Last night’s debate was like an alternate reality — what the race might have looked like if Trump had been absent.
Though we’ve heard again and again about what a skilled debater Ted Cruz is — my sense is that the seven debates so far have instead shown Rubio to be the top performer, and that was certainly the case last night (though I acknowledge that my bias in his favor may cloud my judgment). It wasn’t that Rubio bested Cruz, but Cruz’s own unforced errors — bickering with the moderators, attempting to relive his glory moment from the CNBC debate (except this time on his own behalf instead of on behalf of others, which made it sound whiny) — that gave the advantage to Rubio.
Rubio’s great weakness, at least according to conventional wisdom, is that he participated in the Gang of Eight. Perhaps that remains the case after last night. Certainly Rubio’s argument with Bush on the question was surreal, since both have been comparatively “soft” on immigration in the past, and both have changed their views.
Fox’s choice to run clips of both Rubio and Cruz changing their positions seemed to vitiate the issue. Voters may reasonably conclude that no one has clean hands. Plus, Rand Paul offered an assist to Rubio’s argument that Cruz is posturing as the only “pure” conservative. (Rand Paul went after Rubio in earlier debates, but this late hit on Cruz may be more potent with only days to go before the caucuses).
I have long taken the view (which I know most at National Review don’t share) that immigration is one of the lesser challenges facing the nation in any case. The illegal population is declining, not increasing. The birth rate in Mexico is dropping steadily, suggesting that the waves of illegals coming north may be permanently in the rear view mirror. Of course we should police visa overstays better, and sanctuary cities are an outrage.
But I would have liked to hear much more from the candidates about replacing Obamacare, economic growth, rule of law, taking a scythe to the thicket of regulations that are choking us, and the Supreme Court, since the next president will likely get the opportunity to appoint several new justices. The last is a matter on which Chris Christie is vulnerable.
Last night was a Trumpless idyll. It’s morning now. We’ll see.