No doubt, the frightened denizens of the Establishment are celebrating that their champion, Sen. Marco Rubio, finally sunk his teeth into Donald Trump. Even better, Sen. Ted Cruz bit down too, helping wound the front-runner and at last, they think, perhaps causing him harm. But there is no reason for toasting in the salons of the elite, where what is happening to them is poorly understood.
Donald Trump’s popularity and his march to a string of Super Tuesday victories likely won’t be hindered by the sudden feistiness of his opponents in Thursday night’s debate in Houston. The paradigm of American politics has changed, and one sudden burst of aggressiveness from two senators in the tenth GOP debate isn’t going to alter what is happening any more than a shooting star disrupts the paths of the planets.
The people have decided two things. First, the system is broken, and it is not serving their needs. It is not stemming unfettered immigration, it is not eschewing bad trade deals, it is not bringing jobs back to middle America, and it is letting the country and its standing in the world fall apart.
Politicians with the smooth elocution like that evinced Thursday evening by Rubio and Cruz have already promised change and not delivered it. That these two finally perked up doesn’t mean the essential problem GOP voters have with them has changed.
Rubio and Cruz made traditional conservative arguments. But traditional conservatism is not what will prevail this year. A new conservatism has arisen, grounded in populism that is more concerned with eradicating the old, ineffective order than it is with ideological purity.
Those who think what Cruz and Rubio did matters are stuck looking at their little debate scorecard. They are missing the game.
Trump projects the energy and strength to suggest he will do something different, and while he is certainly light on details, people think his essential instincts — particularly on immigration, trade, and jobs — are correct.
The beating he took was of illusory value to the Establishment. As with the Kennedy-Nixon debates more than a half century ago, if you heard it on radio you might have thought one person won, but if you saw it you might have thought another did. The body language onstage said a lot. He stood nonchalantly as he was attacked, his pose one of relaxation and command. His attackers leaned forward and appeared a little too young and eager as they went after Trump, who looked as if he couldn’t care less. And when he returned fire, he did so with his characteristic aggressiveness.
That Cruz and Rubio both did well probably wounds each of them more than Trump. They needed to take down each other so one of them could challenge the front-runner and test whether there is a “ceiling” to his support. Neither succeeded. Meantime, Trump’s core supporters feel strongly about their choice and will continue to back him and propel him to victory.
Cruz and Rubio can show off their command of policy all they want and attack Trump for his inconsistencies and alleged personality flaws. But these are things voters are already aware of, and Trump is winning. The senators are singing from a hymnal everyone has long ago put under the pew. Nobody is listening to their last-minute, Hail Mary call.