the minds of his supporters he wins just by showing up. His rally today showed, again, that his supports DO NOT CARE what he says. One of them on Limbaugh’s program today even called in and said precisely that. From Rush’s website(emphasis mine):
CALLER: Who put the roof on? Who cut his grass? Now, I’m all for immigration. Take them all away. Round ’em up. I’d be out of business for about a week. But I’m an American, and I will survive… I don’t think it matters what Trump says right now. When Obama was running, we prayed for a candidate that it wouldn’t matter what he said.
RUSH: Well, there you have it. Folks, right there: It doesn’t matter what Trump says. I don’t know how you do battle with that.
As exasperated as we all are, the fact is the game has changed. Eight years ago, Ted Cruz would be unstoppable. Skilled debater, heartfelt rock ribbed conservative, take no prisoners attitude. I arrived at my support for Cruz after I realized he was the embodiment of the combined fighting spirit of Trump, and the intellect of Carson. I still believe he is the best one for the job of PRESIDENT, and honestly I think Cruz would actually deliver more of what the trumpeteers actually want than Trump would. But who is the best CANDIDATE? At the moment, frankly that’s Trump (stay with me). The reason is he is the one setting the rules. He’s changed the game everyone is playing, but not all of the players know it (see Jeb!, Perry, Walker, Christie, … oh forget it, you know them). Last night, Rubio tried to play Trump’s game, and frankly did a creditable job of it. He won the round. Trump today is pretending last night didn’t happen, and his supporters are just fine with it. To paraphrase JFK: perception contributes to reality.
So, the game is perception. How, then, is DT playing? Listen to what he actually says (if you can). Better yet, read a transcript. It doesn’t matter which speech, they’re all the same: We’re winning with (insert group here), we’re number one with (insert next group here). I do great with (these other people). I love the (insert supposedly downtrodden group). Everybody loves me. We’re going to win YUGE in November. Rubio pointed this out last night, but not everybody heard it over the yelling. Where have you heard this before? Not as many times as you used to since we have DVR’s and we all skip commercials, but it goes like this: Brand x detergent is the number one selling brand among (insert whatever group allows you to claim number one status and not be called by the FTC). More people choose Brand Y than any other brand. Maybe that’s why more people are choosing Brand Z. Do you hear his speech now in the commercials you skip over?
So that’s the game he’s playing. The choice now for Cruz and Rubio: 1) Keep playing the game you wish you were playing. Cruz wins the old game. He’s been playing delegate chess for months now, and set up his strategy perfectly; Unfortunately Trump is playing Monopoly. Chess isn’t working so far, but hey you can always hope the trumpeteers wake up and realize they’re being manipulated (see Obama supporters, 2008-present for an idea of how that might go), or hope the remaining voters wise up and coalesce around one candidate (remind yourself just how well the “not-Romney” thing worked out- Hint: hope isn’t a strategy) 2) Play Trump’s game by his rules. Rubio is finding out how well that works now. His rules are made up as we go, good luck guessing in advance or 3) Change the game again yourself, or at least control the way the rules change. Basically, in any conflict, the aggressor sets the rules of combat. You don’t win on defense, although defense is necessary. But playing by Harvard debate rules doesn’t get you very far if your opponent is using Jedi mind tricks on the judges (voters). The candidates can choose any strategy they want going forward, but If it were me, I’d start channeling my inner Yoda to avoid that train hit.