One might have expected the ninth Republican presidential debate to be a cut above the earlier edition. With Chris Christie out of the race and Ben Carson present but basically out of the running, it was a chance for the race to get serious, for the five candidates who could potentially win this thing to make their cases without much distraction from the B players.
Instead, Donald Trump accused Jeb Bush of threatening to moon the kind people of New Hampshire.
It was an anarchic evening where even disciplined moderators had trouble keeping things on track. That's par for the course for these things at this point, but the particular kind of chaos this time around was different, and didn't always play to the favor of Donald Trump, lord of chaos.
We won't know who "really" won until poll results trickle in. But in the meantime, here are the candidates who ended the night better off than they started it — and the ones who slipped.
Winner: Jeb Bush
After a long campaign in which his name has become almost synonymous with failure and pathos, Jeb finally — finally — had a good night.
It may not have come to him entirely fairly. The whole debate he appeared to have the support of the live audience, who even raucously applauded his characteristically dull and platitudinous closing statement. This makes sense: Apparently only 600 of the 1,600 tickets to the event were given to the candidates, and the state and national party controlled most of the rest. The result was an enthusiastically pro-Jeb crowd.
But whatever the reason for their Bush love, it worked. Trump was frequently booed — and when he tried to argue the audience was stacked against him, he was booed even harder. And Jeb was given the chance to throw red meat not to GOP base voters, but to typical GOP establishment types.
That distinction is crucial. Defending the Iraq War is not something that, say, Tea Party activists are all that excited about doing. But it's something longtime Republican activists who were involved in the South Carolina state party in the 2000s had to do all the time. George W. Bush was their guy for eight years. They stood by him. They knew all the attacks about him and recoiled at each one.
So when Trump decided to attack the Iraq War, and point out that the president who presided over 9/11 cannot reasonably claim to have "kept us safe," the crowd took it personally. And booed. And applauded when Bush fought back:
BUSH: So here's the deal. I'm sick and tired of Barack Obama blaming my brother for all of the problems that he has had.
BUSH: And, frankly, I could care less about the insults that Donald Trump gives to me. It's blood sport for him. He enjoys it. And I'm glad he's happy about it. But I am sick and tired...
TRUMP: He spent $22 million in...
BUSH: I am sick and tired of him going after my family. My dad is the greatest man alive in my mind.
BUSH: And while Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe. And I'm proud of what he did.
BUSH: And he has had the gall to go after my brother.
Applause, applause, applause. The Republican base might have moved on from George W. Bush, but the professional party operative class in the audience in South Carolina has not, and gave Bush one hell of a moment, which likely helped him with viewers in the state without that emotional attachment to the Bush legacy.
Even better, he didn't have to answer for his flip-flop on whether Iraq was a mistake, even as Trump pressed him to do so. And best of all, Marco Rubio, Jeb's main rival for the establishment vote, helped Bush out, declaring, "I just want to say, at least on behalf of me and my family, I thank God all the time it was George W. Bush in the White House on 9/11 and not Al Gore."
Jeb also did something he's been hesitant to do for much of this campaign: He embraced being a Bush. This is clearly part of a broader strategy, what with W coming back to campaign for his brother in South Carolina. But it's a smart strategy. Bush was never going to win by hoping that people forgot he's related to one of the most controversial figures in Republican history. But there is some residual goodwill in the party toward W, especially on national security, and Bush is uniquely positioned to exploit that at a moment when ISIS has made terrorism and Islamist radicalism much bigger issues than they've been for years.
Jeb is still languishing in fourth in South Carolina polls. It's too soon to declare he has momentum. But he gave about the best performance he could've hoped for, which should give him a decent chance of outpacing Rubio and maybe even Cruz too in the state:
Winner(s): Hillary Clinton/Bernie Sanders
The longer, the bloodier, and the sillier this campaign season is, the better it is for the eventual Democratic nominee. And it doesn't get much longer, bloodier, or sillier than the debate tonight.
