Detroit #GOPDebate Hot Take & Reax

Hot Take and Reax for the Detroit #GOPDebate hosted by Fox News (Click here to see all of TLP’s 2016 election posts)

The GOP could learn a lot from Pyrrhus of Epirus right now.

Hot Take

Just wow.

It was only minutes into the debate when the most talked about moment occurred – Donald Trump gave the nation a guarantee that he has plenty of Bowser in his trousers – yet it was the rest of the debate that really stands out to me today.

Marco Rubio, again, attacked Trump for building his business empire from a yuuuuuge inheritance, rather than from the ground up. Ted Cruz ignored a question by the moderators in order to ask Trump an attack posing as a question and then insisted Trump answer the question, apparently unaware of the glaring and immediate hypocrisy of the situation. Cruz also tried to make fun of Trump at one point, telling him repeatedly to “breathe,” but it seemed in that moment to me that Cruz was the one who was unhinged – and Rubio cut in with a joke that made Cruz look even more like a complete ass. At one point, Fox News moderators ambushed Trump with slides showing that the math of his tax and budget proposals don’t add up. Specifically, that the departments he wants to eliminate and/or cut budgets to (by eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse”) don’t add up to nearly enough to pay for his promises. But this problem is even worse for say, Marco Rubio, who has pledged to increase defense spending, cut taxes almost as much as Trump, and pass a balanced budget amendment. In other words, the GOP establishment, in the form of Rubio, Cruz, and Fox News, spent the whole evening attacking Trump for the very things that make him a GOP candidate. Sure, they hit him for some other stuff – the Trump University stuff was pretty harsh – but really I just don’t see how the GOP can come back from vilifying inherited wealth and counter-factual budget math. They basically laid out the case again every GOP Presidential candidate for the last 20 years and called it a con and a fraud. And then, after all that, they pledged to support Trump if he is the nominee.

I don’t see how any of these guys, or the current incarnation of the Republican Party, can come back from this. Two debates in a row now (plus Romney’s useless speech) they have provided a lifetime supply of anti-Trump quotes and clips for the Democrats to use him in the general election. Even if Trump somehow does not win the nomination, almost all those quotes and clips will work just as well against whoever the nominee is. I can already see the attack ad now: A clip of Rubio talking about his budget plans, then another clip of Rubio and/or Fox News labeling that kind of bad math as a con, then a quick barrage of all the editorials lauding the Democrat’s plan for at least adding up, and scene.

There is no way to know, so I’m just guessing based on his months long imperviousness to these kind of attacks, but I can’t see how either of the last two debates have taken support away from Trump. I do believe it is possible that they are at least achieving the small victory of slowing or halting the increase of his support. But at what cost? Another victory such as these and the GOP will be utterly undone.

The Reax

Starting off, as usual, with Vox’s debate recap declaring 3 winners (Governor Kasich, the moderators, and Hillary Clinton) and 2 losers (Marco Rubio, Donald Trump). That’s right, John Kasich is still here:

It’s folly to wonder if Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or John Kasich can win the nomination outright. They can’t. Instead their debate performances have to be judged on how they affected the candidates’ odds of successfully performing their role in the grand Trump sabotage plan.

Kasich’s role in that plan is winning Ohio, one of the biggest remaining states and, crucially, one that’s winner-take-all. If Trump wins there and Florida, the race is over. It’s not clear that Kasich can pull this off, despite being hugely popular in his home state and having recently won a landslide reelection. There’s only been one poll of the state since the primaries started, and it found Kasich behind Trump by five points.

The whole article is worth a read, although I have to say I strongly disagree with the praise of the moderators. In my viewing, they were really terrible, particularly with the complete lack of discussion about the Republican governor of Michigan poisoning an entire city. Flint came up, but the moderator – the moderator – waved off any “blame game” as part of asking a question, ensuring that nothing substantive would come of the discussion. For shame.

Trudy Ring notes that Governor Kasich, who has generally gotten high marks for his performance, backtracked on his tepid support of LGBT rights from last week’s debate:

In the debate a week ago, Kasich was asked about “license to discriminate” laws and said, “If you’re in the business of selling things, if you’re not going to sell to somebody you don’t agree with, OK, today I’m not going to sell to somebody who’s gay, and tomorrow maybe I won’t sell to somebody who’s divorced.” Baier showed a clip of that, then said, “Governor, some faith leaders got nervous about that answer. Do gay-marriage dissenters have rights?”

Kasich replied that if customers “ask you to participate in something you really don’t like, that’s a whole ’nother issue.” He encouraged customers to be “tolerant” if they’re turned away, saying, “If you go to a photographer to take pictures at your wedding, and he says, I’d rather not do it, find another photographer, don’t sue them in court.”

