The consensus seems to be that Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Marco Rubio were the only three candidates who emerged standing from the debate last night. Christie got off some good lines as usual, while Ben Carson once again left me wondering what pharmaceutical cocktail he had ingested before mounting the stage, and John Kasich once again made me feel sorry that he had to cope with that species of motor-neuron disease with which he is afflicted.
I also felt a little sorry for Jeb Bush.
He is clearly a competent man whose record as governor of Florida should inspire admiration. Sure, you might disagree with him about this or that — Common Core, for example, or the details of his ideas about immigration — but he is a thoughtful, steady person of good will. He exudes maturity, and it tells us a lot about the texture of our current political situation, I think, that Donald Trump should have been able to score one of his first rhetorical victories of the primary season by charging that Jeb Bush was “low energy.”
The charge stuck, but it was unfair. Jeb is not low energy. He is simply deliberate — a good thing in a statesman.
I say this not because I am a Bush supporter. I’m not, for many reasons. But I think it is worth pausing to acknowledge that he acts with dignity, like an adult. Last night, Chris Christie described Barack Obama as a “petulant child.” That was apt. Obama is notoriously thin-skinned, as are many narcissists, and that combined with his breathtaking incompetence has been a recipe for petulance.
But Democrats do not have a monopoly on petulance or childish behavior. Marco Rubio exhibited his inner petulant child last night when, towards the end of the debate, he suddenly unloaded on Ted Cruz. He dumped, as Cruz responded, his entire file of opposition research in a steaming pile just before the finish bell rang. Cruz manfully addressed some of the central charges, but Rubio’s timing was such that many had to be left unanswered.
But of course the true master of childish petulance on the GOP side is Donald Trump. He says things that most of the candidates would consider, rightly, infra dig, which is shorthand for infra dignitatem, beneath their dignity. But Trump is made of different stuff. The English essayist William Hazlitt once observed that: “Those who lack delicacy hold us in their power.” Trump has instinctively devoted himself to proving Hazlitt right.
In the end, however, I am not at all sure that Hazlitt was right. Those who lack delicacy floor us. They take our breath away. They earn our grudging admiration for saying and doing things that others wouldn’t dare, or wouldn’t scruple, to do.
But as for holding us in their power, my observation is that that is a temporary condition.
The success of the gambit depends heavily on two things. One is the skill of the performer. As
Gertrude Stein Jean Cocteau said [thanks to an attentive reader for the correction], success depends heavily in knowing how far to go in going too far. One has to be an astute judge of the public’s appetite for outrage, which is never boundless and which regularly ebbs even as it can sometimes unexpectedly flow.
The second prerequisite for success turns on the deeper makeup of one’s public. A parent may indulge a tantrum-prone toddler in certain circumstances, but be quick to upbraid him when the occasion demands it. Just so, Donald Trump has many fans. They thrill to his semi-articulate rudeness, his willingness to call a spade a spade, his attack on political correctness and the sclerotic Washington establishment. Jeb Bush, whatever his virtues, epitomizes that establishment. His measured tone and careful policy prescriptions, many of them, bear the nihil obstat of the focus-group, i.e., they have received the PC Good Housekeeping seal of approval.
It doesn’t matter that many of Donald Trump’s positions are ridiculous, incoherent, or both. They tap into a current of emotion composed partly of anger, partly of impatience, and partly of fear. People are angry at the inability or unwillingness of their elected officials to bring about the changes they were sent to Washington to accomplish. They are fearful, rightly, about the destruction wrought by seven years of Barack Obama on this country: the degradation of our military, the low esteem in which the rest of the world holds America, the regulatory burden that has stymied our economy, pustules of Islamic terrorism which Obama refuses even to name. These and other results of Obama’s disastrous reign have instilled great anger and great fear in large swathes of the American public.
It’s not acknowledged, not yet, by the folks who think that the New York Times or MSNBC or CNN are sources of news rather than outposts of the DNC press office, but it is nevertheless a palpable fact about America circa 2016.
The question for Trump is whether his many fans are convertible into reliable supporters. The polls measure the former. I am not at all sure that they are a reliable guide to the latter. And that is one reason that I suspect that Ted Cruz’s recent bump in the polls is more significant than Donald Trump is quite willing to admit. He half-admitted it last night, it is true, when he allowed that he had gone birther on Ted Cruz only because Cruz had suddenly been doing “a little better” in the polls.
That admission ought instantly have rendered his charge null and void, as should his citing Larry Tribe — Larry Tribe! — as an authority on the issue. Cruz parried the charge in a masterly way, but more significant was the obvious lack of traction that the charge got. Everyone, even Donald Trump, knows that Cruz’s eligibility to be president is a non-issue. His mother was American. He is eligible to be president. End of discussion.
This herring, like most that Trump deploys, is red. And I think people see that.
Donald Trump got off some good lines last night. “We are laughed at all over the world.” Yep. And we know why. “Police are the most mistreated people in the country.” Bullseye.
But “I’m totally open to a tariff” on Chinese goods?
His blundering attack on Cruz for his comment about Trump representing “New York values”? The Daily News didn’t like it, either, but of course Cruz is absolutely correct, as Bill Buckley would have been happy to tell Donald Trump were he only here to do so. Trump invoked Bill in an effort to rebut Cruz, but really the image of Bill Buckley reinforces Ted Cruz’s point.
National Review was founded, Bill famously wrote, to counter exactly those values, standing against “the United Nations, the League of Women Voters, the New York Times” etc., etc.
Our expert psephologists tell us that Trump is way ahead in many polls. But as I say, I suspect they are measuring fans, not supporters. The difference is between cheering on a successful mud wrestler and appointing a general to lead the army.
Donald Trump is an amusing entertainer whose antics have shone a light on some dark corners that needed illumination. He is a sort of Liberace of Liberalism: a recent supporter of Chuck Schumer, of Nancy Pelosi, of Hillary Clinton, who also (until about ten minutes ago) was as pro-abortion as it is possible to be.
No thoughtful person, at the end of the day, can take him seriously. “Those who lack delicacy hold us in their power,” until, that is, the indelicate realities of existential choices are upon us. A lot of people will slap their thighs over Donald Trump. Vastly fewer, I suspect, will pull the lever for him in the privacy of the voting booth. No, last night’s debate really consolidated a trend that has been evident for some time. The choice is between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Ted Cruz is the serious adult in this scenario. Ted Cruz will win.