Thoughts on the February 25th Republican Debate
Shortly after the final Iowa debate, in which Marco Rubio’s “strong” performance provided him with momentum to come a strong third with 23% of the vote, and also more than a week before his subsequent disastrous performance in NH, I raised concerns I had with his debate strategy. Marco Rubio, at least outside of his New Hampshire screwup appeared tactically adapt at winning exchanges at debates, but I felt that his ability to capitalize on any of those was limited by the lack of an overreaching strategy. The Rubio campaign seemed to proceed on the notion that merely winning enough exchanges would amount to winning debates, and hence winning the campaign, as if “winning” was a matter of aggregating “points” into a total score. As such, the creation of an ideologically coherent case to vote for Rubio took a backseat to trying to embarrass Ted Cruz on stage in 90 second segments.
This resulted, either from negligence or overconfidence, in the embrace of a nonsensical grand strategy. For instance, Rubio’s entire assault on Ted Cruz in December and January was to attack him for having really supported amnesty for illegal immigrants and for being less dedicated to tax cuts. While Rubio managed to score quite a few verbal hits with this approach, it was unclear to me what the wisdom was in the long-run of a strategy that involved Marco Rubio trying to convince voters he was a more consistent conservative than Ted Cruz, especially on immigration, where Rubio’s national political prominence was defined by membership in the Gang of 8. Yes there is Karl Rove’s old adage about attacking your opponent’s strengths, and it worked for Mitt Romney against Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, but Rubio has lacked Romney’s financial advantage, or for that matter Romney’s secure left flank. Furthermore, any discussion of immigration, even one where Cruz(or now Trump) is worsted by necessity also focuses attention back on Rubio’s own Gang of 8 experience, meaning that any discomfort his opponents feel comes paired with a dissembling answer(or occasionally even a video clip) of Rubio trying to reconcile his own past record with his current attacks.
The reason I bring up the former issue, which may seem to be old news, is because Marco Rubio is now adopting the same approach towards Donald Trump that he used against Ted Cruz. As with the last time he attempted it, the media is largely lapping up the fact that he attacked at all, and his campaign that he “won” exchanges. But even more so than last year, it is unclear to me what the end point of his strategy is. On the surface, it seems to be an effort to claim that he is far more of a true conservative than Donald Trump. Yet with Ted Cruz this attack at least had the benefit of being something that might harm Cruz if true. Cruz after all was running as the True Conservative. But the most stunning thing about Donald Trump from the exit polls so far has been that he has been the GOP candidate with least, rather than most ideological appeal, drawing almost equal support from moderate, somewhat conservative, and very conservative voters. Marco Rubio is attacking Donald Trump for not being an orthodox conservative, but Donald Trump is not running as one. In fact, his general strategy, such that he has had one, since Iowa has been to move away from conservative orthodoxy. Previous heresy on trade has been matched with attacks on the Iraq War, taxes, and health care.
So yes, last night Marco Rubio successfully score hits on Donald Trump, showing he deviated by ideological orthodoxy on health care. But in so doing, he forced a eight minute exchange where the major deviation was that Trump favoured keeping a ban on discrimination based upon preexisting conditions, something that polls show is overwhelmingly popular. Yes the think tank set, economists, and conservative ideologues made much of Trump’s lack of specifics, but he had all the specifics he needed for most viewers. He made a case for keeping it; Rubio and Cruz’s case against Trump was that his position was heretical, not that it was in any way bad. Trump took a stand against letting people “die in the streets”. Rubio presumably favoured people dying in the streets because the alternative was, “gasp”, the government intervening in healthcare. To those who accept as implicit the orthodoxy that government involvement = bad, then allowing people to die for a principle may be compelling. But the lesson of this primary so far is that there are precocious few people who understand the principles lying behind conservative orthodoxy on such issues, and god knows neither Rubio or Cruz explained them. They asserted them, taking for granted that GOP primary voters would reflexively support the official GOP position.
This patterned was repeated to a lesser extent with Israel. Donald Trump has tapped into frustration with both the power of special interests and a feeling that voters are not focusing on America first. His own statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were ill-informed and naïve. But he did not stake out an anti-Israel position. By contrast, his foes fell over themselves to state their dedication to Israel and attack Trump for not being strenuous enough. At the point at which Trump is not advocating a major policy difference, it left his foes looking as if they were pandering to a specific special interest, a foreign one at that. A popular one, but nonetheless a foreign one. Most GOP voters without a doubt strongly support Israel. But most also likely do not think Israel is the United States, and would be as hostile to suggestions that it should be weighed equally or more heavily as they would be to suggestions it be abandoned. A similar clash over forcing US allies to pay more of a burden is likely to be an applause line uncontestably.
