Financier Donald Trump is better at TV than anyone else who has ever appeared in presidential debates. Much better.
He also has no capacity at all to speak coherently on policy. He’s developed about five minutes, maybe 10, of talking points, and he sticks with them.
Of course, many people have written about Trump’s lack of policy knowledge, but it hasn’t been dramatized in front of a large audience yet. On Thursday night, Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz fully exposed him as basically a fraud and a buffoon. Whether the media will say that – in the news pages, not just the opinion pages – is an open question. It’s also unclear whether Republican voters will care.
The biggest moment came on health care, when Trump was repeatedly urged by CNN’s Dana Bash and by Rubio to go beyond “get rid of the lines.” He couldn’t. Rubio, quick on the uptake after his infamous glitch in the pre-New Hampshire debate, pointed out that Trump was now repeating himselfand proceeded to mock Trump’s slogans.
That’s what Trump has: A handful of slogans to fill in on each subject, which he repeats as necessary. That, and talking about how great he is. He does the same thing on immigration: He has a great line about building a wall and making Mexico pay for it, but he can’t speak coherently beyond that.
Yes, all of that has been true from the start. Maybe Republican voters don’t care; after all, they’ve been trained by their party to oppose the very idea of complex government policy. But at least Thursday night it was more obvious than usual that Trump is wildly unprepared for the office he is seeking.
Cruz and especially Rubio came prepared to hit Trump hard on personal issues as well, including a civil lawsuit he’s currently been slapped with over “Trump University” and over hiring foreign workers for a Florida project. While these had been reported on before, they were new to the Republican debate stage. As was pressure on Trump to release his tax returns, an issue raised Friday by former Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, of all people.
Trump’s response was his usual bluster, denial and attack. One of his specialties when confronted with something he’s said, on policy or anything else, is just to flat-out deny it. But if it generates high-profile follow-up stories, none of that plays well.
The pattern is clear and predictable: When faced with a poor performance, a tough story, or good news from another candidate, Trump says something crazy to pull the attention back to himself and on his own terms. He’s likely to do it within the next 24-hour news cycle, maybe within the next 24 minutes.
To my eyes, Trump’s performance was a disaster. But my eyes aren’t important. What will matter is the reaction of the third of the Republican electorate who are not yet sold on Trump, but not yet repulsed by him either.
Jonathan Bernstein writes for Bloomberg View.