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Paging Andy Cohen. Saturday night's GOP debate was more reminiscent of a “Real Housewives” reunion than a forum for aspiring presidential nominees. Often the ideological differences between the six remaining candidates took a back seat the insults, shouting, and personal attacks. No wonder the website Politico called this “the nastiest GOP debate yet.”
There was no clear winner, although it is safe to say that the GOP was the loser. With Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio going after each other, and Jeb Bush and Donald Trump escalating their animosity, time was wasted on accusations and denials rather than policy positions. Amid the raucous atmosphere, Trump probably came off best, because he thrives on conflict.
Trump scored the most speaking time, and was his usual bombastic, brash self. It was shocking moment to see Trump repeatedly blame 9/11 on George W. Bush (despite boos from the audience). No doubt, Trump’s ideological fluidity underlies his appeal; consider that over the course of the evening he doubled down on his plan to build a wall on the Mexican border – and later praised Planned Parenthood.
The grown-up award goes to John Kasich. He repeatedly decried his rivals fighting, and spoke in reasonable terms about his views on expanding Medicaid and immigration reform. From start to finish, Kasich made it clear that his overall strategy was to appeal to Americans’ best selves, and for that he deserves commendation.
Once again, important subjects went unmentioned at a Republican debate. Instead of any discussion of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan or voting rights, time was wasted debating Trump’s past bankruptcies and references to Jeb Bush allegedly mooning a crowd. Classy.
The most memorable exchange of Saturday's debate centered on immigration. Cruz and Rubio clashed over who supported “amnesty,” with Cruz asserting that Rubio said one thing on English-language TV, and another on Univision. “I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision,” Rubio shot back, “because he doesn’t speak Spanish!”
Cruz then stammered through a phrase, en español, that sounded like “Say that in Spanish!” Considering that by his own admission, Cruz’s Spanish is “lousy,” he is lucky Rubio did not take him up on this offer. Sadly, the he said/he said back and forth on “amnesty” left little room for a more substantive immigration discussion, which was a disservice to viewers and voters.
Honorable mention of the night goes to Jeb Bush, for not backing down on his illegal immigration as an “act of love” remark in super-red South Carolina.
A special dishonorable mention to Kimberly Strassel of the Wall Street Journal for her references to “illegal aliens” and “illegals.” Both of these terms convey an editorial judgment; for a journalist, the most neutral term is “undocumented immigrant.” With all the anti-immigrant sentiment on that stage, it was unseemly to hear it coming from a moderator.