“I’m a maniac,” Senator Ted Cruz declared in the opening moments of Thursday night’s debate. He paused; it turned out he was making a joke. “Everyone here is stupid, fat, and ugly, and Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon. Now we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion of the evening out of the way.”
But the Trump portion of the evening was never out of the way, and Cruz could never fill the Trump-sized hole in the field left when the GOP front-runner spurned the Fox debate as “unfair.” On screens in the filing center, debate co-sponsor Google showed that more people were searching “Trump” than any other candidate during the debate he didn’t attend; all around me reporters were live streaming the surreal Trump “benefit” event a few miles away.
I was mildly curious to see what a GOP debate would be like with no Donald Trump. Would we see the smoldering wreckage of a party after the Trumpocalypse? Or get a glimpse of what the race might have looked like without The Donald? Sentimentalists might have hoped they’d get a glimpse of a pure, pre-Trump GOP state of nature, but of course that’s impossible. So many candidates are already casualties of Trump: governors like Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and George Pataki, the guys with a track record, the stars on the GOP’s “deep bench” who were supposed to save the party from a devastating loss that was traced to the mediocre roster of 2012.
The non-Trumps had their moment to shine, but no one did, although again, Senator Marco Rubio occasionally flickered. The Fox team set aside their network’s routine GOP cheerleading, once again, and asked tough questions. A montage of old video clips from Rubio and Cruz traced the way they’ve both changed position on immigration. Then Jeb Bush jumped in, enjoying Rubio’s trouble, to say his younger rival had to “cut and run” on his own bill. Bush then reminded the audience he’d written a book on immigration, and Rubio couldn’t believe his luck: “That is the book where you changed your position on immigration,” Rubio said. “Because you used to support a path to citizenship.”
“So did you,” Bush retorted. “So did you, Marco.” But a strong moment ended lamely for Bush once again.
A testy Rubio then attacked Cruz. “You helped design George W. Bush’s immigration policy. Now you want to Trump Trump on immigration. We’re not going to beat Hillary Clinton with someone who’s willing to say anything to win an election.” But the sad clash had left all three of them looking like they’d say anything to win an election—and showed how mainstream Trump’s immigration position is within the GOP, rhetoric aside.
Trump’s absence at least made room for Senator Rand Paul to share his unorthodox thinking on the drug war, government spying, and intervention abroad, and he delivered his lines without fear of a juvenile smackdown by the front-running bully. He laid claim to the “liberty vote,” and decried over-policing that’s “disproportionately affected our African-American community,” adding “I’ve been a believer in Congress about trying to bring about criminal-justice reform.”
Kasich likewise seemed more comfortable pushing his “inside/outside” approach, which allows that government can actually do some things, like provide better mental-health care for people in the “shadows.” Governor Chris Christie tried to do his trademark talk-directly-to-the-audience shtick, but it fell flat. He claimed his role as a prosecutor would make him the best person to face Hillary Clinton, given all her alleged legal troubles. “She will never get within 10 miles of the White House,” he promised. “The days of the Clintons living in public housing are over.” But asked about his own Bridgegate scandal, he pled ignorance. “Three different investigations proved I know nothing,” he claimed (which isn’t true). “As soon as I found out, I fired the people responsible.”
Ben Carson continues to fade back into the world of Christian book clubs and talk radio from whence he came. More and more he slumps into Saturday Night Live’s Jay Pharoah’s impression of him. A foreign-policy question had him channeling Sarah Palin, declaring that “[Vladimir] Putin is a one horse country: Oil and energy.”
The debate mattered most for Cruz, as a chance to help him regain the ground he’s lost in Iowa. I don’t think it did that. He never took control. He tried to pick a fight with Chris Wallace, accusing Wallace of attempting to get the candidates to attack one another. “It is a debate, sir,” Wallace replied coolly. Cruz then said if he got one more “mean question” he “may have to leave the stage.” It wasn’t clear whether or not he was serious; either way, the moment was awkward.
The debate illuminated the vacuum at the heart of the Republican Party that has been filled by Trump. None of the candidates have the combination of smarts, charisma, and backbone that leading the country usually requires. Their massive cave-in on immigration, a sop to their nativist base, was the clearest example of their abdication of responsibility to govern, but foreign policy, where everyone pledged to kill ISIS deader than the other, but nobody said how, was a close second. Trump’s absence is likely to make GOP hearts grow fonder. At any rate, nobody did anything to stop his momentum on Thursday night.