For those of us who find Donald Trump’s toxic histrionics distasteful, last night’s GOP debate, held in Houston, was a pleasure to watch. For the first time, he was confronted directly by two of his rivals, both of them smart and talented young leaders who proceeded to make Trump look pitiable. He was born into vast wealth and privilege, and has leveraged those inherited assets into a pretty comfortable existence. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were not, and they’ve had to work twice as hard to get half as far. Trump was seemingly shaken last night, and at very few moments did he have an even slightly credible response to any of their criticisms of him. He had come prepared with an insult for each, calling Rubio a “choke artist” and Cruz a “liar.” But Trump’s bluster didn’t hold up well when he was confronted simultaneously by two strong challengers. He should have been prepared for Cruz, at least; they had already tangled on the debate stage, back in January. And he should have known that sometimes, in crucial moments, people step up—that’s what Rubio did, and he hit it out of the park.
The debate was a bittersweet pleasure, though, since Trump is clearly the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, by every measure available. He leads in delegates. He leads in the total number of votes cast. He has won three of the first four nominating contests. He leads in national polls, by a double-digit margin. He also leads in almost every poll in every state that will vote on March 1—Super Tuesday—except for one. It’s been some comfort to me, at this bleak hour for democracy in America, to know that Texas is resisting the Great Beclowning. I’d be heartbroken to see Trump win our great state; I’d also be shocked.
And this is, indeed, a bleak hour. Trump’s candidacy has exposed the hubris, corruption, and dangerous, foolish, willful blindness of the nation’s elite—not just the political elite of the Republican establishment, but also the Fourth Estate. These are the supposed authorities who have, collectively, enabled Trump’s rise, and I have very strong opinions about that. But the reckoning can wait. The priority has to be stopping Trump. I still see a chance for Republicans to do that.
But before I lay out how, let me point you to an illustrative example of the authorities being asleep at the wheel: A few days ago, I was cross-examined on live television after saying that I expect Cruz will win the Texas primary on Tuesday. As it happens, my track record on this primary season has been strikingly good. Here’s me, in August: “Republicans are starting to get seriously nervous about their Trump problem, without fully understanding the nature of the problem, or its severity.” In November: “It remains the case that many Americans are failing to fully grapple with the Trump problem.” On the eve of the Iowa caucus: “I’d expect Cruz to win.” None of those predictions were anywhere close to the conventional wisdom at the time, and all of them were tendentious, in the sense that they weren’t backed by obvious evidence. The latter example was actually at odds with the obvious evidence; on February 1st, people expected Trump to win, because he was leading in all the polls (by an average of 4.7 percent).
My prediction that Cruz will win the Texas primary, though? That’s one of the least dicey predictions I’ve ever offered. I mean, I can’t account for the unknown unknowns, but every piece of qualitative and quantitative evidence available supports my prediction that Cruz will win, including the poll that the anchor had just cited, which had found him leading by nine points. As you can see from my face in the video, I was somewhat surprised by the question itself, and bemused by the anchor’s suspicions about the motivations behind my answer.
I’m singling out that exchange because it was recent, it was captured on video, and apparently it was funny. Other than that, it wasn’t unusual. I’ve been covering this campaign since Trump was almost universally seen as a “summer fling.” I’ve been having conversations like that one—collisions between conflicting versions of reality—every day, for months.
There are still some people who are just really not convinced that, when you get right down to it, Trump can win the nomination. That being the case, I don’t think it would an efficient use of time for me to try to convince people of the following: if Trump wins the nomination, he will have a reasonably good chance of winning the general election. I’m not saying he will, and it’s certainly not my preferred outcome; I’d be happy to be wrong, I don’t have a magic crystal ball, etc. But that’s my assessment. Take it or leave it.
And since I think Trump would be a severely suboptimal president, I don’t think Republicans should admit defeat just yet. Nor should they take refuge in elaborate schemes to wrest the nomination from Trump at the party convention. Even if he doesn’t quite have a majority of delegates going into the convention, that would be enormously controversial, and a blatant rejection of the small-d democratic ethos that leads the United States to hold elections in the first place.
So here’s what Republicans should do: they should work together to stop Trump. It sounds obvious, I know. Yet before last night, they hadn’t even tried it. Quite the opposite: Cruz and Rubio have been at odds with each other. As I wrote at the beginning of the week, I thought that was unfortunate:
I’d much rather see both spend the next week taking on Trump. He is, after all, the actual frontrunner. In going after each other, Cruz and Rubio—and their respective supporters—are only bloodying up whichever 40-something Cuban-American conservative freshman senator will eventually proceed to the final showdown with Trump, and thereby increasing the odds that the latter will ultimately prevail.
