Opinion

The latest GOP debate was a nasty, bawdy affair. But things could be worse.

Don't freak out. We're still a long way from the death of the Republic.

Two sobering facts presented themselves at Thursday night's Republican presidential debate in Detroit — a saddening, maddening affair that scrapped the last tattered illusions of the primary cycle.

First, nothing like this has ever happened before. The GOP has crossed a Rubicon away from good taste and sportsmanship, toward something that, while not more divisive than elections of yore, is clearly more debased. The GOP's established leadership may bear full responsibility for Donald Trump's rise, but it's the culture at large that should be blamed for the cheapjack style and raucous yet vacuous substance that soured the evening from start to finish. The decent drapery of the Republicans, to lift a phrase from conservative spirit animal Edmund Burke, has been more than rudely ripped to shreds.

But second, we're still a long way off from the death of the Republic. So don't freak out quite yet.

Lack of perspective is a hallmark of our age. If you think the Trump show speaks ill of the times, imagine touring the country in Alexis de Tocqueville's entourage, when the U.S. was languishing between the death of Thomas Jefferson and the start of the Civil War. Go flip through Democracy in America for a sad reminder of just how limp and lost America's political class had grown in the 1840s. Their failures helped create the bloodiest and deepest wound the body politic has suffered to date. By comparison, today's failures are lame, but not lethal.

And indeed, half of last night's debate was more or less a credit to democracy. At a time when so much of the globe's surface has been overrun by chaos, slaughter, corruption, and simpleminded despotism, let's take a moment to admire the prudence of candidates like Ted Cruz and John Kasich.

Whatever you make of domestic policy, it's clear we're not going to get from the Democrats a decent and proper debate over America's role in the world. This year, Cruz and Kasich are as good as it gets. Bernie Sanders is too focused on inequality at home to hold Hillary Clinton's feet to the fire for the gleaming grotesqueness of her record in foreign affairs, while Marco Rubio's flailing campaign gives neoconservatism a bad name. And so, at Thursday's debate, while Little Marco and Little Fingers raced to the bottom, it was left to Cruz and Kasich to take the high ground.

Rubio can no longer run on hubris and hothouse hope. He can't win his home state. Sticking it out means handing Trump delegates that Cruz could steal away. Trump really did expel the demons of the Bush campaign into the body of Rubio, who is now charging into the sea. Although Cruz benefited immensely from keeping a cool head until that happened, the secret momentum now rests with Kasich, who must decide whether he'd rather be Cruz's running mate or Trump's. If Kasich throws in with Cruz, the race will finally winnow to two — and winnow out the facepalm-worthy jokes and burns.

Many Republicans will scream when they realize they're suffering through such uncharted waters so that Kasich, the continental breakfast of Republicans, can decide their fate. But it's been that kind of year. Kasich is a safe space for people who wish this whole deranged gong show would just go away. It's only fitting, isn't it, that the party's sweetest dreamers should have the final say over its darkest nightmare?

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