MIAMI, March 10, 2016 — Seven days after Republican candidates reenacted the movie Animal House in Detroit, they joined each other for a cup of tea in Miami.
At the CNN GOP debate held at the University of Miami, all four remaining presidential contenders were on their best behavior. While the Michigan debate was a food fight, this Miami debate was a civilized discussion. Disagreements were about policy, and personal attacks were reduced to zero. William F. Buckley would have enjoyed this spirited jousting over issues.
Lead moderator Jake Tapper asked questions that were intelligent, thoughtful, and relevant. He was joined by radio host Hugh Hewitt, CNN’s Dana Bash, and Steve Dinan. The only question of the night that wasted time was about climate change. That one was specifically requested by Miami’s Mayor. Everything else was substantive, and worthy of a debate. For all the moderators, there was nothing to complain about. Grade: A
Florida Senator Marco Rubio had the home field advantage, and he made the most of it. He and Texas Senator Ted Cruz took businessman Donald Trump apart, but with a scalpel and not a machete. Rather than trade insults, they calmly and effectively disagreed with him on policy. Those who worship Trump will not be swayed by policy. He is running a cult of personality campaign. For those looking for policy differences, Rubio and Cruz kept showing a clearer understanding of issues than Trump.
On Cuba, Trump may have in the future not try to explain Cuba policy to two Cubans in front of a Cuban audience. Rubio ticked off a litany of things Cuba must do before we even consider normalized relations.
On Israel, Trump tried to say he was the best on Israel and that his daughter is Jewish. The crowd was underwhelmed. Rubio and Cruz clearly explained why Trump’s neutral stance on Israel is really an anti-Israel position. They both smartly noted that they were not criticizing his intentions. He was coming from a place of ignorance on the issue, not malice. They killed him with kindness while explaining to the crowd why he was wrong. The Palestinians are partly controlled by terrorist organization Hamas. A peace deal with Hamas is impossible and neutrality is not the answer.
On Social Security, Rubio and Cruz insisted that the retirement age had to be raised. Trump would leave it alone but would not say what he would do to fix it.
When asked if all 1.6 billion Muslims hated America, Trump insisted that a lot of them do. Cruz and Rubio again both explained why that stance was incorrect and counterproductive to America’s national interest. Rubio pointed out that we don’t have to be politically correct but that we do have to be correct. The crowd roared in approval.
The only thing that saved Trump was that he spoke in a calm voice and did not resort to a single insult. So while he lost badly on substance, he had enough professional style. Rubio and Cruz may have significantly helped themselves on this night, but Trump did not do anything to drastically hurt himself.
One question about violence at Trump rallies by his supporters may or may not become an issue going forward. Trump was very tepid about condemning it but Rubio and Cruz were tepid in going after Trump. They were determined to stick to policy.
Rubio is determined to win his home state of Florida, and his strong debate performance in his home city may have righted the ship. His situation coming in was desperate, but a Florida win puts him right back in the game. Trump and Cruz remain in the lead, although their chance of finishing off Rubio in the March 15th Florida primary just got a little tougher.
Ohio Governor John Kasich was also at the debate. He did not say anything notable in a positive or negative. He was just there. He ended with his saccharine platitude about running a positive campaign. He has been lucky, letting other candidates do the dirty work and eviscerate each other. He has not attacked anyone because he has not been attacked himself. That is because for the most part he has been ignored as a non-factor. This debate did not change that.