We tuned in to the Republican debate Thursday night expecting fireworks. Instead we heard the hissing crackle of a wet fuse refusing to light.
Trump seemed somnolent to the point of comatose. Perhaps he has internal polls indicating that his ever-more-outrageous shtick was finally beginning to hurt him with voters; more likely, he's decided that it's time to prepare for the general election. But he didn't seem to know quite how.
The man once praised for finally saying the unsayable at a Republican debate -- that the Iraq War was a mistake -- was suddenly talking about putting tens of thousands of boots on the ground in the Middle East. He backtracked on his backtracking on H1B visas. He said he didn't condone the violence that had taken place at his rallies, and then, when confronted with his own words suggesting violence against protesters, suggested -- in suitably subdued tones -- that, well, they deserved it.
It was as if he'd read that you're supposed to pivot to the general, and failed to understand that you were supposed to selectively tack toward the center on key issues, rather than randomly retracting things you had previously said, some as recently as 30 seconds ago.
His closing statement, delivered in the same half-asleep voice, was probably his most electrifying moment of the evening: "So I just say embrace these millions of people that now for the first time ever love the Republican Party. And unify. Be smart and unify." Essentially: I broke your party. Now surrender.
The other candidates hardly needed to be told. Oh, sure, there were a few moments when the other candidates pushed back. Rubio, having perhaps his best debate this cycle, absolutely crushed him on a question about Cuba. But there was no sustained attack on the front runner. They declined to attack him even on questions that should have been obvious gimmes, like, "Should Donald Trump be calling for people to attack protesters at his rallies?"
The look on their faces said it all -- the frozen stare of a deer that has just realized those are not, after all, the Northern Lights come to earth. Rather than bravely saying that you shouldn't punch people, or call for others to do same, they cravenly dodged the question. Ted Cruz waxed lyrical about a politician's duty to serve the people. John Kasich mumbled something about trade deals.
Marco Rubio urged people to turn their rage toward some positive purpose, like putting a man on the moon. No one said the obvious, which is that no matter how righteous your anger, or how obnoxious people are being, you should use your words, and your votes, rather than your fists.
I'm sure that all three candidates had very good data suggesting that attacking Trump was too risky. Even if they didn't, they'd have the lesson of Rubio's collapse since his infamous dive into … er …. below-the-belt attacks. So instead they politely waited for someone else to launch the first salvo. As a result, the mortars mostly stayed safely unfired.
It was a metaphor for this whole, incredible campaign, and watching the latest iteration, I was reminded of the Ben Franklin quote: "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."
The three non-Trump candidates on stage faced a terrible collective action problem. None of them -- no, not even Cruz -- has a plausible path to win enough delegates to get the nomination outright. Trump still does. And unless someone attacked Trump, his momentum would continue unchecked. But the fellow who got down into the mud and started wrestling with him was likely to take a hit at the polls, while the other candidates benefited from their comparative reasonableness.
Rubio leaned into the strike zone and took one for the team in the last two debates, and for his trouble, he was pilloried by the press, hammered by voters and exhorted to drop out by his rivals. He reverted to his earlier sunny optimism, augmented by folksy anecdotes about his Florida childhood.
This gave him a much a better debate than Cruz, who lectured like a cocktail party bore -- often correct, but rarely compelling. Or Kasich, who had enjoyed a brief renaissance playing Mr. Reasonable against the background of the Rubio-Trump catfight, but retreated back into the wallpaper without that scene to play off of. With polls showing Rubio within striking distance of Trump in Florida, this temperance may have been the senator's best move. If he can actually win Florida, then this will look smart in retrospect. But if he loses, then this debate will go down as the last of many moments when coordinated action might have stopped Trump -- and wasn't tried.
This is not just a metaphor for the campaign, of course, but for the whole party. A few politicians have stood up to say "No, I will never vote for Donald Trump under any circumstances." But most are desperately hoping he will somehow go away without them having to take the risk of openly defying him. Or failing that, that they can somehow accommodate themselves to a man whose only consistent promise is to break them to his will, and destroy the ones who resist.
This capitulation is neither morally acceptable, nor likely to work. And yet, I can't help but feel sorry for Republicans facing an impossible choice. Trump's outrages have a certain hydra-like quality to them: hack away at one of the heads, and it simply grows back twice as strong. No one knows quite what to say that will convince Trump's supporters that they really ought to be concerned about things like his praise for the Tiananmen Square massacre, or the exhortations to pummel his hecklers, much less his comparatively minor offenses against the truth.
If all you've got is a wet firework, it takes courage to go up against a certified bomb-thrower. Unfortunately, the alternative is putting the guy with the bombs in charge.
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• 03/07/16: We can all relate to Trump's policy tactics
• 02/25/16: Twitter can only lose when it polices abuse
• 02/09/16: Rubio faces the risk of going off script
• 02/08/16: Sanders and Clinton get substantive, and go wrong
• 02/03/16: 6 takeaways from an exciting night in Iowa
• 02/02/16: Trump fans should know he'll offend them next
• 01/04/16: Obama: Dreamer or irresponsible luftmensch?
• 12/21/15: Sheltered students go to college, avoid education
• 12/17/15: Trump disproves liberal and conservative myths
• 10/28/15: Preschool Helps Kids. Sometimes. Briefly.
• 10/26/15: If you like truth, don't watch the movie 'Truth'
• 10/21/15: Turns out timeless cliches and the Beatles understood the 2016 election season before the rest of us did
• 02/09/15: Reading the tea leaves for 2016 gets you nowhere
• 02/02/15: Hillary's late start won't stop punches