Here's some stuff that actually happened tonight. After a campaign that's mostly involved candidates falling over themselves to show their commitment to screwing over Latino undocumented immigrants, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio started arguing over who spoke better Spanish — in Spanish:
Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner who won New Hampshire in a landslide and will almost certainly win in South Carolina too, stuck up for Planned Parenthood. To repeat: Less than a year after doctored undercover videos made the organization anathema to all Republicans and its defunding a key priority of the congressional GOP, the Republican frontrunner for president praised it:
And Trump accused Jeb Bush of threatening to expose his buttocks to crowds of voters, an accusation that is, amazingly, not entirely without merit!
TRUMP: Two days ago he said he would take his pants off and moon everybody, and that's fine. Nobody reports that. He gets up and says that, and then he tells me, oh, my language was a little bit rough…
If it had been scripted, it would've been the greatest surrealist masterpiece this side of Luis Buñuel, but to any general election swing voters watching, it was just a clown show. The most reasonable person onstage was defending the Iraq War at great length. That's bananas!
Worse still for Republicans, it left the race still largely unsettled. Probably the best hope for a swift end to the primary is for Trump to just keep winning everything — but Trump had one of his worst nights to date. Probably the best hope for an establishment contender to win is for John Kasich to realize he can't do well outside New Hampshire and drop out, for Rubio to acknowledge that he's toast and do the same, and for Jeb! to rise up and save the day. But while Jeb had a good night, it wasn't a so-good-he-knocked-out-his-rivals night.
And Ted Cruz gave a perfectly fine performance that should keep him firmly in second place, or even give him the potential to repeat his Iowa victory over Trump a few more times and throw the race into still further chaos.
The takeaway from tonight was that this race will last a long time, it will involve a lot more ridiculous debates like this, and it will continue to make the Republican party look like a silly mess. That's all great news for Hillary and Bernie.
Winner: John Dickerson and the moderators
No moderator could've completely contained the madness that was tonight's debate. Jeb and Trump were too committed to going after each other, as were Rubio and Cruz, for them to respect time restrictions or refrain from demanding a right to respond when their names were so much as mentioned in passing.
But CBS's John Dickerson nonetheless did a fine job, asking productive follow-up questions and, with a couple exceptions (like a question about Trump's profanity), mostly sticking to the substance. His back-and-forth with Ted Cruz pointing out that Anthony Kennedy was confirmed for the Supreme Court in an election year earned him boos from the audience, who saw him as nitpicky and eager to defend Obama's nomination. But he was right, and he was keeping Cruz to the facts — which is crucial for a moderator.
Another highlight was Major Garrett's questioning on Cruz's tax plan. Garrett took it for granted that Cruz is proposing a value-added tax — which Cruz has denied, but which is absolutely true if you look at how it's structured. Cruz denied it, but Garrett pressed him.
But perhaps the best question went to Trump:
DICKERSON: Mr. Trump, let me ask you a question. Presidents in both parties say that the one thing you need in your administration is somebody who can tell you you're wrong.
You don't necessarily seem like somebody who has somebody who tells you you're wrong a lot. Can you tell us of an instance where somebody has said, "Donald Trump, you're wrong," and you listened to them?
TRUMP: Well, I would say my wife tells me I'm wrong all the time. And I listen.
DICKERSON: About what?
TRUMP: Oh, let me just say -- look, I am very open -- I hired top people. I've had great success. I built a great, great company. I don't need to do this. I'm self-funding. I'm spending a lot of money. I've spent -- like in New Hampshire, I spent $3 million. Jeb bush spent $44 million. He came in five, and I came in No. 1.
Trump just didn't answer the question, even after Dickerson pressed him. The upshot was clear: Trump isn't capable, or isn't willing, of conceding literally any error. He really is exactly as arrogant as you think he is. And Dickerson demonstrated this not by saying it or arguing it but by having Trump show it for himself. That's moderating at its finest.
Loser: Donald Trump
Donald Trump got booed tonight. A lot:
And he mostly got booed for having a point. He attacked the audience as stacked to be pro-Bush — which it appears to have been. He defended Planned Parenthood as doing important work besides abortions — which it does. And he attacked George W. Bush for launching a war in Iraq when there were no weapons of mass destruction and for failing to prevent 9/11 — both totally legitimate criticisms.
