A terrible and boring debate can still be consequential.
The sheer length of the Republican debates on CNN confounded any chance of there being a single narrative coming out of it. Early on Jeb Bush was completely unable to take on Donald Trump, and I pictured donors rushing to their phones to call Romney back in to save their party from The Donald. But, hours later, Jeb loosened up and showed a sporting personality. Donald Trump came out firing zingers, but became the low-energy man by the end of the night. Jeb gets points for showing any life at all. Trump loses some, being unable to dominate the whole night.
The CNN debate had a much smaller audience made of traditional Republicans. Unlike the Fox debate, John Kasich was not playing before a home-state crowd. The pattern of applause and response by the crowd suggested that it was made up of California GOP insiders and members of the Chamber of Commerce. It was an anti-Trump audience. They saved Jeb Bush from a knockout by rallying to him when he defended the record of his brother. They magnified Fiorina's pushback of Trump.
Rand Paul has to be more sectarian to survive the next month. When his libertarian views are just a light spin on generic Republicanism, he risks sinking. He did best disagreeing with this party on the Iraq war and on drugs.
Carly Fiorina was the winner on points. She's the best speaker by a mile. She's able to talk passionately to pro-lifers, be wry with Donald Trump, and speak fluently about the structure of the U.S. military. She swatted away the question of putting a woman on the $10 bill as a stupid invitation to pander, and she did so with a smart pandering answer of her own. She'll likely see a big boost at the expense of Ben Carson and, to a lesser degree, Trump. But by the end of the debate, her overstuffed answers gave the impression of being a teacher's pet.
Besides Fiorina, Paul, and Bush, the other candidates who did themselves some good included Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, and (in the undercard debate) Lindsey Graham. Candidates who stalled included Ben Carson, John Kasich, and Mike Huckabee. Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, and George Pataki were flat. The biggest loser of the night was Scott Walker.
But the GOP itself should get a failing grade overall. The party seems to be operating in an alternate reality where political candidates give their own personal views on vaccine strategy. Or where George W. Bush's presidency gets applause. Jeb Bush, implausibly, complained that Chief Justice John Roberts was something of an unknown when he was appointed to the bench by his brother. That's just false. And in three hours the only memorable mention of the middle class and their economic fortunes was made by Chris Christie, who interrupted a long aside about the respective business careers of Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump. A party that wants to win an election talks about jobs, the economy, and middle class. The GOP mostly didn't.
The party also operates in an alternate reality on foreign policy. Candidates in both the undercard debate and the main event tried to blame the rise of ISIS on Obama, for withdrawing American troops from Iraq. The fact is that this withdrawal was the will of the elected Iraqi national government, and ratified by the signature of Republican President George W. Bush. Republicans throughout the night warned that ISIS was a threat to the United States, which is why they must be defeated in Syria and Iraq. Somehow, the party is committing itself to the idea that the United States can't possibly have effective visa enforcement or border controls and so must reconstruct two war-torn failing states in the Middle East.
Republicans should not count on this one debate hurting Trump in the long run. He is still going to dominate the coverage until he is actually overtaken by someone in the polls. But this debate revealed little strategies of overcoming him: Forget asking him to apologize; instead, bury him in details, call him out in a subtle way.
But more urgent than defeating Donald Trump, the party must find a way to get beyond the George W. Bush years. Wednesday's debate showed a party that is still more comfortable in his shadow. They talk about tax cuts without talking about middle-class jobs. They peddle slight tweaks on Bush's profoundly unpopular comprehensive immigration reform. Its leading candidates want to return America to misery in Iraq. Needed desperately: fewer candidates, more ideas.