(Bloomberg View) — A lot of people have come up with metaphors for the drubbing Donald Trump took at the latest Republican debate: Frazier v. Ali, for example, or a Rubiobot set to “kill” rather than “stun.” Here’s one that kept occurring to me as I watched Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz take turns reducing Donald Trump to a petulant, stammering mess: the eighth-grade loudmouth who graduates to high school and gets ripped to shreds by a couple of juniors.
The remarkable thing about Donald Trump’s stunts has always been just how juvenile they were. His taunts were, basically, unimaginative variants on such middle school classics as:
“I know you are but what am I?”
“You’re a loser!”
“[Insert wildly incorrect “fact” made up on the spot]”
“Lalalalalalala I can’t hear you”
Trump succeeded with these tactics not so much because they were devastating, but because no one else on stage could believe that an adult was acting this way — and when they finally did believe it, no one else wanted to join Trump in his second puberty.
The only person who seems not to have realized what was going on was Donald Trump. And when the tables were turned on him by people who adopted the same level of verbal aggressiveness, with a higher level of intelligence, he didn’t know how to respond.
The worst moment, as many have noted, was the back-and-forth on health care. This was bad not because Donald Trump’s health care policy is woefully incomplete; policy doesn’t matter that much at this stage of the election. (More on this later.) It was bad because, just as loudmouth eighth-graders often do, Trump was basically talking about something he didn’t understand: the idea that we should allow health insurance to be sold across state lines. This is a perfectly fine idea that wouldn’t make much difference to health care costs, but again, that’s not why it hurt Trump. It hurt Trump because, just like those eighth graders often do, he screwed it up.
“What we need — look, the insurance companies take care of the politicians. The insurance companies get what they want. We should have gotten rid of the lines around each state so we can have real competition.”
This formulation was very strange. I presume that Trump is not, in fact, suggesting that we should eliminate the state lines, so that New York and New Jersey blend as seamlessly into each other as the colors of the rainbow. Rubio started pummeling him on it, at which point it became clear that:
Donald Trump could not remember the correct phrase. He also couldn’t remember what the phrase stood for, so he could not explain it in other words. He just stood there helplessly repeating “get rid of the lines around states,” which must have seemed rather Delphic and strange even to voters who don’t pay a lot of attention to health care policy.
That was when Rubio made a mild joke at his own expense, saying of Trump, “He’s repeating himself.” And when Trump shot back, “I watched him repeat himself five times four weeks ago,” when Chris Christie went after him, Rubio brought the house down by saying “I just watched you repeat yourself five times five seconds ago.” And he smirked, the way juniors do, when they put the freshman loudmouth in his place.
Pundits cheered, particularly conservative ones. Having made no secret of my dislike for Trump, I will probably not surprise you by saying that I was among them. Rubio, and also Ted Cruz, who attacked him very successfully on electability, showed Donald Trump some things I’m not sure he realized: that bullies can be bullied; that being the front-runner means everyone’s going to come at you; and that there is a reason that those boring, low-energy experienced politicians take care not to say things that they will have to answer for in the media, or which can be used against them in attack ads. (Highlights from Trump’s lengthy remarks include praising Muammar Qaddafi, who accepted Libya’s responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing that killed almost 200 Americans; explaining his reluctance to release his tax returns on the grounds that he gets audited all the time; and saying that he hired foreign workers for his Palm Beach club because Americans won’t do those jobs. If these are not soon running in a continuous loop on every television screen in a primary state, then the Republican Party is fielding presidential candidates too stupid to govern.
And yet as bracing as it was to see Trump knocked back on his heels, at the end of the day, I can’t be too happy about it. We saw the eighth-grade bully put down, yes — but by reducing the entire debate stage to the level of a high school put-down contest.