Ronald Reagan would not have been pleased. His eleventh commandment—“thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican”—was wantonly flouted last night in Cleveland as ten candidates vied with each other to claim leadership of the GOP.
There was libertarian senator Rand Paul laying into Chris Christie for supporting violating American freedoms by espousing big government when it comes to national-security surveillance and remonstrating that he had given President Obama a“big hug” right on the eve of the 2012 election, something that a good number of Republicans continue to hold against the New Jersey governor. Christie punched back by, essentially, playing the patriot card—accusing Paul of being a dangerous blowhard when it comes to protecting innocent Americans from the machinations of foreign terrorists intent on attacking the homeland.
Meanwhile, the business mogul Donald Trump, sovereign in his Olympian disdain for his rivals and the Fox News moderators alike, took whatever wind remained in Paul’s sails by commenting, “I don’t think you heard me. You’re having a hard time tonight.” Trump was in vintage form, pointing out that until he had entered the race, there had been little discussion of immigration and, in response to Megyn Kelly’s question about some of his more salty comments about women, contending that he had no time for “political correctness.” With that initial skirmish out of the way, Trump went after bigger game, taking a swipe at Bush. He was on the mark, for example, in assessing the legacy of the George W. Bush administration: “The last number of months of his brother’s administration were a catastrophe, and unfortunately those few months gave us President Obama, and you can’t be happy about that.” He also dropped the threat that he might refuse to support a different GOP nominee and instead run himself as a third-party candidate, thereby further signaling his emancipation from the dreaded GOP establishment. The bottom line: it was impossible to rock Trump. Instead, he rocked the house.
Perhaps the most earnest of the lot was Bush, who in his initial statement appended the word “conservative” before as many nouns and adjectives as he could. Soon enough, his inner wonk emerged as he launched into an explanation of the Common Core. Once again Bush gave the sense that he is a master, at least rhetorically, of splitting the difference. States could opt out of it if they wished, he said, but high standards had to be maintained. He sounded evasive when it came to the Iraq War, claiming it was a “mistake” because of bad intelligence. Not exactly. The problem was that the intelligence was cooked on orders, or to put it more precisely, pressure from, above all, former vice president Dick Cheney.
What about former Bush protégé Marco Rubio, who is now biting the hand that once fed him? He came across well, landing a solid punch in asserting, contra Trump, that the majority of illegal immigrants are not, in fact, emanating from Mexico, but rather Central and South America.
Ohio governor John Kasich, the dark horse of the race, the heartthrob of moderates everywhere in the GOP, carefully straddled the Trump divide by acknowledging that the sentiments that he is espousing did not appear out of thin air, but reflect acute apprehensions. With his vigorous showing, Kasich did himself a lot of good.
Still, the true stars of the show, in some sense, may have been the Fox moderators, who certainly didn’t throw any softball questions. All three moderators were clearly enjoying themselves as was the press corps. The road to the Democratic nomination appears to be a snoozefest. The GOP candidates all took it for granted that Hillary Clinton will be the eventual candidate and assailed her record, with Wisconsin governor Scott Walker referring to the “Obama-Clinton” foreign-policy record. He later noted, “Probably the Russian and Chinese government know more about Hillary Clinton’s email server than do the members of the United States Congress.”
To widespread consensus, however, Trump emerged as the champ from last night’s brawl. Maybe the shock value of Trump’s performance will wear off as the campaign proceeds. But so far, to the consternation of his rivals, it was Trump who was the dominant performer, drawing on his wealth of television experience to deliver a simple message to the Republican establishment: you’re fired.
Jacob Heilbrunn is the editor of the National Interest.
Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore