The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at The Wall Street Journal written by the editor, James Taranto.
Out on a Limb
“‘Drink Probably Involved’ in Isle of Wight Triceratops Abduction”—headline, Daily Telegraph (London), Feb. 16
What Would We Do Without Experts?
“Scalia’s Death Leaves Major Void in High Court, Utah Legal Experts Say”—headline, KSL-TV website (Salt Lake City), Feb. 13
‘Can Somebody Attack Me, Please?’
“Probably the single best moment of the debate was when Rubio basically ripped out Trump’s intestines, wrapped them around his neck and set them on fire over healthcare,” Dan McLaughlin observed late last night at RedState.com. To be sure, the word “basically” does a lot of work in that sentence. Also to be sure, McLaughlin has a rooting interest here—or, more precisely, a thwarting interest in Donald Trump.
Yet there is something of a consensus that Marco Rubio had a good night—a consensus that includes even Scott Adams of “Trump Master Persuader Series” fame:
Rubio showed a new feisty side at the debate, going after Trump for hiring illegal Polish workers 35 years ago through a subcontractor, pointing out Trump’s notable business failures, saying Trump would be selling watches in Manhattan if he had not inherited wealth, and mocking Trump’s healthcare plan that is light on details. Rubio also called-out Trump for repeating himself during the debate. Trump seemed on the defensive more than usual.
Rubio’s debate grade: A+
That was all good stuff. I don’t know if Rubio got a new advisor or just decided this was the time to put it all out there.
Robot Rubio? Gone. He was replaced by feisty Rubio. That’s a big deal, and well-executed.
Adams concludes, however, by noting, accurately on our reading: “Most observers, including me, believe Rubio’s good night was a case of too little and too late.”
For our part, we were out to dinner when the debate started and tired two hours later, when we watched it from the beginning. Suffice it to say we did not find it reinvigorating. Most of it consisted in shouting matches involving Trump, Rubio and Ted Cruz; though occasionally John Kasich would say something dull but worthy or Ben Carson would make a charming remark.
The evening’s most memorable line, in fact, came from Carson. During a discussion of the Middle East, Cruz attacked Trump. Kasich interjected to make a point, and moderator Wolf Blitzer put him off so that Trump could respond to Cruz’s attack. Trump then attacked Rubio, who demanded a response. Blitzer said he’d get one, but “I promised Gov. Kasich he could respond.”
At which point Carson interjected: “Can somebody attack me, please?”
No one did.
It got us to thinking that there’s something perverse about the rules for these debates. The convention is that candidates are given a fixed time to answer questions (although enforcement of those limits tends to be far from draconian). That ought to give candidates roughly equal time, assuming the moderators spread their questions evenly.
But then there is the rule to which Carson alluded in pleading to be attacked: If A attacks B, B is entitled to time for a response. It seems only fair, but consider the incentive it creates. If you’re in one of these debates, you want other candidates to attack you so as to maximize your own time. As Carson demonstrated, that won’t happen if you ask nicely. The way to get attacked is to attack; the best defense is a good offense.
Thus a rule designed to promote fairness has the unintended consequence of encouraging aggression. The Washington Examiner’s Jason Russell runs the numbers:
For the second debate in a row, Donald Trump got the most speaking time at a Republican debate. Trump spoke for nearly 30 minutes, 10 more minutes any other candidate. Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Marco Rubio all spoke between 18 and 20 minutes. Carson trailed well behind, speaking for only 10 minutes. It was the fifth debate in a row in which Carson spoke least.
Trump’s political success is no doubt overdetermined, but we’d like to speculate that the debate rules have helped him in two ways: first, by rewarding belligerence, at which he excels; second, by tending to favor the front-runner, whose status gives the other candidates a reason to attack him.
“If the normal laws of politics applied to the 2016 race, it would have been a catastrophic night for Trump,” observes Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard:
By any reasonable measure, Trump had a meltdown. He was exposed as a policy lightweight on a host of issues: A health care repeal plan which consists entirely of “removing the lines.” He defended Planned Parenthood (again!) by claiming that abortions are only a small part of what the organization does. Most amazingly, he claimed that his sister, who is a judge, “signed a bill” with Judge Sam Alito. Two judges . . . “signed a bill.”
Yeah, we noticed the “signed a bill” bit too, and we cringed. But we’d estimate Trump will lose roughly as many votes for that as Hillary Clinton will on the Democratic side for referring to the “constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
A potentially more promising line of attack against Trump has to do with his treatment of workers, customers and others with little power. Rubio hit this theme when he mentioned the long-ago hiring of illegal aliens from Poland, and so did Ted Cruz, who brought up a pending fraud lawsuit against Trump University (now the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative).
The Conservative Solutions PAC, which supports Rubio, is out today with a new ad titled “Fools.” It opens with a quote (discussed here Wednesday) from Trump’s Nevada victory speech:
Trump: I love the poorly educated!
Narrator: That’s really what Donald Trump is all about. He thinks we’re fools. Trump uses sleazy bankruptcy laws to avoid paying workers. He bans disabled veterans from his high-rise. He even tried to use eminent domain to kick a widow from her home. Donald Trump puts himself first and himself last.
Anti-Trump Republicans argue that the Democrats would employ similar lines of attack if Trump were the nominee, as they did effectively against Mitt Romney in 2012. No doubt they would, and it’s possible such ads would have the desired effect of leaving would-be Trump voters disillusioned enough to stay home or vote for Hillary Clinton.
But it’s far from guaranteed. It’s not as if anyone had any illusions that Romney was a populist.
MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald and Benjy Sarlin report that even Democrats are beginning to question their assumptions about Trump:
The glee is turning to unease for many Democrats who worry that the general election could turn into a nasty and unpredictable house of horrors. . . .
Yes, Trump is incredibly divisive and has sky-high negative ratings. Yes, he could inflame turnout among exactly the demographic blocs Democrats need to get to the polls in a general election. And yes, there’s a good chance his appeal is limited to a narrow slice of Republican primary voters.
But Trump has exceeded all expectations already and is running a playbook no one has ever seen before. . . .
“While on its face it may make sense to root for Trump to win the nomination because he seems like the easiest to defeat, variables are not your friend in a presidential campaign,” said Ben LaBolt, a former Obama campaign aide. “You need to build a model that predicts turnout on both sides. And because Trump is such an unconventional politician, it’s hard to predict who will show up for him.”
Over at Talking Points Memo, Caitlin MacNeal notes an odd comment the inevitable Democratic nominee made on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” today:
“I didn’t know him that well, but I did know him. And I think it’s been most surprising to me to see somebody who was affable and was good company and had a reputation of being kind of bigger than life really traffic in a lot of the prejudice and paranoia,” she said. “And some of the comments that he’s made, which have been so divisive and mean-spirited, doesn’t quite fit with what I thought I knew about him.”
“He has really been offensive and in many respects surprising to those of us who did know him,” she continued.
Which leads to a question—not a rhetorical one but a genuine head-scratcher: What does it mean that Mrs. Clinton is talking about Trump the way Barack Obama, back in 2008, ended up talking about his spiritual mentor, Jeremiah Wright?
For more “Best of the Web” from The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto click here.