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Trump's Popular Appeal

Thursday night’s debate pitted a front-runner offering attractive generalities against a field serving up unpopular specifics.

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For months, Republican insiders have watched Donald Trump’s rise with mounting horror. After each debate, they’ve decried his on-stage antics and crude insults, longing for a sober, serious, and substantive debate that would allow the strengths of other candidates to shine.

On Thursday night, that’s exactly what they got. On question after question, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio offered specifics, while Trump served up vague generalities and promised to make better deals. The trouble for the Republican Party may be that many of the specifics these candidates offered are at odds with the views of the public at large, while many of Trump’s generalities spoke directly to popular anxieties and frustrations.

Take Social Security. Two-thirds of Americans believe that benefits shouldn’t be cut; three-quarters of the candidates on stage felt otherwise. They spelled out the challenges facing the program in detail, and called for changes. The sole exception was Donald Trump. “I want to leave Social Security as is,” he said. “I want to make our country rich again so we can afford it.”

Or trade. Kasich, Cruz, and Rubio all made the case for the benefits of free trade, so long as deals are structured to be fair to workers in the United States. And most Americans agree that free trade deals are a good thing for the United States. Trump alone dissented. “Trade deals are absolutely killing our country,” he said, launching a scathing critique of trade deficits and offshoring. And on those points, the public is with Trump—large pluralities believe that free trade costs jobs, lowers wages, and slows growth.

With the debate relatively free of invective, the candidates each had a chance to display their strengths. Kasich stressed his optimism; Rubio, his fluency with policy; and Cruz, his willingness to fight for conservative principles. And on issue after issue, they showed a mastery of specifics that Trump simply couldn’t match.

Pressed to explain why Common Core, a set of educational standards developed, and voluntarily adopted, by states constituted a federal takeover of local schools, Trump floundered, blaming “the bureaucrats in Washington.” Kasich stepped in to offer a detailed defense of a policy he’s championed, while Cruz served up the standard conservative response that Trump couldn’t muster: The Feds, he claimed, had coerce the states into compliance.

Would Trump close the embassy in Cuba or keep it open? Trump equivocated, insisting he’d negotiate a better deal. Finally, he conceded that, “I would probably have the embassy closed until such time as a really good deal was made and struck by the United States.” Rubio pounced. “All right, first of all, the embassy is the former consulate. It's the same building. So it could just go back to being called a consulate.”

When the debate turned to climate change, Trump didn’t even wade into the mix. Instead, he stood back, as Rubio denied America could take meaningful action to save Miami from rising seas, and Kasich tried to have it both ways, insisting on the need for renewable energy, while also saying that it was unclear how much humans contribute to climate change. They both offered specifics, but they’re not aligned with popular opinion.

And on it went through the night. The question, though, was how voters would react. In the through-the-looking-glass world of the 2016 campaign, Trump’s most outrageous debate performances have been panned by pundits, only to see him surge in the polls. Does that mean that a relatively serious, restrained Trump, playing by the standard rules but unable to keep pace in policy discussions, will slip? That he’ll prove more appealing to wavering voters, who’d been put off until now by his antics? Or just that it’s folly to try to predict how his performances will be received?

As for his rivals, every time one has gone on the attack, he’s seen his own standing sink in the polls. It’s easy to understand why each decided not to attack: Rubio, chastened by the backlash to his recent attacks; Kasich, determined to stay positive; and Cruz, complacently waiting for the other two to lose on Tuesday and drop out of the race. None of these candidates damaged themselves, but neither did they damage Trump’s standing. And without something changing, it’s hard to see how Trump loses.

The most these candidates now hope for, it seems, is to deny Trump an outright majority of the delegates, and hope for a contested convention. Trump was dismissive of that prospect. “I think whoever gets the most delegates should win,” he said. Getting a majority, he explained, is “an artificial number…a very random number.”

But it’s a number he’s edging closer to with each successive election. Voters head to the polls again on Tuesday, to render their own verdict on the debate. And it’s not clear that Trump’s rivals have done enough to stop him.

Yoni Appelbaum


This live blog has concluded
Joe Raedle / Getty

Closing Statements

Kasich: Hello, America, I am very positive. I have a record. Accomplishments. Vision. I want to raise the bar for our kids’ sake. “Sometimes being positive isn’t all that interesting, but it’s very interesting to my family” and my supporters. I can fix Washington. I’ve done it before. We can do this together. Our neighborhoods and families, that’s the spirit of America. O-H-I-O!

