Overall, Donald Trump had a strong performance in last night's GOP debate, aside from his catastrophic mishandling of the H-1b issue and forgetting his own platform
. Of course, that sounds like someone saying, "Well aside from that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?"
Still, politically,Trump may not be harmed by this debate. Let's examine why.
1. Trump has never had a good debate, and it hasn't hurt him.
Donald Trump is not a great debater. He's not a bad debater, unlike "serious" politician Jeb Bush, who has no business being on stage. But he's never had a truly dominant performance.
In the first debate, everyone was expecting Trump to crash and burn. He didn't, so he won.
In the second debate, Carly Fiorina, objectively speaking, was a superior debater. This led to a Carly boomlet and weird Rich Lowry fantasies about "strong woman" Fiorina "cutting Trump's balls off" [Rich Lowry: Fiorina Cut Trump's Balls Off With the Precision of a Surgeon, by Ian Hanchett, Breitbart, September 23, 2015] Yet Trump emerged stronger than ever and Fiorina faded away. Last night, the Xena Warrior Princess of the GOP Establishment practically faded into the background.
And in the 3rd debate, Trump had some genuinely great moments. He had a strong opening, blowing Kasich out of the water. He had a hilarious bit about forcing CNBC to cut the length of the debate and used his closing statement to effectively restate the themes of his campaign. He had candidates actively kissing up to him (witness Mike Huckabee bragging about wearing a Trump tie). He effortlessly dismantled challenges to his tax plan by appealing to CNBC's own Larry Kudlow, showing the political wisdom of a supply side approach on this issue.
Even his H1-b flub will be interpreted by many as a victory. The critical soundbite was Trump responding to Becky Quick's question about where she came up with Trump's quote about Rubio being "Mark Zuckerburg's personal Senator." Trump fired back, "I don't know, you people write this stuff" [Trump Embarrasses Moderator: "I don't know... You people write this stuff", by Christian Datoc, Daily Caller, October 28, 2015]
Good line. The fact that the source of the quote was Trump's own platform might be lost on many.
In the age of Vine, the soundbite is king. And Trump is good at that.
2. Mainstream GOP analysts think Trump is getting better.
Erick Erickson writes:
Don’t look now, but Donald Trump had his best debate performance in Boulder and I say that as a frequent critic.
He had a great encounter, deservedly so, with the pretentious jerk from Ohio and put Kasich in his place. Then he turned several really just jackass level questions around on the moderators without being overly antagonistic to either them or the other candidates on stage.
It was genuinely his best debate performance of the campaign.
[Donald Trump Had His Best Debate Performance Ever, Erick on the Radio, October 29, 2015]
The Weekly Standard
Over the last few weeks, Trump has gotten better on the stump. Well, don’t look now, but he’s getting better at debates, too. Trump was reasonably disciplined. He kept his agro to a medium-high level. And his situational awareness is getting keener, too. Note how he backed John Kasich into such a bad corner on Lehmann Brothers that he protested, “I was a banker, and I was proud of it!” When that’s your answer, you’ve lost the exchange. Even at a Republican debate.
And Trump had a hammer close: “Our country doesn’t win anymore. We used to win. We don’t anymore.” I remain convinced that this line (along with his hardliner on immigration) is the core of Trump’s appeal. But he didn’t just restate this theme in his closing argument. He used it to: (1) beat up CNBC; and (2) argue that his man-handling of these media twits is an example of what he’ll do as president. It was brilliant political theater.
[We Have Our Final Six, by Jonathan V. Last, October 28, 2015]
The Strange New Respect
for Trump's debating prowess shows Beltway Right types may be reconciling themselves to the idea of Trump as the GOP nominee, or at least as somebody whose endorsement and support the GOP nominee will desperately need. And objectively speaking, he is getting better, just as he is getting better on the stump.
3. The polls all show he won
As is his style, Trump is trumpeting the online polls showing that most people think he won the debates. This means the Main Stream Media has to report the story that Trump "won" last night.
Donald Trump emerged the victor of Wednesday night’s third GOP presidential debate, according to flash polls of three websites' users.
Trump overwhelmingly won the contest in Boulder, Colo., according to online surveys from Time, The Drudge Report and CNBC, the network hosting the contest.
