Republican Debate: Trump Holds Off Cruz, but From Start to Finish, Yet Another Circus

Sane Republicans and the rest of America saw little to reassure themselves that a sane dark horse would emerge in time to prevent an extremist from securing the nomination, and after this debate, pundits and the public alike must start to acknowledge that this race is Donald Trump’s to lose.  Few seriously thought that Dr. Carson, when he peaked earlier at the #2 spot, was really going to dethrone The Donald.  Sen. Cruz, had a real chance to do damage to Trump in this debate and possibly overtake him as the front-runner; instead, The Donald won this round—the most important round thus far, only two weeks before the Iowa caucuses—and Cruz likely suffered serious damage as his canned responses to his opponents’ attacks were wholly inadequate.

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse January 18, 2016   

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981) January 18th, 2016

AMMAN — Right away, this latest Republican debate started on a ridiculous note, a note it sustained throughout the entirety of its proceedings.  Moderator Maria Bartiromo asked Ted Cruz—now in second place behind perpetual front-runner Donald Trump—a question about jobs; instead, he began by answering with a monologue about ten U.S. sailors that it was reported were being detained by Iran at the time; stating that:

“Today, many of us picked up our newspapers, and we were horrified to see the sight of 10 American sailors on their knees, with their hands on their heads.  In that State of the Union, President Obama didn’t so much as mention the 10 sailors that had been captured by Iran. President Obama’s preparing to send $100 billion or more to the Ayatollah Khamenei. And I’ll tell you, it was heartbreaking.  But the good news is the next commander-in-chief is standing on this stage.”  (That remains to be seen, Ted)

Cruz then made a meaningless and ludicrous pledge: “And I give you my word, if I am elected president, no service man or service woman will be forced to be on their knees, and any nation that captures our fighting men will feel the full force and fury of the United States of America,” as if any president is capable of preventing any U.S. military personnel from being captured.  He looked like someone who had spent hours and hours and hours standing in front of a mirror practicing his “presidential” face to use when saying these macho but empty crowd-pleasing lines.  More than anything else, Cruz comes off looking like an actor from a for-cable B-quality action movie when he tried to give the audience his “I will kill terrorists face!” and I am not sure what is more pathetic: that this politician knows such theatrics will work so well with the simpletons of his party’s base, or that so many of those in his party find this appealing and have catapulted him to the Republican race’s #2 spot.

But most farcically ridiculous of all is that even as Cruz uttered these words, what had not yet been announced was that the sailors had already been released after unintentionally wading into Iranian waters.  Iran very quickly released the sailors not long after their detention after working out the details with the Obama Administration, and then Iran released five other Americas just hours before the nuclear deal between Iran, the U.S., and five other major world powers (UK, France, Germany, Russia, China) officially began being implemented whom Iran had detained or imprisoned.  What Cruz and his colleagues on the stage would never admit but what is undeniable is that the releases were almost certainly made easier, perhaps even made possible, because of the nuclear deal—which has opened much stronger lines of communication between the U.S. and Iran—that all of the Republicans are so strongly against.  So, here we have a bunch of people on the Republican debate stage who would have prevented this nuclear deal from occurring and most of whom vow to rescind it, which means fifteen Americans would almost certainly still be in Iranian custody; here we have Ted Cruz threatening military action when diplomacy more than sufficed and making an outlandish promise that American servicemen would never be captured under his watch, a promise that is impossible to keep. Then Ohio Gov. John Kasich said some stuff that didn’t make him sound like a crazy person, some of which sounded downright reasonable; nationally, he is polling at roughly 2.3% by Real Clear Politics’ average of the most recent polls, giving him close to a zero-percent chance of winning the nomination.

Yep, this all basically tells you everything you need to know about Republicans, the Republican Party, and Thursday night’s Republican debate.  I could stop here, but there is so much more to discuss.

I will admit that this was the most enjoyable Republican debate since the first one, largely because there were many fights between the candidates.  There were zingers abound.  Multiple people attacked Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio, as was to be expected since those two senators are between all the other candidates and being within striking distance of Trump, still reigning supreme.

It didn’t take too long for the burgeoning issue of whether or not Cruz is constitutionally eligible to run for president—the whole “natural born Citizen” issue arising from Article II Section 1 of the Constitution—since Cruz was born in Canada.  Cruz dismissed the issue with a technique he would use to dismiss any and all attacks or tough questions about him or his record: he accused those of bringing it up as playing politics or playing into the narrative of “the mainstream media,” which played well with the Republican-base debate audience but will get him nowhere in a general election.  Trump was given a chance to opine on this issue after Cruz had tried to swat it away, and to Trump’s credit (that is not a phrase you will see me write often), Trump did not back down, but repeated the very sound points that 1.) there is no consensus and that legal opinion is divided and that 2.) it is better for Republicans to handle and settle this now than allow Democrats to use it as an issue in the general election. 

