Debate Grades: Donald Trump Flip-Flops and Flounders, But Will It Matter?

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

Thursday night’s contentious, explosive, and altogether humiliating crapshow of a debate may not have any impact on the Republican nomination race. Donald Trump has a significant delegate lead; Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) trails him heavily in Florida; Ohio Governor John Kasich has precisely one state in which he matters; and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has to wait for a consolidated field beyond Super Tuesday in order to compete with Trump nationwide.

But let’s play make-believe and pretend for just a moment that the debate on Thursday night actually mattered to undecided voters, or that Trump’s support isn’t rock solid, or that voters haven’t made up their minds about Rubio vs. Cruz yet. Here are the debate grades.

Donald Trump: Z. Trump’s worst debate performance by far. Again, all of this comes with the proviso that it probably won’t matter. But seriously – what the hell are Trump supporters thinking?

Let’s start with the substance.

Trump demonstrated that he was fully unprincipled even on his core issues, like immigration – his pathetic defense that he won’t release his off-the-record New York Times interview because he respects “off the record” is fantasy, given that “off the record” designation is designed to protect the interviewee. Trump flipped on H1B visas, a bugaboo of hard-core anti-immigration believers, in the middle of the debate. He said everything was negotiable. He got smoked by Chris Wallace on his plans to cut spending – his statistics were pulled directly from his colon. Megyn Kelly made him bleed from his wherever with her fact check on the alleged scam, Trump University. He said openly that he would make members of the military violate both morality and law by murdering children and women. This, for those unaware, is called fascism. And no, he wasn’t talking about broadening rules of engagement.

Then there was the rest of the Trump shtick.

Trump played his usual game, of course – yelling over other contenders, dropping cutesy insults like “Little Marco” and “Lying Ted” about his opponents, and even bragging about the size of his hands and his Trump Tower (magnificent, he assures us). But he looked flustered all night long, and both Rubio and Cruz got under his skin, to the point that Cruz actually shut him down twice.

An ugly performance.

Ted Cruz: A. Cruz had his best night yet. In comparison with Rubio, who looked exhausted and depressed, Cruz looked calm and energized. He repeatedly smacked Trump for his donations to Democrats, hit him for policy inconsistencies, and hammered him over his unwillingness to explain why he won’t come clean on his New York Times interview. Cruz looked fluid and fluent discussing policy, particularly legal policy. He shlonged Trump at least twice: first by telling Trump to “count to ten,” which seemed like a challenge to which Trump’s intellect was insufficient, and then again by telling Trump to breathe – at which point Rubio had his only real moment of the night, asking if they were going to engage in yoga, then adding that Trump’s flexibility might make that possible. Cruz made a strong case that if either he or Rubio has to go, it ought to be Rubio.

Marco Rubio: C. A bad night for Rubio. He looked ill the entire night – apparently he has a cold. He was certainly low-energy, and at one point Trump denigrated him to the point where he called Trump “Big Donald.” Rubio seemed unwilling to go on the full attack, afraid that if he did so, he’d be branded an attack dog. That was a major tactical mistake. He should have owned it and doubled down. Instead, he relied on tried and ineffective stump speech lines. This was Rubio from two debates ago, alive again.

John Kasich: A. I despise John Kasich for a variety of reasons, but he had a good debate because once again, he escaped fire. He gave a cogent answer on local education policy (he was fibbing) and flipped on religious freedom for businessowners (he was fibbing again), but he got to play the adult in the room, avoiding the mudfight. He said at the end of the debate that he’d win the nomination, then climbed onto his unicorn and rode it into the rainbow that burst through the ceiling filled with M&Ms. But while Trump turned the debate into a donkeyshow, Kasich felt like a breath of slightly stale air from the alcohol-laced alley.

Again, it’s unlikely any of this matters. But it’s a pity that we didn’t see any of this two months ago. Instead, we got Jeb! hanging around for no reason, Cruz and Rubio slapfighting, Ben Carson wasting our time, Chris Christie preparing for his role as Renfield to Trump’s Dracula, and all the rest of the clown car. That gave Trump enough room to build the perception that he’s the biggest man in the race.

Tonight, he proved himself a petty man with serious personality issues and no actual principles. But don’t worry – we’ll hear all about it in the general election.

Ben Shapiro is Senior Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News, Editor-in-Chief of, and The New York Times bestselling author, most recently, of the book, The People vs. Barack Obama: The Criminal Case Against The Obama Administration (Threshold Editions, June 10, 2014). Follow Ben Shapiro on Twitter @benshapiro.


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