Bad Debaters, Good Debaters: The Republicans in Milwaukee

A fundamental mystery underlies this season's Republican presidential primary debates: How can it be that the two highest-polling contenders -- Donald Trump and Ben Carson -- are also two of the field's least capable debaters? In the Republican candidates' fourth appearance together, Trump and Carson once again showed themselves to be out of their depth. Operating in a milieu that calls for command of the issues, both hid behind their familiar, personality-based shtick, leaving the heavy lifting of intellectual engagement to their rivals onstage.

The theme of this Fox Business Channel debate was the economy, which ought to have handed Trump an automatic advantage. Yet instead of using the platform to highlight his strong suit, Trump frittered away his time -- a stream-of-consciousness riff about Dwight Eisenhower, a pointless squabble with John Kasich over fracking in Ohio, a gratuitous dig on Carly Fiorina ("Why does she keep interrupting everybody?"). When Trump did address economic matters, it was with the same shopworn one-liners that he has been delivering for months.

Debates appear to diminish Trump, probably because they require him to share the spotlight with others. When he steps behind a lectern, much of the air goes out of his balloon. One thing that has endeared Trump to his supporters is the man's relentless need to be the center of the universe, but in a debate, where the camera has many other subjects to focus on, that energy has nowhere to go. Trump does not seem to be having fun in the debates, in contrast to his solo appearances, when he gets to be the undisputed life of the party.

Under no circumstance could anyone accuse Ben Carson of being the life of the party, although it was interesting to observe how animated he got during his recent press conference. Defending his personal integrity, Carson came alive. In debates he exudes a far more somnambulant vibe; he's a human incarnation of the Travelodge sleepy bear. The abundant field of Republican contenders has been a boon to Carson in the debates because it provides him with a refuge. As one of many, he can vanish into the scenery when it isn't his turn to speak. Carson is like the student who hunkers down in the back of the classroom, hoping not to get called on because he hasn't done the reading.

And when he does speak, it becomes apparent why he didn't want to. It is not unusual for Carson's responses to occupy completely different air space than whatever question was posed. Should big banks be broken up?, asked moderator Neil Cavuto, inspiring Carson to unleash a verbal riff replete with platitudes, contradictions, and scrambled American history -- but no answer to the question. Carson has offered similarly unedifying responses in previous debates. Yet like Trump, he seems to pay no price for his debate deficiencies.

Which raises another debate mystery: if Trump and Carson thrive in spite of their weakness on the debate stage, why doesn't the same rule apply to Jeb Bush? After four debates, it has become painfully clear that Bush is not just a bad debater, he is an excruciatingly bad debater. If these debates were a schoolyard ball game, Jeb would be the last kid chosen for the team. At a couple of points during the Milwaukee debate Jeb seized the initiative to shoehorn himself into the proceedings, but it took everything he could muster to make the interruption, and once he had the floor, all he had left was to sputter. These debates have been punishing to Bush. If he didn't have a ton of money and a famous name, his poor showing would have sunk him long before now.

Of the more talented debaters in the pack, three turned in particularly strong performances in Milwaukee. Marco Rubio again showed himself to be a gifted television debater, though the more you watch him, the more you can spot the exact moment when a spontaneous response curdles into sound bites from the stump speech. Rand Paul left a strong impression in this debate, and even if Rubio overpowered him during their mano-a-mano over military spending, Paul made his points logically and energetically. Ted Cruz, despite a deficit of natural charisma, nonetheless managed to rally his troops with well-crafted, impassioned arguments.

But how much does it matter? In normal cycles, primary debates function as a winnowing mechanism, with candidates who don't belong on the stage eventually yanked away by an invisible cane. In the strange and unpredictable presidential campaign of 2016, the debates may have lost some of that power.