Last week’s debate was messy, unseemly, contentious, and — in many ways — embarrassing. But it worked in the way that negative advertising often does — everyone says they hate it, but it still hurts the target. Days after last Thursday battle royale, Trump had his first truly bad weekend of the campaign — losing two contests to Cruz, one to Marco Rubio, and barely winning two other primaries that were supposed to be routs.
So, naturally – with the limited exception of Ted Cruz – the candidates decided to be nice and pretend it was last October, the hopeful month when everyone thought the normal rules of politics applied, and the contenders could debate as if policy or facts actually mattered. How quaint.
The stink of defeat was in the air. Reince Priebus began the night with a plea for unity, and Trump soon followed suit. Rubio and Kasich debated as if they wanted to be remembered for losing with class and dignity. Cruz at times fought gamely, but Trump deflected his attacks by simply not taking the bait. He acted like a man who had the nomination already in hand.
In an ordinary election, Rubio delivered perhaps his best performance of the campaign, and Cruz was close behind. But this is no ordinary election. Trump was serene (though incomprehensible, nonsensical, and contradictory) throughout, and thus there was no need for his campaign manager to rush onto the stage to rescue his tottering boss. That means Trump wins, the field loses, and he rolls into March 15 without his competitors landing a single meaningful new blow.
Decorum won, and — for once — decorum was on Trump’s side. This was not a debate to turn the tide.