The worst possible thing happened at the Republican debate Tuesday night in Las Vegas. The worst possible thing, that is, if you’re a Republican hoping for a nominee other than Donald Trump.
Everyone did well.
Even those we thought were slipping away from the field walked right back into it to varying degrees.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is no natural debater, turned in his best performance to date. He was downright forceful at moments. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was crisp. So was businesswoman Carly Fiorina, who reminded us why she almost broke out of the pack two months ago. She’s someone it’s not hard to imagine in the Oval Office.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was good. So were retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. And Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, the Cuban-American duo that was beginning to break away from the lower tiers of the primary field, were excellent as always. Cruz is a masterful debater, and Rubio is the smoothest communicator in politics today.
It didn’t matter how Trump did. Whatever he said would be OK with his core supporters. That said, Trump stayed on his simple message — trust me, I’m going to make America great again — and he showed flashes of genuine likability on stage. He is getting better at this.
The debate wasn’t what the Republican Party wanted or needed. It wanted clarity. It needed to shed candidates, like stages of a rocket falling away to move forward. But what it got instead was actual debate, across-the-board competence and continued uncertainty of whom in the pack will rise to make a run at Trump, and, ultimately, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
I was reminded why I once described this field as an embarrassment of riches. It’s been easy in recent months to paint it as the dozen dwarfs and The Donald, but if only that were its problem. The field’s problem is that it’s chock full of too many good candidates, in a dreadful way.
Who do you pick?
Viewers familiar with national security and foreign policy issues, the focus of the debate, were given clear practical and philosophical distinctions between the candidates.
Paul opposes regime changes because of the chaos they can cause. Kasich wants to put together a massive international ground force to deal with the Islamic State, akin to what George H.W. Bush did in the first Gulf War. Cruz wants to significantly up airstrikes in Syria, but limit what the NSA can do with the data records of U.S. citizens. Rubio argues that law enforcement needs even more anti-terrorist tools here at home. Fiorina plans to take a hard line with Russia and China to gain the upper hand in negotiations. And Christie argues persuasively that we should retaliate against China for hacking and reveal damaging information about the Chinese government to its citizenry. Carson explains that targeted war is humane, likening it to removing cancer from the brain of a child, which he has done so often. Trump? Well, Trump proposes that we murder the children, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents of terrorists.
Like I said, the debate offered clear distinctions.
But those looking not so much for specifics, but for the candidate to emerge, didn’t get it. They were again offered a maddeningly full palette of possibilities.
I would be shocked if any of the candidates on the stage Tuesday were to drop out of the race any time soon. There is no need for them to do that. And that’s the problem.
If, as I said, you’re hoping for a GOP standard-bearer other than Donald Trump.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a Republican consultant.