Thursday’s question-and-answer sessions with Republican presidential candidates — sorry, they weren’t debates — won’t clear the field and won’t create much separation in the polls, but they accomplished the top goal of party loyalists focused on taking back the White House in 2016.
Which is to say they proved that Donald Trump is a rambling lunatic unfit for office.
Trump, the businessman and TV personality, had surged to the top of the 17-candidate field largely because his anti-establishment messages have resonated with the Republican Party’s conservative base. Some polls had him with as much as 25 percent support heading into the Cleveland event put on by Fox News.
But that’s another way of saying that 75 percent of Republicans like someone else. And after Thursday, that number is going to go up. Way up.
Trump clearly didn’t put 10 seconds of preparation into the event, and it showed in his responses to questions that any hack handler would have seen coming. Yes, it was Donald being Donald — unscripted, unvarnished — and his outburst about how “stupid” our leaders are got applause. (It’s true, by the way.) But Trump’s lack of command of his own message had to alarm even his most strident supporters.
His closing statement was a joke, weak sauce that wouldn’t earn a C on a second-grade writing exercise. “We don’t beat Japan with their millions and millions of cars coming into this country in trade. We can’t beat Mexico at the border or in trade. We can’t do anything right. Our military has to be strengthened. Our vets have to be taken care of. We have to end Obamacare and we have to make our country great again, and I will do that. Thank you.”
Huh? Japanese companies manufacture millions of cars here in the United States every year, and states covet those plants, which provide hundreds of thousands of Americans with good-paying jobs.
Every single candidate looked better than Trump — even Sen. Lindsey Graham, who did his best Elmer Fudd impersonation in the Thursday undercard chat dominated by Carly Fiorina.
It wasn’t that Trump didn’t look presidential. It’s that he didn’t look sane.
The GOP field needs outside-the-beltway candidates to keep focus on Washington’s systemic dysfunction. But Trump can’t articulate basic policy ideas. A billionaire businessman should be leading the charge for corporate tax reform. But Florida Sen. Marco Rubio did that. A billionaire businessman should champion economic growth. But Ohio Gov. John Kasich did that.
There’s no reinventing The Donald at this point. Thursday was the beginning of his end.
Other observations from Thursday’s forums:
— Fiorina, the former business executive, elevated herself with great answers on foreign policy and the economy. She’s in the conversation with the big boys now.
— Rubio stood out with composure, grace and thoughtfulness. He can articulate detailed policy positions and provide the kind of optimism and defense of American exceptionalism that voters need to hear.
— Kasich, the 10th and final qualifier for Thursday’s main event, helped himself greatly. He came across as an accomplished leader.
— Neurosurgeon Ben Carson was lacking in polish and charisma. He’ll need a lot more of both to stay in the race.
— Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had the lines of the night, saying President Barack Obama’s foreign policy had turned Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” command into “trust and vilify,” and he had a great Hillary Clinton zinger that first appeared to be an attack on Trump.
— Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was the most fearless participant, distinguishing himself by eviscerating Washington’s perilous borrow-and-spend culture, hammering neo-con foreign policy and domestic spying and relentlessly defending the Bill of Rights. There is no one else like him in the field. His spirited exchange with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was the highlight of the evening.
— Christie was the only candidate to pitch a plan to address Washington’s most urgent fiscal problem: entitlement insolvency. The rest of the field can’t get away with ignoring the issue.
— Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker delivered solid if unmemorable performances that will keep them near the top of polls through the early primary states. Bush seemed less animated than usual, but perhaps that was because Trump was standing right next to him looking so crazy.
Glenn Cook (email@example.com) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV