Tonight’s GOP debate — basically a non-event

Tonight’s Republican presidential debate produced virtually no fireworks and nothing that is likely to change the trajectory of the race. In other words, it was a good night for Donald Trump.

The mild tone of the debate was due, in part, to CNN’s approach. Perhaps feeling embarrassed by their previous outings, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash asked policy questions almost exclusively. Food fight questions were left for near the end, and then only of the tepid variety.

More importantly, Trump’s rivals weren’t interested in a food fight. Marco Rubio faces a make-or-break contest in Florida. He cannot afford a Chris Christie style suicide mission (though some might say he has already conducted one).

John Kasich has to win in Ohio. He has stayed alive by being above the fray. Tonight was no time for him to get down and dirty.

Ted Cruz pressed Trump the hardest, but almost entirely on policy. Cruz is counting on the field to be reduced to two before long. If and when it gets to that point, he doesn’t want to be viewed as being any nastier than he already is.

Given the dynamic of the race, it hardly matters how the policy debate played out. But for the record, here goes:

Cruz will always do well when debating policy, and he did so tonight. The same goes for Rubio.

Cruz was probably the more effective of the two because he unified his policy disagreements with Trump around the theme that the tycoon wants the same role for government, just with better deals. Cruz, by contrast, insists on less government.

Kasich has improved throughout the debate process. He does pretty well on policy, and did so tonight.

Trump still hasn’t mastered policy, but he is good at funneling policy questions into his wheelhouse, which is trade. When he debates trade, he injects the force of his personality and his reputation as a dealmaker into the debate and more than holds his own.

The one issue as to which Trump came up completely empty was entitlement reform. Trump said he is unwilling to change social security because the Democratic candidates (whom he says he’s watching intently) aren’t budging on the issue. He doesn’t want Hillary Clinton to outflank him on such a touchy issue in the general election.

But Trump could not remotely explain how the system can remain afloat without alteration. He kept talking about cutting waste, fraud, and abuse. When it was pointed out that doing so will barely make a dent, it was cue the clown show, as Trump started yammering about making America great again and not being taken advantage of by the Saudis.

Otherwise, Trump had pretty smooth sailing.

It might have been different if, when Cruz was asked about Trump’s deviations from Republican Party principles, he had hammered the tycoon on issues like universal health insurance, Israel, eminent domain and so forth. Instead, Cruz talked about trade — Trump’s best issue.

In fairness, though, Trump has been pounded in the past about health insurance, Israel, eminent domain and so forth. The effect, seemingly, has been negligible.

In his closing remarks and on other occasions tonight as well, Trump spoke of the opportunity Republicans have to bring “millions of new people” into the Party. These are the folks who are turning up at Trump rallies and voting for him in primaries.

Trump claims that “they love the Republican Party.” More likely, many of them dislike the GOP but are infatuated with Trump.

Either way, it’s a good pitch. Trump is asking mainstream, traditional Republicans to put aside our reservations and seize the opportunity to expand the party.

In pursuit of this end, you could see Trump throughout the evening trying where possible not to stray too far from Republican orthodoxy except on trade. He made a pretty good go of it.

Even so, for many of us Trump’s “ask” is a big one.

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