The joke's on us: Donald Trump reminds everyone his candidacy is a farce in fifth debate, while others hold their ground

Dynamics of race for GOP primary remain unchanged as candidates read their lines and performed for their bases

Published December 16, 2015 5:40AM (EST)

The fifth Republican presidential debate just wrapped up in Las Vegas, and it was, if nothing else, interesting. Before listing the big takeaways, it’s worth pausing to consider where things stand at the moment.

We’re roughly seven weeks away from the Iowa caucuses, and the race is being dominated by two candidates: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Ben Carson’s star has finally faded (he’s fourth in the latest Iowa poll and his national numbers are plummeting). Jeb Bush is an afterthought, averaging around 5 percent in national polls. Marco Rubio is holding firm at third place, but he’s poised to make a run next year as the default establishment candidate.

The also-rans of the race – Chris Christie, Jon Kasich, Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul – are non-factors at this point. Relegated to the lower tier for the duration of the campaign, the best they can hope for is to survive with their political brands in tact. These debates are opportunities for the bottom feeders to shoehorn themselves into the headlines, and all three of these candidates desperately need the attention if they want to remain viable beyond Iowa.

Here are the main takeaways from tonight’s varsity debate.

First, this was a bad night for Trump. Even by Trump’s standards, which are cartoonishly low, he embarrassed himself. He has no answers, no ideas, and no discernible reason to run for president. He doubled down on his plan to kill the family members of suspected terrorists, ignoring the Geneva Convention in the name of “toughness.” His strategy to defeat ISIS amounts to “hiring good people” and building a “great wall.” For most of the night, he flailed like the petulant clown that he is, and gave no indication that he’s taking any of this seriously.

Trump is a national mistake, and every time he opens his mouth in public, he reminds the world how unserious he is and how foolish we are for allowing him to hijack our nomination process.

None of this will matter, however. Trump was jeered in that room, but he’s not winning because of the people in that room. He’s winning because unthinking conservatives lead the way in the Republican Party, as the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll demonstrates. If the Donald has proven anything, it’s that nothing is sufficiently dumb or offensive to alienate his core supporters. And so tonight’s lackluster performance is unlikely to change anything.

Cruz, who's been polling second behind Trump, did what he’s done in every debate so far: He performed for his base. The consummate lawyer, he’s masterful at shirking questions. For instance, when asked by the moderator to specify how, exactly, he disagrees with Trump, he refused to respond, saying he “understands” why Trump proposes insane things, but couldn’t muster the courage to explain why Trump is wrong about anything, including banning all Muslims from entering the country. Cruz proposed nothing new tonight, but he feigned seriousness – and that’s probably enough to keep him at the top of the polls.

Jeb had a decent night by any measure. Perhaps for the first time, he challenged Trump without appearing awkward or desperate. He called Trump the “chaos candidate” and managed to score a few points in the exchange. But Bush’s performance tonight is likely too late. Hovering near the bottom of the polls, Bush’s moment has already passed, and even if Trump collapses, Rubio will emerge as the winner.

Rubio didn’t have a great night, but he did well enough to preserve whatever momentum he had before the debate. Rubio is polished, and the debate format plays to his strengths. His policies are retrograde, but he articulates them with the kind of youthful exuberance that obscures that fact. For example, Rubio – along with Bush, Fiorina, and Trump – confirmed that he wants to subsidize the military industrial complex and bloat the budget in the name security – all under the banner of fiscal conservatism. Rand Paul challenged him directly on this front, and although it worked well in the room, Rubio’s pleasant- sounding non-response will surely satisfy his establishment audience.

Rand Paul, once again, was the adult in the room. He’s coherent, consistent and reasonable, and that’s his problem. He’s reasoned his way right out of the GOP, it seems. The Republicans on that stage, like the Republican voters in the crowd, don’t want to hear that we already spend more than the next seven countries combined on defense, just as they don’t want to hear that military adventurism hasn’t made us safer – they want platitudes and empty declarations of strength. Paul is a sane voice in a whirlwind of lunacy; unfortunately, there’s no room for him in today’s GOP.

The other candidates – Ben Carson, Chris Christies, Carly Fiorina, and Jon Kasich – failed to move the meter one way or the other. Carson was imploding before the debate, and I expect his descent into irrelevancy to accelerate after it. Christie stuck to his normal tough-guy script, attacking the media and calling Obama a “feckless weakling,” which earned him a warm applause. Fiorina had no real moments, save for her trite Obamacare joke, which felt about two years too late. Jon Kasich was mostly non-existent. He couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and when he did, it was unremarkable. If he’s still in the race after Iowa, I’ll be shocked.

Bottom line: There’s no reason to think the broader dynamics of the race changed tonight. Each candidate read their lines and performed for their core constituencies. Trump and Cruz were at the top of the polls before the debate, and that’s where they’ll be tomorrow. Paul ought to get a bump, but he won’t. What will be interesting to watch is the emerging spat between Cruz and Rubio. Cruz wants to be the final “outsider” candidate. Now that Rubio is positioning himself as the establishment alternative to Bush, Cruz will likely ratchet up his attacks in the coming months. There were indications of this tonight, but there will be much more of that as we near the early primaries.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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