It's unlikely Tuesday night's GOP debate changed many people's minds, but the event was important for what it showed us about the policy differences that will shape the contest going forward. It was a substantive debate, with a number of exchanges that highlighted real differences among candidates trying to resonate with a public that considers itself vulnerable to terrorism. Billed as a foreign-policy debate -- and, unlike most of these things, sticking to the topic quite well -- the matter came down to a series of rifts:
- Donald Trump vs. Jeb Bush in their familiar standoff, with Bush faring better than in the past if only because he seemed to get under Trump's skin ... albeit in the way a little brother irks his older brother. Still, Bush's insistence that Trump's red meat doesn't amount to anything that could be taken seriously as a presidential plan of action -- at one point, he said he wasn't sure if Trump's information came from the shows "on Saturday morning or Sunday morning -- is the bottom-line establishment argument against the businessman. For example: You say you'd ban Muslims from entering the country; how does that help the U.S. win a war against ISIS that requires help from majority-Muslim nations? Trump also absolutely embarrassed himself with a rambling answer to a question about the nuclear triad -- America's ability to launch a nuclear attack from the sea, the air or by missiles -- that touched on his opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to regime change in Syria, and to the just-ended climate-change conference in Paris. But he continued to aim squarely at the average person's gut with questions about who can be trusted to do good things for the country. If you trusted Trump before, you probably trust him now; and if you didn't, you probably don't. Other candidates at this point seemed to have decided not to attack the front-runner but rather to make their own case and count on voters moving away from Trump in a ballot-box gut-check.
- Chris Christie and Rand Paul reprised their running battle about national-security toughness vs. realism. When Christie answered a question by affirming he, as president, would be prepared for U.S. warplanes to shoot down Russian planes in order to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria, Paul accused him of being ready to start World War III. Christie leaned heavily, and often, on his experience as a prosecutor of terrorists and executive of a state, in comparison to the a trio of first-term senators on the stage. That is his path to relevance, and it just might take him to a strong enough showing in New Hampshire to make him a factor in this election.
- Ben Carson continued to fight single-handedly against the very notion of politics, a battle that seems no less quixotic each time he joins it.
- John Kasich and Carly Fiorina missed no opportunity to seize on other candidates' quarrels as evidence they were talkers instead of problem-solvers ... only to fail to offer much that was new themselves. After a couple of impressive performances in the early debates, Fiorina in particular has failed to expand on her message in any meaningful way. She would make a wonderful managerial consultant to a president trying to solve specific problems with IT or bureaucracy bloat. Kasich seemed to take a more conservative tack that in previous debates, as if he realized a few months too late that running against the base was a bad way to win the nomination.
That leaves Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who seem likely to remain at the heart of this nominating contest. Rubio was also attacked by others, notably Paul. But this was mostly about him vs. Cruz. They argued over the government's surveillance powers, over our ability to fight ISIS primarily through an air war, over defense appropriations bills, over immigration policy. Both men accused the other often of misrepresenting the facts; the fact-checkers should have a field day. Overall, Rubio claimed the ground of traditional GOP hawkishness and spun his involvement in the doomed Gang of Eight immigration-reform of 2013 as a lesson learned about Americans' insistence on securing the border before moving on to other changes. Cruz roamed from a more libertarian bent on the NSA to a more hard-line stance on immigration, with a First Gulf War-infused belief in our ability to win wars primarily through overwhelming air power (a belief shared by many on both sides of the aisle, although it represents the exception rather than the rule in warfare) mixed in.
To the extent this is a primary battle about philosophy rather than personality, the line between Cruz and Rubio represents the places of greatest tension within the GOP. In the near term that's probably good for both of them.