In effect, the strategy adopted by the Rubio campaign for the debate was to try to position himself to Trump’s right. But even if one ignores that the main success was establishing him as the more orthodox conservative candidate rather than necessarily the more conservative, it is unclear why that would be a good thing for Rubio. Trump has so clearly established himself as anti-establishment that it is hard to outbid him, especially on immigration. It is very late to try and claim that the man who called Mexicans rapists and favours building a wall is soft on Mexican illegal immigration. Even if one can win such a clash verbally, the entire claim seems laughable.
Furthermore, even if by some chance Rubio and Cruz were to successfully position themselves to Trump’s right, it is hard to see how this helps the former. The entire premise of the “alternative to Trump” narrative is that voters will place stopping Trump above all. Central to the idea of the “establishment lane” is the mistaken and baseless notion that somehow establishment = moderate, and that therefore moderate voters, contrary to polls showing the opposite, will be so desperate to stop Trump at all costs they will automatically back Rubio by considering him the left-most viable candidate. This may make sense to political journalists who are blinded by their contempt and hatred for Trump, but it is unclear if this will be the case, and is even more unclear how positioning himself to Trump’s right on foreign policy, immigration, abortion, and healthcare will help Rubio win over Bush, Christie, and eventually Kasich supporters. The whole thing seems predicated on the belief that they would never ever go for Trump no matter what his opponents say or what positions they adopt.
This is not to say that no hits were landed. The exchange over tax returns drew real blood from Trump, not least because his defence about being audited failed to do much for his reputation for integrity. Nor did the revelation this was the 12th year in a row in which it had occurred. But the relevance of the tax issue has to be made clear. For Mitt Romney, the perception he was cheating on his taxes was linked to the idea that he as indifferent to the little guy. Trump’s salesmanship, as he made clear in his Nevada speech, is not that he is a nice or generous guy. Rather it is that he is a “greedy guy” who likes “to grab, grab, grab” all the money he can, but now he is going to get greedy and grab “for America.” Amazingly he has been able to make what was a liability for Mitt Romney into an asset.
It is not the case that the attacks on taxes are futile. They can work. But they have to be linked to something other than Trump’s integrity, given that by his own admission, his business career lacked any of it. Rather it needs to be linked to electability in a general election, and this was a point Ted Cruz pressed hard, with quite a bit of success. Rubio also scored a direct hit with the Trump University issue. Attacking Trump for policy or personal qualities that are the reason his supporters want him to be President is going to be a waste of time. Arguing that those qualities or other issues will ensure that he never gets to become President is a much more damaging line which may make his opponents think twice.
Finally, the shouting matches on stage serve no one except Trump. If his opponent(s) keep trying to speak over him, they generate stories about how the debate “descended into chaos”. If they shut up when he yells at them, especially after he shushes them, they look weak much as Jeb Bush did. Rubio clearly had an amusing and funny comeback during the healthcare exchange which made light both of Trump’s lack of specificity and Rubio’s own travails with repetitiveness at the New Hampshire debate. Sadly, he struggled to make it heard by delivering it in the midst of a shouting match with Trump, leading CNN’s subtitle to list it as “unintelligible arguing”. I watched the entire debate and only learned the full details of the exchange by reading articles online, whose timing indicates they were in awe not of what they heard on stage, but instead of the textual version likely contained within a press release emailed out by the Rubio campaign mid-debate. Even on repeat the video is far less clear, and therefore far less damming than the New Hampshire Rubio-Christie clash.
Two questions remain regarding Trump being stopped. The first is whether or not his opponents coalesce. Regarding that, I believe Rubio did score a win comparatively, though mostly against Ted Cruz, who looked very much like he was in third, and Ben Carson/John Kasich, who looked redundant and out of place. He likely will continue to poach votes of Cruz and likely a few off of Kasich in the south which may well be enough for a win there. He will need that as even in his best March 1st state, Virginia, polls havehim trailing by double-digits. In fact, I suspect Rubio’s best hope is to actually win Texas which currently looks like a three-way race.
The second question is whether Trump’s opponents can counter his appeal, which requires recognizing it. My suspicion from watching the February 25th debate is that they still do not understand it, and are still treating the Trump phenomenon as the result of a combination of right-wing insurgency and mass insanity. Definitely the ideological positioning by Rubio and Cruz left a vast spectrum of centre and center-right to Trump. Given where March 1st states are, and what votes the next two weeks, they probably have to do better in this respect. If Cruz does not get out after March 1, and Kasich does not by the 8th, Trump has a shot at winning Ohio, and potentially coming into Florida with enough momentum to beat Rubio. After that, the campaign is a repeat of the Democrats’ 1972 epilogue in which a motley crew of has-beens and favourite sons tried to deny George McGovern a majority of delegates. Given which states are effectively WTA(NJ, CA, CT, NY) that is a bad fit for southern conservative candidates.
I think Trump lost quite a few battles Thursday night. But I feel none of them were decisive or particularly important.