From a purely PR point of view, Justice Antonin Scalia’s tragic death came at an optimal time. The outspoken conservative judge would have been eulogized expansively in any case, but by virtue of the partisan polarization in Washington and the Republican debate held in South Carolina on Saturday night he became a hot topic in the election campaign as well.
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It’s true that all the candidates, with the exception of Jeb Bush, exploited Scalia’s passing for political gain by demanding that President Barack Obama refrain from nominating a replacement, but they all pronounced the late judge’s name right, and in PR, that’s all that matters.
And this bizarre conflation of death and politics wasn’t even the most extraordinary feature of the ninth debate, which was wilder than any of its eight predecessors. If anyone thought for a minute that the growing tensions between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton meant they were catching up to the GOP in combativeness, Donald Trump and Company proved on Saturday night that the Democrats still have a lot to learn. They waged all-out war on the stage of the Peace Center in Greenville, including schoolyard-style shouts and insults, reflecting the importance that the candidates attach to next Saturday’s primaries in South Carolina as well as the fact that they really can’t stand each other any more, if they ever did.
And the funny thing is that several hours before the debate, Trump’s campaign aides were spreading the word that he intends to be calmer and gentler this time around, when, in fact, he seemed fiercer and more unruly than ever before. Trump stood on the stage and slaughtered sacred Republican cows and then barbecued them as well. Not only did he accuse George Bush and his administration of knowingly lying to the American people about the Iraq war, he then poured high-octane fuel on the fire by saddling Bush with responsibility for the September 11, 2001 terror attacks “in which hundreds of my friends died.” To these treacherous waters even the Democrats were scared to go.
Sometimes it seems that Trump is like a junkie of extreme sports who is addicted to taking risks. He lives on the edge, pushing the envelope, jumping out without a reserve parachute or with no parachute at all, taunting the Grim Reaper of politics to touch him if it dares. Several commentators said that this time, Trump had really crossed a line and that even his diehard fans would find his comments hard to accept. They reminded themselves that they’d made similar statements in the past, and the result was that Trump inevitably shot up in the polls.
The only candidate who willingly jumped into the ring to tackle Trump was Jeb Bush, who improves and grows in confidence with each debate, though it may be too late to save his candidacy anyway. Bush laid into Trump repeatedly, saying that the New York real estate magnate got his foreign policy from TV shows, is trying to insult his way to the presidency, has gone bankrupt, sullies his speech, isn’t nice to women etc.
Interestingly, despite the fact that Bush doesn’t seem to be threatening Trump in the polls, he does appear to be getting under his skin. This, of is a complete reversal, of course, of the early debates in which Bush’s weak reaction to Trump’s verbal abuse humiliated him and shot him down in the polls.
And the Bush-Trump conflagration wasn’t the only fight in the melee, which descended several times to mutual shouting and heckling, as if this was the Israeli Knesset. Trump called Cruz “the biggest liar” and “a nasty guy” after Cruz depicted him as a Trojan horse with liberal baggage. Cruz also took heavy fire from Rubio, who supplied the comic relief of the evening, when he claimed that his fellow Cuban didn’t even speak Spanish. Cruz responded by muttering a few words that experts are still trying to decipher: some claim they were in gibberish, not Spanish, while others maintain that Cruz sounded like a white high-schooler who took Spanish because he needed a second language.
Rubio seemed to be recovering nicely from his weird robotic glitch that struck him at the New Hampshire debate, reverting to his normal polished rhetoric, but it remains to be seen whether the damage he sustained can be repaired. New Hampshire runner up John Kasich tried to position himself above the personal attacks of his rivals and said he would only discuss the issues on their merits, a move that promises him a few good words from commentators and zero attention from the audience. And Ben Carson supplied the entertainment, as usual, this time by making a mistake about the Constitution, then correcting himself and immediately attacking the “leftist media” in advance for making a big deal out of it.
Yes, there were also some important points being made about the situation in Syria, nation-building, Medicaid, immigration and so on. But the most telling part of the evening came when CBS host John Dickerson tried to correct Cruz and others who had mistakenly asserted that Supreme Court justices hadn't been appointed in an election year for over 80 years. Not so, asserted Dickerson, citing Justice Anthony Kennedy whose appointment by Ronald Reagan was approved by the Senate in February 1988. And the audience? The audience roundly booed Dickerson, not Cruz, sending a message that facts don’t count, the media is against us, and give us more of the blood that we crave to see.