vision 2020

Last Night’s Democratic Debate Fisticuffs Didn’t Match Viciousness of 2016 GOP Fight

The Donald and Lyin’ Ted whale away at each other. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The combative nature of the Democratic debate in Las Vegas Wednesday night pleased a lot of people, notably bored journalists and those who feared Michael Bloomberg’s bankroll might squash the entire nomination contest. But the Schadenfreude from Republicans was really over the top, beginning, as expected, with Donald Trump’s glee over the pounding “Mini Mike” took. But, more generally, the debate fed a growing sense of triumphalism among the MAGA folk, who are already treating what is very likely to be a close presidential race as one long cakewalk. John Podhoretz was the most uninhibited in his joy over Democrats in Disarray:

Forget Lincoln and Douglas. Forget Nixon and Kennedy. Hell, forget the Athenians and the Melians back during the Peloponnesian War. Last night’s Democratic primary slagfest in Nevada was the greatest debate in all of human history.

Oh, was it glorious — the sheer raging hostility spraying across the stage as every campaign besides the Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg bids faces the desperate possibility that each might fade into the woodwork against the Bernie surge and the Bloomberg billions.

It’s probably a good time to remind everyone that last night’s battle in Vegas pales in comparison to the regular spectacle of insults, eye gouging, and kneecapping that characterized many of the 2016 Republican debates. Yes, Bloomberg got taken down a few notches as Elizabeth Warren showed why she got a debate scholarship for college. But it was nothing like the incredible disrespect and downright hatred expressed toward Trump by his 2016 rivals, which (unlike Bloomberg last night) he reciprocated in full, giving us all a preview of the depths to which he would plunge presidential communications.

Most of us who watched the 2016 GOP debates have a favorite moment or two. Some point to Trump’s insistence on a discussion of his penis size in a Detroit debate in March:

Donald Trump opened the GOP debate here by boasting about the size of his genitals. He responded to recent comments from Marco Rubio in which the Florida senator joked about the size of Trump’s hands and said, “You know what they say about men with small hands.”

On the debate stage, Trump stretched his hands out for the audience to see — then insisted the suggestion that “something else must be small” was false.

“I guarantee you there’s no problem,” Trump said to howls from the audience at the Fox debate.

Then there was the endless insultfest between Trump and Ted Cruz, which extended beyond the debate season when “Lyin’ Ted” (Trump’s nickname for the senator) refused to endorse the nominee at the Republican convention (likely because of Trump’s bizarre, outrageous suggestion that Cruz’s father might have been involved in the JFK assassination).

And how about the endless war of contemptuous words Trump aimed at “low-energy” Jeb Bush and the two former presidents in his family? It all finally provoked the normally pacific Jebbie to fire back:

Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida blasted Donald J. Trump for insulting the Bush family and ridiculed the idea that Mr. Trump could be commander-in-chief during a contentious and sometimes nasty Republican presidential debate in Greenville, S.C., on Saturday, a week before a crucial primary in the state.

With Mr. Trump leading in the polls in South Carolina and elsewhere after his victory in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, he was a ripe target for his Republican rivals, especially Mr. Bush and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who are under intense pressure to halt his political momentum. But the vitriol was so intense that it seemed to surprise even Mr. Trump, a combative figure who had not been so roundly pummeled at a debate before.

Were you impressed by Warren’s challenge to Bloomberg’s reputation for sexism? Well, its direct predecessor in presidential politics was Carly Fiorina’s angry rebuke of Trump during a September 2015 debate for insulting her appearance and treating it as a disqualifier.

To be clear, the 2016 Republican combat didn’t always require Trump to be a direct participant. Rubio and Cruz regularly took nasty personal shots at each other over the authenticity of their relative positioning on immigration policy. And one of the nomination contest’s key moments occurred in a debate just prior to the New Hampshire primary, when Chris Christie took down putative front-runner Rubio effectively and remorselessly:

Christie, in the worst condition of any of the establishment challengers, in fifth place in the polls and with no obvious path to the nomination, landed the strongest blows on Rubio we’ve seen yet. Worse yet, Rubio responded to a pounding from Christie for being a paper-thin senator with no accomplishments by playing the part to a T: robotically repeating talking points even as the New Jersey governor mocked him for robotically repeating talking points.

Now, in the end, all these Trump rivals other than Bush (Fiorina had withdrawn her endorsement of the nominee after the Access Hollywood video confirmed his arrogant piggishness) clamored onboard his foul-smelling bandwagon, and Rubio and Cruz are administration toadies in the Senate. And most obviously, in 2016 Republicans won the White House and both Houses of Congress despite all the discord. So I wouldn’t write off Democratic prospects this November simply because the candidates gambled a bit on aggressiveness in Las Vegas.

Debate Infighting Won’t Kill Democrats’ Chances in November