Well that was entertaining television. Thematically, I agree with Brian Beutler, who noted that, “Republicans are still tripping over the long tail of the 2012 election.” In the ensuing three years there have been fits and starts of real policy innovation on the GOP side, reflecting the wide-ranging analyses of What-Went-Wrong the last time around. But despite this ferment of reform, here we are in the campaign and there remains a distressingly familiar consensus around regressive tax cuts, escalating belligerency abroad, repealing health care, and restricting immigration. There was some heterodoxy sprinkled in, largely provided by Rand Paul’s anti-interventionism and John Kasich’s Huntsmanesque outbursts of reasonableness. Perhaps we’ll see more policy innovation as the candidates roll out their official platforms. The most conspicuous departure from 2012 came on gay rights: Anti-gay animus was mercifully absent last night, which I take to be a confirmation that such views now, finally, unequivocally, offer diminishing electoral returns.
A few candidate observations:
Scott Walker: Walker is the most overrated consensus “top-tier” candidate in the race. His squinty midwestern-bland bit has admittedly taken him this far, but on the big stage it just played like he’s out of his depth, which he is on any topic other than the apparent perfidy of Wisconsin public-sector unions circa 2011. His union bashing has always been a tenuous claim-to-fame. I’ve seen him give charismatic set speeches, but he seemed diminished and lost on a stage filled with competent debaters and knowledgeable policymakers. Prediction: Go short on Walker. He won’t be a finalist in this thing.
Jeb Bush: Bush seemed tentative and nervous, and a bit tepid. Part of this is rustiness, he’s been gone a long while. Always important to remember: these were not fully-formed candidates up there last night. Being a good national candidate requires a bizarre set of idiosyncratic skills, which require practice to master. Mitt Romney got immeasurably better at this over time, and we forget how raw President Obama was in his first few debates in 2007. Bush will sharpen up. I think his main problem is his most obvious one: I think he still hasn’t reckoned with the red-toothed id of this Republican primary electorate. Jeb has vowed to avoid being pulled into the vortex of crazy which so doomed Romney in the general election. We’ll see about that. But while Romney was also the “reasonable one” back in 2011, he was also quite combative and ruthless when he needed to be. Does Jeb have sharp elbows? Last night he had an air of scholarly distance, like he’d make a great cabinet secretary. He needs to president himself up. Prediction: He has the money and institutional support to last a long while. But he’s not your nominee.
Ted Cruz: Polished as always, despite his bizarre praising of Egypt’s butcher military dictator. He didn’t have many opportunities to break through. For the life of me I can’t understand who goes in for this insufferable smarmy affect of his. But he’s such a good politician he’ll stick around for quite a while, and get a boost when Trump flames out.
Trump: “Build a wall with a big, beautiful door.” Love it. Trump’s inadequacy is beside the point. Or rather, his success is not in spite of, but because of, his inadequacy. He, like Sarah Palin before him, is the candidate of ressentiment. Like Palin, the worse he performs, the more qualified his core supporters believe him to be. Conservative cultural status anxiety is an extremely powerful and underrated force in American politics. That Trump is a bonafide celebrity is key to his appeal: He gives his supporters the vicarious cultural status they (tepidly) pretend to disdain, but from which they desperately seek membership and validation. Importantly, political power alone will not satisfy this anxiety. Conservative political power is not hard to come by: they run Congress, had eight years of the White House under Bush, dominate the State houses, etc. Yet they still produce Trumps every cycle. Because, as Julian Sanchez writes in his classic linked piece above, “there is no political solution to a psychological problem.” There will be a ressentiment candidate on the GOP side for many years to come.
Marco Rubio: Here is your debate winner. He had easy questions (“How will you help small businesses?”), but he nailed them all. He is by far the best at explaining Republican policy in a concise and genial way, and he’s the most knowledgeable on foreign policy by virtue of his membership on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees (For a taste of his fluency, read his engrossing interview about the Iran deal in the Atlantic. Now picture Scott Walker answering those questions.) He has the best biography of the group, and is the best at presenting it. He’s young, exudes optimism and confidence, and had the only well-fitting suit on stage last night. Prediction: Go long on Rubio, he’s going to cream the rest of these chumps.