Who is going to win the nomination? – Debate Review (Again)

Last night’s Fox Business debate very likely did not do much to change the minds of anyone who entered the fray a devoted Trumpian (they still are one today), a Cruz devotee (still one today), or a Rubio enthusiast (likewise). But with that said, some very interesting things did happen last night that I was both happy to see, and intrigued by. A few musings …

– Look, there’s no other way to say it: Ted Cruz prepared for the Canadian birther rhetoric, and he smacked Trump upside the head with it. It was the very first time in this campaign that someone punched Trump in the mouth (“the Constitution didn’t change; his polls changed”), and Trump’s eternally feared counter-punch hit nothing but air. Actually, Trump’s counter-punches were worse than that – they practically hit his own face, because this “Larry Tribe says you should be concerned” line is utterly silly. But as I have written elsewhere, the Cruz eligibility matter is going nowhere as a fundamental story; it was only thrown out via Trumpian dog whistle to create chatter, and it created chatter. I think Cruz essentially ended that chatter last night, and much more importantly, he (for the very first time) showed a willingness to hit Trump – and he did it effectively.

– But, and there is a really, really big but here, I have to say that I wonder if on the night, net net, Cruz came out with no real advantage over Trump, as the subsequent dust-up over Cruz’s bashing of those with “New York values” was just as big a moment. Putting aside the utterly moronic stance Cruz has taken, and the rank pandering the southern and Iowan voters that apparently are anti-a geographic part of the country, what happened in the exchange was breathtaking. Cruz allowed Trump to humanize himself!!! It was, by far, the strongest moment of Trump’s campaign – a totally sincere and understated defense of the people and spirit of the post-9/11 New York City. Everyone knows what Cruz meant, and I am sure that as my dear friend Rod Martin pointed out, it scores some points in Iowa and South Carolina, but not only was the content of Cruz’s claims (which he doubled down on) utter nonsense (“everyone knows what New York values are – money, abortion, and gay marriage”) ????? but the scorecard in that moment totally changed, and this is after Cruz had sliced Trump up on Canadian birtherism. Basically, these two events can at best be scored as offsetting one another.

– Jeb Bush didn’t have a bad night, but it really doesn’t matter. He will never, ever, ever, ever be able to express the passion and angst he needs to get over any kind of hump. I pray for the sake of his own dignity and his family’s self-respect, that after New Hampshire he will gracefully walk away, and God willing, endorse Marco Rubio to win this nomination. I am more and more convinced that if there were non such thing as an election, and Jeb just ended up in the White House (you know, like how the Democrats want it to be for Hillary), he would actually make a fine President. He is a sober, credible, bright, principled, wonkish, high-character man. But this campaign is over, and its cessation will really help clear the field.

– Christie never really hurts himself in these debates; he’s too talented in this kind of setting; but he didn’t hit any balls out last night either. I thought his pokes at Rubio were pretty flat, and his normal flair for interrupting to come in after some other pair’s spat as the “voice of reason” was pretty absent last night (after the long Cruz/Trump spat on citizenship, it was Rubio he got in over the attempts of the others and then delivered his “hate to interrupt this episode of Court TV” line). I resent Christie for his heavy-handed undermining of both Rubio and Cruz about their roles as Senator, knowing they both were at least highly eligible eventual nominees, and thereby feeding the Clinton campaign ammo. But if there is a darkhorse in all of this race to somehow find a path to shock people, it would be Christie (meaning, if the nominee is not Trump/Rubio/Cruz, I suppose it would be Christie at this point – based on talent, polls, effectiveness, debates, etc.). But it won’t happen.

– Rubio had some really strong moments, particularly his deeply competent and eloquently stated critique of Cruz’s quasi-VAT tax. He never really disappoints when it comes to demonstrating his competence. He had some moments of getting words mushed up as they came out, which is not normal for the very articulate senator, but he did well last night. He hit Hillary hard, he showed a spirit of fight, he was very effective with Cruz throughout the night, etc. He didn’t have any huge moments, necessarily, but I think he did what he needed to do.

– Carson may very well not drop out after he loses Iowa because he certainly won’t need to (plenty of funding), but his campaign is over, and I just want to point out that when he started off the night with a joke about needing to be woken up when it was his turn, I personally was not totally sure that he was joking.

So where do we go from here? The big unknown is, of course, Trump. I don’t care how brilliant you think a given pundit is, and I don’t care what the polls and the press say. We just do not know, yet, if the Trump hype is really, actually, seriously going to translate into real life people casting real life votes come primary time. If it does, it does, but there is plenty of prima facie evidence to find that assertion dubious. On the other hand, he has confounded every single person on the planet with the mere fact that he is still standing out there. His path to defeat is as follows: Cruz handily beats him in Iowa, he under-performs un New Hampshire even if he wins, and he unravels behind his ego being unable to take the mediocre performance relative to expectations.

Cruz needs to handily win Iowa, and then from there really get help in terms of Trump falling off. Carson dropping out would boost Cruz, but I would be shocked if that were to happen. Cruz has the raw talent and political savvy to win this nomination, but lingering fears about electability are not going away when he gets out of the states where his natural appeal is highest. By the way, he did effectively hit back on that silly New York Times story regarding the “undisclosed Goldman Sachs loan”, but I wish I had a clear way of communicating what really took place there. Ted Cruz did not get a loan from Goldman Sachs; it is called a securities-backed loan, it is common as can be, and it really amounts to a clever, low-cost way to borrow from yourself. Cruz can’t explain that because no one will know what he was talking about. But I would bet my own securities account that Cruz was not trying to hide any loan from Goldman Sachs in leaving it off his election report while still disclosing it on his Senate finance report; what he was trying to avoid was the discussion over his wife working at Goldman Sachs! He’s politically savvy, remember? I remain of the opinion until convinced otherwise that Cruz would face a very hard time in a general election race, though I believe he is a smart and competent individual.

Rubio’s path to the nomination has either really gotten tight in recent weeks, or he has made new ground. I just cannot tell. At the end of the day, if Trump runs the table on all early states including Iowa, it’s probably over. I don’t expect that to happen. But if Cruz wins Iowa, Rubio is strong second in New Hampshire, and some if not all in the Bush/Christie/Kasich group leave the race, I think the dominoes could very easily fall in such a way that this moves towards Rubio very quickly.

The issue is Trump, folks. If this whole crazy thing is legit – and there really is an entirely new “market” out there, so to speak, of angry blue collar males “ready for change”, his little run may not be suppressible. I remain skeptical, but only time will tell.