The Most Revealing Exchanges in the Fifth Republican Debate

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are prizefighters. Donald Trump and Jeb! are something else.

Sen. Marco Rubio, left, and Sen. Ted Cruz during the GOP primary debate on Dec. 15, 2015, in Las Vegas.

Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters

Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are the most well-briefed, polished, and smooth debaters in the field. Though Donald Trump’s loyalists (aka “a plurality of Republican voters”) are throwing a wrench in the dearly held pundit prophecy of the race winnowing down to Cruz and Rubio exclusively, you see why … well, why it should come down to Cruz and Rubio exclusively. They’re the best at this.

Here’s a fine display of the two, evenly matched in their skills, discussing national security. Rubio’s strategy has been to pin Cruz as unacceptably dovish abroad and lenient in counterterrorism efforts at home, citing his votes for the USA Freedom Act, which modestly reformed surveillance operations, and against the National Defense Authorization Act, which funds the Pentagon.

“Three times he voted against the Defense Authorization Act, which is a bill that funds the troops. It also, by the way, funds the Iron Dome and other important programs,” Rubio said, neatly tucking in suggestions that Cruz hates both the troops and Israel.

“Marco has continued these attacks, and they know it’s not true,” Cruz responded, explaining that he voted against the NDAA because he “told voters in Texas that I would oppose the federal government having the authority to detain U.S. citizens permanently with no due process.” That neatly sucked up one of Sen. Rand Paul’s more popular arguments. Cruz then pivoted to lumping Rubio in with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama: “One of the problems with Marco’s foreign policy is he has far too often supported Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in undermining governments in the Middle East that have helped radical Islamic terrorists,” Cruz said. “We need to focus on killing the bad guys, not getting stuck in Middle Eastern civil wars that don’t keep America safe.”

Rubio parried neatly, saying to rousing applause that “if you’re an American citizen and you decide to join up with ISIS, we’re not going to read you your Miranda rights.”

Rubio is generally considered the more moderate candidate, but on military intervention and national security, he is to the right of Cruz. This is one of those frustrating moments where actual policy proposals counteract with the narrative and make for provocative politics between two nimble candidates.

Later on their battle spread to another of their major dividing lines: immigration. This is obviously Rubio’s greatest vulnerability with the GOP base and the major reason why he’s perceived as the more moderate candidate. Rubio has been trying to defang the attacks from Cruz by portraying the Texas senator as a fraud on this issue, arguing that Cruz in the past has kept open “legal status”—not citizenship—as an option for undocumented immigrants in the country and increasing visas for skilled workers.

“As far as Ted’s record, I’m puzzled by his attack on this issue,” Rubio said. “You support legalizing people who are in this country illegally and supported a 500 percent increase in the number of H-1B visas and support doubling the number of green cards.”

“I understand that Marco wants to raise confusion,” Cruz said. “It is not accurate what he said, that I supported legalization. I led the fight against his legalization and amnesty bill.  There was one commentator that put it this way: For Marco to suggest our record is the same is like suggesting that the fireman and the arsonist have the same plan because they were at the same fire.”

Rubio will never be able to cement the impression that Cruz is the real “amnesty”-lover in the bunch, the one who is really trying to explode the influx of immigrants into the country. But if he can muddy the waters just enough—“raise confusion,” as Cruz, the pundit, put it—he could take the edge off of what is potentially a fatal knock against Rubio.

Now to our other rivals: front-runner Donald Trump and … what’s his name … the guy who has all the super PAC money and was supposed to wrap this thing up early? Neil Bush? No. Jeb!

Poor Jeb. His advisers and everyone keeps telling him to destroy Trump, but he’s not constitutionally capable of destroying Trump. At this point, though, Bush has little to lose, so he might as well go after Trump again.

“Donald, you know, is great at the one-liners. But he’s a chaos candidate,” Bush said early on. “And he’d be a chaos president. He would not be the commander-in-chief we need to keep our country safe.”

You could almost see Trump jumping with delight, relishing the opportunity to tease poor Jeb yet again.

“Jeb doesn’t really believe I’m unhinged,” Trump began.

He said that very simply because he has failed in this campaign. It’s been a total disaster. Nobody cares. And, frankly, I’m the most solid person up here. I built a tremendous company, and all I want to do is make America great, again. I don’t want our country to be taken away from us, and that’s what’s happening. The policies that we’ve suffered under other presidents have been a disaster for our country. We want to make America great again. And, Jeb, in all fairness, he doesn’t believe that.

That was easy enough.  

Later on, in their next joust, Trump got meaner and Bush—yes, Jeb!—even had a good line to deploy. “I won’t get my information from ‘the shows,’ ” Jeb said, mocking a Trump quote about where he solicits his foreign policy advice. “I don’t know if that is Saturday morning or Sunday morning. I don’t know which one.” Bush made a funny, and people laughed. They laughed!

Trump responded with a … weird rant about how CNN mentions him too much? Trump went on to make fun of Bush’s poll numbers that, to be fair, deserve to be made fun of.

Jeb held his own slightly better against Trump in this one, by which we mean he got in one funny line. It’s better than zero. One positive way to look at this from Bush’s perspective, though, is that it serves him—and his monied operation—well to position him as Trump’s main rival. Politico recently reported that Right to Rise, Bush’s super PAC, was considering a scorched-earth strategy eerily similar to Russia’s strategy in Syria. “[Right to Rise chief Mike] Murphy has been floating another tactical shift to potential supporters,” Politico wrote, “suggesting that he might spend the bulk of the $75 million to carpet bomb Rubio, Cruz, Carson, Chris Christie—everyone but Trump. The thinking: Making the race into a binary choice between Bush and Trump might be the only way a majority of primary voters go with Bush.” It’s an insane strategy. Let’s hope they run with it. 

See more of Slate’s coverage of the GOP debate.