Tonight's GOP debate in Houston, Texas – the last before the "Super Tuesday" primaries – should have driven any reasonable observer to despair. It was raucus and often unhinged, brimming with personal attacks and cheap shots. The candidates yelled over each other; the crowed jeered and cheered. Reasoned arguments were almost non-existent: what we saw, to borrow Lionel Trilling's phrase, were "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas," strung together between commercial breaks and punctuated with Wolf Blitzer's monotone moderation.
It was also, by conventional debate standards, perhaps Donald Trump's worst night of the primary season. It won't matter, though. Yes, Trump took more direct hits tonight – hits that seemed to land and even rattle him – than in any previous contest. But the attacks from Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz had the feel of being too little, too late. Their own substantial weaknesses prevented either one of them from really pivoting from sharp criticism of Trump to making a compelling argument for their own candidacies.
Until tonight, it mainly was Jeb Bush who sparred directly with Trump. Even if he was not terribly effective in his attacks, he made the attempt while Cruz and Rubio hung back, content to either draft Trump in case he faltered or stand apart from it all while giving short, memorized mini-stump speeches. That changed this evening, but their delay meant that entire folders of opposition research were unloaded in one debate. The effect was to blunt and blur the attacks' impact. We heard about Trump's company hiring illegal immigrants; we heard about Trump's unreleased tax records; we heard about the lawsuit over his for-profit Trump University; we heard that, given his father's wealth, Trump is not exactly a self-made man. This was in addition to the usual criticisms that Trump has contributed financially to both Republicans and Democrats, and is not an orthodox movement conservative. The cumulative effect of all this was not nothing; but it also lacked a center of gravity, or an overall shape. The individual attack lines didn't seem to build to a sustained, coherent case against Trump as a man and as a political candidate. (That Trump's defenses against these charges were rather weak does not negate this point.)
Tonight's debate also exposed Trump as forcefully as I can recall for his lack of policy knowledge and real plans, especially with regard to healthcare. But healthcare is a particularly good example of why the debate won't decisively hurt Trump. Rubio certainly scored points when he taunted Trump to actually explain what he'd replace Obamacare with. Trump stumbled, leaning on the assertion that removing "the lines" around states that limit competition with regard to healthcare plans – in effect, creating a national healthcare market – would work wonders. That was the only real detail Trump offered; he seemed to know almost nothing about healthcare policy. Viewers, however, were also told that a President Trump would stop the insurance companies from ripping people off, would not let people die in the streets for lack of healthcare, and would not let pre-existing conditions keep people from getting coverage. Trump never explained how any of that would work, but its rhetorical force was real. Compared to the rightwing pablum Rubio and Cruz offered on the issue, Trump's disjointed notions at least conveyed concern (whether real or not) for those who are struggling. And those promises certainly stay with you longer than any proposal suggested by Rubio or Cruz.
It is precisely these deviations from conservative doctrine that are part of Trump's appeal. Too often, Rubio and Cruz resort to claiming Trump is not really a Republican or that his ideas are not authentically conservative. By doing so, they show how little they understand why they are losing. Trump's heterodoxy, especially in those areas related to the anxieties of the working and middles classes, are features, not bugs, of his candidacy. When either Rubio or Cruz scores a point against Trump, they then shift to reciting lines that mainly please rightwing pundits, GOP party hacks, or the most fanatical conservatives, limiting their ability to peel off Trump supporters.
This is not to say Rubio wasn't on point tonight – it was one of his better performances, maybe his best. Cruz came prepared to go after Trump, too, though Rubio was more effective and helped himself more. But their attacks also underscored just how much Trump has set the terms of debate so far. It's difficult to know, as many have pointed out over the last few weeks, what Trump could say or do at this point to irreparably hurt his chances. And Rubio still remains unbearably light, and Cruz an immensely dislikable man. If they are all that stand between Trump and the nomination, the travails of the Republican party may only be just beginning.