This political season has not exactly gone according to plan for the Republican Party. It’s bad enough that Donald Trump is commanding a gargantuan thirteen percent of the entire electorate (see E.J. Dionne’s explanation here). Trump’s low points (high points?) have come in outrageous pronouncements outside of the debates. Still the debates have had some significance, usually fleeting.
For example, Carly Fiorina launched herself into the grown-ups debate with an impressive performance at the first kiddies’ table debate. At least that was the explanation by the Republican Party and its “media partner,” CNN. According to Jill LePore, CNN changed its formula for debate participation because Trump had insulted Fiorina’s appearance, and CNN saw that a conflict between the two would make for great television. CNN was right. Fiorina jumped on Trump and got some additional media attention, which has faded since.
Marco Rubio had his moment too. CNN reported that he “shined on the debate stage” at the October 28 debate, bringing his “A-game.” The highlight was when he one-upped his former mentor Jeb Bush. Rubio surged for a bit, picking up some endorsements and tempting that he could pull together the worried establishment’s opposition to Trump. But since then Rubio has been running in place.
Chris Christie hasn’t provided too many memorable debate moments. His sagging poll numbers got him booted off the grown-ups stage for the last debate. That didn’t matter too much because his dogged campaign has brought him into the lead in New Hampshire activist endorsements. The Manchester Union Leader has endorsed Christie. He’s even been restored to the main stage for tonight’s debate, so his November demotion doesn’t seem to have mattered.
Ted Cruz is also on the move, and again for reasons that don’t have much to do with the debates. Cruz has the backing of pastors in all ninety-nine counties in Iowa, and the endorsements of the anti-immigrant Congressman Steve King and radio talk show host Steve Deace. Last Thursday the Conservative Review reported that
The ultimate Republican king-maker in Iowa has endorsed Ted Cruz today.
Bob Vander Plaats, 52, is the president of the Family Leader, a social conservative organization that carries weight with Iowa grassroots activists. The Vander Plaats endorsement has historically been a major boon in the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Debates can help some but these endorsements and the ground work being done are more important. Still, we may hear something tonight that will provide some candidate an opening.
We won’t hear the really interesting stuff though. For example, on December 10 the New York Times reported that Cruz told attendees at a fund raiser that Trump lacks the judgment to be president. (I’ve never before associated Cruz with the art of understatement). The story reminded me of Mitt Romney’s famous “47%” remarks also pronounced, as you will recall, at a private fund raiser.
We sometimes hear that the debates give us an idea of who the candidates are, but actually they give us an idea of who we are. The debates are a reflection of who the candidates think we are. Tonight Cruz will speak to evangelicals, Trump to immigrant haters, and there will be various appeals to those who would like to see a more muscular U.S. in the wake of Paris and San Bernadino. The debaters are likely to mimic the climate change deniers in the audience.
If you are a Charlie Baker Republican there is no need to tune in; no one will be reflecting you.