The Republican establishment’s fondest hope before Saturday night’s debate was that Marco Rubio would deliver yet another solid (if unmemorable) debate performance, and that Donald Trump would fall on his face—compounding the damage he suffered in Iowa, and surrendering more, if not all, of his lead in New Hampshire over to Rubio, who’s in second place and climbing.
Instead, the establishment got almost exactly the opposite.
The single biggest spoiler wasn’t Trump, or even Ted Cruz, but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who—let’s not euphemize—humiliated Rubio in an exchange about Rubio’s dearth of experience and accomplishments. Christie became the first Republican presidential candidate this cycle to weaponize Rubio’s grating habit of pivoting to relevant portions of his stump speech rather than answering the questions posed to him.
“I want the people at home to think about this,” Christie said. “That’s what Washington, D.C. does. The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information, and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him.”
Rubio responded to Christie by proving his point, pivoting not just to a portion of his stump speech, but the exact same portion of the stump speech he had just recited.
“There it is,” Christie gloated. “There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.”
Then Rubio did it again. When he repeated the same lines, nearly verbatim, a fourth time—“Let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”—the audience booed him.
The exchange left Rubio rattled, and his tone halting. He stammered through a comment about North Korea launching a long-range missile, and didn’t find his footing again (confidently, but forgettably repeating more stump-speech snippets) until the debate’s second half. By then, it was too late.
The damage would have been circumscribed if Trump had struggled, too—if the first-place candidate dips as well, the second-place candidate’s losses aren’t compounded. But Trump did not comply.
With one exception, Trump floated above the fray. He offered a convincing, unrehearsed defense of his conservatism. He even managed to turn his apparent support for universal health care into a compelling call for solidarity, to not allow the poor and ill to die in the street for lack of health care. In 2011, a Republican debate crowd cheered loudly the opposite proposition—that the uninsured should be left to die. Trump’s clarion call for good citizenship garnered modest applause.
If Trump damaged himself—and it’s a big if—it was when he bullied Jeb Bush in an exchange over the propriety of governments using eminent domain. Trump is a huge (and fairly persuasive) defender of eminent domain. But the libertarian right and the progressive left are (also rightly) opposed to using eminent domain to advance private interests. In the course of this argument, Trump placed his fingers to his lips to shush Bush, and said the former Florida governor’s attempt to play a tough guy was unconvincing. He noted correctly that the GOP’s opportunistic Keystone Pipeline boosterism is incompatible with the view that eminent domain should not be used to advance private interests.
If there’s a Trump Doctrine, eminent domain is a central tenet of it. When the audience responded poorly to Trump’s arguments and temperament, he
assailed them as corrupt big-shot GOP donors who are upset that Trump cannot be bought. “You know who has the tickets for the [debate], I’m talking about, to the television audience?” Trump asked rhetorically. “Donors, special interests, the people that are putting up the money. That’s who it is. The RNC told us. We have all donors in the audience. And the reason they’re not loving me, the reason they’re not—excuse me. The reason they’re not loving me is, I don’t want their money. I’m going to do the right thing for the American public. I don’t want their money. I don’t need their money. And I’m the only one up here that can say that.”
It’s really impossible to say how this all went over outside the studio audience. Trump dominated the exchange, and did so with conviction. He also beat up on the most unpopular people in politics. At the same time, though, he emasculated a guy who’s fairly well-liked in New Hampshire, over an issue on which New Hampshire Republicans probably disagree with Trump.
It was a memorable exchange, and Trump may have even gotten the better of it. But it was the only moment when Trump didn’t present himself as the presumptive winner of the primary.
Christie performed well tonight. So did Jeb Bush and John Kasich. If they weren’t so prohibitively behind Trump, it would be worth considering whether they might still pull off an upset in Tuesday’s primary. But the upset they might pull off is to deny Rubio a second-place finish in New Hampshire, and send the GOP establishment into disarray once again.