As Jonathan Chait noted in his take on the tenth Republican debate, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz answered prayers from the Beltway to Wall Street to country clubs all over America on Thursday night, by jointly hammering Donald Trump as a crook, a tax cheat, a hypocrite, and most of all, a godless liberal. Rubio’s sudden ferocity was particularly thrilling to his fans, since his staff was intimating in the run up to the debate that he’d ignore the frantic pleas for Trumpicide and instead continue to flail away at Cruz.
And so, the two senators pounded Trump for long periods as the audience quite literally shrieked with joy. There was something about Trump hiring Polish workers and a murky discussion of health policy and an even murkier discussion of Trump’s taxes; Cruz even got down in the weeds with Trump on poll findings. About the only clear thing that came out is that everyone was shocked by Trump’s bland acceptance of the ancient idea of the U.S. being an “honest broker” in the Middle East.
Perhaps that will hurt Trump among conservative Evangelicals on March 1, but otherwise, it’s hard to see this debate damaging his campaign — other than as an indication of the anti-Trump crusade the contest may become in the near future. Trouble is, Trump may win ten or 11 or 15 primaries before all this new belligerence moves a lot of voters.
The candidate who refused to wade into the bloodbath (aside from Ben Carson, who’s firmly in his own world now) was John Kasich, who continued to appeal to the Republican Party of the Eisenhower administration. To the extent he’s helped by this debate, that helps Trump, too, by complicating the process whereby Rubio and Cruz try to catch the front-runner in all these March primaries. The Ohio governor did provide a nice respite from the Big Three with his complete sentences and calm demeanor and refusal to blow dog whistles.
That this unholy mess of a debate excited Republican elites is the best sign yet of how desperate they’ve become for anything that might take down Trump. Maybe he will underperform on March 1 and things will turn around — but we shouldn’t believe it until we see it.