There was one, and maybe only one, moment in the Republican debate in Des Moines, on Thursday night, when the candidates sounded as though they were speaking truly and honestly—from the heart, unrehearsed, and uninhibited. Unfortunately for anyone hoping for an elevated exchange in the absence of Donald Trump—who was, after a fight with Fox News, holding his own event—it came when Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Rand Paul lit into Senator Ted Cruz, questioning his character. Their apparently visceral dislike of their colleague came across as one of the most genuine emotional responses heard on the debate stage in a long time. Megyn Kelly, the moderator, had just played video clips of Cruz arguing that an amendment he’d introduced to the 2013 immigration-reform bill was good, because it would help get the larger law passed. He has since said that the amendment was actually a clever effort to sabotage the bill, which included a path to legalization, and prevent it from being passed. “Do you buy that?” Kelly asked Paul.
“I was there and I saw the debate,” Paul said, and he had heard Cruz say that he was for the bill. “What is particularly insulting, though, is that he is the king of saying, ‘Oh, you’re for amnesty,’ ” Paul said. He wiggled his fingers and made spooky eyes. “Evvvverybody’s for amnesty except for Ted Cruz. But it’s a falseness—and that’s an authenticity problem—that everybody he knows is not as perfect as him because we’re all for amnesty.” Cruz responded by drawing himself up and solemnly quoting what “John Adams famously said”—that facts are stubborn things—a line that seemed, both in content and tone, to prove Paul’s point. Kelly turned to Rubio and began to ask him a question about his own position on the bill. Before she could finish, though, Rubio interrupted to say that he wanted to respond to the Paul-Cruz exchange.
“This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on,” Rubio said. “And Rand touched upon it—that he’s the most conservative guy, and everyone else is a—you know, everyone else is a RINO.” (That’s a “Republican in name only.”) Turning to Cruz, Rubio said, “The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign, you’ve been willing to say or do anything in order to get votes.” He heatedly went through a catalogue of committee-room perfidy, noting, among other things, that there had been a CBS interview that would have made a good addition to Kelly’s video clip; Rubio had, clearly, spent a lot of time thinking about this. “We’re not going to beat Hillary Clinton with someone who’s willing to say or do anything to win an election,” he said again.
“You know, I like Marco. He’s very charming. He’s very smooth,” Cruz replied. Rubio laughed out loud. It suddenly didn’t seem to be a coincidence that the two candidates who openly loathe Cruz were also the ones who work with him. Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, jumped in to say that all this talk of introducing and amending bills—“I feel like I need a Washington-to-English dictionary converter, right?”—was proof that people should vote for a non-Washington politician, namely him. Later, Christie was asked about Bridgegate, and he offered a defiant answer that somehow came to a climax with a pledge that he wouldn’t let Hillary Clinton “get within ten miles of the White House.” (Since that’s about the distance from Fort Lee to midtown Manhattan, he may have some practice at that sort of thing.) All that the exchange seemed to prove was that what one gets at a Republican debate, in the absence of Trump, is a more level playing field for sniping.
Kelly’s first question had been about “the elephant not in the room”—Trump—but there were no really big presences on the stage, either. If anything, by the end of the evening, the non-Trump field was bigger and flatter. Paul, who had been on the point of disappearing—he had been excluded from the last debate because of low poll numbers—did well. He had a strong, sympathetic, and informed answer to a question about police violence and body cameras, in which, among other things, he decried the extortionate use of civil-forfeiture laws in poor communities. This debate should revive his candidacy, at a stage in the race when, for the sake of everybody’s sanity, one might expect more candidates to slip away. Jeb Bush got though the evening without seeming utterly oppressed, meaning that he is more likely to stay in the race, too. Cruz, who had been ahead of Trump in the Iowa polls but is now slipping behind, had the most to gain. He knew it, too, which may be why the staginess of his manner was even more pronounced than usual. It was as though he’d become so proud of the clear plastic slipcovers encasing the living-room set of his mind that he wouldn’t dream of removing them, even for a special occasion. Perhaps Cruz had been so focussed on preparing for Trump’s attacks that he wasn’t ready for anybody else’s. At any rate, under assault, Cruz seemed, for once, to droop.