But they are not criticisms you make in a Republican debate. Trump has strayed from party doctrine before, but when he's done so, it's been on issues where the GOP is in a very different place from the establishment. He opposes cutting Social Security and Medicare, which enrages libertarian economic types within the party but delights actual voters, especially elderly ones. He wants big tariffs on China, which free-traders in the party hate but white working-class workers who actually vote for the party love.
Here, though, he's on his own. There's not a huge Republican constituency for the idea that the Iraq War was not just bad but built on a lie:
TRUMP: You do whatever you want. You call it whatever you want. I want to tell you. They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.
Now, the general point here is true. Bush and Dick Cheney made claims about WMD and Iraq's relationship with al-Qaeda that weren't just false, but which they knew to be false given the intelligence they had at the time, or for which they had no evidence at all. But it's something that you'd expect a Democratic primary contender to say, not a Republican. (And throwing in "they knew there were none" is even a bit far for a Democrat.) Trump is allowed his heterodoxies on some issues, but accusing the most recent Republican president of deliberately misleading the nation into a war is unlikely to appeal to just about any GOPer.
Same with his claim on 9/11. Here, Trump isn't merely critiquing Bush's Iraq policy, something that's a bit more acceptable within the GOP. He's critiquing Bush's terrorism record in general — and, implicitly, the overall Republican foreign policy consensus that the correct way to fight terrorism is through overwhelming force. That's a consensus that's lasted since Bush left office and isn't really challenged by any other candidate.
Trump's Planned Parenthood comments are perhaps most baffling at all. There really aren't that many pro-choice Republicans out there, or even many pro-life Republicans open to the aggressive promotion of birth control through groups like Planned Parenthood. And however many there were before the organization became a right-wing media boogeyman last year, there are almost certainly fewer now. There's no reason for an undecided pro-life activist to watch that exchange and come away preferring Trump to his rivals.
All of this is bad for Trump on his own, but it's especially bad given that Trump was unabashedly liberal before 2011 or so. He said in 2008 that Bush deliberately lied to start the war in Iraq, and attacked congressional Democrats for not impeaching him over it. In 1999, he told Tim Russert he was "strongly for choice":
Republican rivals have tried to attack him for this before, mostly without success. Voters saw Trump as authentic now, whatever his past beliefs; why not believe the message? But seeing elements of the old, more liberal Trump sneak through might give that critique new force.
Trump is still winning this primary. He will probably win in South Carolina, and the rest of the field remains scattered enough that he stands a good shot of winning a majority of states in the "SEC primary" on March 1. But tonight, more than any other debate, felt like a momentum where the tide could shift against him.
Loser: Marco Rubio
If his name weren't Marco Rubio, this guy would've dropped out by now. Think about it: If, say, Chris Christie had gotten third in Iowa and then fifth in New Hampshire, and totally botched the pre–New Hampshire debate, would anyone look at him and think, "Yeah, this is a guy with a plausible path to the nomination"? Of course not. But because Rubio has been the one true hope of the Republican establishment for most of this cycle, he's been given something of a pass.
But he still needs a way to take advantage of that lenience. He needs a way to beat back Bush and Kasich and emerge once again as the natural establishment rival to Cruz and Trump. And he needed, tonight, to overcome his last disastrous debate performance and prove to the establishment that he won't fail them again.
What happened instead was a basically fine debate performance, devoid of any obvious gaffes, that nonetheless was woefully insufficient to turn around his dying campaign. His decision to attack Cruz more than Trump might have made strategic sense, but in practice it mostly gave Cruz a chance to remind voters, once again, that Rubio favors letting some undocumented immigrants become citizens. And every minute Rubio's immigration views are the topic at hand, he loses.
And when it came time for Rubio to attack Trump, he … defended Jeb Bush. "I just want to say," he declared, "at least on behalf of me and my family, I thank God all the time it was George W. Bush in the White House on 9/11 and not Al Gore." That is a great thing for a Bush surrogate to say, so as to build up the family reputation and give Jeb a hand. It's a gracious but tactically baffling thing to say if you are trying to defeat Jeb Bush.
Rubio wasn't a disaster. But he didn't need not-a-disaster. He needed a blockbuster performance that got him back to where he was immediately post-Iowa, with strong momentum and a media narrative of Rubio rising. He didn't get that, and it's difficult to see now how he's ever going to put himself back in contention.