By Richard E. Vatz
This has been a most dispiriting presidential election campaign for those hoping for moderates and reasonably honest people as the likely presidential nominee for either the Democrats or Republicans.
There appear to be no candidates who satisfy both of those criteria among the likely winners of their party’s nomination: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders.
Looking forward to Thursday night’s CNN Republican debate in Miami, which included John Kasich and Marco Rubio as well, it was less and less likely that another debate would significantly change hardening support or opposition to the remaining candidates.
This despite the fact that Kasich appeared to be gaining marginally and Rubio (this writer’s favorite) had virtually destroyed his own chances by stylistically attacking Donald Trump in tawdry rhetoric reflecting on The Donald’s manhood and his ability to control his bladder.
Rubio’s slim reed
The thin reed of Rubio’s hope was that the Florida polls — the latest showing Rubio in second place by 9 points — are way off, a hope nurtured by Bernie Sanders’ win in Michigan which was, The Wall Street Journal said, “one of the more remarkable upsets since the dawn of political polling.”
The major suspense appeared to be as follows: whether the Republicans were going to opt for Ted Cruz and deny the nomination to the holder of a plurality of delegates, Donald Trump, risking losing his supporters and/or his running as an independent.
Trump will sport an endorsement from Ben Carson — say it ain’t so, Ben — and Cruz already has one from Carly Fiorina.
The actual debate
As to the actual debate:
Rubio, fresh from apologizing for the inappropriateness of his personal attacks on Trump, came strongly out of the gate and got even better as the evening wore on.
Trump, asked if he had taken advantage of trade deals, the first topic, said he knew the system better than anyone, a common general claim of his.
Rubio talked of how actual free trade benefits the United States. He spoke fluently and approvingly of the H-1B visa program but not its use by some companies to disadvantage American workers. Trump countered that the program is hurting America, but he uses it because it is legal and it benefits his business.
Cruz argued that we are being killed because the Obama administration policies force American workers to go overseas, and we need more taxes on imports and fewer on exports. On illegal immigration, he argued that Democrats support a system so liberal as to cripple workers in the U.S.
Classic liberal-conservative issues
Much of the debate concerned classic liberal-conservative issues, like Common Core, although Kasich and Cruz disagreed on this issue, Social Security, the Supreme Court, a balanced budget, and foreign policy, including Israel, ISIS, Iran and Cuba.
Repeatedly on issues Rubio was the most articulate candidate, and there was no devolving into ugly ad hominem attacks.
Trump talked of goals “to make America great again” without specifying how eliminating “waste, fraud and abuse” would have a significantly salutary effect on deficits. Rubio challenged him on those claims, and Trump reiterated them. Cruz doubled down on the Rubio argument and described Trump as offering nothing but generalities and platitudes.
Trade and Muslims
CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Trump if he would try to redefine what the Republican Party should stand for. Trump said trade was the primary issue regarding the advantage given outside countries, like China. Trump said his policies would encourage people to buy locally, and Cruz said it would punish the American consumer.
Donald Trump went back to his argument that “a lot of Muslims” hate America, and Rubio countered that when you look at Muslims who have served and died for this country, you realize how short-sighted this is. Rubio also talked eloquently about the imperative of working with Muslims, and Kasich supported him with almost equal strength and clarity.
Cruz, too, was strong and forthright on these issues, and, along with Rubio, attacked Trump’s claim of the importance of maintaining negotiating neutrality with the Palestinian Authority.
Overall, Rubio had a great night of convincing, clear and articulate rhetoric and, as indicated above, avoided personal attacks on Trump. His dissecting of the naiveté that has led the United States to suborn Cuba’s consistent, appalling anti-democratic behavior was quite impressive.
Cruz and Kasich were also strong, and Trump was Trump: iterating and reiterating general goals without specifying any tactics or even strategies.
It must be said that Cruz’s strongest moment was citing the Iranian release of 52 hostages on Inauguration Day in 1981 to show the difference in effectiveness between strong leadership (Ronald Reagan) and weak leadership (Jimmy Carter).
In the end, the question is how malleable is the Republican electorate later in the primary game. In past years, the answer was always “not very.” In this surprising campaign year, it is not a certainty that minds cannot be changed, but it is certainly more difficult.
Professor Richard Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University and is author of The Only Authentic Book Of Persuasion.