Cruz and Rubio’s Biggest Problem

They’re both politicians and Donald Trump is killing them for it.

Fresh off his debate victory, Donald Trump speaks at a rally on Friday in Fort Worth, Texas.  

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

On Thursday night, for more than two hours, Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz pounded Donald Trump with facts and allegations. They said Trump had hired illegal immigrants, had shipped jobs to China and Mexico, and had defrauded people who paid tuition to his university. If you scored the debate on punches, it looked as though Trump lost. But he didn’t lose. He won, because debates aren’t decided by punches. They’re won by the candidate who tells the best story, a story that frames his opponents’ arguments as part of his own campaign message.

Here’s an example of how that’s done: Three weeks ago, just before the New Hampshire primary, Rubio came into a Republican debate with a game plan. He was going to compete with Trump and Cruz for angry conservative voters by establishing himself as the candidate most hostile to President Obama. At every opportunity, Rubio denounced Obama as an evil genius who had set out to change America and who “knows exactly what he’s doing.” On the punch scorecard, Rubio did well. But he was destroyed by Gov. Chris Christie, who framed Rubio’s message as part of a larger story: that Rubio was robotic, shallow, and unprepared for the general election or the presidency. “There it is, the memorized 25-second speech,” Christie told the audience as Rubio repeated his message. Rubio plunged in the polls and was humiliated in the subsequent primary.

That’s how you beat an opponent in a debate: You anticipate his message, and you make it part of your message. When viewers see your opponent talking, they don’t hear what he’s saying. They see him doing what you said he would do. It’s like throwing a net over a guy who’s trying to hit you. His punches don’t land on you. He just tires himself out and looks foolish. The more he attacks, the more he loses.

That’s what Trump did to Rubio and Cruz on Thursday. The two senators came into the debate armed with information about Trump’s employment practices, his flirtations with liberalism, and his sketchy college. But the real fight wasn’t about that information. The real fight was about what it meant. As they spoke, the three candidates weren’t just throwing punches. They were throwing nets. Rubio was casting Trump and Cruz as unelectable. Cruz was casting Trump and Rubio as unprincipled. Trump was casting Rubio and Cruz as politicians. The real fight was between these three stories, these ways of understanding the drama onstage. And Trump’s story won.

The framing began early, when Rubio went after Trump for hiring foreigners. “You hired some workers from Poland,” said Rubio. Trump shot back: “No, I’m the only one on the stage that’s hired people. You haven’t hired anybody.” With that, Trump reminded the audience that the complaints about his hiring practices were coming from politicians who produced no jobs.

Later, Cruz and Rubio attacked Trump for defending Planned Parenthood. Trump replied: “I’m pro-life. I’m totally against abortion, having to do with Planned Parenthood. But millions and millions of women—cervical cancer, breast cancer—are helped by Planned Parenthood.” When Cruz accused Trump of supporting “socialized health care,” Trump responded: “I will not allow people to die on the sidewalks and the streets of our country.” Rubio, aghast, asked, “This is a Republican debate, right? Because that attack about letting people die in the streets …” But Trump stood firm: “Call it what you want, people are not going to be dying on the sidewalk.” In both of these exchanges, Trump came across as the only normal person, a man who responds from moral instinct, not from an ideology or a policy manual.

Both senators hounded Trump for professing neutrality as a potential broker in Israeli-Palestinian talks. “I am very pro-Israel,” Trump insisted. “But it doesn’t do any good to start demeaning the neighbors.” Rubio launched into a speech about the viciousness of Palestinians. Trump dismissed Rubio’s rhetoric as unhelpful: “You are not a negotiator. And with your thinking, you will never bring peace.” Cruz accused Trump of supporting politicians who undermined Israel. Trump pointed out that he had actually written checks to support Israel. “You’re politicians,” he told the senators. “All talk, no action.”

Later, Cruz attacked Trump’s statements about Libya. Trump answered him with an indictment of the whole political class for military adventurism in Libya, Syria, and Iraq. “If these politicians went to the beach and didn’t do a thing, and we had Saddam Hussein and if we had Qaddafi in charge, instead of having terrorism all over the place, we’d be—at least they killed terrorists,” said Trump. “We would have been better off if the politicians took a day off instead of going into war.”

Toward the end of the debate, Cruz called Trump “malleable.” He told the businessman, “For 40 years, you’ve been funding liberal Democratic politicians.” Trump shot back, “I funded you.” Rubio, off camera, boasted that Trump “never funded me.” But Trump wasn’t finished. He told the audience that Rubio had “sent me his book with his autograph” and a line that said, “Mr. Trump, you’re doing a great job.” The audience laughed throughout the exchange, recognizing that all the talk about principle and writing checks was just part of the political game.

In their closing statements, the candidates repeated their main themes. Rubio said he was the only candidate who could end the “silliness” and expand the conservative movement. Cruz presented himself as the true believer battling two Washington “dealmakers.” Trump said his opponents’ promises were all theater. “Nobody knows politicians better than I do. They’re all talk, they’re no action,” said Trump. “Whether it’s trade, whether it’s building up our depleted military, whether it’s taking care of our vets, whether it’s getting rid of Common Core … or knocking out Obamacare and coming up with something so much better, I will get it done. Politicians will never, ever get it done.”

As the debate ended, I wasn’t sure who had won. The senators had raised serious questions about Trump’s university, his taxes, and his hiring practices. But then I saw how the talking heads on TV were greeting those questions. They were struck not by the substance of the attacks, but by their timing. They wanted to know why the senators had waited this long, until the 10th Republican debate, to raise issues about Trump that had been public, though not widely shared, for years.

Trump had an answer. In three interviews on CNN and Fox News, he said he had expected the attacks because his opponents were doing poorly in the primaries and in polls. He pointed out that he had pulled even with Cruz in Texas and that he was trouncing Rubio in Florida. Rubio hadn’t won anything. Cruz had posted three straight third-place finishes. These were desperate men, Trump explained. They were under tremendous pressure. They had no choice but to throw everything at him in the debate, and so they had.

Trump’s interviewers played along, describing Rubio and Cruz as a “tag team.” And with that, the net closed. The story of the night wasn’t Trump’s tax returns, his university, or his Polish workers. It was the politically timed attack by his two opponents. Two senators, down in the polls, were doing what politicians do. Exactly as Trump, the only real guy left in the race, the only one who gets things done, has said all along.

In his endorsement of Trump on Friday, Chris Christie drove home Trump’s message. Hillary and Bill Clinton “know how to run the standard political playbook against junior senators and run them around the block,” said Christie. “They do not know the playbook with Donald Trump, because he is rewriting the playbook.” Politicians are out, and Trump is in. That’s been the story of the campaign, facts be damned.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the GOP primary.