The last Republican debate took place last night and by their standards it was a remarkably civil affair.
No name calling or insults. No references -- as my daughter put it after their last debate -- to the size of anyone's "downstairs." No shameless hawking of vodka or steak or wine.
And therein lies Donald Trump's problem.
Here's what I mean.
For the last eight months, Donald Trump has run a campaign for the Presidency based largely on the notion that he is not politically correct and is just saying things others are thinking but do not have the courage to broadcast. Hence his condemnation of Mexican immigrants as "rapists," his wholesale exclusion of non-citizen Muslims, his "punch him in the face" thuggery when confronted by protesters.
At the same time, he has abjured any argument or real details on policy in taking on his fellow candidates. So, instead of really explaining how his positions on Social Security or trade or immigration or beating terrorism were better than those offered by his opponents, he touted his poll numbers and spouted phrases and one liners (he'll make "great deals" on trade; it'll be a "great wall" excluding Mexicans; our military will be so "powerful . . . we're never going to have to use it").
And then simply belittled his adversaries.
The puerile ad hominems are now the stuff of minor legend.
Jeb Bush was "low energy." Chris Chistie was "the bridge." Carli Fiorina was "that face" that could not be President. Dr. Ben Carson was "pathological" and the voters "stupid" in being taken in by Carson's knife-on-belt assault story. And, of course, Senator Rubio was "little Marco" and Senator Cruz "lyin' Ted." With no body part to pick on, and no doubt running out of rhetorical steam, Trump's train of insults slowed when it got to John Kasich -- he was merely an "absentee Governor" and a "lost cause."
Last night, however, we got none of that. Instead, Trump's competitors were left to more less trot out their positions at length, as was Trump himself. The problem, however, is that Trump really doesn't have any positions. He has slogans and one liners. But if you throw him into any pool that requires mildly deep analysis of policy, he drowns.
As he did last night.
The best example of this in the debate was the back and forth on the Administration's new Cuba policy. As he is on a number of issues, Trump is actually to the left of the GOP field when it comes to Cuba. In deriding the recent status quo, he correctly asserts-- and said last night -- that "50 years is enough". Though he claims he would have "made a better deal, " he thinks -- and said last September -- that rapprochment "is fine."
Seizing an opening, and playing to the anti-Castro home crowd at the University of Miami where the debate was held, Senator Rubio then pounced, laying out five things he would have had Cuba do before agreeing to a renewed diplomatic relationship -- free elections, free speech, removal of Chinese listening stations, no assistance to North Korea, and the extradition of criminal defendants who have taken refuge on the island.
Rubio's -- and (sans Trump) the entire GOP's -- essential criticism of the new policy is that it does not eliminate or even mitigate Cuba's human rights violations, which is true. The problem, however, is that the embargo imposed on Cuba for the past five decades hasn't stopped those violations. In addition, and as is the case with most embargoes that fail, the rest of the world has not been on our side. Consequently, while the embargo hurt Cuba and stopped it from trading with what should be its natural and largest trading partner -- namely, us -- it did not cripple the regime or the island.
Engagement may not end anti-democratic abuses in Cuba.
But disengagement clearly did not end such abuses and Cuba itself is on the cusp of change.
The Castro brothers are old. Fidel has retired and Raul, the current President, is 84. Neither will last forever and when they are gone, there is no one who can combine the offices of Presidency and Premier the way they have.
A few years ago I had lunch with a minor Cuban official working at the UN. He told me that the Castro presidency was unique and would not be duplicated; that Castro was their "George Washington" (he left out the fact that Washington resigned his military commission after the Revolutionary War and left after two terms as President, but never mind for now); that once gone, the Cuban President would simply be a head of state and the Cuban Premier would do policy.
This is important. Because, without the power inherent in the duopoly the two Castro brothers have enjoyed, dictatorship is not as possible or likely and space opens for a more pluralistic politics. This does not mean a new Cuba will reject socialism. But it very well may reject Castro-ism, a hard line variant of socialism that rejects even the type of market approaches China has adopted over the last two decades.
And even at this early stage, there are some signs that this may be the case. Cuba itself, as we all know, is in love with baseball (that love has even spawned the apochryphal tale that Fidel tried out for the major leagues). Until now, Cuban ball players have been barred from playing in the United States, and those that are doing so have effectively renounced the island and their relatives. With the rapprochment, however, Cuba's athletes will soon be able to try out and play in the major leagues without having to flee the island.
That's small progress.
But it is progress.
And it would not have happened under the old policy that Senator Rubio and the rest of the GOP would have us return to.
An informed opponent could have pointed some or all of this out in last night's GOP debate. But Donald Trump is not such an opponent and therefore did not do so. In fact, beyond the repetitive "I-would-have-made-a-better-deal" mantra, he said nothing in response to Rubio's critique.
Which is why he needs the insults, the narcissim, the thuggery.
It fills the space -- at debates, at rallies, at press conferences -- that would otherwise be filled with the exhibition of knowledge and policy
Hence the Donald dilemma.
He either gets to show us -- as he did last night on the Cuba issue and many others -- that he is uninformed.
Or he gets to show us that he is an insulting, narcissistic and even dangerous boor -- as he has throughout the entire primary campaign.
Either way . . .
He loses a general election.