It was a good substantive debate. Not only did Marco Rubio win hands down in nearly all the ways that should matter, he managed to tailor his answers to Florida in ways that none of the other candidates could hope to match. Rubio’s answers on Cuba and Islam were forceful, moral and nuanced all at the same time. Going in, I believed that Rubio had a better shot at winning Florida than a lot of folks claim, but I’d be a fool if I said he had a good shot. After the debate, I still don’t think I’d bet a lot on him winning, but I have to believe he helped himself the most with the wavering or late-deciding voters that matter. It’s probably all too late for Rubio, but if it is, he’s winding down his race with honor, by showing why so many people invested their hopes in him.
I should say that Cruz had a good night, too. Particularly in the first half. If Rubio won on policy, he at best tied with Cruz on ideology. Cruz did a great job arguing for limited government and explaining the distinction between him and Trump. Rubio opted not to explain so much as show, which might be too subtle at this stage.
Lots of commentators noted that none of the debaters went hard after Trump. Cruz was the most pointed, to be sure. But we know what Cruz is capable of, and he brought none of the heat. There are lots of theories as to why this was the case, the most obvious is that direct attacks on Trump seem to backfire. As I wrote the other day, Trump is allowed to be a vulgar know-nothing cretin and everyone says, “Oh that’s just Trump being Trump.” But if anyone else behaves in a Trump-like fashion voters are horrified by how undignified such behavior is. It’s sort of like Joe Biden. Stupid comments are priced into his persona. He could say, “the failure rate of underwear elastic is our most pressing national crisis” and people will say, “Oh that Joe.” Tonight, Trump said that he’s more pro-Israel than anybody (he was the Grand Marshall in a parade! A PARADE!) but it’s important to tell the Palestinians he’s neutral so he can cut a deal (apparently the Palestinians don’t have access to CNN). He said GDP was “zero” for the last two quarters. He basically said the violence at his rallies was entirely the fault of the big “dudes” who showed up. Or something. And no one cares, because no one cares that Trump has no place on the stage.
Megan McArdle has been noting for months that Trump is a lousy debater, but a great attention-getter. I have to wonder: If the field had been this small all year, would Trump be the frontrunner? I don’t think so. He’s benefited from the fact that there was no time to provide substance. Now that he’s pivoting to what passes for a presidential pose, Trump was rather boring and lame. But that is probably what the moment requires now. If we’d seen “presidential” Trump from day one, particularly in a smaller field, I suspect the country would have been spared the corrupting mess before us now.