Donald Trump’s last-minute decision to withdraw from the seventh Republican presidential primary debate Thursday night thrust his closest rival, Senator Ted Cruz, where he’s seemingly always wanted to be: at center stage.
Cruz is the most seasoned debater of all the Republican candidates, and Trump’s absence created a vacuum that Cruz could have filled with his typical brio. Instead, at a moment that presented Cruz as much opportunity and peril as any in his political career, he offered up his worst performance of the cycle.
Some of the blows Cruz suffered were self-inflicted, but there was more working against him than nerves and an unflattering limelight. Like so many elected Republicans and GOP operatives who have aligned with Trump to abate Cruz’s rise, the moderators and other candidates teamed up to damage him. To some small extent, this vindicated Trump’s decision to bow out in advance. But to a greater degree, the debate was a microcosm of the Republican establishment’s peculiar commitment to making Cruz, rather than Trump, their main target.
Cruz began the debate with characteristically unctuous panache. Asked what message Trump’s withdrawal sent to Iowa voters, Cruz delivered a pithy spoof of the absentee frontrunner. “[L]et me say I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly. And Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon. Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way, I want to thank everyone here for showing the men and women of Iowa the respect to show up and make the case to the people of this state and the people of the country why each of us believe we would make the best commander-in-chief.”
But for the rest of the debate’s first half, Cruz seemed lost. After moderators invoked Cruz in a series of questions (to Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and Jeb Bush) designed either to draw him into maximal conflict or sully his name, Cruz interjected angrily.
“I would note that that the last four questions have been, ‘Rand, please attack Ted. Marco, please attack Ted. Chris, please attack Ted. Jeb, please attack Ted.’”
Cruz was attempting to reprise his breakout moment from late October, when he excoriated CNBC moderators for provoking other candidates to attack each other. The difference is that this time he was whining on his own behalf, not on behalf of his fellow debaters, and it went over much, much worse.
“It is a debate, sir,” Fox’s Chris Wallace reminded him.
“A debate actually is a policy issue,” Cruz responded, betraying an impressive unfamiliarity with the timbre of the race he’s participating in. As if to contradict his own objection, Cruz sought to regain footing by defending his opposition to the Affordable Care Act with five provably false claims. “We have seen now in six years of Obamacare that it has been a disaster. It is the biggest job-killer in this country. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs, have been forced into part-time work, have lost their health insurance, have lost their doctors, have seen their premiums skyrocket.” (In fact, the economy has added jobs every month since Obamacare passed and at a remarkably steady pace. Millions of Americans have gained employment in that stretch, overwhelmingly full time employment. Millions more have gained health insurance, and premiums are lower now than they were projected to be if Obamacare had never passed).
Cruz entered the debate in the midst of a dangerous slide in the Iowa polls, battered both by Trump to his right and everyone else to his left. In an effort to repossess himself, Cruz has been simultaneously attacking and mimicking Trump all week. He called Trump fragile, then offered to participate in an unsanctioned one-on-one debate with him; he offered to give money to charity should Trump accept his challenge, just as Trump did five years ago when he challenged President Obama to produce his birth certificate. None of it has worked. And yet tonight, despite this strategy’s obvious shortcomings—as if to admit he’s running out of options—he tried one more time.
“I will say this,” Cruz sighed. “Gosh, if you guys ask one more mean question I may have to leave the stage.”
If Thursday’s debate was any indication, he will be doing so in much more consequential fashion very soon.