It’s coming down to Trump or Trump-lite

Donald Trump and Jeb Bush spoke briefly after Tuesday night’s debate. Bush said in the debate that Trump couldn’t ‘insult his way to the presidency.’
Donald Trump and Jeb Bush spoke briefly after Tuesday night’s debate. Bush said in the debate that Trump couldn’t ‘insult his way to the presidency.’ AP

Donald Trump hyped the fifth debate of Republican candidates as if it were a heavyweight champion fight and he was defending his title. Yet for the first 20 minutes, the front-runner seemed barely to be there, not hitting anyone who didn’t hit him first. When the moderator, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, asked Jeb Bush about his description of Trump as “unhinged,” the Donald was surprisingly low energy: “Jeb doesn’t really believe I’m unhinged. He said that very simply because he has failed in this campaign.”

For Trump, that’s being nicey-nicey. For the next 20 minutes, he sat back as Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio tussled. The real-estate mogul didn’t make news until the conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt grilled him on his hints that he’d run as an independent if the party tried to cheat him out of the nomination. He promised not to.

We couldn’t see if his fingers were crossed.

It wasn’t Trump’s night, but it didn’t need to be. As Bush soberly laid out policy prescriptions, Trump grimaced and made faces. He makes no effort at consistency, even in the space of a two-hour debate. In his opening statement, he said his “total focus was on building up our military.” Later, in response to a question about interventions overseas, he said he was just sick about all that money going to the military when it could have been spent rebuilding America’s infrastructure.

The only surprise came later in the debate as Bush — Jeb ! — got under Trump’s skin. When Bush said he couldn’t “insult his way to the presidency,” Trump huffed and then tried to demonstrate how he planned to do exactly that, comparing his poll numbers to Bush’s: “You started off over here, Jeb. You’re moving over further and further. Pretty soon you’re going to be off the end.”

Bush correctly pointed out that Trump said two months ago that the Islamic State was not “our fight.” Trump had no answer.

In fact, none of the contenders on the stage in Las Vegas on Tuesday night had a credible strategy for taking on the terror group, agreeing only that President Barack Obama was to blame for the mess.

Nonetheless, with the exception of Sen. Rand Paul, they seemed to be in a contest to show who could be the most war-happy.

Trump defended his plan to kill family members of terrorists. Cruz only slightly dialed back an earlier remark that the United States should “carpet-bomb ISIS into oblivion” and find out whether “sand can glow in the dark.” He hedged by coming up with an entirely new tactic: pinpoint carpet-bombing.

Chris Christie, who mostly had a good night by recalling his prowess as a terrorist-fighting federal prosecutor rather than his experience as governor of New Jersey, said he would shoot down any Russian plane that wandered into a no-fly zone in northern Syria. The war talk was so over the top that Jeb, brother and defender of George W., almost came off as the peacenik on the stage, expressing shock at the “lack of seriousness” of some of the proposals.

The bout for second place between the two Cuban-Americans, Cruz and Rubio, came to a head on immigration. Of course, no one out-Trumps Trump, with his wall made of steel and rebar. But Cruz is getting close. He tried to make Rubio into a softy on securing the border, but Rubio finally has an answer that works, pointing out Cruz’s increase in visas for guest workers. Rubio said he had a proposal that would require any immigrant to wait 10 years just to get a green card. It didn’t sound like amnesty.

If there was a takeaway from the evening, it was that all the tsk-tsking about Trump’s insults and bombast has backfired. The other candidates, with the exception of Bush and Gov. John Kasich, haven’t become more sensible, they’ve become more Trump-like: Stoke fears, then be the superhero who wipes Islamic State off the face of the Earth. By the way, don’t let outsiders in and, when challenged on your extremism, just congratulate yourself for not being politically correct.

Those who hoped the final Republican debate of the year would sort out the field now have coal in their stocking. The choices are Trump or Trump-lite.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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