A lot can happen through three hours of political debate, enough to carry multiple headlines and just as many different analytical perspectives. Even before the main-stage debate Thursday night, a consensus gelled that Carly Florina had distinguished herself among the also-rans, that Rick Perry continues to struggle to communicate extemporaneously, and that most of the seven candidates who didn’t make the top 10 didn’t make it for a reason.
But nothing that any individual candidate—including Donald Trump—said or did tonight stuck out as more significant than the thematic fact that Republicans are still tripping over the long tail of the 2012 election.
Part of what makes this process so awkward for them is that the GOP never really reached consensus about what it needed to do differently in 2016 to avoid the result it achieved four years ago. Some of them think the biggest error Republicans committed in the last election was racing to a rightmost position on immigration at the beck and call of xenophobes. Others think it was Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s breezy willingness to disparage “takers”—and Romney’s statements about the 47 percent specifically. Still more thought the party’s only error was nominating a candidate whom conservatives didn’t instinctively trust.
Every single opposing viewpoint in this dispute is represented in the current primary—and among the Fox News moderators and other conservative journalists who have the greatest access to the candidates—and the result is deeply unstable equilibrium between factions. The Republican Party is trapped at the center of a tug-of-war between its own ego and the conservative id.
Donald Trump personifies this dynamic more than any other candidate. Surrounded by Republicans who vowed not to run independent candidacies, he refused to take the same pledge, making explicit reference to the leverage his threat gives him against a cowering GOP establishment. He swatted away questions about his crude sexism by attacking political correctness and reiterated his view that the government of Mexico is sending rapists and murderers to the United States. And nobody was willing (or able) to take issue with any of the substantive claims he made, except insofar as he represented himself as a true Republican.
This isn’t the issue that most Republican Party leaders wanted center stage in the first 2016 primary debate. And it’s arguably only there because the party retreated from its tepid commitment to pass an immigration bill in 2013, and chose instead to pander to the same nativists, while surrendering their power to influence policy.
During the undercard debate, one moderator structured a question about labor market weakness in America around the premise that too many people are choosing to idle about on the dole rather than work for a living. She clearly believed everything Romney said in the 47 percent video and wanted the dark horse candidates to vouchsafe all of it. To their modest credit, none of them took the bait, exactly. They framed the issue instead as a problem with government spending fostering dependency—a slightly less dismissive, slightly more infantilizing way of describing the same, mostly imagined phenomenon. Certainly many of them still see the issue exactly the same way they did four years ago. And though nobody used the most damaging possible language in this instance, the 47 percent idea, and the fierce certainty many Republicans have that Romney was exactly right about it, litters the conservative mindshare like unexploded ordnance.
What you saw tonight—and the vastness of the field made this tension more vivid—are several candidates who want to hew to a new line of some kind, only to be pulled back, like the Godfather, into a morass they were trying to escape.