So, that happened. Days after reality TV star Donald Trump pasted the competition in the Nevada primary, it's looking more and more like beating him for the nomination is a lost cause for the remnants of the GOP field. Still, this week, the party scheduled a debate anyway! The National Review's Charles C.W. Cooke -- a fierce Trump critic -- is begging Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz to "find their resolve and all-but-machine-gun the man to the floor."
As the old "Animal House" line goes, "This situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part." And so we turn to the anti-Trump forces' last stand in Thursday's Texas debate.
It's been a rough week for those Republicans who have sought to prevent Trump from taking over their party. For a long while, they have clung to the notion that Trump would eventually hit his "ceiling" of support, and as the field winnows, he'd bump up against the reality that he's only earned the support of some 35 percent of GOP voters. It's not turning out that way. Not only is Trump pulling way above his presumed 35 percent weight class, it’s not clear that voters whose first-choice candidates have suspended their campaigns are naturally sorting themselves into an anti-Trump stance.
Meanwhile, as HuffPost's Sam Stein reported earlier this week, the opposition research effort against Trump has fallen prey to some GOP consultant version of the "tragedy of the commons," in which "none of the remaining candidates for president have completed a major anti-Trump opposition research effort." In the mistaken belief that someone else might jump into an oppo war with Trump first, everyone held their fire.
And so, Rubio, Cruz and the rest of the remaining candidates were left to face Trump's electoral juggernaut on their own Thursday night, split between the need to damage the front-runner and the need to damage one another.
At Thursday night's debate, Rubio was the first to hit Trump for opting to hire foreign guest workers at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, at a time when qualified United States residents could fit the bill. And after enduring a raft of criticism for his debate style, Rubio was noticeably calm and precise making his case. "I think people in Florida would be surprised, because, [The New York Times] interviewed a number of people that would have been willing to do those jobs, if you would have been willing to hire them to do it," he said.
When Trump attempted to break the Florida senator's stride, Rubio coolly escalated the case: "This is a big issue for Texas and a huge issue for the country. But I also think that if you're going to claim that you're the only one that lifted this into the campaign, that you acknowledge that, for example, you're the only person on this stage that's ever been fined for hiring people to work on your projects illegally."
Trump did earn applause for his riposte: "No, I'm the only one on this stage who's hired people."
Cruz followed with a line that dinged both Trump and Rubio: "In 2013, when I was leading the fight against the Gang of Eight amnesty bill, where was Donald? He was firing Dennis Rodman on "Celebrity Apprentice," and indeed, if you look at the Gang of Eight, one individual on this stage broke his promise to the men and women who elected him and wrote the amnesty bill. But Donald funded the Gang of Eight. If you look at the eight members of the Gang of Eight, Donald gave over $50,000 to three Democrats and two Republicans."
Minutes later, however, Rubio launched what was probably the most sustained fusillade of attacks on Trump that these debate stages have seen. Seemingly in one breath, Rubio hit Trump for employing undocumented immigrants, his four bankruptcies, the scam "Trump University" that's earned the mogul a lawsuit, and all the Trump-branded products that are made in Mexico and China. "Make them in America," Rubio repeated over and over again. It was as close as anyone's come yet to the "machine-gunning" that Cooke called for.
Cruz joined in the fray when the conversation turned to health care. Recalling Trump's vow that he'd not allow Americans to "die on the sidewalks" if he were president, Cruz asked Trump to explain how he could reconcile that promise with his insistence that he didn't support socialized medicine. Trump wobbled in his reply: "My plan is simple. We'll have private health care, but I will not allow people to die on the sidewalks and the streets of our country if I'm president." Rubio quickly joined in once it was clear that Trump didn't actually have a plan.
It was a much better night in general for Trump's primary opponents -- Rubio especially. The only problem is that it might not matter. After all, the next time one of these candidates knocks Trump off-stride will be the first time. And practically speaking, the road ahead for Trump's opponents is daunting.
Based on the primary calendar and the voter profiles in the states to come, Cruz will need to build a delegate lead on Super Tuesday if he ever plans to have one -- later states don't match up with the Texas senator's evangelical-heavy profile. And Rubio seems to be planning on beginning his ascent to victory in the March 15 Florida primary, which polls indicate he is losing.
If Thursday's efforts to knock Trump down don't pay off quickly, then it's probably already too late for anything else to succeed.
Also on this week's podcast, one of President Barack Obama's oldest campaign promises -- his pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility -- is back in the news after the Pentagon put forth the latest version of a plan to finally fulfill this commitment. We'll discuss whether this final effort will do the trick.
Meanwhile, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is coming to Washington, D.C., to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the Flint water crisis. We'll talk to one member of that committee, Michigan Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D), about the extent to which Snyder is himself culpable for the poisoning of Flint's citizens.
Finally, Alexis Goldstein of Americans for Financial Reform joins us to talk about how the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's efforts to rein in predatory payday lenders might get undercut by Congress, which aims to bail out the industry with a weak bill of its own.
"So, That Happened" is hosted by Jason Linkins, Zach Carter and Arthur Delaney. Joining them this week is Michigan Rep. Brenda Lawrence, Americans for Financial Reform's Alexis Goldstein, and Huffington Post reporters Samantha Lachman, Paige Lavender and Jessica Schulberg.
This podcast was produced, edited and engineered by Christine Conetta.