The Republican Party, partially but not entirely thanks to Donald Trump, just gave us perhaps the most entertaining debate in presidential primary history. And it also showcased a field of talented politicians. But the problem is that everything was within a framework of a still-broken party.
By the end of the night, all nine of the non-Trumps demonstrated why they belonged in the main event. Each of them has solid skills for this kind of thing. To my eyes, Marco Rubio probably had the best night of the group (and many on Twitter seemed to agree), but everyone had at least a couple of moments to shine.
It’s impressive: This style of debating, under these conditions, is not as easy as several of them made it look. Only Mike Huckabee had debated at this level before. Rand Paul, in particular, has only run for office once before, but he was quite strong throughout. Most candidates (including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, to name a few) took several tries to get up to speed when they began running for president.
And at least a few of the GOP candidates (John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Rubio) have taken governing seriously; they’re not just showhorses.
None of this takes away from the obvious fact that the party is still a mess. We had nothing resembling a real agenda for governing from anyone on the podium. Years after Obamacare passed, none of them can even pretend to have a health-care policy. The economic plans that they want to talk about are mostly bromides and cliches. On foreign policy it’s braggadocio along with contempt for Barack Obama.
Yes, there were a few exceptions from some candidates on some specific issues (such as Bush on immigration, Paul on civil liberties, Rubio on a few things). And, no, I don’t necessarily expect extensive details in a debate format. But Republicans have shown no signs at all that they are close to being able to succeed at governing.
Being a good politician in the Republican Party these days means displaying skills to excite the excitable. It also means navigating around the constantly changing bogeymen conjured up by the conservative marketplace. This condition tests those who have been in office more than a few years, because what was orthodox conservatism one day may have turned into squish sellout RINOism the next.
That’s unlikely to cost Republicans the presidential election, just as it hasn’t cost them in midterm elections. It does leave them unprepared to fight off a Donald Trump (or, for that matter, a Ben Carson or a Carly Fiorina, both of whom are about as qualified for the office as he is). After all, he’s only an exaggerated version of what their real politicians sound like.
But their most insurmountable problem is not from celebrity outsiders. As long as they’re a post-policy party, Republicans are going to find governing an impossible challenge.
Jonathan Bernstein is a columnist for Bloomberg View.