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Without Trump, GOP candidates debate who despises Cruz the most

As you watch Ted Cruz weasel around the issues, you find that you don’t like him either.

Sen. Ted Cruz speaking during Thursday night's debate in Des Moines, Iowa.
REUTERS/Jim Young

It was certainly possible to imagine, in advance, that Donald Trump’s petulant decision to skip the last pre-Iowa debate would backfire on him, making him look like a coward or a baby or a control freak or whatever. But, after suffering through Thursday night’s two-hour blather-a-thon, I suspect Trump “won” the debate by not showing up.

It was incredibly boring. I would like to stick to the old-fashioned eat-your-vegetables belief that it is not the job of politics to be entertaining. I actually believe that — or am trying, desperately against all evidence, to cling to some version of that pre-Trumpian belief.

But in the case of last night’s GOP presidential debate, “boring” doesn’t mean substantive. In addition to lacking entertainment value, the debate also lacked substance. I didn’t learn anything interesting about any of the candidates’ records or ideas. You wouldn’t have to be terribly cynical to have an overwhelming impression that they were almost all lying or at least exaggerating their “records” of “accomplishment.”

(The exception to that would Dr. Ben Carson, who has no “record,” at least in the government-policy area. He chose to filibuster his own closing statement by reciting the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. He got only two words wrong, out of 52, as far as I can tell.)

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Without Trump to suck up all the oxygen, it came across how much the other candidates despise Sen. Ted Cruz. (And, watching and listening to him, it’s not that hard to understand why.) Of course, it’s well known that the Republican Establishment dislikes Cruz so much that many of its members prefer Trump.

In a time of anti-establishment fervor, that could be a badge of honor, unless, as you watch Cruz weasel around the issues, you find that you don’t like him either. (Not a single one of Cruz’s Senate colleagues supports him for president, but he did manage to get one U.S. House member from Iowa, Steve King, to co-chair his campaign, and he managed to mention King five times last night.)

The level of dislike for Cruz among his colleagues actually became a premise for one of co-moderator Chris Wallace’s questions. It turns out that on several occasions on the Senate floor, Cruz has made motions that died for lack of a second, even though seconding a colleague’s motion is normally treated as a minimal act of senatorial courtesy.

Obama-bashing trophy

Marco Rubio wins the Obama-bashing trophy for the night for this, from his opening statement: “This campaign is about the greatest country in the world and a president who has systematically destroyed many of the things that made America special.”

Cruz wins the transparently-sucking-up-to-Iowa trophy for this: “If I am elected president, keep an eye on the tarmac, because I’ll be back. Iowa in 2017 will not be fly-over country. It will be fly-to country.”

In general, the candidates have all learned that it is better to lie than tell a truth that doesn’t fit the political needs of the moment. Here are a couple of examples from last night.

The Fox team, which did a good job, showed videotape of Cruz arguing for an amendment to the famous “Gang of Eight” bill on immigration in which Cruz plainly stated that he wanted the bill to pass and that he wanted to grant “those 11 million people who are here illegally, a legal status,” short of citizenship, that would allow them to remain in the U.S. And that if only his amendment would be adopted (which clarified that the 11 million would not be eligible for full citizenship, although their children born on U.S. soil would), the bill would be more likely to pass.

After showing the tape, Megyn Kelly (Trump’s favorite journalist) asked Cruz: “Was that all an act? It was pretty convincing.”

Cruz moved his lips for a while. Words came out. None of them responded to her question, and none of them told the truth when he said on the videotape:

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“I don’t want immigration reform to fail. I want immigration reform to pass. I believe if this amendment were to pass, the chances of this bill passing into law would increase dramatically.”

What he meant was: “I want this amendment to pass because I believe it will help cause the overall bill to fail.”

He managed to get through the moment without admitting that what he said on the videotape was a — what’s the word I’m searching for? — lie.

Accidental truth-telling

The other beauty in the accidental truth-telling-moment department occurred near the end. Jeb Bush, who by consensus had his best debate so far (which isn’t saying much), made a pitch for people to read a book he wrote about the immigration issue.

Bush believes — he said so last night and he apparently said so in his book — that “we should have a path to legal status for the 12 million people that are here illegally. It means, come out from the shadows, pay a fine, earn legal status by working, by paying taxes, learning English. Not committing crimes and earn legal status where you’re not cutting in front of the line for people that are patiently waiting outside.”

Rubio said last night that “earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty.” He also claims to be opposed to amnesty. But, in the past, he (like Bush) favored an earned-path to legal status — not citizenship, but legal status — which could also be called a form of “amnesty” because it allows those who came into the country illegally to remain here legally. Now that part of his evolution on the issue has become inconvenient. But he had the chutzpah to accuse Bush thus:

RUBIO (To Bush): You used to support a path to citizenship.

BUSH: So did you.

(LAUGHTER)

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RUBIO: Well, but you changed the — in the book…

BUSH: Yeah. So did you, Marco.

Rubio didn’t deny it, didn’t confirm it, but pivoted to the uber-safe, consensus Republican position that no overall solution to immigration reform can work until greater measures are adopted to prevent more migrants from crossing the border illegally.

If by any chance you would like to read a full, annotated transcript of the debate, the Washington Post has once again supplied one.