New York Times (Opinion)
By Frank Bruni
January 14, 2016
Remember that phase of the campaign when Ted Cruz spoke no ill of Donald Trump, who returned the favor?
You may now forget it. Bury it. Write its obituary, in a pen dipped in acid.
At Thursday night’s Republican debate, the two frontrunners didn’t merely spar, as was expected. They glared at and scolded each other with a venomousness that was initially mesmerizing, then horrifying and finally just sad—very, very sad.
The trajectory of the Republican primary has been one of growing pessimism, intensifying acrimony and abundant pettiness, and it reached its ugly nadir on the stage in North Charleston, S.C.
This happened when Cruz was asked to respond to Trump’s claim that he might not qualify as a “natural-born citizen” eligible for the presidency. Cruz was ready for it, asserting that as recently as four months ago, Trump had sung a different tune.
“Since September, the Constitution hasn’t changed,” Cruz said. “But the poll numbers have, and I recognize that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa.”
The two men argued about what the numbers really said, Trump insisting that his were bigger. They battled over the legitimacy and motivations of a Harvard law professor who had weighed in skeptically on Cruz’s eligibility. They traded barbs about Trump’s mother. Yes, his mother.
Some of their lines were wicked—some of Cruz’s, at least. He’s frighteningly talented at this sort of thing, and told Trump: “I’m happy to consider naming you as V.P., and so, if you happen to be right, you can get the top job at the end of the day.”
But as the scabrous exchange went on (and on) and John Kasich visibly slumped in frustration and the other candidates gaped in what seemed like genuine disbelief at the length of this endless digression, it was impossible to be entertained or amused.
The only sane response was sorrow—that this is a presidential election in the greatest democracy on earth, and that blowhards like Trump and Cruz are, for now, setting the pace and the terms in one of our two major political parties.
Over the course of this sixth meeting of the leading Republican candidates, serious issues were indeed broached, and the candidates raised legitimate questions about what President Obama had and hadn’t done to make Americans feel safe. They had a warranted discussion about whether the American economy had improved enough and in the right ways.
But the tone eclipsed the substance, and the tone was nastier than it had to be, sometimes to the point of pure silliness.
With the Iowa caucuses less than three weeks away, the New Hampshire primary right after that and several of the seven men onstage still looking for elusive traction, they went for broke: exaggerated words, extreme claims, voices raised high and chests puffed out as never before.
Trump was, as ever, at center stage.
For such a small-minded man, he hovers so large over this country’s political landscape, casting the longest and most sinister of shadows. He was the sire of President Obama’s State of the Union address, which could be heard as a point-by-point retort to the gloom, doom and bigotry that Trump peddles. He was the sire of Nikki Haley’s State of the Union response, which was as concerned with chastising him as with contradicting the president.
And he was the sire of this debate, inasmuch as the anger that he summons and the uncompromising toughness that he projects have infected his adversaries, tugging them toward truculence. On Thursday night, several of them seemed intent on out-Trumping Trump.
Chris Christie didn’t merely portray himself as the most effective opponent for Hillary Clinton.
“If I’m the nominee, she won’t get within 10 miles of the White House,” he proclaimed.
He didn’t merely state his differences with Obama. He compared the president to “a petulant child” and made him a promise.
“We are going to kick your rear end out of the White House come this fall,” he said. Trump couldn’t have expressed it more crudely.
Rubio, for his part, wholly abandoned the upbeat message and mien that once defined him. There’s no sunshine in a race that orbits around a star as dark as Trump. There’s only thunder, fear, apocalyptic musings and bellicose vows to exert America’s muscle around the world.
Rubio talked about handing out many a “one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay.” Cruz talked about “the full force and fury of the United States of America.”
Rubio and Cruz squared off against each other just before the debate clock ran out, with Cruz calling Rubio soft on immigration and Rubio calling him soft on national defense. But it wasn’t typical political theater: It was more sneering and more savage than that—jarringly so.
“That is not consistent conservatism,” Rubio said of Cruz’s record. “That is political calculation.”
Cruz insisted on ample time to respond. “He had no fewer than 11 attacks there,” he said, and then, addressing Rubio directly, added: “I appreciate your dumping your oppo research folder.”
By the time it was all over, I was fantasizing about Trump’s promised wall, only it didn’t separate the United States from Mexico. It separated Cruz from Trump, Rubio from Cruz and all three of them from the rest of us, who are looking for leadership, not egos and vitriol.
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