There's Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and then there's everyone else ... barely.
That's clearer than ever after Thursday night's debate in North Charleston, S.C. Almost all of the important exchanges were between two or more of that trio. They set the tone. They shaped the course of the arguments. The campaign will continue to be mostly about them, both in who gets attacked and who levels the effective attacks. Everyone else is left hoping for an opening that doesn't look it's going to come.
Yo Mama's an Immigrant!
Cruz and Trump tangled early, with the Texas senator getting a question about his citizenship and slamming Trump's insistence that it's an issue:
"You know, back in September, my friend Donald said that he had had his lawyers look at this from every which way, and there was no issue there.There was nothing to this birther issue. Now, since September, the Constitution hasn't changed. But the poll numbers have."
He then pointed out that, under the various legal theories of presidential eligibility Trump has mentioned, not only would John McCain and George Romney not have been able to run -- neither would Trump himself! That's because Trump's mother was a naturalized citizen from Scotland. "(O)n the issue of citizenship, Donald," Cruz mockingly assured him, "I'm not going to use your mother's birth against you."
Trump looked foolish in response, claiming the real problem was that Democrats would sue if he were to make Cruz his running mate -- and then finally acknowledging Cruz's point that he'd only raised the issue because the senator was "going a little bit better." While I've learned not to assume anything about how Trump's supporters will react to what he says, I really have to wonder if they're going to like how weak -- to use one of his favorite words -- he looked in that exchange.
New York (Values) State of Mind
It might not matter, because the next significant exchange between the two of them was a draw, at worst, for Trump. Cruz was asked about his claim that Trump represents "New York values," which isn't a particularly substantive point but ended up giving Trump a chance to display some pride in something other than himself, and an emotion other than anger:
"When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York. You had ... two 110-story buildings come crashing down. I saw them come down. Thousands of people killed, and the cleanup started the next day, and it was the most horrific cleanup, probably in the history of doing this, and in construction. I was down there, and I've never seen anything like it.
"And the people in New York fought and fought and fought, and we saw more death, and even the smell of death -- nobody understood it. And it was with us for months, the smell, the air.
"And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers."
It was as genuinely heartfelt a moment as Trump has had in any debate -- one of those examples of "humanizing" that consultants, with no apparent sense of irony, insist candidates display on command. Cruz got in his licks about New Yorkers' socially liberal attitudes, but I'm not sure anyone really remembered that after Trump spoke.
One important exchange that did involve another candidate came when Marco Rubio was asked about his recent comments that Chris Christie was too liberal to be the GOP's nominee. Christie made this claim:
"(L)et's set the facts straight. First of all, I didn't support Sonia Sotomayor (when President Obama nominated her for the Supreme Court). Secondly, I never wrote a check to Planned Parenthood.
"Third, if you look at my record as governor of New Jersey, I have vetoed a 50-caliber rifle ban. I have vetoed a reduction this clip size. I vetoed a statewide I.D. system for gun owners and I pardoned, six out-of-state folks who came through our state and were arrested for owning a gun legally in another state so they never have to face charges.
"And on Common Core, Common Core has been eliminated in New Jersey. So listen, this is the difference between being a governor and a senator. See when you're a senator, what you get to do is just talk and talk and talk. And you talk so much that nobody can ever keep up with what you're saying is accurate or not."
That last line may end up doing in Christie, because much of what came before it turned out not to be exactly correct:
- He was on record in 2009 saying he "support(ed) her appointment to the Supreme Court and urge(d) the Senate to keep politics out of the process and confirm her nomination." Strike one.
- He now says he's "convinced it was a misquote" when a New Jersey newspaper reporter -- who now serves as his spokesman! -- wrote an article quoting him saying he "support(ed) Planned Parenthood privately with my personal contribution." That's a non-denial denial. Strike two.
- On the gun-control measures, Christie did veto a ban on .50-caliber rifles, but only because it was broader than a ban on .50-caliber rifles that he'd previously said he supported . While he has vetoed some gun-control measures, he has signed others. Strike three.
VAT Are You Talking About?
Ultimately, the night came down to a pair of exchanges between Rubio and Cruz. One of them was familiar, as Rubio unloaded on Cruz's apparent flip-flopping on immigration. (The Texan was left to gripe about Rubio's dumping all his "oppo research" on him, to which the Floridian quickly responded, "No, it's your record.") The other one was newer, and one we'll likely see reprised in the weeks to come.
Cruz's tax reform plan hinges in large part on what he calls a "business flat tax." A number of neutral economists call it something else: a value-added tax. This is a kind of consumption tax, and it's common in Europe. The problem, as Reagan once observed (and Rubio quoted that observation Thursday night), is that it masks the true cost of the tax to the payer, who turns out to be not a business but the consumer. In Belgium, where I lived for 4.5 years, the VAT rate was baked into the sales price of goods -- making it hard for consumers to recognize they were paying what amounted to a sales tax of 21 percent. That came on top of income and social taxes (think FICA) that pushed even middle-income folks into tax brackets of 40 or 50 percent.
Rubio laid into that aspect of Cruz's plan, in a way that made sense to people who aren't tax accountants:
"(B)asically, businesses now will have to pay a tax, both on the money they make, but they also have to pay taxes on the money that they pay their employees. ...
"Now, you can support one now that's very low. But what is to prevent a future liberal president or a liberal Congress from coming back and not just raising the income tax, but also raising that VAT tax? And that VAT tax is really bad for seniors. Because seniors, if they are retired, are no longer earning an income from a job. And therefore, they don't get the income tax break, but their prices are going to be higher, because the VAT tax is embedded in both the prices that business that are charging and in the wages they pay their employees."
As I said, we will return to this in more depth at some point in the future.
The rest of the field was mostly forgettable. Ben Carson looks less qualified to be on that stage with every appearance. John Kasich is slowly moving up the polls in New Hampshire, although to watch him last night was to wonder why. And Jeb Bush, poor Jeb Bush: Although he had a few nice moments, it just wasn't enough. One of his best moments was when he pushed back against Trump's ban-all-the-Muslims immigration plan; the problem was, all the other candidates were asked whether they supported Trump's idea, and they all basically agreed with Bush. That neutralized the effect for him.
I would like to see the next debate, set for Jan. 28 in Des Moines, cull the main stage to no more than four candidates -- Trump, Cruz, Rubio and perhaps one other candidate, if there's someone else who looks like a serious contender in that state. The same goes for the debate after that, Feb. 6 in Manchester, N.H. Unless someone makes a really surprising move, we are at the point where we should focus on the three candidates who have separated themselves from the rest of the pack.