Republican presidential candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, from left, Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich stand up for the national anthem during a presidential debate.

Pedro Portal/The Miami Herald via AP

Republican presidential candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, from left, Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich stand up for the national anthem during a presidential debate.

Rubio’s Last Stand: GOP Debate XII

Jeb! Bush was the first choice of the Republican establishment, and he’s gone. Marco Rubio was the second, and last night was probably his swan song.

On the Democratic side, the self-appointed avatar of the younger generation was Martin O’Malley, but the younger generation did not get the memo and lined up behind Bernie Sanders. Rubio anointed himself likewise, but most of the generation he claims to represent backs Donald J. Trump.

Rubio never justified his status in any way beyond his age. Until the kids burdened by student loan debt bleed for the tax load of hedge fund managers, they don’t have a whole lot of incentive to line up behind him. And what of his fondness for war? Does he expect the kids to like it because they won’t be drafted?

Rubio had become the answer to the trivia question, “What candidate ran for president without a base and expected one to just form up?”

From the opening statements, it was clear that the candidates had studied polling on the last two debates. Most people thought those were too rowdy for a bar fight.

John Kasich and Marco Rubio were upbeat and hopeful. Cruz doesn’t want Washington standing in the way of the taxpayers. Trump said we are going to beat Hillary behind him.

The first round of questions was about trade agreements. Nobody liked the bad ones or was against the good ones. The difference was elusive.

Kasich pointed out that one in five American jobs is connected to trade. He likes the agreements except that they turn enforcement against cheaters over to “international bureaucrats.” He wants to expedite the process against cheaters and presumably turn them over to national bureaucrats.

Trump said that he has exploited the system, having Trump brand products outsourced and hiring aliens, and it takes a thief to catch one.

Cruz, in addition to the good deals/bad deals argument, wants to tax imports but not exports. The audience hooted in approval, plainly not understanding we can’t do that unless we trash the treaties. That’s called “starting a trade war.”

Much later, in another part of the debate, Trump once more came out for tariffs (calling them taxes) that would be unlawful.

Cruz called out Trump for threatening a trade war, but never accounted for his own plan in the same terms. He claimed that Trump’s tariff would raise prices for U.S. consumers. Trump replied that it would force other countries to move manufacturing here.

Both were living in a world where multilateral trade agreements do not exist. Neverland, perhaps?

Rubio went into the weeds and pointed out a loophole in the guest worker visa program he wanted to close. He accused Walt Disney of subcontracting business to another company that hired aliens rather than available Americans, which would be illegal if Disney did it. What he did not explain is why the contractor does not have to follow the law?

Trump has been calling Cruz “Lyin’ Ted” for a few weeks now, and tonight gave me some sympathy for that position, flippant as Trump makes it sound. In the competition to show the most aggression towards undocumented workers, Cruz wanted to end “sanctuary cities” by two means.

(1) Cut off all federal funds to “cities that defy immigration law.”

(2) End welfare for “illegals.”

The crowd loved it, apparently not realizing that cities are not required to enforce immigration laws and undocumented persons are not eligible for welfare.

Trump was asked to state his objection to Common Core education standards. His objection seemed to be that Washington is involved.

Cruz said flatly, “Common Core is a disaster.” Like Trump, his complaint was that Washington was involved, a position he maintained after the moderator pointed out that Common Core does not prescribe curriculum. What is taught is up to the states.

Trump was asked about his recent statement that Muslims hate us, whether he meant “all 1.6 billion of them?”

Not to a man, but pretty much.

Rubio chided him that “a president can’t say just anything.”

Trump doubled down. Muslims hate us.

Rubio and Cruz would reverse the steps Obama has taken toward normalizing relations with Cuba. It was not clear if Kasich would, but he did criticize the American tractor factory to be built in Cuba to sell tractors in Cuba.

Trump does not fear making deals with Cuba.

Lyin’ Ted made it sound like the U.S. was paying Cuba and Iran to make deals when, in fact, we are only unfreezing their accounts.

My ears were practically standing up when the moderator passed on a question from the Republican Mayor of Miami, Tomás Pedro Regalado. He pointed out that the flooding has already begun in his city and wanted to know if the candidates acknowledge climate science and, if so, what do they intend to do about it?

Rubio—who Regalado has endorsed—did not challenge the science directly, but said the proposed solutions were at odds with a robust economy, so he could not support doing anything about it.

Kasich disagreed. He endorsed the science and denied that a clean environment is in tension with jobs.

Unfortunately, the moderator moved on before Cruz and Trump had an opportunity to deny the science.

Trump was given an opportunity to dial back his aggressive rhetoric and distance himself from the violence breaking out at his rallies. He did, and was much less aggressive all evening.

Cruz said the violence does not come from Trump but from Obama. People are violent because they feel disrespected by Washington.

Kasich said the anger was not about Trump but about economic problems.

Rubio says people get violent because “every institution has failed us.”

Tonight’s debate was tame compared to how the GOP contest ran off the rails in the last two debates.

Cruz was the meanest of the bunch, but even Cruz got a good laugh when he observed it’s a great country where the son of a mailman, the son of a bartender, the son of a dishwasher….and a successful businessman can run for president.

The two Cuban-Americans have compelling personal stories and they share a history scarred by the Cold War. Kasich said, “I might be running for president of Croatia if we didn’t have immigration.”

That leaves The Donald, who was – in Ann Richards’ famous description of George W. Bush – “born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

Tonight, Trump did his best to pivot toward the general election. Cruz kept his focus on Trump, but dialed back the aggression. Rubio and Kasich did not hide how desperately they need some rhetorical game-changer, but neither showed it last night.

Barring divine intervention, the next debate will be Trump v. Cruz, with Kasich playing third wheel and Rubio bounced to the curb after getting trumped in his home state of Florida.

When the choices are Rafael “Ted” Cruz or Donald J. Trump, it will be a good time to own a condo above the fifth floor in Miami. You’ll need the height to avoid the climate change flooding and you can cut your costs by short-term renting to establishment Republicans looking for a window out of which to jump.

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Rubio’s Last Stand: GOP Debate XII

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