The broad and beleaguered field of Republican presidential candidates, all but ignored during the raucous Summer of Trump, finally found a way to silence the GOP front-runner: they talked about policy. Wednesday’s CNN debate at the Ronald Reagan presidential library began with all the bluster and histrionics we’ve come to expect from Donald Trump. He sucker-punched Rand Paul right out of the gate. He bickered with Jeb Bush. He mugged, squinted, and brooded. And then he did something no one anticipated. He fell silent.
In a wild melee that moderators struggled to control, the 11 candidates jockeyed and sparred throughout. But unlike the low-calorie Fox News debate in Cleveland, CNN’s torturous three-hour affair veered into policy issues for long stretches—stretches during which Trump entirely disappeared.
While his more polished and policy-fluent opponents delved deeply into discussions about issues ranging from how best to fight Islamic terrorism to their assessment of Supreme Court judges to marijuana legalization, Trump barely participated. When he did chime in, he had little to contribute beyond insults and boasts about how his own personal toughness and negotiating prowess would reshape the geopolitical order. Asked how, for instance, he would get the Russians out of Syria, Trump replied, “I would get along with a lot of the world leaders that this country is not getting along with.”
Trump didn’t exactly flop. His bluster and showmanship carried him through, for the most part. And the crush of candidates straining for attention filled the awkward pauses and silences left by his inability to speak in any meaningful depth about subjects besides immigration and his own wealth.
A debate this long and detailed, while nearly impossible to summarize and fact-check, still manages to leave viewers with a clear impression of its participants. Carly Fiorina was poised and prepared. Marco Rubio was crisp and commanding. John Kasich looked like a guy you could plausibly imagine sitting in the Oval Office. Scott Walker and Paul mostly did not. Trump’s problem, as Bush accurately diagnosed, was his obvious “lack of judgment and lack of understanding about how the world works.” It showed. What this debate really revealed was the limit of Trump’s possibilities as a presidential candidate. One of the debate moderators, the radio host Hugh Hewitt, captured this best when he expressed his annoyance that Trump couldn’t even manage to name his foreign policy advisers.
When Trump finds himself trapped, he does one of two things: he either lashes out or he starts showering an opponent with obsequious praise. Trump did a lot of both on Wednesday, and it made him look weak and desperate in a way he hasn’t before now. Confronted with his vile comments about Fiorina’s looks in Rolling Stone, Trump squirmed and tried to win the crowd’s indulgence by saying, “I think she has a beautiful face and I think she’s a beautiful woman.” On CNN’s split screen, Fiorina’s stone face was devastating. The same dynamic applied when Trump was reminded of how he insulted Bush’s Mexican-born wife, Columba. Trump stammered something about what a great person she was, but refused Bush’s demand for an apology. He looked like a heel.
One of the raging debates in political circles right now is between political scientists, who argue that time and scrutiny should eventually bring about Trump’s decline, and the many pundits and Trump enthusiasts who point out that it hasn’t yet. Wednesday’s debate may turn out to be yet another milepost in Trump’s thus-far inexorable rise. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it instead wound up marking the moment at which Trump peaked and began his long-predicted descent. Three hours was a lot to endure. But anyone who persevered until the end got a good look at Trump’s limits as a candidate.