The exercise didn’t really ennoble anyone else, though. Kelly also showed a video of Rubio arguing against amnesty for illegal immigrants, something that was an element of the immigration bill he later supported. This set up a bitter exchange between him and Bush, who said that Rubio had “cut and run” on immigration reform, and encouraged people to read his own book on the subject, saying, “You can get it at $2.99 on Amazon. It’s not a best-seller.” (Rubio: “That’s the book where you changed your position on immigration.”) When Bret Baier, one of the moderators, brought up a Time cover that had labelled Rubio “the Republican savior,” Rubio said, “Let me be clear about one thing: there’s only one savior, and it’s not me. It’s Jesus Christ, who came down to Earth and died for our sins.” Cruz doesn’t even have a lock on public piety in the party.
Meanwhile, on national security and foreign policy, Rubio said that he would send pretty much anyone accused of ties to ISIS to Guantánamo, where “we’re going to find out everything they know,” and he seemed confused about why there might be a problem with closing American mosques and diners with suspicious customers. Ben Carson said that he was ready to attack Russia if it laid a hand on Estonia (“Putin is a one-horse country: oil and energy”). Ted Cruz explained that carpet bombing was not a big deal. Kasich evoked the darkness falling over the streets of Belgium. Bush demanded more Presidential warmaking powers, unconstrained by Congress or geography. Then he awkwardly complimented Dulce Candy Ruiz, a “YouTube entrepreneur,” who is an immigrant from Mexico and an Iraq War veteran, who asked a question by video about whether America might become less welcoming. Bush said, “That beautiful young woman”—with “a pretty cool name, actually”—was a reminder that American identity should be “aspirational.”
Bush was transparently pleased by Trump’s absence—a little too much so. He acted like the guy who whoops when the weird kid finally leaves the party; eloquence doesn’t tend to follow in that circumstance. For his first question, he was asked about whether he and other candidates were fragmenting the “mainstream” vote, opening the way for an “anti-establishment” candidate. He responded with what seemed to be a ditty he’d memorized about the life of an establishment man: “Look, I am in the establishment because my dad, the greatest man alive, was President of the United States, and my brother, who I adore as well, as a fantastic brother, was President. Fine, I’ll take it. I guess I’m part of the establishment, because Barbara Bush is my mom! I’ll take that, too.” He also had a line ready about the missing candidate: “I kind of miss Donald Trump. He was a little Teddy bear to me. We always had such a loving relationship in these debates and in between and the tweets.” Dad, fantastic brother, mom, Teddy bear: Bush, remarkably, thinks that he’s running as the grownup in the race. That seems to mean making fun of the younger guys, like Rubio, or bragging about the time he got one over on the Donald. In answer to another YouTube entrepreneur’s concerns about Islamophobia, Bush managed to say that Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. would create an “environment that’s toxic in our own country.” It could have been his best moment, but he undercut it with a reprise of his opening joke: “Donald Trump, for example—I’m glad I mentioned his name again! Just if anybody was missing him.”
Rand Paul was also asked about his father, the libertarian congressman Ron Paul, and about a video Cruz released claiming that he was the elder Paul’s true political heir. Rand Paul didn’t sound happy about that. Cruz had let his father down, Paul claimed, and, as for who would collect his father’s supporters, “I think really that vote is going to stay in the Paul household.” One effect of the unaffected animus toward Cruz is to throw into relief everything that is artificial, dishonest, and tinny about the rest of the Republican primary campaign. It is also a reminder of why the Party has been unwilling to rally around Cruz, despite his poll numbers, or around anybody else. After this debate, it seems that there are two likely possibilities. The first is that the fractured state of the field will persist for a long time—perhaps until the convention, or even beyond it. The second is that Donald Trump will win—more quickly than one might think. The next debate is on February 6th, just over a week from now. For that one, Trump will be back. He already looks like the only elephant in town.