Tonight's Republican debate on Fox News offered a brief glimpse at a race without Donald Trump.
And what that glimpse showed us was a race that is smarter, more substantive, and better at revealing the spirited differences of policy, personality, and ideology in the Republican primary field.
The two candidates who benefited most from Trump's absence were Jeb Bush and Rand Paul. Without Trump on the stage, Bush actually seemed to have some life and energy — and his record as governor and policy knowledge came across more clearly. Sure, Bush could still be halting and awkward at times, but he didn't look like a skinny nerd getting bullied on the playground, as has often been the case in his encounters with Trump.
Rand Paul, meanwhile, had what was arguably his best debate so far. Partly that's because he was more polished than he has been, more fluent and eloquent, especially on foreign policy. And partly it's because, without Trump around, Paul became the foremost voice of opposition on the stage, the best counterweight to the GOP's conventional wisdom — which, of course, there was a lot of.
Make no mistake: The GOP minus Trump is no haven for libertarians. It's still hawkish and restrictionist and focused on social conservative identity issues. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, both of whom were once among the GOP's most outspoken immigration reform advocates, engaged in a lengthy back and forth over their respective flip-flops on the issue, with each accusing the other of supporting amnesty. (Ted Cruz got dragged into the amnesty fight too.) Rubio led the field in demanding that America's military budget, which is already bigger than the next seven largest national defense budgets combined, be massively increased. And even the most libertarian-leaning candidate, Rand Paul, got in digs about the need for stricter immigration screening.
Yet the Republican party represented on stage tonight was less overtly ridiculous, less prone to childish insult games, and more willing to engage in substantive debate about issues ranging from Obamacare and Medicaid to ethanol and immigration, than it has been since Trump entered the race last year. It seemed more like a contest of ideas and ideology, and less like an insult-comic throwdown.
In short, tonight's debate was something like an actual presidential debate rather than a form of crass political entertainment. And for that reason alone, I think it was the best debate yet. Admittedly, that's a pretty low bar, but at this point, I'll take what I can get.