Anyone seeking evidence that the Republican Party is a rotten institution on the verge collapse and disarray needs only watch the last GOP debate in South Carolina. It was less of a debate than a nasty professional wrestling brawl, an ugly spectacle reminiscent of a violent online video one is ashamed to watch but from which one cannot turn away.
It’s hard to identify who specifically made it the horrific trainwreck that it was, or what the worst moment was. Was it the audience, so obviously stacked with loud and raucous Rubio and Bush establishment supporters behaving like extras from a medieval stage play pit that it confirmed all of Donald Trump’s attacks on debate audiences and even led Ted Cruz to get in on the anti-audience attacks? Was it Donald Trump, who behaved not only incredibly rudely but may have actually gone far enough against GOP orthodoxy as to self-destruct with GOP voters? Was it Ted Cruz, who lied non-stop throughout the debate? Was it Jeb Bush, who kept trying to assert his masculine authority on the stage in a nasty way, yet found himself continually cut down by Trump in an even uglier show of locker room politics? Maybe it was all of the above.
Was the worst moment when Ted Cruz encouraged the audience to boo the moderator simply for telling the truth about a historical fact? Was it when Donald Trump (rightly!) insisted that George W. Bush was responsible for letting us be attacked on 9/11 and for invading Iraq knowing that there were no weapons of mass destruction–but not because he was genuinely offended about the loss of lives involved, but rather because he found it a convenient way to insult Jeb Bush’s family? Was it when Ted Cruz accused Marco Rubio of being too compassionate on immigration, pushing Rubio to tell Cruz that he couldn’t understand what he said on Univision because he didn’t speak Spanish, only to have Cruz challenge him (in Spanish!) to a debate in Spanish? Was it when Trump accused Jeb Bush of being weak simply for saying that immigrants are here to trying make a better life for their families? Was it when the supposedly “moderate” Kasich accused Jeb of the crime of growing Medicaid too much?
It’s hard to know. I’m still in a bit of catatonic shock after sitting through it. I know that the GOP debates are targeted to hardcore Republican primary voters, but even so it’s hard to believe that there is a single persuadable voter watching tonight who would want any of these candidates to become President. It was just that ugly.
And I’m not the only one. Commentators across the spectrum of Republican politics agreed that the evening was a complete disaster. Frank Luntz had this to say:
Seriously, this is insane.
The GOP is destroying itself tonight, and they have no one to blame but themselves. #GOPDebate
— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) February 14, 2016
And here’s Glenn Beck:
Kasich is using the same peacemaker rhetoric as in every debate, but tonight it is working. This debate is an embarrassment. #GOPDebate
— Glenn Beck (@glennbeck) February 14, 2016
Probably the most compelling moment of the debate was when Trump hit the Bush Administration over 9/11 and Iraq. It might just be the final straw that pushes core GOP voters away from Trump. But it’s also important to note that Trump has said many of the same things before without much consequence, nor is it entirely clear that GOP voters have a strong emotional vested interest in defending the Bush Administration on those issues.
If Trump did hurt himself badly, then Ted Cruz will likely be the beneficiary. If not, then nothing much will change in the poll numbers.
But one thing is for certain: the Republican Party embarrassed itself badly tonight. There is no clear center of gravity within the party, its frontrunner is openly contemptuous of essential parts of its orthodoxy, and its brand is marked by open extremism, cruelty and ugly bickering. No major political organization can long survive like this.