Making things even more ominous was another piece of conventional wisdom that was, in my view, at odds with the evidence. I’ve never doubted that Rubio’s an impressive candidate on the merits, and I understand that his supporters would like to see him succeed, but these are the facts: He is trailing Cruz in terms of votes, delegates, and national polls. He has yet to win a primary, and he has not committed to trying to win one March 1st; a couple of days ago, noting that plenty of states award delegates on a proportional basis, he disputed the suggestion that he should try: “You don’t win the nomination by how many states you win.” Until last night, he had never been seriously attacked by Trump, because he had never actually challenged the frontrunner. And yet there’s a widespread impression that Rubio is the candidate best equipped to beat Trump if this three-man race narrows to two. Since Rubio narrowly edged Cruz to finish second in South Carolina, some pundits have even taken a distinctly stern view about Cruz’s insistence on staying in the race, as if Rubio would be the frontrunner if not for Cruz cooping up more than half of the voters who would otherwise belong to him.
The reality is that Cruz is in second place. He is the only candidate to beat Trump anywhere, to date. Not coincidentally—Trump attacks when challenged—Cruz is the only of the remaining candidates who has survived Trump’s unhinged broadsides. And he’s going to win one state on March 1st, at least. Yet whenever I point any of that out, people act like I’m the one being willfully obtuse. That’s obviously not going to change after last night’s debate. I suppose it might be some consolation for Cruz, that many Rubio enthusiasts are graciously acknowledging that his performance was good too.
Regardless, it’s premature for Rubio’s supporters to think the question is settled. His performance was terrific, and I was happy to see it for several reasons, one of them being that it was satisfying to see Trump clowned so effectively. And Rubio clearly drew blood; as I write this, Trump is fondly reminiscing about how Chris Christie, who just endorsed him for president, kneecapped Rubio during the debate before the New Hampshire primary. But we have yet to see how Rubio will handle Trump’s wrath. At this point, we might as well see what happens on Super Tuesday; the debates themselves don’t award any delegates.
Though I realize Rubio supporters may suspect that I’m only arguing this point because of course all Texans are in cahoots with each other, I’m not arguing for a two-man race between Cruz and Trump, either. It remains the case that my personal preference is “literally anyone available other than Trump.”
For those of us in this camp, last night’s debate was a glimmer of hope. Based on my interactions with campaign staffers here in Houston, I doubt that Cruz and Rubio were conspiring to tackle Trump. But they obviously should. Their ultimate objectives are in conflict: one wants Cruz to win the nomination, and the other prefers Rubio. But their short-term goal is the same: stop Trump. That’s what they were both trying to do last night, for their own reasons. Their combined efforts, to this viewer, seemed pretty effective.
In other words: Cruz and Rubio are in a cooperative game. And the nation should be rooting for both of them. In concrete terms, I hope to see both of them doing three things:
First, Cruz and Rubio should keep going after Trump. In addition to the fact that both were effective last night, they were effective in complementary ways, with Rubio making Trump look old and peevish, and Cruz exposing his endemic ignorance.
Second, Cruz and Rubio need to stop attacking each other. Not only is neither one the frontrunner, each should be aware that in the absence of the other, Trump would likely be winning with an outright majority of support. There’s a consensus that Trump has a “ceiling” of about 35 percent, but that consensus, like so many that have preceded it, is wrong.
Third, Cruz and Rubio should both try to post some wins. It sounds simplistic, but Trump’s Achilles heel is losing. He tells us that every time his obsession with being seen as a winner leads him to brag about internet surveys where he wins first place. He tells us that with the way he cherry-picks data to avoid acknowledging anything that would make him look like less than the most winningest winner in the history of winning. He told us that with the way he lashes out at anyone who threatens his status as the top dog, as he did when Ben Carson briefly overtook him in the polls, when Cruz beat him in Iowa, and as he’s doing now, since Rubio laughed at him during the debate. For an even-tempered individual with a stable sense of self, occasional setbacks aren’t the end of the world. For Trump, though? A silver medal is an existential crisis. Any time Rubio or Cruz knock him out of first place, there’s a chance they knock him off the rails as well.