New Jersey Governor Chris Christie achieved his apotheosis in Saturday night’s Republican debate, settling happily into a role he was born to play. Christie is the bad cop in the interrogation room, slapping the detainee so silly that he’ll break down and say anything. His victim Saturday night was Florida Senator Marco Rubio, whom Christie accused not just of being an unready, callow youth, but of giving the same canned speech over and over again. Rubio was so rattled that he responded to Christie’s attack by delivering the same canned answer, verbatim, three times in the span of about a minute. It was not an effective reply.
The reduction of Rubio came on a night when Christie and Governors Jeb Bush and John Kasich had their best debate performances so far—all to the advantage of Donald Trump. Not that Trump didn’t have a rough patch himself: In the course of defending the government’s right to seize private property, as any mega-developer must, he came under fire from Bush for having attempted to use eminent domain to force an aging widow out of her home on a site where he wanted to build one of his Atlantic City casinos. At some point, Trump’s Simon Legree-ish tendencies may well bring him down, but like Warner Brothers’ Roadrunner, he continues to violate the basic laws of gravity. He snapped at Bush—“Quiet!” he barked—incurring boos from the spectators in the hall, whom Trump then described to viewers as major GOP donors and lobbyists, the very people whom his working-class white supporters presumably loathe.
But the really good news for Trump was Rubio’s self-immolation, just as he seemed to be emerging as the Republican establishment’s candidate to take down both Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. With Rubio falling back in the pack and Kasich, Bush, and Christie each having a good evening, it now looks likely that New Hampshire won’t winnow the establishment lane in Tuesday’s election. And the longer that lane goes un-winnowed, the longer Trump—winning 30 or even 25 percent in state after state—can still claim a plurality rather than running a distant second to the establishment’s consensus candidate. The longer it takes for that candidate to emerge—something that won’t happen until three of the four establishment candidates bow out—the closer Trump comes to winning the nomination.
In that sense, it may have been even a better night for Democrats than it was for Trump. Rubio has been the cloud on the Democrats’ horizon, the one candidate conservative enough to win the nomination but just presentable enough, perhaps, to win the general election. The center of the Republican Party has now moved too far right for Bush, Christie, or Kasich to emerge its nominee, though any of them would be stronger, and Kasich probably far stronger, in a matchup against Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. (Kasich is the one candidate who does not seem to loathe people outside the Republican orbit, dooming his chances within the party itself.) If Rubio cannot recover, the likely nominee is either Trump or Cruz, whose prospects, the Democrats rightly believe, are dim.
A good night for the Donald, then, and quite possibly, a good night for the Democrats—and for the Republic.