Ben Carson and Donald Trump Lack Electricity in a Charged Debate

Jim Wilson (NYT)
What a curious, fascinating spectacle: The two men in the lead got lost in the pack.

Coming into Wednesday night, much of the talk about the third Republican debate focused on Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who were trading places at the top of the polls, two outsiders with no business running for president and significantly more support from Republican voters than any of the conventional candidates could muster.

Which of the two would stand out?


Would either of the two seal the deal?


For the first hour of the debate, which was staged by CNBC, Trump largely disappeared. His rivals and the moderators demonstrated less interest in him than they had in the past, and a Trump without attention is like a petunia without water and light. It fades. It droops.

And while that presented a window of opportunity for Carson, he lacked the pep to get through a window or, for that matter, an extremely wide set of sliding doors. His eyelids sometimes went to half-mast as he swayed through an answer, making a sluggish voyage to an uncertain destination.

What is it that his supporters see in him?

That was John Kasich’s question, or rather his rant, and he started the evening with it, deciding to put all of his few remaining chips on the role of alarmed, truth-telling adult in a sandbox of delusional toddlers.

He made specific references to Trump’s promises to deport millions of immigrants and to Carson’s musings about eviscerating entitlement programs. He lambasted various opponents’ proposals for huge tax cuts.

“This stuff is fantasy,” he said, striving so hard for urgency that he practically yelped. “Folks, we gotta wake up. We cannot elect somebody that doesn’t know how to do the job.”

Trump knew full well that Kasich had him in mind, and noted that Kasich hadn’t talked this way months ago.

“Then his poll numbers tanked,” Trump said, “and he got nasty. So you know what? You can have him.”

Before the debate began, there was some worry—misplaced, as it turns out—that its fiscal focus would create a tame yawner of a night.

It did lead to an inordinate amount of chatter about flat taxes and shrunken tax policies and miniaturized tax returns. Carly Fiorina said that she’d collapse the whole tax code to three pages. Ted Cruz said that he’d enable Americans to file their tax returns on postcards.

I half expected Rand Paul to one-up them both by pledging to present all of his tax ideas in a single haiku. But he was too busy using his minimal speaking time to complain about his minimal speaking time.

Tempers flared. Voices rose. The economy-centered debate on the money-centered network packed ample emotion, in part because it strayed to such issues as gay rights and gun rights and in part because it came at a crucial moment for many of the debaters.

More so than during the first or second meeting of these candidates, participants acted as if this was the pivot point that would determine whether they’d be steaming forward or fading out. It was the time for meticulously plotted fury. It was the vessel for the best jokes, rejoinders and soliloquies they had. It was the cause for attack.

The defining exchange came early, when Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio banished any memory of their mentor-mentee relationship, which has been obliterated by their head-to-head competition to become level-headed Republicans’ answer to Trump and Carson.

Bush slammed Rubio for all the votes he had missed in the Senate as he concentrated on his presidential bid.

“When you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work,” Bush admonished him. “I mean, literally, the Senate—what is it, like a French work week? You get, like, three days where you have to show up?”

He sharpened the dagger by addressing Rubio not as “Senator” but as “Marco.”

It was an attempt to make Rubio look small.

Then Rubio made him look even smaller, saying Bush was going after him only because “someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.” Translation: Your desperation is showing.

It was, and Bush’s performance on Wednesday night won’t rescue him from it.

Rubio fared much better, keeping his cool in the face of questions meant to rattle him and put him on the defensive. Earlier and better than others on the stage, he turned criticism of him into an indictment of journalists, whom he said were biased against conservatives.

He hit his longest, strongest stride when he combined that indictment with a slap at Hillary Clinton. He said that while most reporters, evaluating her recent testimony before a House committee about Benghazi, said she’d emerged triumphant, “It was the week that she got exposed as a liar. But she has her super PAC helping her out: the American mainstream media.”

Ted Cruz, too, went after the media, singling out CNBC’s debate moderators. And Cruz, too, stood out, despite (or because of?) one of the most tortured metaphors of any debate of the season so far.

Attempting to dismiss the distaste that most of his Congressional colleagues feel for him, he spoke of cars and carbohydrates.

“If you want someone to grab a beer with, I may not be that guy,” he said. “But if you want someone to drive you home, I will get the job done and I will get you home.” He left out the part where you bolt out of the passenger seat and away from him the minute your front door is in sight.

There was amity amid the acrimony, especially on the self-flattering subject of how transcendently wonderful the field of potential Republican nominees is in comparison with the field of potential Democratic nominees

“I don’t see a lot of weakness on this stage,” said Chris Christie, whose limited vision apparently didn’t extend to the central lecterns at which Trump and Carson stood. “Where I see the weakness is in those three people that are left on the Democratic stage. You know, I see a socialist, an isolationist and a pessimist. And for the sake of me, I can’t figure out which one is which.”

Christie was vivid and forceful, but when it comes to self-congratulation, Trump always reigns supreme, and he roused himself at the end of the night to compliment himself for negotiating a debate of only two hours.

It wasn’t clear that he really deserved the credit. But he definitely deserves our thanks.

NY YORK TIMES | Frank Bruni

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