Will someone not in this picture break out?

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A Winner to Be Named Later

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Well, the obvious takeaway from the three-hour Republican debate (not to mention the somewhat shorter matinee leading into it) has to be: Please, never put the American people through such a long marathon again. 

One virtue, I suppose, of an extended debate is that almost every candidate had at least one good moment. Carly Fiorina shot down Donald Trump; Trump shot down Jeb Bush; and on and on. Most of them had weak moments as well. That means TV networks, news outlets, party actors and everyone else can make of the debate what they want.

So it's hard to predict the impact. In the short run, what will matter is which clips play over and over in the media, and what opinion leaders and high-profile Republicans say about who "won" and who "lost." I can give a best guess based on what I saw on Twitter during the debate: Marco Rubio and Fiorina were probably best received. But that can change rapidly. 

In the long run? The Republican party actors -- the politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party organization officials and staff, activists and donors, party-aligned interest groups and media -- will care about two things: A nominee who will do well in November 2016, and a president who will reliably support the Republican agenda. There wasn't anything in the second debate to persuade those in the party who are wary of Donald Trump or Ben Carson -- the polling leaders -- to embrace those inexperienced politicians.  

Nor did there appear to be anything to lift up those also-rans who have conventional credentials for the job and support conservative orthodoxy but who have failed to find any footing so far: Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum. Jindal had a significant opportunity in the early debate, facing off against three relatively weak opponents, but he failed to stand out. At this point, it's hard to see what's keeping Christie and Jindal in the race. Unless the post-debate coverage is unexpectedly favorable to them, they may have missed their last chance.

The rest of the viable candidates? We'll see if any of them gets declared the "winner" and perhaps receives a polling surge. But I doubt tonight's debate gave party actors who have been neutral so far any reason to move off the fence. 

That's the horse-race part. As for the candidates' discussions of actual policy, there was little for conservatives to be proud of. Whether it was disparaging U.S. military strength, or making up nonsense about the 14th amendment, or pretending that the U.S. was on better terms with its allies in 2001 than it is now, Republicans spent quite a bit of their debate in the closed-feedback loop where whatever talk-radio hosts say winds up being the "truth." For a blow by blow of their foreign-policy fantasy world, see Slate's Fred Kaplan. They just aren't articulating realistic options or describing what really happens in the world.

This isn't a problem for them now, when they need the support of Republicans to win the nomination. But it may be a problem for them in the general election. More important, it can be an obstacle in accomplishing their goals while governing.

Not all of the 15 were equally culpable in failing to stick to reality. It didn't help that the candidates at center stage, Trump and Carson, appeared to know little about government and public policy. But, for example, in the matinee Lindsey Graham was good on how the political system works, and in the main event John Kasich, Rand Paul and Rubio all had moments of serious (conservative) policy discussion. So while the field as a whole has well above average campaign debating skills, I'd give them barely passing grades on substance. 

  1. Santorum? After showing nothing until the last minute in Iowa in 2012 and then winning the state and several others, he'll almost certainly stay in at least through the Iowa caucuses, no matter how bleak it looks.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net