There are paradoxes in American politics. One of them is this: We are supposedly moved to choose the more “likable” candidate and we profess to hate negative campaigning. During last night’s debate, the audience grumbled or booed when candidates (including Trump, who is so admired for his toughness) made direct attacks on their adversaries. It made the audience uncomfortable. But as politicians know, disdaining “going negative” is a luxury candidates cannot afford because it works and it always has.
Two candidates on the main stage last night demonstrated that they are either miserably bad at going negative (Jeb Bush, who asked Donald Trump to “reconsider” his views on Muslim immigration) and Ben Carson (who just doesn’t have the stomach for it). Ben Carson is one of the great Americans of our time and it’s a shame that he felt he could only help the country that he loves by running for an office he is thoroughly unprepared to fill. Running for president has become the equivalent of seeking a knighthood or a Nobel Peace Prize. When a kid delivers a good speech in high school debate class, people say “You should run for president.” There are other ways to excel (well, no one needs to tell Dr. Carson that), but these vanity races are a waste of everyone’s time and money. Carson is the most likable of men, but it takes you only so far.
Donald Trump, who is also, in my judgment, unqualified to serve as president, does have the instinct for the jugular. He was able to hold his own against an unleashed Ted Cruz, who, we are constantly reminded, was a college debate champion. Marco Rubio, who has campaigned as a broad-spectrum conservative who can appeal to every segment of the Republican Party (with the exception of the center/left Kasich territory), was thought to be mortally wounded due to his support for the “Gang of Eight” bill. Rush Limbaugh practically read his political obituary yesterday afternoon. But Rubio demonstrated great nimbleness in parrying that issue by noting that Ted Cruz’s immigration positions were not that different from his own, and by arguing that the immigration question has changed in light of the threat from ISIS. This has resonance with many on the right. Larry Kudlow, for example, a longtime advocate of legal immigration, was moved after Paris and San Bernardino to endorse a pause in all immigration.
Ted Cruz counters that his support for increased immigration was a poison pill, but his advocacy of increasing H1B visas sure sounded sincere at the time. It’s certainly fair to change your mind, but not to deny that you have done so, or to imply that everyone else is fatally squishy. As in his earlier tangles with Jeb Bush, Rubio came prepared and landed a few roundhouses at Cruz’s expense. He is no pushover.
Chris Christie lied about some major issues: His support for the nomination of Sonio Sotomayor, his 1994 personal check to Planned Parenthood, and his claim that he eliminated Common Core in New Jersey. Just because you look straight into the camera does not mean you are frank.
I think there were 3 tickets out of last night’s debate and they were issued to Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. But it’s been an odd year.