With Donald Trump away, the GOP field splits into hope and rage

Donald Trump was a no-show at the debate Thursday night, so Ted Cruz took the hits — and the candidates were able to stake their claims

The last GOP debate
(Image credit: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Donald Trump probably won Thursday night's Republican debate in Des Moines, Iowa, by simply not showing up.

That's partly a testament to Fox News, which brought in a new trick — confronting candidates with video of them contradicting their current positions — to the debate, putting Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) in a tough spot. Trump would almost certainly have been subject to the same treatment, and it probably wouldn't have been pretty.

But Trump also won because with him AWOL, the other candidates piled on Cruz, Trump's closest competitor in the polls. Trump "should have been on that stage tonight," an Iowa Republican named Aaron told Fox News pollster Frank Luntz, "but he inflicted some serious damage on Cruz. Cruz had to take the arrows tonight."

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Trump, meanwhile, suffered little harm from being "the elephant not in the room," as Megyn Kelly joked. Jeb Bush called him a "teddy bear," Rubio said he is "the greatest show on earth," and Cruz made a pretty lame (but well-received) joke about Trump calling his fellow candidates "stupid, fat, and ugly." Later, Cruz told the Fox News moderators, "Gosh, if you guys ask one more mean questions, I may have to leave the stage." That was probably a dig at Trump, too, but he muddied the waters by first complaining to moderator Chris Wallace: "The last four questions have been 'Rand, please attack Ted,' 'Marco, please attack Ted,' 'Chris, please attack Ted,' 'Jeb, please attack Ted.'"

Still, the biggest effect of Trump not being center stage at the debate was that the other seven candidates were able to make their final cases to Iowa votes in a serious, substantive manner. And in staking their claims, the candidates split into two rough groups: hope and rage.

For Rubio, Cruz, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, President Obama's America is still a frightening, besieged, endangered land further threatened by the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency. They have apparently decided that fear is the great electoral motivator, which isn't a terrible bet. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Sen. Rand Paul certainly didn't say nice things about Obama and Clinton, but they presented a more hopeful view of America, painting it as a country on the wrong track that can be steered back on course with a little competence. Ben Carson, when he spoke, didn't say much of anything.

Rubio was perhaps the most forceful harbinger of doom, arguing that Obama has "destroyed many of the things that made America special," trying to make America "more like the rest of the world" in unspecified ways. "The bible commands us to let our light shine on the world," he said in his closing statement. "For over 200 years, America's light has been shining on the world and the world has never been the same again. But now, that light is dimming a little, after seven years of Barack Obama."

"Our country is in crisis," Cruz said. "We're worried the about future of our children and we've been burned over and over again." Christie focused most of his answers on attacking Hillary Clinton, but he also painted a dark picture of America's communities: "Here's the problem in this country right now. The problem is that Barack Obama has made law enforcement the enemy, Hillary Clinton has made law enforcement the enemy.... It's making everybody nervous to get out of their cars if you're a law enforcement officer. It's making people in neighborhoods nervous to go to law enforcement."

The solution for Cruz and Rubio is ramped up military spending, mainly to tackle the Islamic State, which Rubio called "the most dangerous jihadist group in the history of mankind," promising that "if we capture any of these ISIS killers alive, they are going to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and we're going to find out everything they know, because when I'm president, unlike Barack Obama, we will keep this country safe." Christie said the NSA and U.S. spy agencies need to be able to conduct surveillance at will, in and out of the U.S.

Rand Paul, who called himself the "one true fiscal conservative" in the race, advocated cutting military spending and requiring warrants for domestic surveillance, but his tone was also notably more optimistic. "I don't think you have to give up your liberty for a false sense of security," he said. He spoke movingly about trying to fix the criminal justice system so that the war on drugs doesn't "unfairly incarcerate another generation of young African-American males."

Bush said that America "should be a welcoming nation," including to immigrants, adding that "you can deal with the threat of terror and also recognize that this country should be aspirational across the board." He also took on Trump, saying the GOP frontrunner "believed that in reaction to people's fears that we should ban all Muslims. Well, that creates an environment that's toxic in our own country."

The big cheerleader for hope, though, was Kasich. "We cannot fix things in this country — the Social Security, the border, balancing the budget, getting wages to grow faster — unless we lead as conservatives, but we also invite people in from the other party," he said. "We have to come together as a country. And we have to stop all the divisions." While most Republicans have been painting government as the problem, Kasich disagreed: "We have to have an attitude when we're in government of servinghood. That's what really matters. We serve you. You don't serve us." And regarding ISIS and other threats, he added, "we're going to be just fine and America is going to continue to lead the world."

In case it wasn't clear, Kasich assured voters that he's "an optimist," explaining:

We can in fact create jobs and provide job security. We can create a situation where wages begin to rise. We can create a situation for our children to be able to get a decent job to pay down their college debt. We can re-assume our role in the world. But all of this has to come together when we have a positive attitude, an optimistic approach, an ability for us to set the tune as conservatives, to invite other people in to be part of that orchestra. [Kasich, GOP debate]

It's two different sets of visions of where America is now. The question is whether the country needs some tinkering or a massive effort to save it from imminent destruction. Iowa Republicans will have the first shot at endorsing one of those two worldviews on Monday. Will they choose hope or fear?

We'll find out in a few days, but it's probably worth noting that Team Hope was on the outer, lower-polling ends of the stage, while Team Rage occupied the center.

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.