Despite its eerie civility, Thursday night's presidential debate rammed home the nature of the terrible choice foisted on Republican voters this year. With just three months to go until the GOP convention, none of their options make any sense.
On Thursday, just when you thought the battle for the GOP nomination couldn't get any weirder, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich flipped the script by settling into a comparatively substantive debate. Gone were the jokes about hand size. Gone were accusations of grifting. Gone were nicknames like "Little Marco" and "Lyin' Ted." But as the temperature lowered, the sense of paralysis grew.
Yes, all the candidates backed away from the campaign's brawling tone, but the reason was obvious: They're keeping their powder dry for a contested convention in Cleveland, where the city has stocked up on riot gear.
Perhaps both Rubio and Kasich really will hang on until June, no matter the outcome of this Tuesday's contests in Florida and Ohio, their home states. But to what end? "Learn to enjoy losing" is now the Rubio-Kasich motto, a terrifying thing to behold in the two candidates doubling down on the most relentlessly upbeat messages. Will their supporters really put up with it for three months? Will the candidates themselves go insane?
On the Trump-Cruz side of things, the bad vibes radiate differently.
Hay was made last night of Trump's latest twist on his go-to theme — the almighty deal. But the "Good Deal" he promised merely followed, however vaguely, in the grand presidential tradition of our New, Square, and Fair Deals. The real nightmare aroused by Trump is that with him as the nominee or the president, there is no deal at all. Amid today's vast uncertainty over America's near-term future, Trump's sweeping promises come off too often as a satanic parody of hope and change.
Meanwhile Cruz, for many insiders and outsiders alike, still comes off as the consummate cynic, the guy who thinks he can represent himself in a lawsuit against the Devil and get himself off on a technicality. Refusing to go for Trump's jugular, dumping attack ads on Rubio in Florida, he, too, thinks he can still win. Will his supporters buckle under the pressure? Will he finally fight too dirty? Will he snatch victory from Trump only to be stuck with Trump's foulest constituents? The questions circle like vultures.
And beyond Cleveland awaits Clinton, the candidate who might or might not bring back '90s neoliberalism, '90s interventionism, and the uniquely dispiriting '90s brand of cronyism, fueled by the Sid Blumenthal jet set that has been partying like it's 1999 since, well, 1999.
Republicans and Americans more broadly are lost at sea. There is no certainty about who's most likely to win in the general election. The polls are against Trump in a head-to-head contest, favoring Cruz, but Clinton is (as always) her own worst enemy.
We don't know who will square off. We don't know who will win. We don't know what the winner will do in office. We don't even know what shape the world and the country will be in by the time they get there. And if we don't keep our heads until we find out, we'll beat the apocalypse to the punch.
With perhaps only one more debate to go, we're about to find out which of the GOP's four horsemen gets to ride on.