Tonight’s Republican presidential debate was not a game-changer. In fact, I’m not sure it will have any impact on the race.
Obviously, this is a bad outcome for those of us who are anti-Trump, so I wish I could report otherwise. But I just didn’t see anything that seems likely to (1) cause Trump to lose support or even (2) cause the considerable anti-Trump sentiment in the party to deepen.
Here are my impressions and grades of the four candidates and Megyn Kelly, the fifth debater, who attacked Trump more effectively than anyone else tonight.
Donald Trump: He was the Alpha Male once again. He dominated the stage. He was untruthful and nasty, but less nasty than usual. He bragged about his anatomy.
He insisted that members of our military will obey illegal orders if he issues them because he is a great leader. He exudes confidence.
When Trump struggled, it was usually due to the questioning of Megyn Kelly (see below). Kelly isn’t running for president, though.
Marco Rubio: Rubio had some good moments, but I don’t think we saw his “A game” tonight. In the first half of the debate, his attacks on Trump sometimes struck me as “ankle biting,” which feeds into Trump’s “little Marco” put down.
In the second half of the debate, Rubio went mostly positive. He’s always good when he’s positive, but the themes he sounds just haven’t been enough to carry him to the top. I fear they won’t be enough now to save his presidential bid.
I also feel that Rubio dropped the ball late in the debate when he was asked, in effect, to say why Trump wouldn’t be a good foreign policy president. This was his opportunity to clobber Trump on specific matters such as Israel and Syria. In my estimation, Rubio’s response was too general.
Ted Cruz: He had a very good night, I think. Coming off of Super Tuesday, he seemed energized, whereas Rubio seemed a little tired.
He handled Trump better than Rubio did tonight. Rubio often tried to interrupt Trump, usually unsuccessfully. Cruz handled Trump’s interruptions by telling him to control himself and to “count to ten” or “breathe, breathe.” It worked (for Cruz, not for Trump).
Cruz’s answers were consistently strong. His best one might have been a condemnation of the left for ruining Detroit. Jonathan Last has an excellent summary of other effective Cruz moments — a highlight reel, if you will.
John Kasich: It was more of the same from the Ohio man tonight. If you’ve seen any of the debates, you know what I mean.
His problem-solving, above-the-fray line hasn’t gotten him to 10 percent in most states, but it has worked fairly well in a few enclaves. It may carry the day in Ohio.
Kasich’s unwillingness to attack Trump may go beyond just trying to look like the adult in the room. I can’t help but suspect he wouldn’t mind being Trump’s running mate.
Thus, when asked about a commercial his campaign ran months ago suggesting that Putin would be a good running mate for Trump, Kasich said “I’m not going to take the bait” and gave us a “mini-trip around the world” — i.e., a superficial discussion of a few hot spots.
Grade: C+ insofar as running for president concerned; higher for purposes of the VP sweepstakes.
Megyn Kelly: As I said above, Kelly caused Trump his most uncomfortable moments tonight. And she managed it without being called out by the tycoon — a rare instance in which he restrained his nasty side.
In one round, Kelly played video clips showing Trump reversing himself on a three issues: Afghanistan, Syrian refugees, and whether Bush lied about WMD. Trump looked less than Trumpian when he tried to explain away some of his past positions as “begrudging” or “meekly” stated.
In the end, Trump said “you have to be flexible.” Maybe that’s good enough, but Trump, for once, was clearly on the defensive.
In another round, Kelly basically entered the debate over Trump University on the side of Rubio. Appropriate or not (I don’t think it was), she landed what may have been the biggest blows of the night.
Rubio was saying that Trump U got a D-minus rating from whichever outfit it is that rates such enterprises. Trump said it got an A. Kelly came down on Rubio’s side.
She also noted that when Trump counter-sued the lead plaintiff in a suit against him over his “University,” the court dismissed his case and required him to pay the other side’s legal fees. In addition, she quoted some harsh language against Trump by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The best Trump could do was say “let’s see what happens with the case” in a few months. This enabled Cruz to say that Republicans can’t risk nominating a candidate with something like this hanging over his head. We don’t want to be debating Trump U this summer, Cruz argued.
Grade: A (if you’re down with moderators becoming debaters, Candy Crowley style)
Trump also didn’t look great when Chris Wallace used charts to show that Trump’s “figures don’t add up” when it comes to balancing the budget. Wallace was prepared with “full screen shots” demonstrating that the savings Trump could obtain by eliminating the Department of Education and the EPA, and by negotiating better deals with drug companies would be woefully inadequate. Trump was left to allege other, unspecified alleged savings.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem realistic to hope that moments like these will derail, or even slow down appreciably, the Trump express. In my estimation, this debate fell short of the pre-Super Tuesday one as an anti-Trump night.
Perhaps the two debates taken together and coupled with aggressive multi-state advertising will take a big toll on Trump. But I’m not counting on it.