Rubio: I’m from Miami. My father was a bartender. I can live my parents’ dreams because America is great. For two centuries, each generation has left the next better off. When I’m president, this generation will do its part to ensure our children also inherit the greatest nation

Cruz: The son of a mailman, the son of a bartender, the son of a dishwasher, and the son of a businessman are all on this stage, what a country. Who will best defend your values? Imagine me debating Hillary Clinton. How great would that be? Here are the things I would say to her: We can do better. Repeal Obamacare, abolish the IRS, unleash millions of jobs, religious liberty, supporting cops.

Trump: “The Republican Party has a great chance to embrace millions of people they have never known before … These are fantastic people, people that love our country, people that want to see America be great again.” These are people that will win us the election, and then we can nominate Supreme Court justices. Embrace these millions of people that now, for the first time ever, love the Republican Party. “Be smart and unify.”

Trump breaks into Cruz’s response to suggest that, if Cruz wants party unity, he should simply make Trump president.

“Donald, you are welcome to be president … of the Smithsonian,” Cruz replied.

Where to begin? Even if he becomes president, Cruz can’t appoint the head of the Smithsonian Institution. It’s run by a Board of Regents, drawn from all three branches but largely controlled by Congress. Also? It doesn’t even have a president. It’s led by a secretary.

It might be easy to forgive Cruz for not knowing all this arcana, and it’s a puzzling put-down to begin with. But Cruz sits on the Senate’s Committee on Rules and Administration. And overseeing the Smithsonian is actually part of his current job. It seems he’s not paying much attention.

Cruz is asked how he would win over Trump’s disappointed, potentially angry supporters if he emerges as the GOP nominee only after winning a contested convention. “Make me president!” Trump interjects. “Yes, Donald,” Cruz says. “You can be president of the Smithsonian.” Not sure why he went for the Smithsonian, but maybe that’s the first thing that popped into his head.

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Kasich brings up the 1976 contested convention as an example of Republican harmony, and yet as he points out, the nominee, Gerald Ford, went on to lose to Jimmy Carter. The point of people worried about a contested convention is exactly that: The party would be so divided and weakened that it would lose in the fall.

Has Trump encouraged violence? “I hope not, I hope not,” Trump says, later rationalizing the actions of some of his supporters by the anger they feel and the love they have for the country. To be clear, though, he adds “ I don’t condone that at all, though.” For more on the “undercurrent of violence” at Trump events, read David Graham's dispatch from North Carolina or Peter Beinart’s “The Violence to Come.”

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado is a Republican and a Rubio supporter, but he’s also one of the most ardent supporters of action on climate change. His letter along with other South Florida mayors to Rubio and Jeb Bush implored them to help with climate change, noting“Our cities and towns are already coping with the impacts of climate change today. We will need leadership and concrete solutions from our next president.”

Regalado would know, Miami is, as he describes it and as Matt noted, a “ground zero” for sea-level rise. And Rubio’s pledge to essentially do nothing as president to solve this existential crisis might be a serious blow to the future of the city. It is astonishing that when confronted with the most pressing issue facing the future of a city in which the debate is being held, Rubio could simply deny and evade.

Rubio’s answer on climate change’s impact on Florida—a bizarre mix of pseudo-denialism (“the climate is always changing”), blame-shifting (pointing to China’s and India’s carbon emissions when both countries have pledged to make significant cuts as part of the Paris climate accords), and bland passivity (saying no law will stop sea-level rise so it’s not worth trying)—is as silly as most of the comments for which Trump is criticized.

But in some ways, it’s even worse. As an elected senator, Rubio  represents millions of Floridians who will deal with climate change’s impact for the rest of their lives. More than any other state, Florida will be ground zero for its effects on the United States over the next few decades. His glib answer tonight verges on an insult to his constituents, who are already feeling the effects of sea-level rise.

Kasich smartly jumps on Trump's awkward answer on his praise—that “strong” doesn’t mean “good”—for Putin and the Chinese government's crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. He says there should be a statue of the protester who stood in front of the Chinese tank, which became an iconic image from the confrontation in 1989.

