Trump lost the debate big, as far as I can tell.
He didn’t lose all of it. Most of the stuff about his sketchy business practices and all that is old news and didn’t touch him much. And it’s unclear whether he or Cruz would do better against Clinton. It is clear, in fact, that Rubio and Kasich would do better than either of them.
Well, Rubio’s confidently encouraging America to Google the heck out of Trump might pay off gradually but inexorably. Maybe–but only maybe–Trump has finally entered his meltdown period that has been predicted so often by experts.
Rubio got Trump to choke or meltdown on his health-care policy. And then gleefully mocked him for his stammering repetition of a single bullet point. Rubio made Trump suffer what Christie made Rubio suffer. So, although Trump continues to brand Rubio as the choke artist or meltdown guy, they now both have exhibited that telling weakness, and Trump more recently and more pathetically. Despite the fact that Christie just endorsed Trump (imprudently ending his political career as a Republican), it’s Rubio who learned from the Jersey prosecutor how to exploit an opponent’s weaknesses.
There are some sophisticated supporters of Trump who have explained to me that his not touching policy detail is a savvy rhetorical ploy. It has now been revealed that he really just doesn’t know it.
How hard would it be to master a few points? Trump, on policy, is spectacularly lazy.
That’s too bad. Because maybe all he needed to do is defend with detail the three reasonable points he did make. First, enhance competition through a national market, getting rid of “the lines.” Second, come up with some way of covering those with preexisting conditions. Third, don’t let sick people die in the streets. Or: Come up with some way of making individual and family coverage available and affordable for everyone, a plan that would involve government subsidies of some kind.
Cruz accused Trump of being for “socialized medicine.” That charge, as quaint as it is in some ways, would make sense in the context of Trump’s flirtations with single payer, which are now displayed on Cruz’s website. But in the context of the debate, it seems as if Cruz was objecting to Trump’s determination to get the sick people out of the streets and into hospitals.
There was an opening here for Trump to criticize Cruz’s health-care policy. But, of course, he didn’t know it. As our Peter Spiliakos has observed, Cruz in effect says “no soup for you” to those too strapped to afford any kind of policy on their own, as well as to those who have preexisting conditions and whom private insurers won’t touch.
So Cruz also revealed Trump’s inexcusable ignorance, as well as his own vulnerability. No government involvement at all in health-care coverage is attractive, for the most part, only to “very conservative” voters. And let me give Cruz credit for being too principled to pivot in the direction of somehow rebuilding the Reagan coalition or even appealing to a majority of Republican primary voters. His path to the nomination is as the only viable alternative to Trump, and now there’s no way he’s going to be that.
Maybe the main effect of the debate was to give many skeptics confidence that Rubio has what it takes to handle the huge role history, so to speak, has thrust upon him.