Cruz supporters booed loudly during this explanation but Trump stayed strong and ended his points with loud applause from others in the crowd.  It is nice to see that Trump’s birther antics can be effective on both sides of the aisle, as not only was Trump able to help fuel a cloud of (inane nonsensical) doubt around Obama concerning his eligibility to be president and his citizenship years ago, but now Trump has been able to help fuel a similar (more legitimate) cloud of doubt around Cruz and his eligibility.  I plan to address this whole eligibility question in a separate article, but for now, it is suffice to say that Cruz’s attempt to push this issue aside at the debate will have failed miserably in the eyes of far too many people in his own party, let alone non-Republicans, as even before this debate one of every four Republicans felt Cruz’s Canadian birth location disqualifies him from running for president; Cruz’s defense, and Trump’s attack, will hardly see subsequent polls produce a lower measure on this metric and it will dog Cruz throughout the primaries. 

New York Daily News/Reuters

Trump also got in another response to Cruz that, I am ashamed to admit, I thought was great: I consider myself a New Yorker, so perhaps I am biased, but I thought that when Cruz stood by his “New York values” comment, Trump really did a great job of making Cruz look “callous” and hollow.  Frankly, it was Trump’s best moment in any debate as far as I’m concerned; with just that one moment, Trump may have increased his support even more so.  While Cruz cheaply and repeatedly plays regional politics, Trump, as far as I can tell, has been careful to build his appeal all over the country.  Additionally, Cruz’s blame-the-media mantra as a response to a question about his recent loan scandals (he failed to properly disclose about $1 million in personal loans when he ran for the Senate, including a major loan from Goldman Sachs, where his wife worked at the time and still works) also, I believe, will fall flat with many primary voters.

Trump was not the only one to go after Cruz: Rubio and he also sparred on immigration.  Cruz effectively painted what he termed “that Rubio-Schumer amnesty bill”—simply noting Rubio’s bipartisan effort is enough to be an effective attack in this setting—while Rubio accused Cruz of flip-flopping (an understatement, as Cruz might have engaged in one of the most carefully planned, most shameless and calculated lies in American political history in an effort to play both sides of the immigration debate and to leave his options open depending on where the political winds and popular mood shifted throughout his quest for power, as William Saletan of Slate shows in his epic and irrefutable takedown and its accompanying timeline; I’ve written before that Cruz is undeniably a disingenuous charlatan and demagogue, but now we can demonstrably prove that Cruz is an “spectacular liar,” thanks to Saletan).  Cruz’s response to Rubio was to jokingly compliment him on being able to recite his team’s opposition research on him, and Rubio incredulously interjected “No, it’s your record!” back at Cruz, what I felt was one of his best lines of the night. 

Cruz sure talked a lot (more than anyone else) and had plenty of chances to make his points and be heard, but did little to reassure when he played defense

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, within striking distance of emerging as a strong second-tier candidate behind Trump, also got a good swipe in on Rubio, noting how hypocritical Rubio was at an earlier debate for chiding Bush for attacking him, Rubio had said, to help his poll numbers, when it seemed that Rubio was doing the same on the campaign trail when it came to Christie:

“I stood on the stage and watched Marco, and rather indignantly, look at Governor Bush and say, someone told you that because we’re running for the same office, that criticizing me will get you to that office.  It appears that the same someone has been whispering in old Marco’s ear too.  And so the indignation that you carry on, some of the stuff, you have to also own, then.”

Additionally, Christie contrasted his executive experience as a governor with the “talking” senators.  Christie also often appeared more adult that the candidates who were bickering but also managed some good zingers throughout the night that were well-received by the crowd.  Christie might have helped himself a bit, but he has never been terribly popular with Republicans nationally. And yet, the type of Republicans who could really help him—the independent, moderate-minded New Hampshire ones—might see his stronger series of performances after this one as reason enough to move to him from Kasich, who is less of a solid performer on debate stages even as he is ones of the most sensible candidates (Christie had several memorably positive moments in this debate, while it  is hard to identify any specific moments where Kasich could be said to have possibly increased his support).  Still, Kasich seems to be running a good campaignin New Hampshire.  They are both competing to be able to have some sort of result in New Hampshire that they can use to build momentum, and it is likely that only one of these two will be able to do so there.  After that, it becomes difficult for both as they are more or less Northerners in the eyes of Southerners who will be competing in a number of key primaries in Southern states, where they have almost no support.

Rubio was not bad, but was certainly not great.  He opened his comments with a deceitful, slanderous, already debunked attack on Hillary re: Benghazi, as well as with other spurious, empty attacks on her re: foreign policy, and later, even Fox-News conservative moderator Neil Cavuto pushed back against Rubio’s ludicrous, unsubstantiated claims that Obama “would” “confiscate every gun in America” and “get rid of the Second Amendment” if he “could.” Of course these played over well with the crowd and the base, but effective attacks from Cruz and Christie limited his ability to shine and he still struggles in trying to break out.

