The Trump-Shaped Void at the GOP Debate

Donald Trump abandoned the debate, daring the remaining candidates to take it from him — and none could

Jeb Bush and his fellow Republican presidential candidates participated in a Fox News debate in Iowa Thursday. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty

Potential Republican frontrunners Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz must have wished for this for ages. Two hours with the also-rans, with no Donald Trump. No Trumpian expatiation. No uncannily precise schoolyard needling. Breathing room for — if not the presence of — seriousness, where they could make their case for being the real leaders. They failed.

Donald Trump was gone. Four days before the Iowa caucuses, he was five minutes away in Des Moines, hosting an anemic quasi-fundraiser that for any other candidate would have been a fiasco. But it's Trump, so, as is the case with all things about him this election, any claim to know what it portends is a joke. Best to leave the guesses to the analysts of 24-hour news, who ride confirmation bias and short memories on the way to wisdom on par with Smooth Jimmy Apollo.

If anyone had a good night in Trump's absence, it was Jeb Bush. Like the kid with the inhaler who scuttles around the playground, waiting to be hit in the back of the head with a dirt clod, Bush has spent every debate since the first one almost wincing in anticipation of what Trump will do next. Without him, like that same kid experiencing a week of freedom while the class bully is out with chicken pox, he became a different person. Someone you might like.

Bush threw away his inhaler. His pectus excavatum popped out, and he started hitting the Charles Atlas bodybuilding kit. He burned Marco Rubio on immigration, corrected Ted Cruz and then stood his ground, and his call for the party to embrace Latinos, not discriminate against Muslim-Americans and reject mockery of people's appearances garnered a robust cheer. He even joked about missing Trump and their friendly rapport and got a sincere laugh. The 100 Million Dollar Man looked viable enough that he might someday be worth it.

Marco Rubio, on the other hand, showed up and was still Marco Rubio.

The line coming out of all these debates has been stuck for months at, "Marco Rubio is a good debater." You hear this again and again for two reasons. One, the Republican establishment and Beltway pundits share equal interest in a next-generation ethnic conservative candidate who is suitably not-insane enough that they can hang a "moderate" narrative on him without it being screwball absurd. Two, at this point in Republican Party evolution, the standards for "good at political debate" are about as rigorous as a teenage male's are for oral sex: just show up, look OK and keep your mouth open.

To date, almost all of Rubio's winning lines have been scripted down to the beat. Most are either targeted comments designed to win a debate point or rehearsed stump speech zingers, framed by segues. You can see him change posture and switch gears in his delivery as he gets onto the safe terrain of something he's memorized. Every candidate does this, but it's noticeable that these are the only moments when Rubio sounds knowledgeable and resolute.

It's also notable how barren they are. They come out quickly and with authority almost as if Team Rubio is afraid that anyone given enough pause to think about the preceding sentence might notice that it's either self-evident or insipid.

Take last night. Rubio was born Catholic, became a Mormon in childhood, flirted with evangelical Christianity, then reverted to Catholic. Which is great — find your blend of Jesus and go hog wild. But Iowa Republicans are very evangelical, and it's clear that Team Rubio feels he needs to shore up his Jesus cred. Rubio returned to an ancient stump line about rejecting a magazine cover's designation of him as The One because there is only one, and it is not him. (You'll never guess who that is!) Then he launched into this:

"If you do not understand our Judeo-Christian values are one of the reasons America is such a special country, you don't understand our history. You see, why are we one of the most generous people in the world, no, the most generous people in the world? Why do Americans contribute millions of dollars to charity? It is not because of the tax write-off. It's because in this nation, we are influenced by Judeo-Christian values that teach us to care for the less fortunate, reach out to the needy, to love our neighbor. This is what's made our nation so special."

It goes on, and it is just a smorgasbord of Jesus, like a Golden Corral buffet line serving nothing but bread, the pudding fountains teeming with wine. It's also hogwash. America isn't the world's most generous country, and in fact takes a backseat to a Buddhist nation of vastly inferior overall wealth. And who knows how much the financial data is distorted by the tax write-off? America and its religion are as special as you are handsome to your mom: because she wants to believe it, and you like hearing it.

More to the point, the United States stands out in terms of donations compared to other developed countries because there are so many opportunities for things to donate to in a nation that treats as optional aspects of the general welfare that other developed nations consider fundamental human rights. America is flooded with options for donating to sick and homeless children because it elects people who intervene to entrench health and housing policies that create more of them. None of this matters to Rubio, who's just slamming down the CHRIST BRAND stamp over and over, but this is like bragging about how much money you can afford to spend to repeatedly fix your home's foundation because you insisted on building it on a fucking bog.

This quibble might seem like small beer, but thankfully it's more than offset by Fox News serving up two tumblers of the strong stuff with knockout drops.

