The latest episode of the long-running reality show that is the Republican presidential nomination race aired last night, and we found it most entertaining. There were the usual reality show spats, although more serious policy discussion than usual, and we think it even advanced the plot a bit.
The thus-far star of the series, real estate mogul and reality-show veteran Donald Trump, had a rough night. During the serious policy discussion part of the proceedings he was asked which leg of the nation’s nuclear triad he thinks needs the most attention, and he answered “the nuclear part,” allowing Florida Sen. Marco Rubio to patiently explain “to those listening who might not be familiar with the terminology” that all the parts of the land-sea-and-air triad are nuclear. Eager to demonstrate that whatever he might lack in familiarity with defense terminology he makes up for in toughness, Trump also promised to not only kill any terrorists who attack the United States but to go after their families as well, thus ushering in the Cosa Nostra Doctrine of American foreign policy. He also sounded rather sanguine about the continued existence of the Assad regime in Syria, as well the benefits that delivers to an even peskier Iranian regime, and his “one thing at a time” explanation suggests he might not be up the multi-tasking that foreign policy sometimes requires.
Trump didn’t even fare well during the usual reality show spats, and judging by the live audience’s reaction his shock jock shtick seems to be starting to wear thin. During an entirely unnecessary confrontation with the increasingly irrelevant former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Bush got a far bigger round of applause that his dwindling number of supporters could have possibly provided by saying “You can’t insult your way to the presidency.” The never-back-down Trump even backed down from his recent criticisms of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’ confrontational legislative tactics, which were widely criticized by the crucial conservative talk radio hosts who egged Cruz on, and we expect it disappointed the loyal Trump fans who are already concocting “birther” theories about Cruz while doing little to win over those put off by Trump’s own confrontational style.
Worst of all for Trump, the intriguing subplot involving Rubio and Cruz drew much attention. Both of the first-term Senators are quite good at this debate stuff, Rubio has lately displaced Bush as the “establishment” candidate while Cruz has become the most formidable “anti-establishment” alternative to Trump, so their frequent clashes made for good television. Cruz scored with jabs against Rubio’s past heresies on the all-important issue of illegal immigration, Rubio came off tougher on national security because of Cruz’ past opposition to some data-gathering programs that used to be an important issue, and our guess is that Cruz got the better of it.
Some of the supporting cast were also good, but we can already see them being written out of future scripts. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is also good at this debate stuff, and his background as a federal prosecutor on terrorism cases served him well in a debate focused on national security, and his tough-guy is far more charming than the others’, but he’s way too northeast for a party that’s dominated by flyover country voters to have a chance. Former high-tech executive Carly Fiorina turned in her usual strong performance, and she does tough guy as well as any of the guys, but at this point she seems to be running for vice-president. Retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, who has been dropping in the polls ever since the terrorist attacks on Paris and San Bernardino pushed security issues to the forefront of the campaign, probably helped himself with some credible answers in the serious policy discussion part and a reassuring promise that his nice-guy persona won’t stop him from inflicting some collateral damage if he’s forced to.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul were also involved, some reason for another, but we expect this will be their last appearance.
The best news was Trump’s seemingly sincere promise that he won’t launch an independent run if he’s denied the Republican nomination, which would have guaranteed that next season’s general election reality show would end badly for the Republicans. There’s still hope for a happy ending, and that’s what keeps viewers tuned in.
— Bud Norman