Drudge has Trump beating his closest competition during the event by approximately 32 points among its respondents. He earned 54 percent compared to 22 percent for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Drudge’s second place Republican contender.
Drudge ranks Rubio third overall with 11 percent, while Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) takes fourth with 4 percent and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson finishes fifth, also around 4 percent.
Time, meanwhile, has Trump besting the rest of the GOP’s 2016 presidential field by 26 points among its participants.
[Online polls: Trump won third GOP debate, by Mark Hensch, The Hill, October 29, 2015]
The "Trump won" story will suck up way more oxygen than the fact checking stories about Trump.
Of course, many Trump supporters would say he "won" no matter what The Donald said on stage. But this still tells us something. Ben Carson is leading in some Iowa polls and even national polls, but no one is saying Carson won the debates. This suggests that if there is a reshuffling of political support in the next few days, Carson is more likely to bleed supporters than Trump. Ted Cruz, who is gearing up for his own push to evangelicals, may start to gain at Carson's expense. Trump's supporters are simply more dedicated and are remaining loyal even as the GOP opposition to Trump is softening.
Does this mean Trump can rest easy? Absolutely not. He managed to plant a bomb in midst of his own campaign last night.
Here's his biggest problem.
He May Have Just Taken Away The Biggest Reason To Vote For Him By Flip Flopping on Immigration
As Jim Antle noted:
It appears that Trump may have simply signed his name to policies more closely associated with Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., without really internalizing or even fully comprehending them.
Why does any of this matter? Because Trump may offer the significant number of voters who don't want to increase, or even want to reduce, immigration the worst of all possible worlds: rhetoric that alienates Hispanics and immigrants without policies that would actually moderate immigration levels or promote assimilation.
[Is Trump for real on immigration, Washington Examiner, October 29, 2015]
Trump's main threat could end up being Marco Rubio. Luckily, Trump has an effective takedown of Marco Rubio on his own immigration platform
. But it's no good if Trump doesn't believe it or hasn't even read it carefully. And there's simply no way Trump can confront Rubio, who is clearly becoming the Establishment's new favorite, if Trump doesn't talk about immigration and H1-b visas.
Dana Lind gloats at Vox:
The Zuckerberg gaffe was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Trump's debate performance on immigration: It was a flip-flop that was visible even to people who knew nothing about what Trump's been saying about immigration throughout his campaign. But to people who've been following the issue, Trump's entire debate performance last night was like that. It looked for all the world like Trump was sanding down everything that distinguished him from other Republicans on the signature issue of his campaign...
If you haven't considered this possibility lately, you should do it now: Donald Trump might be getting really, truly serious about running for the Republican nomination and the presidency. He might be trying to make himself less terrifying to the Republican establishment, in the hopes they'll aim their fire at Ben Carson instead. He might be trying to lay the groundwork to appeal to Americans beyond the base that generated so much enthusiasm for him.
Ironically, that's exactly why the anti-immigration base congenitally distrusts Republican politicians: They assume politicians will pander to them during the primary, and then embrace immigrants — legal and possibly unauthorized as well — after the nomination is sewn up. They cast away their distrust for Trump. And it's possible that he's the one to betray them.
[Republican debate: Donald Trump's entire immigration performance was a massive flip-flop, October 29, 2015]
Forget policy. Politically, this is an insane idea. The Establishment will back Rubio or even Cruz before Trump. Trump's position on taxes has already defanged much of the GOP Establishment so there's not much more to gain. And Trump will find his dedicated grassroots base evaporate overnight if he caves on immigration, leaving him at the mercy of the jackals in the MSM and the GOP who have been waiting for any sign of weakness.
If Trump is serious about winning, let alone about solving the immigration crisis, he needs to give Jeff Sessions a call and become more educated about and dedicated to defending what is ostensibly his own position. He has to own his own platform. If he buckles, Trump will find himself politically irrelevant in a matter of days, if not hours, as well as a laughingstock.
Is it time to jump off the Trump Train? Not yet. His official position is still his official position and some off the cuff comments about general outlines of policy in a debate don't change that. After all, originally he was in favor of bringing in Syrian immigrants to the United States before he flip-flopped (in a good way) and took a hard line. Look for something akin to this in the next few days.
At this point, no matter what he does, they'll call him a racist. Time for Trump to burn his ships. It's victory or death.