Marco Rubio just schooled Donald Trump on Cuba policy, drawing a huge ovation from the Miami crowd. After Trump stammered around talking about making “a good deal” with Cuba and worrying about whether Cuba would sue the United States, Rubio lectured Trump on the difference between an embassy and a consulate and noted snarkily that if Cuba sued the United States in a Miami court, “they’d lose.” Finally, he laid out the litany of changes and concessions on human rights that Cuba would have to agree to in order for him to reestablish ties as president. All in all, it was a well-delivered winner for a Republican crowd.

Joe Raedle / Getty

Just for a second, imagine the opening sequence from Reservoir Dogs and George Baker’s “Little Green Bag” playing in the background.

John Kasich again cites a survey published in Foreign Policy when touting his foreign policy record. The survey that showed that 54 percent of scholars ranked him the presidential candidate that would “most effectively manage the most important foreign policy issues facing the U.S. today.”

Trump’s argument on Israel—that you can love the Jews without being an Israel hawk—is one you don’t hear often on a GOP debate stage.

“There is no one on this stage who is more pro-Israel than I am,” Trump says. He then goes on to point out that he was once the grand marshal of the Israeli Day Parade and that he has a daughter and son-in-law who are Jewish. Also: Some of Trump’s best friends are Jewish, and some of them are pretty tough.

Middle East peace might be the one issue where Trump is more conciliatory than John Kasich. Trump says he wants to try to negotiate a lasting peace, while even Kasich says he doesn’t think that’s a possibility and that the primary U.S. goal should be stability in the region.

Marco Rubio takes a principled stand in defense of religious tolerance, speaking up for Islam—because, he says, he doesn’t just want to be politically correct, he wants to be correct. But when President Obama followed Rubio’s suggested approach just a month ago, Rubio was quick to attack him for it:

He gave a speech at a mosque, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims. Of course there’s discrimination in America, of every kind. But the bigger issue is radical Islam. This constant pitting people against each other, I can’t stand that. It's hurting our country badly.

There may be ways to reconcile those two approaches as both embracing some unifying principle. But on the surface, at least, it looks as if as when his campaign was floundering, Rubio opportunistically adopted some of the rhetoric and outraged tone of Donald Trump.

Now, unless he can pull off an upset win in his home state of Florida, Rubio’s campaign may be nearing its end. And he’s reverted to his earlier message of tolerance. It’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if Rubio had stuck to his guns, and decried intolerance even at the risk of his own electoral prospects. Opportunism seems to have undercut his appeal; perhaps a principled stand would’ve worked better all along.

Trump retreats slightly from his stance on torture and war crimes during the last debate. Then he reiterates his underlying point. “We have to obey those laws, but we have to expand those laws,” he tells Jake Tapper, referring to laws that ban waterboarding and other forms of torture. Why? So the United States can fight ISIS on an “equal footing.”

Ted Cruz says he wouldn’t target the families of suspected terrorists. “The answer is not simply to yell, ‘China bad, Muslim bad,’” Cruz says. His approach tonight appears targeted at positioning himself as the candidate that’s going to come at these issues with a sense of understanding—while delivering veiled jabs at his rivals.

“If you go to any military cemetery, you’re gonna see crescent moons there,” Rubio says in defense of Muslims living in the United States and fighting in its military. Trump says the Florida senator is just being politically correct, and Rubio lashes back: “I’m not interested in being politically correct; I’m interested in being correct.” He also mentions the need to  work with the Saudis, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states if the country is going to beat back ISIS. But Trump stays firm on not being politically correct, saying Muslims are in mosques chanting, “Death to America.”

The unemployment rate has fallen to 4.9 percent and jobs are growing at a steady clip, but Trump brings up a conspiracy theory from 2012, suggesting that the monthly jobs reports from the Labor Department are either cooked or at a minimum structured so they make politicians look good, citing as evidence the fact that they don’t include people who have dropped out of the labor force.

“I think I hold views that are similar to many of the people. We are more inclusive,” Trump says, on aligning with Republican tradition, citing record turnout of Republicans at the polls. Ronald Brownstein has noted how Trump has given “voice to the voiceless”—a point he’s driving home tonight.

When Trump says he can’t believe how civil the debate is going, he is actually taunting the other candidates for being afraid to attack him.

