What a difference a week makes. When the four remaining Republican presidential candidates gathered eight days ago for a debate in Detroit, it marked a low point, not only for the 2016 race, but perhaps for the modern GOP itself – the event was more of a junior-high food fight than a discussion of ideas. The Republicans and their audience put on a vulgar and offensive display, reinforcing fears of a party that’s gone completely over the edge.
Last night in Miami was, well, different. If we lower the bar for propriety to a ridiculous level, and say any debate in which a presidential frontrunner refrains from talking about his penis is a success, then sure, the 12th gathering of the Republican presidential field was a vast improvement over the 11th.
But it’s also fair to say that isn’t much of a standard for a global superpower in the 21st century.
Perhaps the most memorable quote of the evening came about a third of the way through the debate, when Donald Trump took a moment to acknowledge what many were thinking. From the transcript:
“I would say this. We’re all in this together. We’re going to come up with solutions. We’re going to find the answers to things. And so far I cannot believe how civil it’s been up here.”
And given what happened seven days earlier, no one else could believe it, either. It led to borderline celebratory headlines such as, “GOP candidates set aside insults, talk about policy” and “Who Won the Debate? Substance Over Theater.”
At a certain level, the praise reflects a degree of relief – I think many journalists would have been satisfied last night if the candidates resisted the urge to literally drop their pants – but I think words like “policy” and “substance” should probably come with scare quotes.
Because while the GOP presidential hopefuls managed not to embarrass themselves or their party last night with juvenile taunts and ugly boasts, they also reminded voters that the Republican candidates have no idea what they’re talking about.
Vox’s Ezra Klein explained overnight that this may have been “the most substantive clash of the cycle,” but “the substance was wrong.”
So was this debate substantive? Sure, in the sense that it focused on weighty policy topics like Social Security and trade and the assembled candidates mostly used their inside voices. But the things the candidates actually said were, by turns, wrong, misleading, misinformed, confused, or ridiculous. This substantive debate mostly showed how weak a grasp on the issues the candidates actually have.
It’s honestly difficult to think of any area of public policy the Republicans candidates described accurately. They were wrong about basic, factual details regarding the economy, the environment, foreign policy, the budget, Social Security, education, and defense spending, among other things.
When presidential candidates say wrong things in a calm demeanor, it’s hardly a triumph. Our collective expectations for the GOP field have fallen to such a low level that watching them make bogus claims about reality for two hours seems impressive – because no one held up their hands to show how big they are.
As for the broader political context, it’s unlikely last night’s debate will have a significant impact on the race overall. Trump’s rivals not only kept the gloves on, they seemed to pull every punch, making no real effort to take the frontrunner down a peg. The New York Republican, meanwhile, shifted his tone, presenting himself as the likely nominee who no longer feels the need to knock the rivals he’s already defeating.
It may have been the last chance for Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich to interrupt Trump’s march to the nomination, and with last week’s debacle in mind, they decided last night not to even try.