Last night’s GOP debate had great promise for fireworks, but if you tuned into Fox News last night and you were looking for “Republicans Gone Wild” you would be disappointed. Despite Donald Trump’s characteristic brashness and insistence on focusing on immigration as a foil, perhaps his most pointed moments were when he refused to pledge he would not run as an independent or when he pointed out that his donations to politicians of both parties gave him access regardless of ideology or party loyalty. “When I need something from them, two years, three years later, I call them,” said The Donald.
It was an awkward moment for those standing at the podium, but the goal of last night’s debate was to not have awkward moments, and despite the polls, one can sense that each candidates’ verbosity was directly disproportionate to their electability in a general election. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and even Chris Christie made an effort to talk about their record in a tone that had broader appeal, while Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Rand Paul zeroed in on a small but important segment of the GOP that may get them deep into the primary, but ultimately they seem to recognize that they lack any sustainable appeal outside of the howlers in the audience and the fervent core of disaffected Republican ethos characterized by it’s baby boomer anxiety over our changing country.
There were no real surprises last night with the exception of Chris Christie’s hostility toward Rand Paul, and if you were keeping score it was a decidedly bad night for the Libertarian darling.
Perhaps the most innocently ridiculous statement was made by Ben Carson when he compared today’s modern Air Force to the one in 1940. There is a reason we don’t have the same number of planes today than we did 75 years ago, Dr. Carson.
Still, all the usual bogeymen were present; "illegals," ISIS, Iran, Obamacare, our supposed loss of respect around the world, and of course Hillary Clinton and President Obama.
But there was also little talk about exactly which policies each candidate would promote in order to help grow the middle class, and Latino listeners would be hard pressed to find any connection with these candidates, with no mention of repairing our crumbling infrastructure, no discussion of expanding opportunities for higher education, establishing policies to address the drought out West, or expanding access to health care.
Instead, much of the focus was on which candidate could show the most hostility towards Planned Parenthood, an organization that focuses on providing health care access to women with minimal resources - in many cases the only place for low-income women to go.
There were demonstrations of empathy by the candidates; such as John Kasich and his dad’s job as a mail carrier, Ted Cruz and his father’s alcoholism, and Rubio’s steady invocation of his immigrant past and a new American future.
But for a party that is seen as largely out of touch with minorities, only John Kasich and Rand Paul directly invoked the GOP’s need to reach out to disaffected groups, with Kasich even making a strong statement of support for gay marriage despite being “an old fashioned guy”, by saying he attended the wedding of a gay couple.
There will be a lot of discussion over who won yesterday, but the reality is that in a debate this far out, it's more about missed opportunities. If you were hoping for some candidates to distinguish themselves from the rest of the field and talk about the real issues regarding immigration - not what sounded like an invasion from our southern border, the way it sounded last night - you’d be disappointed.
Jeb Bush did stand his ground on being compassionate towards immigrants, but Marco Rubio has largely backed off from his earlier role in immigration reform when he participated in the sane and bipartisan “Gang of 8” Senate bill and has chosen instead to issue vague statements about the role immigration has played in his family.
Donald Trump may get a boost simply because so much of the debate focused on him. Fox News isn’t oblivious to Trump’s ratings after all, as is the rest of the media, and his entertainment value alone is worth the attention.
It is also clear that Donald Trump’s popularity has been an effective way of bringing broad attention to certain lessons about politics, such as how negative political messages can be effective and how demographic appeals that focus on small but important segments of the electorate can catapult a candidate to apparent legitimacy.
Ultimately, in Trump’s message against immigrants someone will sooner or later point out that two of his opponents on the stage last night are not only Latino, but have relied on their immigrant history to connect with the American people. Ironically, if you buy the snake oil Donald Trump is selling someone might be concerned that both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz come from a culture of communism, yet anyone listening to Rubio or Cruz last night would laugh at the insinuation.
In the end, perhaps the greatest contribution the candidates made last night was in the social activities occurring across the country surrounding the debate. It was particularly refreshing to see the Twitterverse buzzing and Facebook walls spinning with political discussion about Planned Parenthood, gay marriage, the role of God in politics, and how on earth can Huckabee still be a thing.
Overall, last night will be forgotten. And for that alone, last night was a victory for the Republican Party.
Stephen A. Nuño is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. Stephen is a proud native of Los Angeles, and has a B.A. from UCLA and a Ph.D. from UC Irvine in Political Science. Twitter: @stephenanuno