The best Republican debate of the year was also the last. It confirmed what we’ve all been feeling: the central question in this election is what you think about businessman Donald J. Trump. He’s catapulted to the top of the national polls and many state polls despite having never held office and uttering comments offensive to women, Mexicans, Muslims, and John McCain. None of the previous debates have stopped Trump’s momentum and I don’t believe this one will either. He’s an unpredictable, turbulent, occasionally charismatic force. Where his campaign goes will be the story of the election, even if he loses (or foregoes) the Republican nomination.
What’s unusual is the response to Trump. The typical pattern is for also-ran candidates to gang up on the frontrunner. But that isn’t happening this year in either the Democratic or Republican race. The reason it’s not happening? Fear. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley are worried about what will happen when Hillary Clinton is president—they don’t want to end up on her enemies list. Republican anxiety is more interesting. I think most of the Republican candidates won’t attack Trump because they genuinely do not understand him or his meteoric rise to the stratosphere of American politics. They’re afraid of the consequences—are they misjudging the moment? Do they need his supporters? Will they be at a loss for a witty comeback when Trump insults them mercilessly?
Kudos to Jeb Bush for differentiating himself from the frontrunner. I don’t care if you disagree with or dislike Jeb: He was the only one on stage who confronted the poll leader directly and made a case for why he, not Trump, should be president. Bush’s performance as a debater, while still somewhat awkward, has undoubtedly improved. He clearly annoyed Trump, and I think scored some real hits. Maybe this debate will help him.
I’m skeptical, though. Trump remains the driving force of the 2016 election: He sets the agenda, he makes the headlines, he draws the crowds. It doesn’t matter if the media loves him because he makes Republicans look bad; his supporters love him, too, and he’s a force to be reckoned with. And he’ll continue to be the gas giant around which the smaller satellites orbit for some time. Picture Iowa 2016: Even if Cruz (or someone else) wins, what will be the headline? Trump’s reaction. Same with New Hampshire. And the GOP convention. The spotlight will continue to be focused on Trump until he leaves the race. When will that happen? It’s anyone’s guess. Indeed, it may not happen at all. No one is taking the possibility seriously that Donald Trump might not give up his place at the center of American politics for years to come.