For eight months, pundits have blithely predicted that the things that come out of Donald Trump’s mouth would sink his presidential candidacy. They’ve been wrong each time, and anyone who thinks the wild rants and insults that Trump spewed in the CBS debate in South Carolina will cause many of his existing supporters to abandon him hasn’t been paying attention to the campaign. But coming off his impressive win in New Hampshire, he had a choice. He could have sought to grow his support by trying to woo more conservatives and centrist Republicans. Or he could double down on his populist image by resuming his wild attacks on his opponents and even expanding them to the George W. Bush administration. As the debate audience soon learned, the Republican frontrunner chose the latter.
This was Trump at his angriest and most undisciplined. But he did more than pour scorn on Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz with his usual mix of false charges and invective. In one of the debate’s most memorable moments, he also accused George W. Bush of lying the country into the Iraq War and then blamed him for the 9/11 attacks. For two hours, he interrupted, talked over, and insulted his opponents in vintage Reality TV style. Like his use of profanity on the campaign trail, this performance was probably cheered by the approximate one-third of the electorate that has consistently backed him. The Trump fan base loves his ability to vent the anger they feel about what they consider to be a failed political system.
But after New Hampshire, the question for Trump wasn’t whether he could repeat his populist act or get even angrier. It was whether he could move beyond the share of the GOP vote that he’s already getting. To do that he has to convince conservatives that at heart he’s one of them and that he can be trusted to not only govern like a Republican but to do things like appointing true conservatives to the Supreme Court in the mold of Antonin Scalia. But that’s not what Trump did on Saturday night.
There are lots of people who probably like it when Trump accused George W. Bush of lying about the reason to attack Iraq and for being responsible for 9/11 (though that is something that not even most liberal Democrats would say). But not many of them are going to vote in a Republican primary, especially in a deeply conservative and pro-military state like South Carolina or other places in the south. At best, Trump’s use of talking points that seem straight out of a Michael Moore documentary will, along with his use of profanity and angry style, limit his ability to get more conservatives to back him. At worst, some of those on the right who have been cheering him may start to think that the critique of Trump as a non-conservative not only makes sense but also ought to influence their decision.
Another decision of Trump seemed questionable. Heading into the debate, the consensus was that Ted Cruz was the chief threat to Trump’s seemingly solid chance to win next Saturday in South Carolina. But instead of training his fire exclusively on Cruz, Trump devoted even more energy to attacking Jeb Bush. But rather than rolling over, Bush as he did in so many of the earlier debates the former Florida governor gave better than he got. Bush had his best debate yet and likely profited from Trump’s unhinged anger at his family.
But in another signature moment of the debate, it was Marco Rubio that got the best counterpunch in at Trump. By saying that he thanked God that George W. Bush was president on 9/11 rather than Al Gore, Rubio did a better job of defending the 43rd president than his brother.
This was a complete turnaround for Rubio from last week’s New Hampshire debate meltdown that seemed to call the viability of his candidacy into question. He needed a strong night and had one. He reminded voters of his rhetorical skills, in-depth domestic and foreign policy knowledge and his ability to articulate a positive vision for the future. He even managed to hold his own in a tough and nasty debate moment on illegal immigration with Ted Cruz, an issue on which he’s had a hard time before. It would be a stretch to predict that this will vault him back into a position where he can claim he’ll be the last man standing not named Trump or Cruz. But his excellent performance gave him a chance to do just that.
John Kasich was the one man on stage other than the increasingly irrelevant Ben Carson, who managed to stay out of most of the bickering. Other than an exchange with Jeb Bush on his equivocal stand on fighting ObamaCare, Kasich ducked the fights and preached love and unity, albeit in his trademark holier-than-thou manner. It worked for him in New Hampshire, and it might be enough to keep him alive in South Carolina.
Cruz had a good performance, especially excelling when he pointed out at the beginning and the end of the debate the importance of the Supreme Court issue. But other than the moments when he was pointing out that it was folly to expect a lifelong non-conservative to appoint conservatives to the court, Cruz didn’t get as many clear shots in at Trump, as he might have liked. Getting drawn into nasty exchanges with the frontrunner as well as Rubio might have been unavoidable but it also might have deprived him of the chance to solidify his second place standing in South Carolina, let alone chip away at Trump’s lead.
Trump is probably celebrating Bush’s revival and Kasich’s ability to keep going since it ensures that he won’t be facing a single moderate conservative/establishment candidate until later on in the primary season. So in that sense, Trump may be satisfied with the state of the race after the debate. But any long-term Trump strategy must take into account his need to get more than a third of the vote.
Sooner or later, Trump is going to need to do that in order to beat Cruz or the eventual survivor of the establishment demolition derby. By allowing his rage at the Bushes to cause him to slip into left-wing talking points, he may have damaged his chances to do that. Trump may go on to win South Carolina easily and then run the table in subsequent states. But if he falters or winds up being unable to break out and get a majority rather than a plurality of Republican voters and finds himself locked in a long struggle whose outcome can’t be predicted, we may look back to the South Carolina debate as the moment when he finally said something that came back to haunt him.