I watched last night’s seventh debate and it did not contain anything new in terms of what each candidate said about their policies. It consisted of the usual bashing of president Obama and the claim that he has brought the nation to the edge of ruin and that a Hillary Clinton presidency will tip it into the abyss. Oh, and Bernie Sanders is a socialist, yuk, yuk. Each of them adopted the mantle of the One True Conservative who is strong enough to rescue the country and home and bring its enemies abroad to their knees thus ushering in a golden age of prosperity, while the others were merely poseurs.
Within that general framework, there were nuances of course. Jeb Bush and John Kasich once again tried to be the adults in the room, as people who were conservative and at the same time not extreme nut jobs and I have to admit that this time both managed to pull it off. I thought it was a good night for them. Maybe the absence of Donald Trump helped them, especially Bush who seems to get put off stride by his needling. Chris Christie was his usual irritating and blustering self and I thought was not that effective.
The main event was the slugfest between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and I must say that the debate moderators went after both on the issue of immigration and this is where the absent Trump’s shadow loomed large. They played montages of clips of both in the past speaking in favor of some path to legalization for undocumented immigrants but this stance has been poisoned with the label of ‘amnesty’ and Trump’s successful adoption of a ridiculously extreme hardline stand on this issue has made that position untenable. But of course, being the Strong, Principled, Tough Men that they are, they could not say they had been forced to change their position. Instead they had to go into convoluted explanations of why what they said before was the same as what they are saying now, video be damned. I thought that both came out of the debate looking damaged.
Rand Paul was back on the main stage after being left out two weeks ago but did not make much of an impression. And who was the eighth guy on the stage? Oh yeah, Ben Carson. Carson was Carson, for whom the greatest enemy is political correctness that he says prevents people from seeing issues clearly and getting together to solve problems. He always seems to get applause when he hauls PC out but how long can that be his main response to almost any question? It is clear that Paul and Carson are simply treading water and are going nowhere.
I had thought that all of them would attack Trump in his absence and try to damage him by invoking his past positions but they largely refrained. I thought that Trump would be hurt by attacks that he was not present to deflect and this might be a serious negative consequence of his decision to skip the debate but it looks like he guessed right (again). With the main focus of the evening being Cruz and Rubio going at each other and having their inconsistencies on immigration exposed, he comes out not only unscathed but positively ahead.
What this debate has exposed is that the old conservative power structure has fractured. It used to be that the GOP establishment and Fox News and Rush Limbaugh pretty much controlled the agenda. But Trump has challenged all of them and emerged largely unscathed. Trump’s conservative credentials are shaky at best and yet he has managed to become the face of the party and won the support of enough vocal conservative icons (Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, Phyllis Schlafly) that he has managed to build a buffer (a yuuuge wall, if you will) to shield him from attacks from the right that he is not conservative enough.
The fact that people are feeling increasingly comfortable thumbing their noses at the party can be seen by the fact that Trump counterprogrammed a rally against the debate and Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum also took part. The idea of people competing for the party’s nomination so blatantly undercutting a major party event to select the nominee would have been unthinkable before this year. Such an act would have resulted in quick excommunication and it shows that Trump has indeed taken on the party power establishment and emerged standing.
Huckabee and Santorum have little to lose. ABC TV, the hosts of the next debate to be held just before the New Hampshire primary, has announced that there will be no undercard debate so their free ride on that media train has ended. They, along with Carly Fiorina, are going nowhere so they might as well latch on to the Trump publicity bandwagon and he returned the favor by giving them some prominence at the event. Fiorina has no such option after Trump’s attacks on her.
The next big news event is the last poll before the Iowa caucus to be released by the Des Moines Register on Saturday evening. This poll is highly regarded in political circles for its past accuracy in predicting the caucuses, even upsets such as Bob Dole’s victory over George H. W. Bush in 1988 and Barack Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in 2008, and so is eagerly anticipated. But given the unpredictability of this year’s race, I would not be surprised if that poll’s predictions do not pan out, as it was in 2004.
This is the year when old models just don’t seem to work.