Even when you know a show is about an ensemble cast, there are still those who stand out. And when they’re not there, the entire show suffers. When Simon left American Idol; when Nene Leakes left Real Housewives of Atlanta; even way back when Toni left Girlfriends, you just knew the show wouldn’t be the same and that usually it was about to take a turn for the worse.
That was the feeling many Americans had going into Thursday night’s seventh and final preprimary debate for the Republican Party once it was clear that Donald Trump wasn’t going to show.
Did Trump’s absence make a difference? Did Marco Rubio make a leap? Did Ben Carson stay woke for the entire debate? Here are the three biggest takeaways from Thursday’s debate, and their implications for the first presidential caucus in Iowa next week.
1. No Trump, No Problems
In a fight that’s been going on since August 2015, Trump continued his Kanye-Amber Rose-like feud with Fox host Megyn Kelly, and used her presence as a moderator as an excuse to skip Thursday’s debate.
Trump’s political “bye week” was supposed to open up the door for the debate to be radically different from the previous six, but that wasn’t the case. There were only around three questions about Trump at the beginning of the debate, and they were handled effectively by Rubio, Ted Cruz and, to a lesser extent, Chris Christie. After that, the front-runner was mostly out of the picture.
The candidate most affected by Trump’s absence was actually Jeb Bush. Bush seemed entirely unsure of what to do with himself without Trump there to kick sand in his face and give him the chance to trudge along the moral high road.
The former Florida governor made more unprompted references to Trump in absentia than every other candidate onstage. It was almost as if Bush was nervously expecting the GOP front-runner to pull a Vince McMahon and jump onstage at the last minute to body him again for old times’ sake. On a night when everyone else got the direct message that Trump wasn’t going to be there, Bush was still using cable.
2. Strategic Questions Dominate the Night
The penchant for “strategy” questions during primary or presidential debates is a problem that has been pervasive throughout this campaign season. If the candidates are already going to be split into “main stage” and “undercard” debates (a generally lousy idea), then the least moderators can do is treat everyone onstage as if they have a legitimate chance to compete. Unfortunately, moderators still asked Cruz, John Kasich and others questions regarding their viability as presidential candidates as opposed to sticking with policy questions.