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Republican debate turns inside out

Analysis: Fight between outsiders Trump and Cruz leaves issues aside and establishment candidates looking for an in

It would be easy to sum up Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate as a battle within a battle: Two outsiders duked it out for the top spot, while the GOP establishment continued its struggle to coalesce around a single candidate and to be heard. Those outsiders — businessman Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — did spend much of the two-and-a-half-hour gabfest attacking each other. Meanwhile, the party faithful, represented by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, tried to jump into the fray.

But to paint it in those broad terms is like critiquing the actors without ever naming the movie. Trump may have successfully defined himself as the anti-establishment front-runner, but in doing so, he has made it harder to understand just what an establishment Republican is.

Campaigning on an ever-escalating series of emotional one-liners — calling for border walls and Muslim bans — the real estate baron and reality TV star has been condemned for being short on details and policy proposals.

Yet while saying so little, Trump seems to stand for so much. The man who brags about his business acumen has himself become a brand. And not just any brand but the kind of wildly successful product whose name becomes synonymous with its category, the way Kleenex can mean facial tissue or Coke stands in for any soda. Trump is Trump’s style of politics, his collection of beliefs, the feeling voters get, negative or positive, when his name is raised.

Cruz also tosses a sort of branded hat into the political ring. He, too, styles himself as an outsider — perhaps surprisingly, considering he is a U.S. senator, a former high-priced attorney and a graduate of some of America’s most elite schools. And he is considered a master debater who, while in college, humiliated his opponents, a cunning litigator who has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Issues with issues

Yet for all these two candidates supposedly bring to a presidential campaign, almost all they brought to the stage in North Charleston, South Carolina, on Thursday were narrow, ad hominem attacks. Trump, by his own admission feeling the heat of a surging Cruz, has made the senator’s birth status practically the sole point of attack. Cruz was born in Canada — which, Trump contends, makes Cruz ineligible to be president.

In response, Cruz has accused Trump of harboring “New York values,” meant to imply the Queens-born billionaire has liberal politics, suspect morals and elitist pretentions.

Trump stood by his birther attack, giving Cruz the opening to quote Trump from just last year, when he said Cruz’s citizenship was not an issue. And Cruz’s New York rhetoric handed Trump one of the night’s most authentic moments, when the candidate from the Big Apple sang the praises of the city’s response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

And that issue-free back and forth made up almost the entirety of the Cruz-Trump clash. In fact, when Trump tried to explain one of his objections to Chinese trade policy, moderator Neil Cavuto of debate host the Fox Business Network interrupted, saying, “You’ve lost me.”

For the so-called establishment candidates onstage, issues were almost all they had. But were they really the issues of the establishment?

Yes, there was a wonky exchange between Rubio and Cruz, with the senator from Florida insisting the value-added tax proposal offered by the senator from Texas would hurt seniors — causing Cruz to fight back with the kind of arcane detail that must have had his advisers begging for Cavuto to interrupt again.

Tax policy aside, the rest of the issue talk Thursday saw a group of Republicans playing on a field plowed, seeded and hash-marked by Donald Trump.

Not Trump

Rubio used to believe in some form of comprehensive immigration legislation, but now he accuses Cruz of being too soft on undocumented migrants. Kasich wanted to modify Trump’s proposed ban on allowing Muslims to enter the U.S. by focusing only on Syrians, while Christie wants the ban to apply to Middle Eastern refugees and their families. Even Bush, who was perhaps the most directly critical, calling Trump’s stance “unhinged,” has proposed accepting only Christian refugees into the country.

There was little talk of trade policy or global finance, more typical concerns for establishment Republicans, and discussions of U.S. military posture were almost exclusively limited to the country’s undeclared war on the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The harsh words everyone onstage had for Obama tended toward the hyperbolic adjectives most associated with Trump and far surpassed any criticisms the establishment candidates had for the front-runner.

That is not in itself strange; this is the opposition party, after all. But in the headlong rush rightward on the issues and the light touch most used on Trump the man, you see a Republican establishment caught in not only an ideological bind but an electoral one as well. For while every pundit will tell you that the establishment is desperate to knock Trump out of the race, the Republican Party is desperate to keep his supporters.

Most GOP successes of the last 20 years have relied on motivating turnout among a committed base of religious conservatives and rock-ribbed pro-business Republicans, but Trump appears to draw his support from a different group. Perhaps angry, as Trump describes himself, and feeling abandoned by elected government at almost every level, the people who gave Trump early momentum and now seem to be pushing his national poll numbers to record heights, are citizens who rarely feel motivated to vote. This election cycle, many might be voting for the first time — if they get to vote for Trump, that is.

If, however, the GOP establishment — or any Republican candidate — is seen to be too actively aiming to take Trump out, then it risks taking his supporters out of electoral process too. And that, for a party already facing demographic challenges as the country grows younger and more ethnically diverse, is a paralyzing prospect.

So the reason no establishment candidate has emerged as a Trump killer is that no one wants to be identified with Trump’s demise.

That makes for a field of timid also-rans — cautiously jockeying for position, drafting behind the energetic front-runner — and a looming marketing disaster. 

In the marketplace of products, one of the worst things to be is a not brand. A not brand is one known primarily for its not being the brand that dominates the category. By definition, it is not a leader, and by necessity, its identity is defined by the brand it wants to overtake.

And this is what has become of the Republican establishment. Its candidates are careful not to stray too far from the positions that seem to stir the hearts of Trump supporters, and their communications teams have yet to craft any attack ads hitting the wealthy, thrice-married, Democrat-supporting, business-bankrupting Republican front-runner. Those candidates have instead chosen to play at the borders of Trump’s spreading territory, looking for fine details and modulations of tone to differentiate themselves. None are a thing in and of themselves anymore; they are simply and increasingly self-identified as not Trump.

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