Seven contenders lined up in the main Republican debate Thursday night in Charleston, South Carolina. Donald Trump, still leading in national polls, may not have won the night, but he has surely dictated its terms.
The candidates were trumped-up, the vitriol hot, the rhetoric over the top. Occasional efforts to introduce common sense – usually by John Kasich and Jeb Bush from the far wings of the stage – were lost amid the tumult.
Obama is “gutting our military." (Bush). Hillary isn’t “just a disaster. She’s disqualified from being commander-in-chief” (Rubio). The president “doesn’t believe in the Constitution” or in “free enterprise” (Marco Rubio). The president is a “petulant child” (Chris Christie – who is the last person who should call someone else “petulant”). And of course Trump outdid them all: our military is a "disaster"; our health care “a horror show;” “we have no borders;” illegal immigration is “beyond belief,” our vets are “treated horribly.” No wonder gentle Dr. Ben Carson asked “Is this America?”
With the Iowa caucuses impending, the insults were directed not just at the president and Hillary Clinton but at each other as well. Bush scorned the quibbling of “backbench senators,” reiterated that Trump’s comments were “unhinged.” Trump once more called Bush a “weak person.” Rubio dissed Christie as a liberal, Cruz as a flip-flopper. Trump doubled down on Cruz's citizenship. Cruz scorned Trump's “New York values” (gays, abortion, money, media). Trump trumped that by invoking the courage of New Yorkers in the face of 9/11.
Lost in all this was any glimmer of a program or an idea about dealing with real challenges facing the country. Like an affable grandfather in his cups at the end of a bar, Gov. Kasich kept peddling the old remedies – lower taxes, less regulation, balanced budgets, a “cool” head at the helm. But he sounded wistful, not wise. No, according to these folks, America needs more muscle, more guns, more inequality, more venom. Climate change, the way the rules are rigged for the few, the way our politics are corrupted, our criminal injustice system and more got little or no mention.
Who won? Most pundits award the prize to Rubio, but he mostly reprised old speech lines with new intensity. He struck me as the definition of callow. Carson, Bush and Kasich fade in the bombast. Christie was off his game. Trump was more active than he normally is, but I’d say Cruz had the best of the night. He is smart, slick, devious and shameless. The right mix for this cage match.