Going into the fifth Republican presidential debate, many wondered if Senator Marco Rubio would be able to match the strength of his previous four performances, which have been universally commended. When the show was over, it was clear that, once again, Rubio had come out on top. His rivals attacked him on everything from immigration to surveillance, and he managed to make them look inconsistent or wrong, all while keeping his poise.
If this debate was your first foray into this presidential cycle, you probably would have thought that Rubio was the frontrunner, given his opponents’ intense focus on him. More attacks were directed towards him than anyone other than Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In previous debates, Rubio has usually only had to go toe-to-toe with one foe at a time; just ask Jeb Bush, who was “crushed” by Rubio after questioning the senator’s attendance record in the Senate. However, in this debate, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul tried teaming up to take Rubio down on the issue of immigration reform.
Paul claimed that Rubio is “for an open border.” However, this statement is so laughably false that PolitiFact gave it a “pants on fire rating,” pointing out that Rubio’s 2013 immigration bill actually “included billions for border security and more border agents.” The very fact that Paul was even on the stage was interesting, as he failed to meet the criteria that CNN had clearly laid out for making the debate stage, leading some to conclude that he “cried his way in.” After all, Rand is simultaneously running for the Senate; from his perspective, if his presidential campaign fails, he will have wasted the $250,000 he paid to change the voting system in Kentucky to allow him to circumvent their law that prohibited him from appearing on two ballots at once.
Cruz’s criticisms warrant a closer look because he is now the frontrunner in Iowa, and, unlike Paul, it actually makes sense for him to be on the stage. Cruz repeatedly attempted to corner Rubio for sponsoring an immigration reform bill in 2013. He takes issue with several pieces of the bill, including its provision for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. In light of the the nation’s intensified focus on terrorism, Cruz claimed that the 2013 bill would have allowed Obama to admit refugees, including ones from Syria, “without any background checks whatsoever.” However, Factcheck.org reported that although Rubio’s bill makes it easier for some groups to be classified by the president as refugees, “they would still be subject to the required screening process of refugees before they could come to the US.”
Unfortunately for Cruz, Rubio came prepared for that fight. Rubio pointed out that while the 2013 bill was under debate, Cruz proposed an amendment that would have given undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship directly contradicting his statement that “I have never supported legalization [of people in America illegally], and I do not intend to support legalization.” Given Cruz’s positioning as a consistent conservative in the field, I can see why Rubio would want to highlight this, since it is clearly a glaring inconsistency. In the aftermath of the debate, Cruz was confronted in an interview with Bret Baier that left him literally sputtering to defend himself when he attempted to square his statement that he “never supported legalization” with his previous support of legalization.
Ultimately, Rubio has emerged the victor on this obviously complicated issue. Cruz has been looking to disqualify Rubio in the eyes of primary voters, and he failed to do so in the last debate. In fact, he always looked like he was angling for confrontation, which Rubio has happily avoided. It was also confusing to see Cruz so willing to go after Rubio, yet refusing to tangle with Trump, who called him a “maniac.” This made his criticism of Rubio look completely opportunistic; it’s no secret that he is waiting for Trump to implode so he can pick up Trump’s supporters. By simply highlighting Cruz’s inconsistency on the issue of illegal immigration, Rubio was able to knock Cruz off his feet for several news cycles, as opposed to being put on the defensive himself.
Cruz and Rubio also went back and forth on foreign policy. Cruz prefers to keep dictators such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in power due to the stability that he believes that they provide, and Rubio advocates toppling dictators that oppress their people, such as Assad and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.
The problem with Cruz’s approach is that Qaddafi was not, as Cruz would argue, an ally against terrorism. In fact, he was a sponsor of terrorist groups, including “the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Abu Sayyaf Group, various other terrorist organizations and, yes, even Irish Republican terrorists,” in addition to murdering the Americans who were on Pan Am Flight 103. During the debate, Cruz even went so far as to advocate for an “America first” foreign policy. One of the most famous advocates of this is Charles Lindbergh, who pressed for the US to remain uninvolved in WWII. Hindsight is pretty clear on the issue, so I’m not sure why Cruz would want to intentionally revive this completely discredited idea, especially at a time when a significant majority of Americans favor sending ground troops to fight ISIS.
Cruz has used Rubio’s support for the toppling of Qaddafi to go so far as to tie him to Hillary’s handling of the terrorist attack on the consulate in Benghazi, which is completely nonsensical. Senator Rubio serves on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and backed allowing the fall of a dictator who had supported terrorist acts; he bears no more responsibility for Hillary's handling of the attack than Cruz does for the attorney general's actions during his tenure on the Senate Judiciary Committee. I would have expected better logic on Cruz’s part, given his prowess as a college debater.
This was the first debate in which Rubio was treated like a front-runner by both his opponents on stage and in the media, and, as he has in the previous four, he shone. Politico completed its regular survey of insiders of both parties after the debate, and over 40% of Republican insiders chose Rubio as the winner of this debate, with his “deft parrying [of] attacks from Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul on immigration and national security” playing no small role in their decisions. That sounds like a win to me.
The image featured in this article was taken by the author.