President Biden went to sleep after the second Republican debate on Wednesday night knowing that the big event in Simi Valley, California, left the GOP no closer to consolidating around a candidate against Donald Trump. The former president remains the likely nominee.
Co-moderator Dana Perino put it bluntly when she pointed out that with this number of candidates vying for the Republican nomination it’s impossible to defeat Trump unless they winnow the field. Still, all the candidates on stage in California declined to vote their rivals off the island.
In the two-hour debate, "Bidenomics" came out mostly unscathed. The seven Republican candidates were again uncomfortable talking about the economy and quickly fell back into discussing immigration, crime, Donald Trump or virtually anything other than economic policy.
The group seems challenged by the need for economic expertise. They criticized government spending but offered no concrete plans for dealing with entitlements and reducing government spending.
The candidates all said they would strengthen the border, but then failed to spell out the comprehensive immigration reform that would be necessary to get 60 votes in the Senate. They ducked what they would do with DACA immigrants or any concessions they would make to get reform.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and others claimed they would send illegal immigrants home, and yet no president has actually done it.
Tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy was in favor of ending birthright citizenship, while others were in favor of bringing in the military and restoring the rule of law.
They all talked tough, but not that responsibly, and that is the opening for Democrats.
Each of these candidates played to conservatives, isolating themselves from the wider constituencies that elect presidents.
The candidates also typically brushed off any questions they were uncomfortable with and went to their stump speeches to deliver a lot of canned lines.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was choosing "strength over surrender" while former Vice President Mike Pence "actually secured reform" and Donald Trump was "missing in action," according to DeSantis and Christie.
America will choose "law and order" instead of "law and disorder" under DeSantis.
And, try to find the answer to whether Pence would end Obamacare.
Then there was the endless bickering. It was like a bunch of hungry chicks all trying to get their piece of worm.
The candidates would frequently all start talking at once, ignoring the moderators, trying to get an extra 30 seconds or a minute of time as though that alone would catapult them to the presidency.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott had to show that he had some stuff this time and he did — he was far more forceful and achieved the goal of being noticed in this debate.
He was most powerful in explaining how the U.S. carried the stain of slavery but was still a great country filled with the opportunity to achieve the American Dream.
Former South Carolina Gov. and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley was significantly more advanced in describing her plans and programs than any other candidate.
On health care, education and immigration, she appeared ready to govern with four- or five-point plans on how she would make health care more affordable, shut down the border and strengthen parental rights.
Haley was convincing on educational reform on how she would get educators teaching again, adding focus on financial and digital literacy.
She had another good debate, but then so did most of the candidates.
DeSantis needed to reinvigorate his campaign, and he generally was forceful and direct in his answers.
Of course, he mostly explained he already achieved success in Florida, so he could do it for the nation.
DeSantis offered nothing new in the way of policy, but did come off as more presidential on Wednesday night than the other candidates.
All the presidential hopefuls seemed to have a magic wand with which they would turn back China, close the border, reform health care, cut government spending, improve education and reduce crime with nothing more than determination and a few bromides. They were completely unrealistic and unconvincing in how they would actually solve problems.
At this debate, the three moderators stayed away from abortion and other social issues, failing to hold DeSantis accountable for the six-week abortion bill he signed.
They did not confront Pence on how he could, for the first time in modern history, be a loyal vice president while running against the president he served.
There were several drive-by attacks on Trump, but they mostly focused on spending or his missing the debate and failing to appear in person and explain his record.
None of the candidates went after him on Jan. 6 or for being unstable.
Ramaswamy again generally hugged the former president, and no one onstage objected to his fawning Trumpism.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum squabbled for more time, facing threats to cut off his microphone.
He was representative of the frustration that permeated the seven-person debate, with only one candidate consistently breaking through to double digits in the national polls.
All in all, Democrats are sleeping well after this debate. "Bidenomics" escaped any real criticism, nor is there anything resembling "DeSantisnomics" to replace it. For the second time, Trump got away with skipping the debate.
None of the candidates had a breakout night that separated them from the pack. And the pack remains intact, attacking its members sporadically.
Bottom line: Like it or not, Donald Trump remains the likely Republican nominee against a fragmented and divided opposition.