The political world is focused on tonight’s Republican presidential debate on CNN, with most media outlets publishing cheat sheets telling us what each of the 11 candidates on the stage have to do. Yet after last month’s debate on Fox and much pre- and post-debate analysis by pundits along the same lines, we learned it didn’t matter much how well most of the candidates did, since all that seemed to matter to voters was Donald Trump. That means that the only question we really need to answer tonight isn’t so much about individual performances of the various candidates on the stage. Rather, it is whether the willingness of a number of his rivals to both take him on and stand up to his insults will alter the basic dynamic of the race that the Donald has dominated. Up until now Republican voters have shown that they care more about their resentment of the political class, which has allowed Trump and fellow non-politician Ben Carson to dominate the polls, than about the qualifications or the positions of the candidates. Unless that starts to change tonight, the GOP may be in very big trouble.
Breaking down the debate in terms of what the candidates each have to do in the CNN debate isn’t that complicated.
Bush needs to show energy and moxie in taking on Trump and not sound as if he doesn’t know why he’s running. Scott Walker has to do the same and demonstrate he isn’t a one-trick pony who inevitably flops outside of the context of his battle with the unions in Wisconsin. John Kasich and Marco Rubio both have to duplicate their strong performances from August to bolster their bids to edge out Bush and Walker as the most viable mainstream/establishment alternatives to Trump/Carson. Chris Christie needs to do something to re-establish himself as a viable candidate whom someone can take seriously.
Ted Cruz, who had trouble getting a word in edgewise last time, hopes to concentrate his fire on the establishment and the Democrats while hoping that conservatives will fall away from Trump and determine that he is the best qualified insurgent. Mike Huckabee has to remind social conservatives that he is their candidate and that Trump isn’t really one of them. Rand Paul has to try to do the same with Tea Partiers and libertarians to revive his failing campaign.
A lot of the attention will inevitably fall on Carly Fiorina, who had to fight to get herself into the main event tonight. If she can muss up Trump’s hair and emerge without hurting herself in the process, then perhaps she will soon join Trump and Carson at the top of the polls as a more palatable populist alternative to the Donald for voters who are repelled by the vapid frontrunner’s viciousness and vulgarity.
Carson needs to have more moments like the one at the end of the August debate where he struck just the right tone of wise detachment from political infighting and — like the rest of the field — avoid getting stumped by any tough questions, especially on foreign policy, by the moderators.
As for Trump, I’m not sure any of us know if there is anything that can happen to him that will loosen his grip on the affections of much of the voting public or the attention of the media. He was awful in the Fox debate in August, providing few answers and sounding unprepared and nasty when challenged. But, like all the other damning gaffes he has made since he started running for president, it didn’t matter. All a plurality of the public has cared about in the last few months was the fact that Trump was trashing the political class and was willing to vent populist resentment about immigration and the general dissatisfaction with government.
Right now, a clear majority of those identifying as Republicans are backing Trump, Carson or Fiorina, candidates who believe the presidency is an entry-level political job. A host of wise pundits have been predicting that sooner or later, the voters will wise up and realize they need to choose someone who has a firmer grasp on the realities of political life. But the respondents to polls have consistently refused to fall in line.
The greatest fear for Republicans who want to win in 2016 ought to be that nothing that is said on the stage at the Reagan library tonight will actually matter to the voters. With the exception of Fiorina rising to the top in the preliminary debate, that was what happened last month in the first debate in Cleveland. The likelihood is that Trump will blunder again and that others — like Rubio who was generally considered the winner in the immediate aftermath of the Fox debate — will gain at his expense. But if but next week’s polls show Donald retaining his spot at the top with none of the more established candidates breaking out of single digits, then it may be time to recognize that debate performances don’t matter all that much and that the normal rules of political gravity don’t apply to either him or this Republican contest.
In that case, it will really be time for the party establishment and mainstream activists who don’t want the GOP to become Trump’s personal property to panic. It won’t be possible for them to wait until after Iowa and New Hampshire to settle on a single, viable non-Trump alternative. That’s why the only question to ask about tonight’s debate is whether it will produce some sort of shift in public opinion that will create a stumbling block for Trump. Anything other than that will mean he continues cruising to the nomination while the party he seeks to lead starts to collapse in chaos.