The CNN town hall hosted by Anderson Cooper was among the most enlightening events of the GOP presidential primary season. There was no concealing who the three candidates featured Wednesday night -- Ben Carson, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas -- are. There were, at least, 10 key takeaways:
1. Enough of Carson, already. He is nonspecific on policy, fuzzy on basic knowledge and decidedly "low energy." It's time for him to exit the stage, or for the next debate to set a criteria (top three finishers in a primary or with double-digits in South Carolina would work) sufficient to eliminate candidates such as Carson who obviously enjoy the exposure but are not serious contenders.
2. The "robot" hooey about Rubio was patently false, and the MSM had to have known it when they were running with the story. No one could have heard Rubio opine at length about the GOP's diversity, explain his highly detailed higher-ed policy, discuss the appropriate role of the Federal Reserve or go through the intricacies of the Apple encryption issue and think he is robotic or shallow. On the Apple issue, for example, he was informed and candid: "If we passed a law that required Apple and these companies to create a backdoor, number one, criminals could figure that out and use it against you. And number two, there's already encrypted software that exists, not only now but in the future created in other countries. We would not be able to stop that."
3. Cruz had remarkably little to say about his own policies, choosing to devote time to defending himself and attacking others. It's indicative of his style of politics -- confrontational, incendiary and obstructionist. This works well as a backbencher or tea party star, but if the electorate is looking for conservative problem-solving he, so far, does not have much to say.
4. Rubio is aspirational in a way no other candidate in the GOP race at this point is. "We are a nation of perpetual improvement. If you look at how far we've come as a country since the 1960s. If you look at how far South Carolina has come from where it is today to where it was 30 to 40 years ago, simply amazing," he observed. "In my campaign for president today, I got the endorsement of a governor of Indian descent, who endorsed a presidential candidate of Cuban descent, and tomorrow will be campaigning alongside an African American Republican senator, all three are doing that here inside South Carolina."
No wonder the Clinton camp does not want to run against him. Later on in the discussion, he made his case: "I'm not just going to unify the Republican Party, I'm going to grow it. We're going to take our message to people that haven't voted for Republicans in a long time. And they haven't voted for us because the left and the Democrats have told them that the Republican Party is the party of the rich people and the Democrats are the party of the working people." Partly because of his biography, but also because of his sunny personality and verbal dexterity, does he have that potential.
5. Cruz's past attempts to curry favor with the libertarian segment of the party make his current positions, which I suspect are closer to his true convictions, seem phony. He is adamantly opposed to Apple's position on encryption, showing none of the concerns (which were largely unsupported) he had when it came to metadata collection. Likewise, his new stance on military buildup simply does not match his voting record.
6. Cruz in his formal, didactic style can be quite effective in making an argument but is at a disadvantage in winning over hearts. Rubio has figured out how to share his personal experiences in a way that can reach voters who do not have a hard ideological edge.
Responding to a teacher's question about the problems schools inherit because of family breakdown, Rubio began, "I have three educators in my family, elementary school, and I hear the exact same thing because ultimately our schools are inheriting whatever society sends them in the morning."
He then continued, "If a child is being raised in a broken home, living in substandard housing, no access to health care, and facing these other challenges you talked about, this child faces significant obstacles, and they need to be addressed.
The question is what can government do about it because ultimately there's no law I can pass to make people better parents. And, no matter how hard you try, and how much you want to help, there's only so much you can do about that as well."
7. Asked why so many senators dislike him, Cruz did not dispute it and in fact illustrated why they feel that way. "I'm actually honoring the commitments I made to the men and women who elected to me," he proclaimed. It is precisely that holier-than-thou attitude and refusal to take responsible for his own behavior (e.g., the shutdown debacle) that have dogged him his entire career. So no one but him has principles? His arrogance and lack of interpersonal skills also make him ill-suited for a job that would require glad-handing, cajoling, compromise and outreach. He simply does not have any of those talents.
8. Cruz adeptly tore into Donald Trump on the mogul's record, litigiousness and lack of political principle. You have to wonder what would have happened if, rather than sucking up to him for months, he would have needled and skewered him with lines like: "Don't tell me you're pro-life. Tell me what you've done to defend the right to life." Having neglected to do so earlier, Cruz is now entirely wrapped up in battles with Trump, to the detriment of any positive message.
9. Anderson Cooper is very, very good at this, mixing personal questions (about their spouses, musical tastes) with serious topics. Moreover, the audience questions were insightful and meaty -- which gives one hope the electorate is not full of Trumpian know-nothings.
10. The contrast between Cruz and Rubio, on the one hand, and, on the other, Trump, who counter-programmed with an appearance on MSNBC, is simply stunning. Trump's vocabulary and rhetoric rarely rise above the fourth-grade level, and he is indifferent to reality. To be blunt, he revels in his ignorance. This is not a smart or sophisticated person remotely ready to be leader of the Free World. If the GOP electorate nominates him, a large chunk of the party should and, I think, would abandon him, find a qualified grownup conservative and hope Trump so embarrasses himself as to give that alternative conservative a fighting chance.