Jeb Bush, well, poor Jeb: he is campaigning much, much better now than he was this summer but it is probably too little, too late.  He spoke out passionately, yet again, against banning all Muslims from coming into America.  His content is better than most of the others’ on stage, but his delivery is still just a bit off even as it has gotten better.  It makes sense for him to stick around since he has so much money and thus a realistic chance to exert some influence on the race, the party, and the GOP platform, but as far as winning his party’s nomination, we may as well be writing his political campaign’s obituary… And yet, a glimmer of hope: the most recent South Carolina poll has him third, climbing back into relevancy; perhaps his money is paying off? And while it’s hard to see how he make up the huge gap between him and Trump there in one month, that bit of good news coupled with Cruz’s recent scandals is the only thing preventing me from declaring his campaign dead in the water.

And Dr. Carson?  Well, the oddballs who still support him likely didn’t see anything to make then run away from Carson in this debate, but it is certain that nobody else saw anything from him to bring them over to Carson.  In fact, he may as well have not even been there for all the good it did him; he himself joked, when asked his first question, that he was about to fall asleep, and frankly, I can’t see how that would have made any difference whatsoever on his impact in the debate.

Part of me missed Rand Paul, but I’m not a foaming-at-the-mouth GOP-baser who was never going to support him in the first place.  I did not miss Fiorina from the main stage at all: as I have written before, her business record is horrendous and she is a master of distortion while she also plays the gender card as cheaply as I’ve seen anyone ever play it in politics.  The only person who sounds as rehearsed as her is Cruz.  I’d love to see them both marginalized for the sake of the health of our democracy, but at the same time, a Cruz-Fiorina ticket (which is, to me, extremely unlikely) would be a dream come true for the Democratic Party.

So what happened?  Trump, Cruz, and Christie all had strong moments, but Cruz took some damage while the other two seemed pretty unscathed.  Rubio appeared competent and confident but was not the standout he needed to be even as he also took damage, while Carson and Kasich might as well not have been there for all their presence did to actually help them.  Bush either fits in with Carson or Kasich, or, if his campaign has a chance of being resuscitated, he at least didn’t do anything to have its life support cut off, but he remains a longshot unless either Christie or Kasich drop out after New Hampshire and endorse him (a lot of ifs there, and both are running ahead of him there), and even then would be nowhere near a favorite.

My prediction is that Trump—who could be said to be the big winner in this debate—stays on top and gains nationally and in Iowa and New Hampshire at Cruz’s expense, though I’m not sure how much.  It is hard to say whether Cruz will yield his spot to Rubio in Iowa or stay strong there and within striking distance of Trump.  It’s hard to say if Rubio goes up or down, and who gains at his expense if he goes down (Christie?  Kasich?  Bush?).  Maybe some evangelicals worried about Cruz might even flock back to Carson, though not because of anything Carson himself did.  Are either Trump, Cruz, or Rubio vulnerable enough to provide an opening for anyone else?  I have a feeling that those who left Carson won’t come back, but then again, Iowa does have a lot of evangelicals…  The Christie-Kasich dynamic in New Hampshire is interesting, so it will be telling to see where they move in the polls there between now and Iowa, where neither of them have a chance for any kind of a respectable showing; their hopes lie in New Hampshire.  As for Cruz, I think he absolutely needs a strong showing in Iowa to have a shot; if he does not finish in at least second place, evangelicals in Southern States will likely drift to other candidates.  If not Trump or Carson, does this mean a surprise, zombie-like surge from Huckabee or Santorum?  Fiorina is done as presidential material, but she could be quite an attractive vice-presidential candidate so expect her to stick around as long as she possible can.  All in all, lots of possibilities here.

In the end, though, I think this debate will remembered as the moment when Trump successfully fought off Cruz and also as the moment when Cruz entered peaking and left on the decline, and though I wouldn’t rule him out of Iowa yet, my prediction is Trump wins Iowa or virtually ties with Cruz and wins big in New Hampshire even if he doesn’t win Iowa.  Cruz’s scandals have the potential to really hurt him if he continues to trot out the garbage responses he gave to them in this debate. Trump is also way up in South Carolina, so the chance for someone else to derail Trump is now and after this debate, it is going to me much more difficult for Cruz to be that person, and right now there is not anyone else even close to derailing trump, as I can’t see Rubio and don’t see anyone else succeeding in that task, either, even if “The Establishment” is coalesces behind someone.  Keep in mind that more Republicans now see Trump as someone they could support being their nominee, a clear majority and dramatically way more than this summer. 

As I wrote back in early August, don’t dismiss The Donald.

What else does all this clearly show?  That the Democratic Party is the only mature, sane major party in America.

Other GOP debate coverage from this author:

December Republican Debate Exposed GOP As Joke on National Security

Republican “Debate” Circus Round 2: Trump vs. Fiorina and Why the Kids’-Table Debate Was Better

The Republican Field & Debate: Substance vs. Style: What Trumps What?

Here are many more articles by Brian E. Frydenborg.  If you think your site or another would be a good place for this content please do not hesitate to reach out to him! Feel free to share and repost on LinkedInFacebook, andTwitter(you can follow him there at @bfry1981)