Perhaps the Fox producers got sick of watching candidates like Trump and Cruz and Rubio and — well, all of them — listening to moderators reading out direct quotes from them and responding, "I never said that." This time, they ran clips of the direct quotes and made candidates watch them. And, contrary to expectations, the Fox crew absolutely bodied both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz on immigration:

If you don't want to watch the videos, here's a short summary:

FOX: Sen. Rubio, when you ran for the Senate, you were 100 percent against amnesty, then became the architect of a Senate immigration reform bill that created a path to citizenship (i.e., amnesty), then abandoned your bill and now you pretend that you never supported amnesty. Sen. Cruz, you introduced an amendment to that bill that created a path to legalization, and you zealously defended it on multiple occasions, and now you claim that your amendment was a poison pill intended to destroy it. No, seriously, watch the both of you doing that.

RUBIO AND CRUZ: [whatever the senatorial equivalent is of Wile E. Coyote mutely holding up a sign marked "Yipes" before the cliff snaps off beneath him]

While finding a politician who said one thing and then said the opposite isn't difficult, Trump has made immigration nearly the central issue of the campaign, and Rubio and Cruz have each taken turns trying to bludgeon the other with their various shades of apostasy. What Fox gave them both was a question that neither can or will satisfactorily answer: You have either officially or tacitly admitted that at some point you lied to the American people, repeatedly, emphatically and as a matter of core policy. Were you doing it then, or are you doing it now?

But if Rubio delivered again as a lightweight cue-reader, this was Cruz's time to shine as an alpha dog, a master of policy, the same Trumpy experience but with an Ivy League pedigree. Instead, after the immigration questions, he receded into the background. Chastened or thrown off his game, he never again regained any authority in the debate, any sense that the other candidates even needed to reckon with him. He disappeared nearly as completely as Ben Carson — remember when America experimented with that guy? — who may very well have been asleep or blazed into catatonia until the end, when he started (incorrectly) reciting the preamble to the Constitution.

Cruz didn't start the night much better. He came out and issued a pre-fab joke. "I'm a maniac," he said, "and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly. Ben, you're a terrible surgeon. Now we've got the Donald Trump portion out of the way." It got the tepid laugh it deserved. 

Whatever else you can say about Trump, at least his crassness is unrehearsed. The laugh lines his bullying gets are the products of a genuinely malformed being operating on a stimulus-response level. ("There is a potential antagonist: I must humiliate it.") This was just the same unctuous and artificial Cruz that forms the backbone of his "average American" campaign identity and reminds almost every non-family member who knows him in real life of how little he understands how human beings function.

But as bad as immigration was for Cruz, his blend of Trumpian peevishness and his own know-it-all-ism — some syncretic fusion of varying intolerabilities — bombed. Trump's narcissism rarely dips below the unbearable, but it has the virtue of mostly being correct: when he acts as if everyone is talking or thinking about him, he has at least the last 226 days to refer to for proof. 

Instead, Cruz took a series of candidate-and-moderator exchanges and tried to absorb them into the greater Cruzade.

CRUZ: "I would note that the last four questions have been: 'Rand, please attack Ted. Marco, please attack Ted. Chris, please attack Ted. Jeb, please attack Ted.' Let me just say this—"

CROWD: [booing]

CHRIS WALLACE: "It is a debate, sir."

CRUZ: "No, no, a debate actually is a policy issue."

On the night that was supposed to be All About Cruz, the moment the candidate tried to make that assertion, the crowd rejected it. What sounds like earned grandiosity coming out of Trump's mouth sounded, in Cruz's, like the paranoia and scrabbling of Nixon. 

Rather than letting Cruz paint the media members as dishonest and use them as a cheap ploy for sympathy, the crowd either recognized that the moderators were essentially on conservatism's side or decided that Cruz just didn't deserve any sympathy to begin with. Instead, rebuked by both the media and the audience, he turned to the last refuge of the policy-debate scoundrel, cloaking retreat in an argument about definitions. Whether it didn't work because it was a weasel move or because it was explicitly wrong is purely academic. That might work if you're still Ted Cruz: Ivy League Policy Debater, but it does nothing for you when you're trying to pick up the Trump mantle on the night he left it lying there for anyone with the strength.

If anything, that's the most damning verdict of the night: that Donald Trump abandoned the debate and dared anyone among the remaining candidates to take it from him, and none could. 

On his best day, Marco Rubio is William Hurt in Broadcast News without half the illusion of depth, and this wasn't his best day. That his tissue-thin debate poise would be torn up and scattered around the room by the hulking alter-ego monster of his actual record was only a matter of time. Marco Rubio looked like a floundering twit not because of circumstance but because he is one.

But this shouldn't have happened to Cruz. He is a formidably smart man, and, anyway, there wasn't supposed to be any void — no matter the size of the beast or personality that left it — that could not be filled and then overwhelmed by Ted Cruz's satisfaction with his own sense of destiny. Instead, impeached by himself and a moderator with enough backing to refuse to concede, he vanished on the emptiest big stage he has yet stood upon. Like Rubio, he receded from the opportunity.

Anyone who had any doubt that the void Trump left went unfilled could look to Cruz's right, at someone who grew in the moments that the pressure from above diminished, even for a little while. And there was Jeb Bush, the presumed Jeb Bush, very nearly the promised Jeb Bush, smiling and leaning back at the shoulders, just seeing how it feels to have a spine behind them again.