If you want a headline for Tuesday night’s Republican debate, it’s this: Nothing much happened, and therefore the march of Republican party actors toward Marco Rubio most likely will continue.
Oh, plenty happened. Lots of candidates got in their prepared zingers; plenty of candidates did a good job discussing substantive policies; even more candidates sounded foolish on various subjects. But I recently noted that Rubio was moving up rapidly in endorsements from Republicans. Since then, he’s added another senator and three more members of the House. It’s still not certain that the party has decided for him, but it’s looking better and better.
And nothing on Tuesday night should change that. His debate skills are solid. He’s especially good at knowing exactly which prepared answer to match to which question – far better than any of his competitors, if not quite as good so far as Hillary Clinton.
He’s also good at keeping his head down when that’s the best choice. When he does speak, he avoids the traps that exist all over the place. To his credit, his policy statements are grounded enough in reality so that those who care about such things aren’t going to pick on him as a target.
Most of the other candidates did fine, too. No one was smacked down the way Jeb Bush was (by Rubio) in the last debate, or the way Donald Trump was (by Carly Fiorina) in the second debate. To my ears, neither Bush nor John Kasich is especially strong at this, but they each had their moments this time. Ben Carson almost disappeared for the first two hours – but had (again, to my ears) by far the strongest closing statement, reinforcing the reasons why Christian conservatives like them. Even on the undercard event, most candidates did well.
The most interesting performance, perhaps, was Rand Paul’s. Early in this electoral cycle, Paul made a play for actually being a serious nomination candidate, playing down libertarianism and areas where he parted ways with the party. That failed utterly. On Tuesday night, more so than in the other debates, he was there as his father’s son, pushing policies that may keep him on the main stage for a while, if these issues connect, even if everyone knows he’s not going higher.
Overall, the moderators were the best yet: The candidates got a chance to explain their preferences. Yes, that meant they could rely on their regular talking points, but that’s fine with me.
But, I have to say, as I have before, that the level of basic knowledge of government and public affairs is depressingly low among this lot of Republican candidates. Or at least, they’re good at pretending to know little. Ted Cruz, for example, keeps pushing the gold standard – and suggested, at one point, that economic booms and busts only showed up in the U.S. after the nation abandoned gold. Yikes!
Jonathan Bernstein writes for Bloomberg View.