Well, I thought the most interesting moment came when Donald Trump brought up Eisenhower:
Let me just tell you that Dwight Eisenhowerâ€”a good president, great president, people liked him. 'I Like Ike', right? The expression 'I Like Ike'? - moved a million and a half illegal immigrants out of this country, moved them just beyond the border: They came back. Moved them again, beyond the border: They came back. Then moved them way south. They never came back.
To the establishments of both parties and the media, Trump is beyond the pale. Yet he keeps, confidently, moving beyonder. And, as he does so, he's moving the pale. NBC News:
Sorry Trump, 'Operation Wetback' Was A National Disgrace
At this point in the evening, the candidates were arguing not whether it was disgraceful but whether it was do-able. Trump's response is that not only is it do-able but it's already been done - by a two-term Republican president. Eisenhower, by the way, was the last non-politician to be drafted as presidential nominee (and "I Like Ike" came from Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam). His sudden reappearance in the GOP pantheon is a fine example of the difference Trump's made to this primary season: without his presence in the race, no-one would be talking about the practicalities of mass deportation of illegal aliens.
Whether that's a good thing is a matter of opinion. But, considering that the erasing of America's borders is the signature issue that propelled Trump to the top of the polls and has kept him there for six months, there's been a curious reluctance on the part of all four debate-hosting networks to get into the subject. Wouldn't it be appropriate, in the present atmosphere, to question Marco Rubio on the Gang of Eight business and get a bit of a ding-dong going between him and Trump? Apparently not.
So two minutes of Wetback Revisited is apparently the closest we'll get. It arose in the context of John Kasich and Jeb Bush's objections to Trump's views on the armies of the undocumented. Kasich actually said, "Think about the families. Think about the children." Then he scoffed, "Come on, folks. We all know you can't pick them up and ship them back across the border. It's a silly argument. It is not an adult argument."
Bush, on the other hand, thought that even talking about this stuff was a mistake that would work only to Hillary's benefit: "They're doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this."
How pitiful a candidate is Jeb? This pitiful: He's not even competitive in the bleeding-heart compassionate establishment squish sub-section of the primary. Kasich offered sentimentalist pabulum - "Think about the children" - and elite condescension: Trump's position isn't "adult". But Jeb basically previewed his general-election fetal position: We can't talk about this because we have to play this game on the Democrats' terms.
So I'm less persuaded than other pundits that Jeb has staunched the bleeding. He's at four per cent in the most recent Fox and Quinnipiac polls, so there's a limit to how much more he can bleed anyway. But did he reverse his fortunes? No. He and Ben Carson both began the debate with something to prove - Bush that he isn't just a legacy pick who's not up to it, Carson that he wasn't damaged by the sudden forensic attention to his autobiography. I confess I don't quite get the good doctor's appeal, but a mild-mannered man insisting that he attacked his mother with his hammer is certainly a novel kind of candidacy and there seems to be a market for it. He shored up his support far better than Jeb did his.
So after this fourth debate I would expect the Top Two - Trump and Carson - and the runners-up - Rubio and Cruz - to remain unchanged, with the bazillion other candidates jostling over the remaining 30 per cent and shrinking. Nonetheless Rubio didn't have a great night. He gave too many canned stump-speech bromides, including an interminable riff about how "his election is about the future". Even that leaden clichÃ© can be moving and, indeed, persuasive if it's being advanced by a septuagenarian candidate seeking to shape a world he will never see. But when, like Rubio, you look twelve years old, it's just a middle-school commencement speech.
As for the far ends of the line-up, Rand Paul had his best night in a while: He represents a genuine strain of Republican sentiment - libertarian, isolationist - and he argued his corner better than previously. Trump's observation about Carly Fiorina - "Why does she keep interrupting everybody?" - is generally agreed to have been a yuge mistake on his part. But I dunno: Trump's asides are often far more substantive than his formal answers, and revealing. Last night, for example, he himself interrupted Kasich and the moderators to offer a hand to Bush - "Let Jeb speak!" - because the poor little low-energy fellow was having a hard time getting a word in. A week or so back Trump observed that God-wise he was very "mainstream" whereas he didn't know too much about this "Seventh Day Adventist" business that Ben - "don't get me wrong, I like Ben, he's a lovely man", etc - had gotten himself mixed up with. It led to a spate of stories about how Carson believes the pyramids were built by "the biblical figure Joseph" to store grain in. "The pyramids are solid," said Trump, who knows construction, "so you can't store grain in them."
Jeb is low-energy. Marco is sweaty. Ben is ...a little weird. Unlike Jeb, Ben saw that these Trumpisms can stick, and took action. With Carly, Trump began by saying that, if you listen to her for ten minutes, you start to get a headache. Then he moved on to her "face", which Carly turned around at the second debate and got a brief little poll bump from. Then the ladies at "The View" started going on about her face and she turned that into a pretext to elbow her way onto the show. I don't know whether she can ride this face business through to Iowa, but again Trump intuited the problem with her: She's well informed, super-articulate, fact-stuffed to the gills, but the severity thing is an issue. Rich Lowry seems to enjoy his emasculation fantasies, but the broader market may be somewhat limited.
Ted Cruz had a strong night without any breakout moments, unless you count his venture into the immigration debate. It is striking that no moderators want to bring it up. For many Trump supporters, it's the issue - because, if you don't have borders, it doesn't matter having a president or a tax code or a school system or a health-care plan, because they'll all be overwhelmed. It's a timelier subject than ever, given the Great Migrations across the Atlantic. Since Chancellor Merkel announced she was abolishing Germany's borders and embracing all these "Syrian" "refugees", for example, the country has run out of ...diapers? blankets? No, pepper spray. Hmm.
People always go on about how they want specifics - a little bit of wonkery, with decimal points in the numbers, references to arcane bills and obscure acronyms. But after four debates I'd like a little more generality - a bit of big-picture stuff. The safe-space shock-troops of the American university, for example, say nothing good about where this country's headed. Nor does the deteriorating mortality rate of middle-aged high-school educated white Americans - whose lives are not only shorter than their compatriots, shorter than socioeconomically similar Canadians, but shorter than pretty much anyone in the developed world other than Russian men face down in the vodka. That seems not unconnected to the dissolution of the border, and the ceaseless supply of cheap foreign labor, and the stagnation in wages, and the shriveling of the employment market to crappy low-paid service jobs about to be rendered obsolete by technology.
It is striking that, even in a conservative debate, mass, remorseless, illegal immigration is discussed almost entirely from the illegals' point of view: as Kasich advises, think of the families, think of the children. Their families, their children. The families of those they've supplanted are of less consequence. The argument made by Bush and Kasich against enforcing the immigration laws is an appeal to moral preening: this is "not who we are". But using mass immigration to destroy the lives of your own citizens? That's exactly who we are.