GOP Debate Recap: Trump’s Absence Hardly Felt

By Berny Belvedere Published on January 29, 2016

Last night’s GOP debate, the last one before the Iowa caucuses on Monday, featured the Republican candidates making their final pitches, with one notable, billionaire-sized exception.

I’m referring, of course, to Donald Trump, whose absence gave America a glimpse of the race that might have been. Although Trump’s absence was never going to be swept under the rug — Megyn Kelly literally opened the debate with a question about him — it’s interesting how little his influence was felt amidst the actual discussion of policy differences. In this sense, although Trump was not ignored, he was forgotten, which reveals how little he brings to the table in the realm of ideas. There was no “Trump has argued for x, but why do you support y?” questions, quite simply because the more interesting ideas were already being represented by the candidates on the stage. Trump’s absence gave a vivid, concrete depiction of the following counterfactual: What if Trump had never entered the race?

For one thing, a candidate like Rand Paul might’ve gotten much more of a closer look. I’m not blaming Paul’s campaign failures on Trump, yet it’s no coincidence than in a debate minus the Donald other voices within the party gain prominence. And Paul’s is a voice that the party needs to continue to make room for in these discussions, not because there’s something special about Paul, but because there’s something crucial about the principles, about the political philosophy, that Paul stands for. The libertarian tradition, with its prioritization of freedom and embrace of constitutionalism, is indispensable.

Consider: Paul talked about (a) auditing the Fed; (b) NSA surveillance overreach; (c) military non-interventionism; (d) religious liberty; (e) immigration controls; (f) the abuses of our regulatory state; (g) criminal justice reform; and, finally, (h) federalism. Many of these are issues no other candidate has touched on. As far as moments, he had one of the best lines of the night: “I don’t think you have to give up your liberty for a false sense of security.” Rand Paul is not going to be our nation’s 45th president, but it was refreshing to see him play a more central role in some of these discussions.

With frontrunner Trump absent, the two highest-polling candidates on stage were Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. One big question heading into Thursday night was, How would the dynamics of the debate change in light of Trump’s decision not to participate? There would be no Trump/Cruz feud taking center stage — would a Rubio/Cruz battle take its place? Though Rubio and Cruz did well enough to stay at their current levels or even move up, aspects of their performances can be singled out for scrutiny. On Cruz’s side, he feuded with Chris Wallace over technicalities of debate procedure, and then complained that some of the questions were unfair. Rubio, for his part, looked like he crushed three Red Bulls prior to coming on stage.

In a piece from two days ago, I argued that in order to surge in Iowa, Rubio needed to intensify his tone and increase his aggressiveness. He seemed quite a bit more animated than usual, yet the injection of alarmism came off as contrived; I agree with the assessment that he “doesn’t do anger” very well. Again, I don’t think either will see their numbers drop; they had enough positive moments to maintain or even improve their standing in the polls.

One of the night’s non-surprises is that Jeb Bush does better when Trump is not around. Yet even with his nemesis out, Bush still cuts an uninspiring figure. Surely the only reason he remains in the race is his mammoth-sized war chest. Right 2 Rise, a SuperPAC supporting Bush, has spent more money on ads than some candidates have been able to raise for their entire operations. Yet Bush had some moments last night which he will use to increase excitement in New Hampshire. His internals indicate he’s surging there, but it’s hard for me to contemplate a scenario in which Bush wins this year’s nomination.

Ben Carson’s finale, a reading of the Constitution’s preamble, beyond being a transparent instance of signaling, showcased what is wrong with Carson’s candidacy. Carson is the real low-energy candidate — he can’t even be bothered to write and articulate a final pitch to the voters. I’m convinced he’s the best person out of everyone on that stage, but unfortunately that doesn’t correlate with political competence.

It was a shame there was no serious discussion on fiscal issues, save for Kasich’s hackneyed citation of his record as having balanced the budget in Ohio (which, according to the state constitution, he is required to do). No serious discussion of tax plans, no projections of how we might cut federal spending, no suggestions of potential budgetary trade-offs, etc. Trump’s absence facilitated a more substantive debate than has thus far been possible, but at the same time the candidates did not take full advantage of the opportunity to have enhanced discussions.

The Iowa caucuses are three days away. We’ve heard from the candidates. It’s time now for the people to have their say.

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