Much of the public has probably seen the headlines. Donald Trump wasn’t at the top of his game in the debate. At times, the GOP frontrunner seemed to lose his footing. The New York Republican’s inexperience as a candidate for public office came through.
This, of course, was the consensus analysis after the previous debate, held the week before the South Carolina primary, which Trump ended up winning by double digits. The commentary was similar in response to last night’s gathering in Houston – the 10th Republican debate of the cycle – though if recent history is any guide, many of Trump’s GOP supporters don’t seem overly concerned with their candidate’s debating skills.
Last night was, however, a very different kind of event. With the window of opportunity closing for candidates like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, the first-term senators not only launched tag-team attacks on Trump, they appeared eager to throw every possible criticism they could think of at the candidate standing atop the polls.
After months of restraint, Rubio and Cruz apparently decided it was time for a kitchen-sink gambit, which included, but was not limited to, attacks on Trump’s inheritance, his “university,” his tax returns, the vagueness of his health care plan, his record on immigration, his general-election polls, and his support for official U.S. neutrality towards Israelis and Palestinians.
It led MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin to raise an important point.
By dropping so many attacks at once, Rubio and Cruz also make it difficult to focus on any one issue in four days, giving Trump an opportunity to regain control of the conversation. We’ll never know what might have happened if they had doled out bits of opposition research over months and months instead and litigated each topic one at a time.
Quite right. Ordinarily, following a debate, observers tend to focus on one or two key exchanges that help represent the overall event. With four days remaining before Super Tuesday, Cruz and Rubio would love nothing more than to have a couple of controversies dogging Trump and keeping him on the defensive.
But the senators have no idea which lines of attack might be effective against the Republican frontrunner, so they simply threw everything they had in the hopes something might stick. In practice, this doesn’t work. To borrow an analogy, it’s like the Season 11 episode of “The Simpsons” in which a doctor tells Mr. Burns he’s “the sickest man in the world” – which turns out to be fine because all of Monty’s many diseases effectively cancel each other out.
The doctor labeled it the “Three Stooges Syndrome,” in which no one ailment can doom Burns because they’re all trying to break through an open doorway simultaneously.
Trump, also a scary plutocrat, seems to have a similar advantage. He doesn’t have one or two vulnerabilities, Trump has every vulnerability, which Rubio and Cruz tried to exploit all at once. The “Three Stooges Syndrome” creates a bizarre, and yet effective, immunization of sorts.
Making matters even better for Trump, he didn’t lose his cool, and he gave as good as he got.
What Cruz and Rubio needed was a debate that rattled confidence in Trump and changed the trajectory of the broader race. I realize, of course that Republicans and pundits are once again celebrating Rubio’s performance – a replay of every post-debate analysis except for a certain recent evening in New Hampshire – but does anyone seriously believe the kitchen sink actually knocked Trump down? That sounds more like wishful thinking than a summary of what actually happened.