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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Remember what Marco Rubio said at the first debate back in August — that the election “cannot be a résumé competition,” because if it were, Hillary Clinton would win?

That remark has reverberated throughout the Republican primary, which has been characterized by the astonishing rise of political amateurs like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina, and the fall of party luminaries and experienced GOP statesmen, like Rick Perry and Scott Walker, who dropped out; or Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, and Bobby Jindal, who were relegated to the warmup debate; or Lindsey Graham and George Pataki, who didn’t even make that humble cut.

From his very first campaign speech, Rubio has arranged himself in opposition directly with Clinton — with the senator from Florida casting himself as a new force for change, challenging the old, ineffective power structures in Washington, embodied by Clinton. He has successfully transposed his Senate absences and relative inexperience into an articulate message — that he is the candidate for the 21st century. In the fourth Republican primary debate, which aired Tuesday night on Fox Business Network, he communicated his narrative clearly, plainly, with minimal interference from his fellow candidates — and without having to open fire on his onetime mentor, the erst-frontrunner Jeb Bush, whose anemic performance can only spell bad news for the former Florida governor’s already flagging campaign.

Given the somewhat less crowded stage and more wonkish theme of the evening (a focus on tax policy and economics), there were fewer fireworks than in past GOP debates, but one moment stood out as a vintage piece of Trump-Jeb scuffling. As usual, Jeb had almost nothing to say when it occurred. By way of ignoring John Kasich, who repeatedly tried to get a word in edgewise in a conversation about budgeting — he once was, after all, chairman of the House Budget Committee — the magnanimous Trump deigned to play moderator and shut both men down succinctly: “You should let Jeb speak.”

Kasich resumed his role as the exasperated adult not only in matters of the budget, but also immigration, where he admonished voters not to believe Trump’s fantasy of mass deportation: “We all know you can’t pick them up and ship them back across the border,” he said. “It’s a silly argument. It’s not an adult argument. It makes no sense!”

Defending his immigration policy, Trump invoked President Eisenhower’s forced deportation initiative in the 1950s: “Let me just tell you that Dwight Eisenhower. Good president. Great president. People liked him. I liked him. I Like Ike, right? The expression, ‘I like Ike.’ Moved 1.5 million illegal immigrants out of this country.”

Trump failed to mention the operation, which is best remembered as “Operation Wetback,” was neither particularly humane nor effective.

Ted Cruz, as he did at the last debate, took aim at the debate format itself, and neatly served his social and economic conservatism in one (sound) bite-sized package: “There are more words in the IRS tax code than there are in the Bible,” he said.

Dr. Ben Carson, who has come under fire recently for reports that he may have fudged the truth to add gloss to the salvation narrative of his biography, emerged uninjured from the debate. No one seemed particularly inclined to discuss whether or not the retired neurosurgeon had lied about a scholarship to West Point or actually been violent as a young man, except for Carson himself, who in his opening remarks transmuted the controversy into a limp joke at the media’s expense.

Rand Paul beat the libertarian drum — accusing his fellow candidates of being false conservatives if they planned to place additional military spending on a credit card.

When Rubio responded, “I know that the world is a better and safer place when America is the strongest military force in the world,” Paul shot back that military action “wouldn’t keep America safe from bankruptcy court.”

As she did in the last debate, Carly Fiorina touted her business record, despite the damning reviews of her performance as a CEO that have come to light, and seemed to cite her own desire to challenge Hillary Clinton in a one-on-one debate as a qualification to be nominated. When asked why Democrats seem to have a better record at job creation, she slid back easily into a narrative, studded with talking points, which concluded, without explanation: “And yes, the Democrats do make it worse.”

They spent most of the evening affirming that very point, with varying shades of — and success at — charisma, but not disagreeing on much. And Marco Rubio did what he came there to do: He shone through as the fresh, young, best new hope for establishment.

Of course, it had less to do with substance than smiles.

Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate and former Governor Jeb Bush (L) speaks as U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R) looks on during the debate held by Fox Business Network for the top 2016 U.S. Republican presidential candidates in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, November 10, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

This post has been updated.

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