Donald Trump thinks charter schools work well? He should visit Detroit, the hometown of rival-turned-supporter Ben Carson, who Trump has tapped as an education adviser.

Charter schools in the Motor City have an uneven record, according to a series of stories by the Detroit Free Press. “Yes, there have been spotty successes—not least of which has been my own experience, having enrolled my own kids in one of the few high-performing charters in the city,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Stephen Henderson last year. “But overall, charters don’t perform much better than the public schools in their districts.”

Rhona Wise/ Getty      

Dana Bash smartly picks up on the indirect attack Ted Cruz made on Trump without mentioning his name. After Trump was done explaining that he’d get rid of "waste, fraud, and abuse" in Social Security, Cruz noted that Hillary Clinton has said the same thing. Pressed on it, however, Cruz still wouldn't attack Trump directly. There seems to be a strategy here on the part of Rubio and Cruz not to go after Trump too aggressively, or at least to do it indirectly.

What has happened to the Republicans? We're deep into the evening, and nobody is attacking each other, and everybody is talking about policy. This could be a new record for debates this year.

"I cannot believe how civil it's been up here," Trump says with a big grin. It's almost like the fix is in.

To Vann’s point, he also angrily accused the Democrats of wanting to leave the program alone, then said that’s what he would do. In case there was any doubt that he’s running on the Democrats’ position on entitlements.

“I want to leave social security as it is,” Trump explained. “I want to make our country rich again, so that we can afford it.” It’s a reasonable point. America is certainly wealthy enough to keep its promises to current and future retirees; it’s simply lacked the political will to pay its IOUs. Trump waves his hands, and says he’ll pay for this with growth, and by cracking down on waste, fraud, and abuse.

The moderators call him on it. And then it gets interesting. Trump says that America should stop footing the bill for being the world’s policeman. He rattles off a list of countries that depend on the United States for their security, and suggests America would be better able to take care of its seniors if it stopped footing their tab.

Interestingly, on this point, he’s in agreement with President Obama. As my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in our April issue, Obama is equally aggravated at the refusal of other rich countries to pay their share:

“Free riders aggravate me,” he told me. Recently, Obama warned that Great Britain would no longer be able to claim a “special relationship” with the United States if it did not commit to spending at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense. “You have to pay your fair share,” Obama told David Cameron, who subsequently met the 2 percent threshold.

Trump chooses to avert Social Security insolvency with the bold plan of doing nothing, noting that we have “22 years to go” until the program runs out of money.

Donald Trump has never given any indication he knows specifically what Common Core education standards are. They are not mandated by the federal government, and Trump merely uses the term as a buzzword because he knows conservatives hate Common Core and see it as a federal intrusion into local control of schools. But it’s considerably more complicated than that, and it’s not as if the federal government can simply abolish standards adopted by the states. Under President Obama, the Education Department did incentivize states that adopted the Common Core, but a new law passed by Congress scraps those incentives.

To follow up with Priscilla’s comment, while there’s little evidence immigration is hurting American workers, Trump’s anti-immigrant stance is in line with some 50 percent of American voters. According to Pew Research, about half of the country thinks immigrants coming to the United States make things worse for the economy, while only 28 percent say it’s a good thing.

In his answer on trade deals, Ted Cruz seemed to conflate TPP, which is the Trans Pacific Partnership that the Obama administration negotiated with a dozen Pacific Rim countries, with TPA, which was not a trade deal but was the process that Congress approved allowing the president to broker a deal that could only be voted up or down—and not amended—by Congress. Cruz supported the process but isn’t on board with the actual agreement.

J Pat Carter / Getty       

In his response on trade, Ted Cruz says that trade and immigration are “interwoven and they’re hurting the men and women in this country.” On the campaign trail, Cruz has said that immigration is an economic issue. But as my colleague Gillian White has noted, there’s little evidence to support that immigration hurts American workers.

As the Republican presidential candidates weigh in on immigration, bear in mind that 18 percent of eligible voters in Florida are Latinos, and it’s an important topic among the demographic. The candidates will likely be vying for that vote ahead of the March 15 primaries.

