The eleventh Republican debate didn’t tell us much that we didn’t already know, and it reconfirmed most of the bad things we knew about the different candidates. Trump was confronted with a number of his position changes, and did his best to spin them as evidence of his “flexibility.” He and Rubio spent a significant amount of time trying to shout over each other. Cruz berated Trump for being too liberal on several occasions, and rattled off a list of his past political donations, but the ideological case against Trump has never had much of an effect and I doubt that it will have one at this point. Rubio was relatively subdued and not as combative as he was in the previous debate, and he kept pressing Trump on his lack of policy knowledge. Trump did nothing to counter the impression that he doesn’t know anything about foreign policy issues, and instead he frequently retreated to invoking polls and mocking rivals as he is wont to do. By the end of the debate, all of the candidates affirmed that they would support the party’s nominee, which undermined the recent attacks that Cruz and Rubio have been making on the most likely nominee. Insofar as Trump was the center of attention and was able to control the debate for much of the time, it was probably a successful night for Trump even when he was coming under criticism.
Kasich distinguished himself by steering clear of squabbling with his rivals and stuck to endorsing horrible foreign policy ideas instead. While he criticized Clinton for the Libyan war, he ruined his answer by talking about the need for a large U.S. force to occupy Libya, and threw in a reference to committing ground forces to Syria and Iraq at the same time:
The fact of the matter is, we absolutely have to be — and not just with special forces. I mean, that’s not going to work. Come on. You’ve got to go back to the invasion when we pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. We have to be there on the ground in significant numbers [bold mine-DL]. We do have to include our Muslim Arab friends to work with us on that. And we have to be in the air.
And we — it should be a broad coalition, made up of the kinds of people that were involved when we defeated Saddam. Now, you’ve got to be on the ground and in the air both in Syria and Iraq.
On this question, Kasich managed to out-hawk even Rubio, who wanted to expand the war on ISIS to Libya, but was not as eager as Kasich to commit larger numbers of troops there.
In addition to expressing support for arming Ukraine again, Kasich wants to extend security guarantees to Russia’s Scandinavian neighbors even if the U.S. has no treaty obligations to them. He explicitly said that the U.S. should extend commitments to non-NATO states as if they were part of NATO and that the U.S. should treat an attack on them as an attack on America:
And we’re going to tell Putin if you attack anybody in Eastern Europe in NATO, you attack Finland and Sweden, which is not in NATO, consider it an attack on us. And he will understand that.
Kasich reminded everyone that he was the best-qualified candidate left in the field, but his foreign policy statements also showed that his judgment is not very good.
It was not a good debate for Trump or Rubio, but Rubio can’t ever afford to have mediocre or poor performances and Trump seems to get away with them. Cruz scored some hits on Trump, but he will still struggle to win anywhere over the next month. Kasich did reasonably well for himself, provided that no one paid too much attention to the substance of his policy answers. Kasich probably helped himself ahead of Michigan’s primary next week, but he is not likely to do better than second place there. Most of the debate was a clownish, embarrassing affair, and this seems to be more true with each new debate. At least once we get past March 15 we will probably be spared from many more of these events.