Jeb Bush seems to have finally learned that if you're going to run for the presidential nomination of a party that values tough talk above much else, you cannot allow yourself to be bullied by Donald Trump on national TV. At Tuesday's CNN debate at The Venetian hotel and casino in Las Vegas, Bush had easily his best debate performance yet. And Trump — playing on home turf, basically — had his worst.
Ben Carson did not say much, and what he said did not reflect well on his grasp of foreign policy and national defense. Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had a good night, and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) was typically fluid on the issues, managed to muddy the waters on his biggest weakness among the GOP electorate, immigration, and made Trump look like a chump on nuclear defense.
In short, Tuesday's Republican debate — the fifth this election cycle, and the last of this year — was a good one for the candidates favored by the Republican establishment and not so great for the outsiders.
That's not a consensus view — Fox News analysts and Vox's Dylan Matthews both judged Trump a winner and Jeb Bush a loser — but such is the nature of a two-plus-hour debate with nine people on stage. And thanks to the magic of YouTube, you can decide for yourself.
Let's start with Jeb Bush and Donald Trump.
In the past few debates, Bush would attempt to throw a verbal punch at Trump, only to see it bounce back and hit him in the face. On Tuesday, he stood his ground, and he got under Trump's skin for the first time. Throwing punches isn't Jeb's strong suit, but at some points — "A little of your own medicine there, Donald" — he even seemed to be enjoying himself, something new for Bush at these debates. Most importantly, he didn't let Trump walk all over him:
Bush's whole line of attack against Trump was that he is not a serious candidate and his policy prescriptions aren't serious proposals. He made some good substantive points when he argued that the U.S. needs the help of Kurdish and Sunni Muslims to beat the Islamic State, and Trump was just alienating needed allies with his anti-Muslim bluster. But his best jab at Trump came when he suggested that Trump got his foreign policy ideas from watching Saturday morning cartoons:
Will Bush's improved performance save his campaign? As The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza says, one "strong" debate "may be (and probably is) too little, too late" for Jeb, since "he has dipped so far down in national — and most state — polls." But between the two candidates — as Trump himself pointed out — Bush has much less to lose than the current GOP frontrunner. And if Bush didn't draw blood, Marco Rubio did, very artfully.
Conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt asked Trump about the part of America's nuclear triad that makes him the most nervous, and Trump appears to have never heard the term before. So Hewitt turned to Rubio, who delivered a pitch-perfect jab at Trump's lack of knowledge about nuclear defense: "First, let's explain to people at home what the triad is — maybe a lot of people haven't heard that terminology before."
As the Republican primary shifts increasingly toward national security issues, Trump's lack of specificity and knowledge may come back to haunt him.
It's a good topic for another establishment candidate, though. On the rise in New Hampshire, Chris Christie on Tuesday ably mixed his lack of exposure to Washington with his experience as a federal prosecutor in New Jersey after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But Christie was probably also right, that the debate got so involved in Senate legislative minutia that most voters' "eyes are glazing over."
The big fight everyone was expecting — Donald Trump versus Ted Cruz — did not happen, at least not on the surface. Cruz had an overall good debate, but the moment when Trump smothered him with love was maybe the worst moment of his campaign — it's hard to look strong and presidential if you come across as a servile, sycophant lap poodle — and Trump's savviest moment of the night.
If Tuesday's debate is like the four before, it won't move the polls very much. But at least for a little over two hours on national television, the Republican establishment did a better job of explaining its case to the American people than the outsiders who have dominated the GOP race thus far. If the establishment candidates — Rubio, Bush, Christie — can build on that, maybe one of them will get the nomination.
And in the dark, dark world the candidates painted Tuesday night, just before an unseasonably warm and sunny Christmas, that will have to count as an establishment win.