As my brother pointed out earlier today, Donald Trump’s trade policies are a modern version of mercantilism—an economic theory that’s been out of fashion for a couple centuries. Marco Rubio fields a question on trade, and delivers a concise summation of the consensus of academic economists: trade increases prosperity, and enriches ordinary Americans. Ted Cruz strikes a very different tone, decrying trade and immigration as intertwined threats to American workers. But his policy proposals—better trade deals, less regulation, a revised tax code—wouldn’t actually attack attack free trade, just tinker at its edges.

It’s an interesting contrast, and it’s typical of the split between Trump, Rubio, and Cruz. Trump is promoting some genuinely heterodox policies. Rubio is promoting party orthodoxy in conventional terms. And Cruz is using the language of Trumpian outrage to back a set of policy proposals that are actually fairly close to those of Rubio.  

There’s a reason that candidates who take the tone used by Trump or Cruz—or, for that matter, Bernie Sanders—are finding success, as the New York Times explains:

Critiques like Mr. Trump’s resonate in part because economists have oversold their case. Trade has a downside and, while the benefits of trade are broadly distributed, the costs are often concentrated. Everyone can buy a cheaper air-conditioner when Carrier disembarks for a lower-cost country, but a few hundred people will lose their livelihoods.

Trump is finally noting that his businesses rely on overseas labor and production because it’s currently smart business to take advantage of policies that promote it. This was always to me the strongest defense for Trump—that he more than anyone knows the kinds of loopholes and incentives that candidates are seeking to close in order to bring jobs and production back to American soil. Nothing seems capable of actually hurting Trump at this point, but he could separate himself if this narrative works.

Joe Raedle / Getty      

“Every election is important,” Rubio says in his opening remarks. “I think this is the most important in a generation.” Tonight’s debate is particularly important for the Florida senator who’s hoping to capture his home state during next week’s primary. According to a Washington Post/Univision News poll, Rubio and Donald Trump are in a tight race in Florida, with Trump at 38 percent and Rubio at 31 percent among likely Republican voters.

Meanwhile, Ted Cruz recalls his father coming to the United States from Cuba. Cruz has referred to his Cuban roots since arriving in Florida, far more than he has leading up to the state.

“Millions and millions of people are voting,” says Trump. “They’re voting out of enthusiasm; they’re voting out of love…” He makes the case that he’s expanding the party, drawing in previously disaffected and unaffiliated voters, and Democrats crossing party lines. That’s the opposite of Ted Cruz’s theory of the election, which posits that simply motivating core conservatives to get out and vote can help him secure first the nomination, and then the election.

It’s a good, optimistic pitch from Trump. The problem, as Philip Bump points out over at the Washington Post, is that there’s just not much evidence to back it up.

                                                          Andrew Burton / Getty

Reince Priebus kicks off the debate by assuring Americans that the Republican Party will support whoever is nominated—no matter who it is. You hear that Mitt Romney, former Republican Party presidential nominee? Got it Lindsey Graham? More importantly, when the party chairman feels it necessary to announce that the Republican Party will support the Republican nominee—well, what does that say about the party? What does it say about the presumptive nominee? Obviously, Priebus wants to avoid a calamitous national convention—and with good reason. But what’s really the best path, Reince: Leading the party that supports an uncontested Trump nomination, or leading the party that refuses to?

When a football team is losing in the game’s closing seconds, when the contest is all but lost, the quarterback heaves the ball as far as he can throw it and prays that it falls into the hands of an outmanned receiver.

The “Hail Mary” pass rarely works, and when it fails, nobody blames the game’s loss on a single 11th-hour pass. Fingers point to the second-quarter fumble. The leaky line. The porous defense.

Marco Rubio’s “Hail Mary” pass was a raft of insults he launched against Donald Trump. It didn’t work. Like an intercepted bomb, it backfired—and now Rubio blames his Hail Mary.

"At the end of the day, you know it's not something I'm entirely proud of," the Florida Republican told MSNBC during a town hall airing Wednesday night. The Washington Post published story today that blamed the collapse of his campaign on the “fateful decision” to attack Trump.

The truth is more complicated. Trump outplayed Rubio. The Floridian fumbled a key debate in February. Rubio’s game plan didn’t include an early-state victory. His supporters were fair-weather fans.

Joe Raedle / Getty

Florida Governor Rick Scott, ahead of the Republican debate in Miami, apparently in front of a scoreboard.

The Heat Is on in Miami