One of these guys can talk policy.

Photographer: Gary Coronado/Pool

Trump's Debate Was a Disaster. If Voters Notice.

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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Donald Trump is better at TV than anyone else who has ever appeared in presidential debates. Much better.

He also has no capacity at all to speak coherently on policy. He's lazy: He's developed about five minutes, maybe 10, of talking points, and he sticks with them. And as one crazy billionaire on a sitcom said when he ran for president, Trump doesn't just have skeletons in his closet. He has "skeletons running around eating leftovers from the fridge."

Of course, as my Bloomberg View colleague Megan McArdle pointed out during tonight's debate, plenty of people have written about Trump's lack of policy knowledge, but it hasn't been dramatized in front of a large audience yet. Tonight, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz turned their attacks on him, and fully exposed him as basically a fraud and a buffoon. Whether the media will say that -- in the news pages, not just the opinion pages -- is an open question. It's also unclear whether Republican voters will care.

The biggest moment came on health care, when Trump was repeatedly urged by CNN's Dana Bash and by Marco Rubio to go beyond "get rid of the lines," which is all Trump has rehearsed on the subject. He couldn't. Rubio, quick on the uptake after his infamous glitch in the pre-New Hampshire debate, pointed out that Trump was now repeating himself; in fact, he continued, "I just watched you repeat yourself five times five seconds ago" and proceeded to mock Trump's slogans. 

It was great theater, and it was also dead-on accurate. That's what Trump has: A handful of slogans to fill in on each subject, which he repeats as much as necessary. That, and of course talking about how great he is. He did the same thing on Israel later in the debate. He does the same thing on immigration: He has a great line (for those who enjoy that sort of thing) about building a wall and making Mexico pay for it, but he can't really speak coherently beyond that. 

Yes, all of that has been true from the start. Maybe Republican voters don't care; after all, they've been trained by their party to oppose the very idea of complex government policy, including conservative policies. But at least tonight it was more obvious than usual that Trump is wildly unprepared for the office he is seeking.

Cruz and especially Rubio came prepared to hit Trump hard on personal issues as well, including a civil lawsuit he's currently been slapped with over "Trump University" and over hiring foreign workers for a Florida project. While these had been reported on before, they were new to the Republican debate stage. As was pressure on Trump to release his tax returns, an issue raised earlier today by Mitt Romney, of all people. 

Trump's response was his usual bluster, denial and attack. One of his specialties when confronted with something he's said, on policy or anything else, is just to flat-out deny it. But if it generates high-profile follow-up stories, none of that plays well.

The pattern is clear and predictable: When faced with a poor performance, a tough story, or good news from another candidate, Trump says something crazy to pull the attention back to himself and on his own terms. He's likely to do it within the next 24-hour news cycle, maybe within the next 24 minutes.

To my eyes, Trump's performance was a disaster, start to finish. But my eyes aren't important. What will matter is how a third of the Republican electorate reacts to it -- the third who are not yet sold on Trump, but not yet repulsed by him either.

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:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net