For months, Republican insiders have watched Donald Trump’s rise with mounting horror. After each debate, they’ve decried his on-stage antics and crude insults, longing for a sober, serious, and substantive debate that would allow the strengths of other candidates to shine.
On Thursday night, that’s exactly what they got. On question after question, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio offered specifics, while Trump served up vague generalities and promised to make better deals. The trouble for the Republican Party may be that many of the specifics these candidates offered are at odds with the views of the public at large, while many of Trump’s generalities spoke directly to popular anxieties and frustrations.
Take Social Security. Two-thirds of Americans believe that benefits shouldn’t be cut; three-quarters of the candidates on stage felt otherwise. They spelled out the challenges facing the program in detail, and called for changes. The sole exception was Donald Trump. “I want to leave Social Security as is,” he said. “I want to make our country rich again so we can afford it.”
Or trade. Kasich, Cruz, and Rubio all made the case for the benefits of free trade, so long as deals are structured to be fair to workers in the United States. And most Americans agree that free trade deals are a good thing for the United States. Trump alone dissented. “Trade deals are absolutely killing our country,” he said, launching a scathing critique of trade deficits and offshoring. And on those points, the public is with Trump—large pluralities believe that free trade costs jobs, lowers wages, and slows growth.
With the debate relatively free of invective, the candidates each had a chance to display their strengths. Kasich stressed his optimism; Rubio, his fluency with policy; and Cruz, his willingness to fight for conservative principles. And on issue after issue, they showed a mastery of specifics that Trump simply couldn’t match.
Pressed to explain why Common Core, a set of educational standards developed, and voluntarily adopted, by states constituted a federal takeover of local schools, Trump floundered, blaming “the bureaucrats in Washington.” Kasich stepped in to offer a detailed defense of a policy he’s championed, while Cruz served up the standard conservative response that Trump couldn’t muster: The Feds, he claimed, had coerce the states into compliance.
Would Trump close the embassy in Cuba or keep it open? Trump equivocated, insisting he’d negotiate a better deal. Finally, he conceded that, “I would probably have the embassy closed until such time as a really good deal was made and struck by the United States.” Rubio pounced. “All right, first of all, the embassy is the former consulate. It's the same building. So it could just go back to being called a consulate.”
When the debate turned to climate change, Trump didn’t even wade into the mix. Instead, he stood back, as Rubio denied America could take meaningful action to save Miami from rising seas, and Kasich tried to have it both ways, insisting on the need for renewable energy, while also saying that it was unclear how much humans contribute to climate change. They both offered specifics, but they’re not aligned with popular opinion.
And on it went through the night. The question, though, was how voters would react. In the through-the-looking-glass world of the 2016 campaign, Trump’s most outrageous debate performances have been panned by pundits, only to see him surge in the polls. Does that mean that a relatively serious, restrained Trump, playing by the standard rules but unable to keep pace in policy discussions, will slip? That he’ll prove more appealing to wavering voters, who’d been put off until now by his antics? Or just that it’s folly to try to predict how his performances will be received?
As for his rivals, every time one has gone on the attack, he’s seen his own standing sink in the polls. It’s easy to understand why each decided not to attack: Rubio, chastened by the backlash to his recent attacks; Kasich, determined to stay positive; and Cruz, complacently waiting for the other two to lose on Tuesday and drop out of the race. None of these candidates damaged themselves, but neither did they damage Trump’s standing. And without something changing, it’s hard to see how Trump loses.
The most these candidates now hope for, it seems, is to deny Trump an outright majority of the delegates, and hope for a contested convention. Trump was dismissive of that prospect. “I think whoever gets the most delegates should win,” he said. Getting a majority, he explained, is “an artificial number…a very random number.”
But it’s a number he’s edging closer to with each successive election. Voters head to the polls again on Tuesday, to render their own verdict on the debate. And it’s not clear that Trump’s rivals have done enough to stop him.