It was nice to see the GOP contenders in the Texas debate finally fighting for something more than second place.
Whether you love Trump, or loathe him, it was an important step in the process. Before last night, Trump had the luxury of double-teaming his opponents, especially Ted Cruz.
This time it was different. They made the front-runner play defence. We want this to happen at this stage. This is how we test their mettle. There is supposed to be some bloodletting in these debates. We want the hard questions to be asked, at THIS stage, before we commit to another Romney, McCain or Dole. We want to know that we really are getting the best available candidate before we set our vote in stone. Better that than the buyer’s remorse we’ve had the last two elections.
Rubio and Cruz scored some solid hits on Trump this time around. Will they be game changers? It’s too soon to tell for sure. But they could change the direction of the race going forward.
Last night, for the first time, Trump took some real hits. He put a good face on it, sure enough, and even laughed it off for the cameras. But they landed.
Trump already has a lot of momentum, and has crystallized a lot of support. He might already have enough to win the Big Prize. But there are some possible weakness that were exposed in this debate (as I saw them) that might change the race.
Because so much of Trump’s campaign has hinged on a so-called cult of personality, it is important to note that each of these weaknesses cast doubt on the public persona he has cultivated. If exploited (successfully) by an opponent, these could seriously hurt his campaign, which relies so heavily on that narrative.
One of two positives could come from last night’s stumbles. Either Trump will learn to better defend those areas of weakness, or his opponents will find a way to exploit them for their own advantage.
In no particular order, let’s have a look at the ones I picked up on:
Immigration. Between his public statements on securing the border, and deporting illegal immigrants, Trump has become a flag-bearer for those who think immigration issues have too long been neglected. To many in the public (or even internationally) Trump has managed to “own” this as “his” issue.
Ironically, his own prized Trump Tower might hurt him here. When it was built, it happened to employ the labour of undocumented Polish workers, many of whom sued for non-payment of benefits. The fact that he was fined $1M for this violation could make some doubt his commitment to this cause. (It was quipped during the debate that he might build that wall with Mexico, but he would do it with undocumented workers.)
Additionally, Trump’s “the wall just got bigger” sounded like spite. It was somehow reminiscent of a petulant child. If you build a wall, you build it to be effective, nothing more. Spite makes for poor policy decisions.
Trump U Fraud. Trump is now facing a lawsuit from former students of his own Trump University claiming financial fraud. On May 6, he will take the stand as defendant. How’s it gonna look if the Republican Nominee is defendant in a fraud case during the Presidential election? Trump dismissed the case as insignificant, but is it, really? Trump promised to bring in Democrats and Independents, but at a time where corrupt businessmen are our culture’s absolute favorite pinata, can he keep such a promise with this unresolved?
Tone. Trump sends a mixed message on tone. Usually, he portrays himself as a take-no-prisoners tough guy. Yet he also complains that other people are nasty, and that he is ‘disgusted’. I think he made a misstep insisting Cruz owes Carson an apology, it leaves Trump open to having his own arguments thrown back at him. (See his passive-aggressive smears: p—y, child molester. He never quite calls his opponent those things, but, you know, just sayin’.)
Other nominees might start calling Trump’s actions “frankly, disgusting”. Using Trump’s own words (and even voice) to criticize him could both nullify his favorite weapon (personal attacks) and make him look like a blowhard. Parody is more damaging than issues-based debate here, because his followers are heavily invested in Trump emotionally — far more so than philosophically.
Foreign Policy. This was Trump’s chance to go beyond the bluster. To show that he has serious street cred in how he will deal with foreign nations. He left room for criticism with both Foreign Trade and Israel.
- Israel: Trump tried to cast himself as the “honest broker” in the most difficult deal he would ever undertake. In doing so, he unintentionally cast himself in the same role as Jimmy Carter. Critics pointed out “you can’t be an honest broker between parties who are acting in bad faith.”
- Hamas is a terrorist organization intent on the destruction of Israel
- The “HAVE YOU EVER NEGOTIATED WITH TERRORISTS?” line might have both nullified Trump’s “negotiator” credentials, and painted him as someone (like Obama) willing to negotiate with terrorists. (See: Bergdahl)
- Trade: We have a trade deficit with Mexico and China. Trump calls that a bad thing, a problem that needs to be solved. It is the reason says he’ll make Mexico pay for The Wall. Companies that have moved their business from USA to either Mexico or China are bad and should be boycotted.
- But Trump himself helped CAUSE that trade deficit. His ties and clothes are made in Mexico and China and IMPORTED into the US. If other companies are bad for moving to Mexico or China, is he not himself part of this problem?
Substance. Rubio, with his “robot” meltdown just a few weeks ago, nearly put himself out of the running. Trump tried to use this against Rubio again last night. It backfired badly, with perhaps the most direct hit of the night.
In the Health Care exchange, Rubio offered his own time for Trump to offer substantial details about his strategy for health care. Rubio hammered him on having nothing more specific or substantial than removing State barriers to insurance options. Trump said “What’s to add?” He had nothing else to say.
In trying to recover, he retreated to mocking Rubio (the meltdown in his exchange with Christie). Rubio was ready, and rope-a-doped The Donald, turing the attack right back on Trump. “You repeated yourself 5 times in the last 5 seconds.”
Other hits were more subtle. They may get traction with the undecided, but are less likely to strike home with the die-hards. They painted him as being part of the old boy’s club. A political insider, and soft on his conservative credentials. Trump played the Reagan card, but Reagan was solidly Conservative for many years before his Presidential run, and philosophically committed to conservatism. It is unclear if and when Trump has had any similar “Damascus Road” experience.
Whoever comes out on top here, one thing is for certain. Whoever gets out of this cage match by the end of it, will not be green and unready for the Big Fight.
Let’s do this. Let’s get ALL the skeletons out of the closet and beat the hell out of them in this round.
And may the best man win.