What if they gave a debate without Donald Trump?

debate in Iowa
The usual suspects

| Monday night's Republican debate was high drama. Would Trump show up, or wouldn't he? And if he didn't how would that affect the debate? Now we know.

He didn't show up. The cable news channels were ready and eager, showing a live shot of his plane as it taxied to a stop at the Des Moines airport and stopped on the tarmac. A bevy of SUVs lined up below the ramp ready to whisk The Donald away to … One half expected to watch a helicopter tracking the caravan along the freeway, alert for which exit they would take: to the debate? to the alternate event?

The punditocracy nearly gave themselves hernias with all the heavy lifting to devise possible scenaria. Maybe he would arrive late at the debate? Maybe he would go to the spin room after the debate? Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Ted Cruz snap-chat
Ted Cruz SnapChat

Whoever invented the term "silly season" must have foreseen this year's Republican campaign. Ted Cruz showed off his social media chops with Ducking Donald, a not so subtle dig at the front-runner who threatened to go missing. Brilliant. You have to admire witticism when you see it.

In the end, Trump carried through on his refusal to participate, originally because of Megyn Kelly, which would have been supremely silly, but then Fox gave him an even better reason to boycott the event when the issued a snarky statement trolling Trump for his frequent whines about being treated "fairly":

We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president — a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.

— Fox News Responds to Trump’s Latest ’Twitter Poll’ With First-Rate Trolling (Mediaite)

Whoa! Fox was being disrespectful. Fox wasn't fair. Trump would show them! Let them have their debate without him and see how many people would watch! Answer: 12.5 million (CNN), about half the viewership of the first debate with Trump.

I watched the whole debate, curious to see what would happen without Trump. (I would have been even happier if I could have figured out how to make picture-in-picture work on my TV — I kept getting two of the same broadcast side by side.)

The first thing to be noticed was the uncontained glee of Ted Cruz that he found himself at the center podium. And when he thinks he is going to make a joke or some particularly good bon mots, he gets a supercilious smirk on his face.

Ted Cruz
Awkward!

He puffed up and preened in the spotlight and tried to command the stage the way Trump does. But it didn't work out all that well. He tried to be funny with his response to the first question about "the elephant not in the room," but it didn't work. He's actually rather awkward and does not have a face that lends itself to comedy. Then he went on to a treacly speech about the "men and women" of Iowa who had offered him "incredible hospitality" over the last year. You know that feeling when you've eaten too much cotton candy? That.

Wild West gunfighters
Wild West gunfighters

But back to Cruz. Take a look at the photo (top) and the detail (left). Notice the way Cruz is standing. Like Larry Craig, ex-senator from Idaho (R), Cruz has a "wide stance" in all his pictures. His feet are placed far apart and his arms are always held away from his sides. Perhaps he models his posture after Wild West gunfighters preparing to draw on each other!

And who knew Jeb! was so tall? His Mr Rogers persona while campaigning has caused me to completely overlook his actual size!

For all his rhetorical talents - and Cruz has many - he often ends up saying stuff that is just garbage:

[W]e have seen now in six years of Obamacare that it has been a disaster. It is the biggest job-killer in this country. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs, have been forced into part-time work, have lost their health insurance, have lost their doctors, have seen their premiums skyrocket.

Everything in that paragraph is demonstrably false. The years since Obamacare was passed have been ones of unprecedented job creation. Unemployment is lower than it has been since 2008! Millions have insurance who didn't have it before. Premiums have not skyrocketed; the rate of growth has slowed. But obviously it is a paragraph he has memorized and it works well for "low-information" voters.

Trumps absence had a visible effect on the remaining candidates, who seemed more relaxed and confident. Of course, if Ben Carson were to relax any more, they'd have to give him a cot to sleep on. Even Jeb! Bush found his voice.

The other major effect of Trump's absence is that it painted a big target on Ted Cruz's back as the remaining candidates sought to claw their way into a clear second- or third-place finish in the Monday caucuses. Marco Rubio dominated the debate with almost a quarter of all the words spoken.

words spoken
Marco Rubio accounted for almost one-fourth of the words spoken during the debate.

And how did he use those words? Mostly for attacks on Hillary Clinton. But he, more than any of the others, trained his verbal fire on Barack Obama.

Mentions of Trump, Clinton, and Obama

Both Cruz and Rubio directed fire at Hillary Clinton, but Cruz especially blasted Barack Obama (blue arrows and numbers added by me)

— 3 charts that explain the Trump-less Republican debate (Washington Post)

I find Rubio very unsettling to listen to. First, every word he says has been memorized. You can tell this because he never hesitates while searching for a word, there is a complete absence of fillers like "er" or "um." Everything is delivered in the same staccato style and rhythm. He is like a talking doll — you pull the string and out comes a pre-recorded message. If there is laughter or applause, he simply continues from the point of interruption.

As far as the polls are concerned, Iowa, on Monday night you're going to go to a caucus site and you'll be the first Americans that vote in this election. You will be the first Americans that get to answer the fundamental question, what comes next for this country after seven disastrous years of Barack Obama.

And let me tell you what the answer better not be. It better not be Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders is a socialist. I think Bernie Sanders is good candidate for president of Sweden.

(LAUGHTER)

We don't want to be Sweden. We want to be the United States of America.

(APPLAUSE)

And Hillary Clinton, Hillary Clinton is disqualified from being the commander-in-chief of the United States. In fact, one of her first acts as president may very well be to pardon herself because Hillary Clinton...

(LAUGHTER)

Hillary Clinton stored classified information on her private server. And Hillary Clinton lied to the families of those four brave Americans who lost their life in Benghazi. And anyone who lies to the families of Americans who have died in the service of this country can never be commander-in-chief of the United States.

One should note that the Swedes are not happy with this remark; Sweden is a monarchy, and they do not have a president.

Meanwhile, over at Trump's veterans fund-raiser, two of the "undercard" debaters, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, appeared on stage with Trump.

Huckabee and Santorum at Trump event
Across town...

Although Santorum made pretense of standing off to the side so he would not be photographed behind a Trump podium, he fooled nobody. These two also-rans (although they were the winners of the previous two Iowa caucuses) were just looking for any opportunity to soak up a bit of the Trump limelight and get their faces on TV. Whether they're angling for VP slots or whether they still harbor delusions of inheriting Trump's followers when he inevitably fades. I say delusions because that "inevitable fade" is looking less and less likely with every day that passes.

A Chez Paul Slideshow View slideshow
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Last updated on May 1, 2016

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