Another GOP debate, and yet another opportunity for the presidential candidates to display the full blossom of falsehoods, idiocies and misdirections that constitute the party these days. Ben Carson declared that doing brain surgery qualified him to take on ISIS. Carly Fiorina forgot that Gen. David Petraeus lost his job because he was having an extra-marital affair with his biographer, not because he told President Obama things he didn’t want to hear. And Donald Trump repeated the lie that “friends, family, girlfriends” of the 9/11 hijackers returned to Saudi Arabia just prior to the terrorist attacks.
In short, just another day in GOP Land.
Because this debate was focused on foreign policy, the candidates served up a big, heaping dish of fear for the audience to savor. The constant refrain was how unsafe we are and how much safer we will be if swagger were to become our national security policy.
By now, of course, no one watches the debates to understand the fine points of policy distinctions among the candidates, largely because many of their positions are too incoherent to be described as policy at all. The debates largely serve to see who can best tap into the dark id that is the Republican voting base.
In that sense, Jeb Bush should pack it in now. Bush, who seems to embody the word “ineffectual,” tried in vain to position himself as the serious candidate in direct opposition to Trump. But Trumps unabated lead in the polls suggests that the base isn’t interested in serious.
The man who did himself the most good in the debate was probably Ted Cruz, the creepy Senator from Texas who owes his career to gay money. At this point, Trump, Cruz and Marco Rubio constitute the strongest candidates, and Cruz is positioning himself to be the last man standing.
Scarily enough, that’s a real possibility. Cruz has pulled neck and neck with Trump in polls in the first battleground state, Iowa, largely by pulling in voters deserting Ben Carson. Cruz has also garnered a formidable list of supporters, many of them from the same (antigay) ilk. He’s raised more money than any candidate not named Bush, and he’s consciously copying the data strategy that won Obama election in 2008. For a candidate whose colleagues in the Senate loathe the idea of him winning the nomination, Cruz is well positioned to do just that.
His strategy was on display at the debate. Cruz pointedly refuses to attack Trump, knowing that he can pick up Trump’s supporters. In fact, because Trump’s every iteration is so outrageous, Cruz’s less bellicose version of the same belief comes across as moderate.
Instead, Cruz turned his sites on Rubio, who has come off pretty well in the debates, largely because he’s gone up against lightweights like Bush. With Cruz, Rubio may be trying to punch above his weight. The most telling moment of the debate came when Cruz slammed Rubio for supporting immigration reform or, as Cruz likes to call it, “amnesty.” Rubio tried to say that there was little difference between his position and Cruz’s, but the Texan was having none of it, saying the comparison was “like suggesting the fireman and the arsonist have the same record, because they were both at the scene of the fire.”
Immigration reform is Rubio’s weak spot with the base (and a point in his favor with more moderate voters). Rubio took on immigration reform after the 2012 election, possibly out of the belief that it would help secure Latino voters’ gratitude. Instead, it aroused the ire of the base so badly that Rubio has spent years trying to distance himself from that brief moment of common sense.
A lot can change between now and the early election states, but one thing is clear: the Republican party remains in complete disarray. Rubio may be the hope of the GOP establishment, but so far there’s no sign that voters are rushing to embrace him. Trump may be the candidate who has a solid base, but nothing to add to it. And that leaves Ted Cruz, cheerfully biding his time, with lots of cash and a well-planned strategy. He may be the only alternative the party is left with when all the shouting stops.