The GOP Debate: The Governors Strike Back

Christie had a strong night in New Hampshire, while Rubio and Trump did not.

Saturday’s Republican debate, at St. Anselm’s College in New Hampshire, had the opposite effect of the Iowa caucuses. The latter narrowed the field of candidates, putting an end to the 2016 aspirations of Rand Paul and Rick Santorum while seemingly setting the stage for a three-way race of Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Marco Rubio, the only candidates to break 20 percent. But Saturday’s debate threw that into question, with Rubio putting in a particularly poor performance and Chris Christie an exceptionally strong one. Jeb Bush and John Kasich also had a good night, while Trump and Cruz slumped. (Ben Carson, meanwhile, was left to plead, “I'm not here just to add beauty to the stage.”)

Three governors took on two first-term senators and two men who’ve never held elective office, and this time the governors won. Christie might have been speaking for Bush and Kasich as well when he said, “Every morning when a United States senator wakes up, they think about what kind of speech can I give or what kind of bill can I drop? Every morning, when I wake up, I think about what kind of problem do I need to solve for the people who actually elected me?”

The New Jersey governor was merciless to Rubio. “You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable. You just simply haven’t,” he said, before hammering the point home by calling attention to Rubio’s pitiful Senate attendance record: “the fact is—the fact when you talk about the Hezbollah Sanctions Act that you list as one of your accomplishments you just did, you weren't even there to vote for it. That's not leadership, that's truancy.”

Rubio staggered to respond, returning to his talking points and walking straight into Christie’s trap. As soon as he heard Rubio repeating himself, the governor struck: “There it is. There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.” The audience roared in approval.

Trump sabotaged himself just as effectively as Rubio did, with a meandering defense of eminent domain. The power of government to force the sale of private property is hardly a cause that rallies Republican support—quite the opposite. Jeb Bush taunted Trump for using eminent domain to advance his casino projects: “How tough is it to take away a property from an elderly woman?” The crowd booed Trump as he groped for an answer—and he found one only when he decided to attack the audience. “You know who has the tickets for the—I'm talking about, to the television audience? Donors, special interests, the people that are putting up the money.” Met with more jeering, Trump helplessly said that “[t]he reason they're not loving me is, I don't want their money. I'm going to do the right thing for the American public. I don't want their money. I don't need their money. And I'm the only one up here that can say that.”

What the debate offered in terms of theatrics, it lacked in substance. The closest thing to a policy surprise all night was finding out that Rubio, Bush and Christie all fully support requiring women to register for Selective Service, although Bush seemed confused about just what that meant. “You—you asked a question not about the draft, you asked about registering,” he told ABC News moderator Martha Raddatz. “You register for the draft,” she explained.

Trump’s answers to the night’s foreign-policy questions should put paid to any talk of him as a realist. His answer to ISIS remains “stop the oil and take the oil—not just bomb it, take it—when you do that, it's going to dry up very quickly.” Alluding to “medieval times,” he promised not only to reinstate waterboarding but also to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”

Rubio likewise was all for waterboarding, but he was even more passionate about where to keep the detainees to be subjected to “enhanced interrogation,” resurrecting Mitt Romney’s pledge to “double Guantanamo.” According to Rubio, “We should be putting people into Guantanamo, not emptying it out, and we shouldn't be releasing these killers who are rejoining the battlefield against the United States.”

Senator Cruz hedged his waterboarding answer—“I would not bring it back in any sort of widespread use,” he said—while Bush was the most outspokenly opposed to it, something of a reversal of his former statements. “Congress has changed the laws” on waterboarding, he said, “and I think where we stand is the appropriate place.”

Bush also separated himself from Rubio on abortion: “I'm pro-life, but I believe there should be exceptions: rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in danger.” Rubio agreed to an exception for the life of the mother but otherwise took a strict antiabortion line. Christie agreed to Bush’s broader exceptions even as he accused Planned Parenthood of “the systematic murder of children in the womb.” How the New Jersey governor can believe that while also insisting “that if a woman has been raped, that is a birth and a pregnancy that she should be able to terminate” is perplexing: is there really a constituency of people who believe that abortion is murder yet that the ending of lives conceived by rape is unproblematic?