Saturday evening’s debate in Greenville, S.C., was not a great night for the Republicans. All of the five surviving candidates accomplished more or less what they set out to achieve. But the atmosphere of accusation and almost continuous interruption must have reduced the credibility of the whole group in the eyes of the majority of Americans who hope their politics will be conducted in an atmosphere of civility. Most of them cited Ronald Reagan, but none approached his unvarying method of overpowering eloquence and personal courtesy. Readers will recall that last week in this space I urged upon Donald Trump the merits of diplomacy and even gentleness in showing the conviviality and humor that all who know him know he possesses. He chose to double down on his refrain as the rooster at the top of the mound dispensing in-your-face, take-no-prisoners disparagement of his rivals.
Donald Trump was probably correct that there were intelligence errors prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that President George W. Bush was not blameless in them. He was right that the hall in Greenville had been packed by his opponents; the fact that they booed him was shabby and his indifference to that reception was commendable. He may have a point that the media criticize anything they can in what he says, but that they gave Jeb Bush a pass on his alleged threat to moon an entire state electorate that did not vote for him. Donald was certainly right that he had always opposed the Iraq war and the disasters that have come from it (despite the efforts of the rabidly anti-Trump CNN to dispute this, because the earliest mention Donald publicly made of his opposition to the Iraq war was five days after it began).
The Trump insurgency appears to command the support of about 35 percent of those who vote in Republican primaries. This makes him a strong leader in polls and primaries when the remaining votes are divided among four relatively equal rivals. But if he is to maintain his position in the pursuit of the nomination, he has to start adding the discarded supporters of those who will fall by the wayside. He cannot do that by bludgeoning the candidates they supported until their withdrawal. Even more difficult to entice than the Republican majority will be the electorate as a whole, which is always between the 30-yard lines and does not have an unlimited appetite for the combative tenor of the Trump campaign. Any president of the United States must have what Mr. Trump rightfully claims as his knowledge of how to make a deal. We all know that he possesses that ability, especially those of us who have dealt with him. The voters need to be reassured that his technique will not always be that of podium-pounding, finger-wagging, and growling at his interlocutor with what Tennyson called “a contumelious lip.” Whatever the points at issue, debates are not won by endless interruptions and shrieks of “Liar!” as the comparative strengths of the other candidates sort themselves out. There will be slippage to the Trump lead unless he starts to consolidate it with the acquisitions that the reasonableness and the graciousness of the front runner can attract from the supporters of candidacies that cannot make it to the end.
While Trump again made the point that he is ready at all times to be aggressive, the other candidates made their points too. John Kasich was not a fiery debater on Saturday and did not offer us a sequel to his startling suggestion of the previous Tuesday that the nation engage in the habit of embracing strangers in shopping centers to restore national morale and cheerfulness. But he did make a point when he said something like Jeez, with this nastiness we’re helping to elect Hillary Clinton.
Ted Cruz again came across as extremely intelligent but hard-edged, uncompromising, and acoustically somewhat irritating. His is not the toughness of an industrialist like Trump, but the dogmatic ferocity of the legislator who has mastered procedure and forensics. It is the politics of sequestration, confrontation, shutting down the government, and the virtue of the avoidance of compromise. But the entire American political system and democracy itself are based on compromise and there is no alternative but to engage in it most of the time, other than where absolutely vital principles are at stake. Cruz professes to find almost everything an absolute principle. The reduction of American politics to loud people of diametrically opposed views, shouting epithets at each other, is better personified by Cruz than by Trump, who is loud about his own positions and the shortcomings of opponents, but is a moderate on most issues. Cruz showed his high intelligence as a legislator by trying to marginalize Trump when he made the patronizing aside, “I like Donald, he’s a great entertainer.” This was the first serious attempt to collar and diminish the Trump insurgency. Trump thanked him for the compliment and made the point, without disputing his own entertaining qualities, that he was the only person on the podium who had employed and been personally responsible for the welfare of a large number of people and that he was the only one who paid for his own campaign (and it now seems that he may almost make a profit even from his campaign, by the sale of political paraphernalia). Cruz does not have a personality that can win that party and it is not clear whether he is really running for vice president or for the addition of a large cubit to his stature as a senator. He is a niche candidate.
Bush could get back into the race, as runner-up to Trump in South Carolina.
Jeb Bush held his own with Trump and appeared to be, as he has sought unsuccessfully for months to become, a reasonable, good-humored, experienced, capable pair of hands. He didn’t fumble, he wasn’t overawed, and in the eyes of many he will have stood up to the bully, even though most of the bully’s points needed to be made if not necessarily as belligerently as they were made. Bush could get, at last, back into the race by taking Kasich’s place coming out of New Hampshire, as runner-up to Trump in South Carolina.
Marco Rubio had the challenging task of recovering from the disaster of the previous debate, where he thrice repeated the non sequitur that the incumbent president knows “exactly what he’s doing.” He held his own in, if I may, mouth-to-mouth combat with Cruz, even in an unpromising dispute over whether the Texas senator spoke Spanish. With his nemesis, Chris Christie, having departed, Rubio almost made people forget how often and how much he seems like a robot. Rubio is articulate and presentable and on Saturday he showed why he has been so politically successful, having come from the state legislature and buried an apparently popular incumbent governor by a million votes. He probably deserves some credit for standing by his immigration compromise — though Donald certainly carried the house when he pointed out that, were it not for him, the admission of 12 million illegal immigrants in the last 30 years or so would never even have been raised to serious debate in this campaign. Unfortunately, this is one area where Republican moderates made life easier for Obama by implicitly dismissing strenuous solutions to the immigration shambles by describing compromises, no matter how shabby, as “comprehensive immigration reform.”
As of now, Trump’s lead is secure, as the division of his opponents will survive South Carolina. Cruz is formidable but fairly stationary. Rubio may have struggled back into contention and the determination of whether he or Bush slugs it out in the semi-finals with Kasich for the honor of being the alternative nominee to Donald Trump may depend on the Florida primary, the home state of both Bush and Rubio. If, as I suspect, Bush comes second to Trump in South Carolina, he has the edge to pass Rubio, and would have an even chance at replacing Kasich as the leader of the numerous and often-defeated anti-Trump forces. Almost impossible though it might be to resurrect the idea after all these months, in that untiring and imperishable manner of the Bush family, Jeb Bush could still be the nominee. We are almost at the point where the Republican faithful could be tired of Trump saying he always wins and disparaging everyone else as a loser.
In the long-touted, long-dreaded, then half-forgotten possibility of a showdown between the Clintons and the Bushes, Jeb Bush would have a good chance — if what he has learned in this campaign is not the inevitability of the victory of the Bush family (even if with a minority of votes, as George W. had in 2000, and even after such a disastrous launch as Jeb Bush had to this campaign) but rather that an inspired blending of the reasonableness of his father with the tenacity of his brother, more articulately explained than was their custom, is appreciated by the great American people.
In summary, the Republican nominee should defeat Hillary Clinton. The anti-Trump forces are still more numerous in the Republican party than Donald’s followers. Their leadership will be fought out between whichever candidate prevails between Floridians Bush and Rubio, and Kasich. If Donald doesn’t move soon to gather those cast adrift as the number of candidates diminishes, he could lose the nomination. America, as these candidates never tire of saying, has suffered many setbacks, but it has not lost the genius of the engrossing and long-running spectacle.