Politics & Policy

‘What Might Have Been’: The Substantive and Clarifying Trumpless Debate

(Alex Wong/Getty)

What Rich Lowry tartly labeled “the Trumpless Debate” exposed the fracture of the Republican party’s base with a clarity that the Donald’s presence would not have allowed.

For those of us in the commentariat, the evening was a joy. It was an exhibition of substance and seriousness, a night of lively exchanges where quality candidates took shots at each other that were hard but fair. The Fox News moderators were no wallflowers, but they were clearly determined to make the night about the contestants: Questions were succinct; interruptions were reserved for moments when candidates were unresponsive or in denial over inconvenient, incontestable facts. It was a glimpse, as David French put it, at “what might have been” — without the blaring Trumpet of snark and bully bravado, it was as if Henry Gondorff had never crashed the old boys’ poker game.

But the thing is: Most people who have a stake in the Republican race are not in the commentariat. They are the people who have been ill-served by the old boys. They are no longer impressed by slick-sounding policy wonkery because they are finally on to the charade: The candidates say one thing to get elected and then do very different things once they’ve been elected.

They like Trump precisely because of the wrench he has thrown in the works. He makes the pols and the press feel as powerless as the pols and the press have made them feel. He doesn’t care about the Beltway’s rules; Trump plays by his own and invites them, vicariously, to play along.

RELATED: In Trump’s Absence, His Rivals Bloody One Another to a Draw

That there is wisdom in the traditional electoral process, and that Trump’s own erratic self-dealing would eventually do great damage is, for now, beside the point. The people who vote Republican, or stay home if Republicans fail to move them, want an opposition party that actually opposes what is happening to the country — what is happening to them. The GOP has been AWOL . . . when not actively aiding and abetting President Obama. Trump is the haughty Beltway’s comeuppance, the Frankenstein of its own creation. That he has spent most of his life playing for the other team, that he would govern like Hillary Clinton after running like Huey Long, makes no difference at this moment.

The commentariat loved the debate. The Trump legions, which the polls tell us have expanded steadily over the last few months, tuned the debate out for the most part. What was impressive to us analysts was, for them, “same old, same old.” And those who did tune in found grist for rationalizing their Trump sympathies.

#share#As National Review has catalogued, there are abundant reasons to reject the Trump candidacy. One, however, stands out above the rest: It is foolish to believe a word he says. As earnest as he may sound on, say, the sanctity of life or crushing terror networks or the importance of judicial fidelity to the Constitution, he has just as earnestly championed positions that are diametrically opposite — and if he hasn’t yet, stick around for five or ten minutes: He’s bound to get there.

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This is especially the case on confiscatory taxation, socialized medicine, and illegal immigration, three signal issues for the GOP base. Trump still thinks the preposterous wealth tax he proposed in 1999 to raise $5.7 trillion was a good idea — he just regrets that, largely thanks to the politicians he has lavishly financed, there is now over three times more national debt to retire. Trump, moreover, still supports single-payer, government-run health care — I’d say he was to the left of Obama on this if I actually believed the president wanted Obamacare to work (to the contrary, Obamacare is intentionally designed to collapse of its own weight, prompting a crisis the Left would exploit to usher in single-payer, government-run health care). And for all his chest-beating on kicking illegal aliens out of the country, Trump is actually proposing an absurd “touch-back” amnesty — i.e., pointlessly evicting people only to bring them back with legal status — that would be prohibitively expensive, impossible to administer, and fly in the face of the proposal his own campaign has issued (but of which he seems blissfully unaware) to reduce work visas.

Why doesn’t this bother Trump fans? Well, think again about the debate. With great conviction, candidates proposed thoughtful solutions to the nation’s pressing problems. Quite often, however, it emerged that these proposals contradicted other thoughtful solutions the same candidates had previously proposed.

RELATED: Fox News’ Moderators Were Tough. Maybe a Little Too Tough

The most jarring example, though hardly singular, was Marco Rubio on immigration. Rubio’s greatest strength, his gift for passionate, compelling argument, became a liability as Fox’s Megyn Kelly confronted him with devastating video: candidate Rubio forcefully condemning the notion of amnesty for illegal aliens: a path to legalization and citizenship. That, of course, was before Senator Rubio, once safely ensconced in the ruling class, became its most zealous advocate for amnesty for illegal aliens: a path to legalization and citizenship.

#related#The Donald’s supporters see this and say, “Don’t tell us about Trump’s flip-flops.” Flip-flopping, they reckon, is what these guys do: They say what they need to say to get elected; then, once in power, they do what they want — which frequently bears little resemblance to what they claimed they wanted while out on the hustings.

Trump has convinced his acolytes that he is an “outsider businessman” who, once in power, will put things right. That the outsider’s business model prominently includes paying off the insiders, that his dabbles in the political arena have been in behalf of policies Republican voters generally find abominable — none of that seems to matter. “Make America Great Again” is this cycle’s “Hope and Change” — the empty screen on which Trump supporters project their every desire. They imagine that the outsider-businessman fairy will deliver where the talk-talk-talk political class has forsaken them.

Donald Trump skipped the debate. For the flock he has mesmerized, that made him sound even better.

(Disclosure: I support Ted Cruz.)

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