Experiencing the Fifth Republican Debate

Watching tonight's Republican presidential debate proved to be yet another surreal experience: as much entertainment spectacle as serious political debate, it appropriately took place in Las Vegas. More than once I asked myself, "Is this really happening?" An especially low point was the unfailingly-grim Wolf Blitzer questioning Donald Trump about "shutting down part of the Internet." Answers ranging from the appalling to the incoherent to the simply eccentric were not lacking. The reaction of any honorable citizen watching the debate should have been deep embarrassment and shame.

With nine candidates on stage, it was again difficult to grasp what voters might take away from it all. There were debates within the debate because of the number of participants, extended exchanges between, say, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz on immigration or the NSA's collection of metadata. Trump and Jeb Bush sparred over the former's plan to halt Muslims from entering the United States. The other candidates mostly struggled to break through; of the rest, Rand Paul's interventions were the strongest – his case for a restrained foreign policy was especially forceful.

The two winners tonight, or at least the two who helped themselves the most, were Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. 

Trump went into the debate the frontrunner – in the polls, at least – and nothing happened tonight that will change that. At times, I thought he really might be hurting himself: Jeb went after him more effectively than in the past, and Trump's slight knowledge of policy seemed even more noticeable than usual. Trump really is a skilled performer, though, however odious his positions, and among low-information viewers and voters I suspect his less articulate and less informed answers were received differently than among those in the media. 

One point especially needs to be made, and it's one I've suggested before: Trump's foreign policy instincts are a significant reason for his support among working class whites. To be clear, I'm not discounting the impact of his racial dog-whistling or nativist appeal. Not at all. But Trump is willing to call the war in Iraq a "disaster" and a mistake. He's willing to ask what we've actually gained from our misadventures in the Middle East – what benefits struggling Americans have seen from our invasion, occupation, and attempted rebuilding of Afghanistan and Iraq, or our incompetent meddling in Libya and Syria. His references to wounded veterans especially must appeal to the many working class families whose sons and daughters actually fight our wars. Tonight's debate focused on foreign policy and national security, and Trump's approach distinctly appeals to all those alienated from the GOP's war-loving establishment.

This points to why Ted Cruz also gave a notably effective performance. On foreign policy, Cruz managed to articulate an at least superficially sensible alternative to Rubio that also lacks Trump's worst bluster and total ignorance of world affairs. That is, Cruz talked about killing terrorists but asserted regime change was unwise. He checks the GOP box of an obsession with "radical Islamic terrorism" while genuinely offering restraint in other areas. This makes Cruz the natural foreign policy alternative for those who tire of Trump, while also positioning him closer to the median Republican voter than Rubio's unreconstructed neoconservatism.

Cruz also positioned himself well on immigration, again somewhere between Trump and Rubio; or rather, he's yet again drafting off of Trump while setting himself up as the authentic conservative critic of Rubio – all while allowing just the slightest bit of room for maneuver in a general election, should he get the nomination.

What we have then, probably, is a four man race: Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and Jeb Bush. (Carson is embarrassing himself and should get out of the race after Iowa, while Bush's financial resources mean he can stay in the race awhile longer yet.) At this point, given his dominance of most polling since the summer, I refuse to rule out Trump winning the nomination. But even more, tonight I saw how Ted Cruz could thread the needle: attacking Rubio from the right on immigration, appealing to all those exhausted by calls for endless war, and avoiding (for now) a direct confrontation with Donald Trump.

It's possible I'm underestimating Rubio, but I doubt it. He gives the impression, at least to me, of an eager college student reciting the answers he's memorized – and hurriedly, before he forgets! Cruz, while generally having an air of the huckster about him, really is a talented debater. As the field narrows and fewer candidates are on stage, I surmise those skills will be increasingly apparent and advantageous. 

Right now, Cruz seems poised to be the alternative to Trump. 

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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