Dan Balz sees the big loser of the night as the GOP itself:

Designed to define candidates’ differences, the debates have become tedious and repetitious rather than enlightening or illuminating. No new information was imparted, no truly new arguments advanced. Even the insults were tiresome.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who drew criticism earlier for trying to limit the number of debates, must be wishing he had pushed for even fewer, given the tone and tenor of Thursday’s forum in Detroit and last week’s mud bath in Houston.

Josh Marshall joins me in using a martial analogy to describe the debate (and the current state of the GOP nominating contest):

The upshot of the last forty eight hours is that the GOP actually seems to be groping its way toward a strategy of doing anything possible to prevent Trump from getting to the convention with 50+% of the delegates. Just what that gets them isn’t clear and I don’t think they have any idea. They are on the one hand saying he could destroy the party and grievously damage America while still saying they’ll probably support him if he’s the nominee. (Note that Romney nowhere ruled out eventually supporting Trump.) Still that seems to be the emerging plan. You’ll note that Romney wasn’t asking anyone to drop out. Quite the contrary. He wants everyone to stay in and use strategic voting to keep Trump from amassing more than half the delegates. With that strategy this debate made perfect sense, a brutal war of attrition meant to grind down an opponent who cannot actually be beaten.

David Graham thinks Trump had a difficult night, but doesn’t think any other candidate had a good night:

The funny thing about Trump’s rough performance was that no one else did especially well, either. Kasich disappeared for long stretches, popping up only to give capsule history lessons on national politics in the 1980s and 1990s and Ohio politics in more recent years—he was involved, in case you hadn’t heard. Cruz delivering a middling performance, with much of his emphasis on the fact that he’d beaten Trump in a few states. That was an easy jab for Trump to parry: After all, Trump had won more. Rubio was hoarse and seemed shrunken, chastened, and at sea. He tried to interrupt Trump to mix things up, but was shouted down by Trump—and several times cut off by the moderators, who insisted he let Trump answer his questions.

Even if none of the three remaining non-Trump candidates had an especially good night, Frank Bruni notes that they at least managed not to hurt each other:

One of the most fascinating dynamics of the debate was the degree to which Cruz, Rubio and Kasich declined to go after one another, no longer angling to emerge as the single Trump alternative but working harder instead to erode Trump’s support, no matter where that support went.

In debates past, Cruz and Rubio were at each other’s throats. On Thursday night, they were practically arm in arm, tag-teaming Trump.

Like a lot of commentators, Tim Alberta was struck by how an evening of quasi-coordinated attacks against Trump ended with pledges to support him as the nominee:

And at the end of the evening, after bludgeoning Trump for the better part of two hours, both Cruz and Rubio pledged — almost nonchalantly, after spending two weeks calling him a “con man” and worse — to support Trump if he becomes the GOP nominee. Moderator Bret Baier, who kicked off debate season by asking all the candidates in August if they would commit to supporting the eventual nominee, brought it full circle by ending Thursday’s debate by asking Trump’s rivals if they would back him as the nominee. All three responded in the affirmative, though Kasich won applause by initially replying with a grin, “I think by the time it’s all said and done, I’ll be the nominee.”

Jonathan Chait starts of his review of the night similarly (as always, I encourage you to read Chait in full):

The most important moment in Thursday night’s campaign came on the final question, when the three non-Trump candidates were all asked if they would support him as the nominee. They replied that they would, even though Rubio has made “NeverTrump” a slogan for his campaign. Rubio should have used the slogan “InconceivableTrump,” so that Inigo Montoya could correct him. (“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”)

Jim Newell got to view the debate among the crowd at CPAC, which is like an alternate universe where Ted Cruz is the frontrunner:

Sean Hannity is a Trump … what’s the word here … shill. Near the end of Hannity’s warmup spiel—after he said he wished Mitt Romney were “as strong against Barack Hussein Obama as he was today” against Trump—he asked the crowd to stand up and pledge to support the Republican nominee for president, even if it’s Trump. Most of the crowd did. But they sure didn’t like the guy at all once the debate began.

Cruz got cheers for anything he said—and since he had a strong debate, that’s sensible—and Rubio got cheers mostly when he was going after Donald Trump. Trump got cheers when he talked about the wall. Otherwise, except for the stray fan here or there in a red “Make America Great Again” hat, Trump was the enemy.

