Tonight's GOP Debate: "An Outpouring of Love"

That phrase, improbably enough, was used by Donald Trump tonight to describe his campaign, and it serves as an apt tagline for the entire Republican debate in Miami. Instead of insults and vulgarity, the tone of this evening's contest was subdued, almost civil. It would be wrong to call it substantive, given the amount of misinformation and magical thinking on display, but it at least had the trappings of substance. What does it all mean? That Trump most likely will be the Republican presidential nominee.

That statement comes with the usual caveats: Trump could say or do anything in the days ahead, and there is polling evidence that in Florida and Ohio especially the results could be close. It remains unclear whether Trump will reach the 1237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination outright before the convention. Still, tonight marked a new phase in the Republican primary; if the debate didn't indicate a real peace agreement between Trump, the other candidates, and the GOP establishment, then it seemed to reflect a momentary truce. The accusations that Trump was a con man were replaced with deference, and it felt like an acknowledgment that it might be too late to stop him.

Nothing happened tonight, then, that will change the basic dynamics of the race. No one badly stumbled, and no one offered especially fresh or creative lines of argument. It's difficult to imagine many viewers changing their minds because of what they watched. If anyone benefited from the restrained debate, though, it was Trump. The comparatively sober exchanges allowed him to seem more dignified than usual, which he needed; the taunts of "Little Marco" and "Lyin' Ted" were replaced with calls for unity. It all had the sad effect of legitimizing Trump as the frontrunner. 

Nothing better demonstrates this depressing acquiescence than the failure of Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio to forthrightly and unequivocally condemn the violence and assaults against protesters at Trump rallies—thuggery Trump's own nasty rhetoric encourages—when directly asked to do so. The candidates who talk tough about keeping us safe and never fail to flaunt their "Christian values" proved themselves depraved cowards. Cruz ignored Trump to attack Barack Obama, calling the president an emperor who "believes he's above the law"; Kasich likewise refused to call out Trump specifically, lamenting "rally violence, period"; and Rubio pathetically declared that he was "concerned about violence in general" in our society. They should be ashamed.

These men showed that they deserve to lose to Trump, and that the GOP lacks the moral resources and courage to effectively stand up to him. If Trump stands on a stage in August and accepts the Republican nomination, we will look back at tonight's debate to help explain how and why it happened.

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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