One of the bigger conceits of the press coverage of Republican primary debates is that they matter. The media says that the debates provide meaningful opportunities for campaigns to hurt themselves or redeem themselves. They say the debates are great dramatic showcases, politics as sports. They say they’re “make or break” and “explosive.” And ratings this year, it’s true, have been great. The debates are very entertaining if you enjoy watching middle-aged men bludgeon each other with words.
They’ve been less good at predicting which candidates are going to do well, and which ones aren’t. Past “winners” of debates have included Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie. Who, you ask? Yes, exactly. “Losers” included Marco Rubio, who face-planted at a debate in New Hampshire and then was back in top-tier status a few days later. Often, pundits have thought the frontrunner, Donald Trump, was somehow hurt by a debate performance, but he’s remained steadfastly ahead of his rivals since the debates started.
Really, unless you care about the meta-debate — the way the people on stage signal their strategy, the lines they draw to distinguish themselves — you could skip most of the debates that have taken place this year and be just as informed about the race as if you had seen all of them.
I’ve seen all of them. It’s not great, let me tell you.
Thursday night, the Republican candidates gathered to bloodlet for the tenth time, at the University of Houston. It’s the last debate before Texas votes, along with a number of other states, on what’s known as Super Tuesday. The person who needed to win, according to the narrative laid out by the media, is Ted Cruz, and he needed to win by going after Trump. Cruz has been flatlining ever since he won Iowa, and Florida senator Marco Rubio now looks, after careful and extensive nursing from the Republican establishment, like the most likely anti-Trump.
Cruz and Rubio both hit Trump more vigorously than they ever had before. They flanked the real estate hobbyist, Rubio on his right and Cruz on his left, and did what their backers have been urging them to do for months: take him on one on one. Rubio came at Trump with quips and soundbites, not critiques of his policy proposals, whatever they are. Trump’s line of ties were made in China, he said. Trump Tower was built with cut-rate migrant labor: the fabled Polish Brigade. Rubio’s good with that kind of stuff. He has the clipped timing of a nightclub comic.
Cruz tried for a slightly more cerebral critique. One of his main contentions: Trump is the wrong candidate to deploy against Hillary Clinton. A great piece of ammunition Republicans could use against Clinton, Cruz said, is the story of the crooked and shady Clinton Foundation. But Trump gave $100,000 to the foundation, so his ability to attack Clinton over the foundation’s activities would be blunted, Cruz said.
They scored some points, surely. The problem for both Cruz and Rubio is that Trump is incredibly good at taking and returning jabs: He’s like the Terminator. At first, Rubio or Cruz would punch, and Trump would turn to liquid, reconstituting himself on the other side of his opponent, rebutting the critique from a direction no one could expect. Rubio said: You hired illegal workers. Before he could even finish his line of thought, Trump pounced: “No, no, I’m the only one on the stage that’s hired people. You haven’t hired anybody.” Trump was the alpha. The audience broke into applause.
As time went on, Trump slowed down. It seemed like maybe the attacks were wearing on him a little. Then something beautiful happened: The three candidates just starting yelling, and continued yelling, for a full 30 seconds, out of control. It was the emotional crescendo of the night — and perhaps even of the entire Republican race so far, come to think of it. Just angry gibberish. No value, no content, no worth. An oily brawl. Trump called Cruz a “basket case.”
Pundits thought Rubio won: They always do. And in fairness, he did perform much better than he had in the past. Cruz did good too. But will the attacks on Trump stick? No one really knows why people like Trump, in the aggregate, so who can say? Trump seems to endear himself to fans when he bloodies his enemies and puts himself at the top of the hierarchy, and he did that tonight. CNN interviewed Trump twice after the debate, at length. Under his smiling face, the chyron read: “TRUMP: I LIKE DEBATES.”
As time goes on, it looks less and less likely that either Cruz or Rubio will beat Trump. He has too much momentum. But Rubio will stay in forever: The party’s rooting for him. So what of Cruz, who’s looking limp of late? From the beginning of this campaign in the spring of 2015 until just a few weeks ago, the Texas primary was supposed to be the crowning moment for Cruz: He’d score a few victories in the early states, and then Texas’ huge delegate haul would help him seal it.
In a few days, Texas will vote. If Trump wins, Cruz’s campaign is dead. If Cruz smashes Trump here, his campaign will proceed with renewed vigor. If Cruz does well enough to stay in the race, but not enough to distinguish himself from Trump here, it’s the worst of both worlds: The field will remain fractured, and Trump will head to the nomination.
After the debate ended, CNN’s Jake Tapper interviewed Cruz. “He called you a basket case, at one point, I think,” Tapper said, as if he couldn’t believe it. “You won Iowa, since then you’ve lost three times,” he continued, as Cruz smiled. “Are you worried his branding is sticking on you?”
“Jake, we’re going to have a very strong Super Tuesday in five days,” said Cruz. “This has been fun, with Donald in the race. It’s been entertaining. But the stakes are serious.”
They are serious: They’ve been serious for a while now. But the Trumpshow keeps going.