Jonathan Bernstein believes the prolonged spotlight on Trump’s ignorance is going to cause more folks to see him as flawed and/or unacceptable (which makes me wonder a bit if Bernstein also is in a bit of an alternate universe):

But what really matters at this point is whether Trump can push his share of the vote consistently to or above 40 percent, or whether his rivals (and Republican Party actors) can find a way to shrink him back down under 30 percent of the vote in the upcoming primaries. The debate assault on him, which to my eyes at least has been devastating, has gone on now for two weeks. The TV ad assault is kicking in soon. The man is a total embarrassment. That’s going to dawn on more and more people the longer he sweats under harsh critiques like Thursday night’s.

Isaac Chotiner sees Fox News as suffering from an unusual lack of editorial coherence as the network alternates between torpedoing Trump’s opponents, smoothing over some of Trump’s challenges, but then also attacking his flaws:

When the actual debate began, it seemed as if the Fox strategy would continue as it had all week. Bret Baier, one of the moderators, went after Rubio on the second question, asking him, inanely, “How many jobs have you created?” Frank Luntz, whose ridiculous focus groups throughout the campaign have consistently boosted Rubio, tweeted out that this time the group did not like Rubio’s attack on Trump.

But the pro-Trump strategy either fell apart or was never solid in the first place. The network’s moderators spent the middle hour of the debate slicing and dicing Trump: exposing the phoniness of his promises to cut the budget, confronting him with his past statements, playing sustained video clips of him flip-flopping. They offered his rivals an endless number of opportunities to attack him, which they did relentlessly. It became clear that the main purpose of the debate was to launch sustained and brutal attacks on the front-runner. Kelly’s attack on his business practices went on and on—and Trump sputtered and sputtered.

Veering away from the topic of Trump (but only for a moment!) Steven Cohen remarks on Ted Cruz’s counter-factual history of Detroit, which was one of the most bizarre answers of the night:

Cruz’s survey of the rise and fall of Detroit went from the phenomenal entrepreneurial genius of Henry Ford to the golden years of the post-war era straight through the awful tyranny of big government and soft-on-crime and something something taxes. At no point did he mention the labor movement, or offshoring, or redlining, or race riots, or white flight, or “managed bankruptcy,” or gentrification, or any of the other myriad interlocking factors that a modern history of the city should necessarily touch on. While the solution to what ails Cruz’s Detroit is simply to elect Republicans, the reality is far more complicated.

Josh Voorhees saw the debate as an ugly affair, audience included, and supposes this can only benefit Trump:

Chris Wallace and his fellow Fox News moderators spent much of the evening trying to stop Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz from talking over Trump, and Trump from talking over Rubio and Cruz. All the while, a rowdy Detroit crowd hooted, hollered, and clapped before, after, and during many of the exchanges. No one looked like a winner in that environment. Then again, the past nine months haven’t made any of the men on stage look like winners, exactly. Trump has won 10 of the first 15 states, but as Nate Silver pointed out earlier in the day, only 49 percent of the actual voters who were surveyed in exit polls said they’d be happy to see him as the nominee. Cruz and Rubio fared nearly as badly in those polls—and they don’t have a commanding delegate lead to ease their pain like Trump does.

John Nichols saw the debate as another episode in possibly the most unpleasant show on TV:

The 11th Republican presidential “debate” was not a debate. It was “The Donald Trump Show,” with also-ran candidates and Fox News personalities playing bit parts.

It was a long, drab waste of time that did nothing to weaken Trump. And a debate that does nothing to weaken Trump at this late stage in the Republican race merely increases the likelihood that a man who should not be the nominee of a major political party will be the nominee of the Grand Old Party.

And saving my currently favorite political writer for last, Jamelle Bouie notes that the worst answer of the night was about Flint, but the stupidest answers of the night were those pledges to support Trump if he wins the nomination:

With those final answers, however, the effort fell flat. No, they weren’t the worst part of the debate—that goes to the brief exchange on lead poisoning in Flint, where Rubio praised Gov. Rick Snyder for his handling of the crisis, despite growing evidence of neglect and incompetence, with deadly consequences for the city’s residents—but they deflated Romney’s anti-Trump argument, revealing the extent to which it’s a hollow exercise and undermining every legitimate attack they made during the night.

As long as Rubio, Cruz, Kasich and the rest of the Republican Party are willing to support Trump as the nominee, it doesn’t matter what they say or how they insult him—Trump retains his stature as a legitimate figure in the Republican Party. Which, as he accumulates votes and delegates, makes him harder to stop.

Astoundingly, there will be another one of these debates next week. There really should be a rule that these things have to happen on a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday night. I hate waiting four days to see The Daily Show and The Nightly Show go to town on these clowns.

Click here to see all of TLP’s 2016 election posts.

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