About the only difference between last night’s Republican debate and a WWE match is that you generally know the winner of the WWE match in advance. The GOP has descended to such depths that simple political civility–like not calling your opponent (in the same party) a liar–has been replaced with eye-gouging and below-the-belt blows, as well as an audience that eggs on the attacks. For entertainment, it can’t be beat.
For the Republican party, it’s a disaster.
At this point, the actual issues seem beside the point. The only thing that changes is how extreme the candidates can get. Immigration, ISIS, and of course, with the death of Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court. The last was a key theme throughout the debate, and the one with the greatest importance for LGBTQ equality.
Thankfully, we have Marco Rubio, the Senator from Android, to highlight just how important. At the end of the debate, Rubio made a remarkable promise for his presidency: “We are going to be a country that says a marriage is between one man and one woman.”
The promise was not just a sop to the evangelicals whose vote Rubio needs to win to recover from his disastrous New Hampshire meltdown. It’s a signal of the kind of message that Republicans will carry into the general election to highlight just why they need to win the White House: to control the Supreme Court.
The death of Scalia underscores the stakes in the presidential race. Ted Cruz made that crystal clear when he said, “We are one justice away from a Supreme Court that would undermine religious liberty for millions of Americans.”
The nihilist Republican leadership in the Senate wouldn’t approve John Jay if Obama nominated him because it would mean the end of the conservative stranglehold on the Supreme Court.
Thanks to Anthony Kennedy, LGBTQ issues are the great exception: One of the few areas where the court hasn’t hewed to the originalist line that Scalia laid out. If conservatives are ever to reverse those gains–and don’t think they don’t want to try–they need to make sure that Scalia’s replacement is a disciple of his philosophy and, just as importantly, that any future liberal retiree finds a similar successor.
This line of argument could be the one that benefits Ted Cruz and Rubio at the expense of Donald Trump. Both Senators have taken blood oaths to ensure that the Court remains as conservative as ever. Cruz has an especially strong case to make, having been the first Hispanic clerk on the Supreme Court. Trump, of course, is famously spontaneous, which makes his judgment more open to question.
How South Carolina voters will react when they go to the polls on Feb. 20 is anyone’s guess. Trump is leading the polls, but Jeb Bush gave a credible impression of an actual candidate during the debate, attacking Trump for defaming his brother. (It helped that the audience was packed with his supporters.)
But no matter the outcome, South Carolina will hardly be the end of the party’s wrestling match.