Thursday night's Republican debate exemplified why Donald Trump's competitors have had so much trouble stopping him: None of them have the courage to risk a sustained attack on the front-runner -- even when the issue is assault.
In the days before the debate, the news media had been suffused with stories of violence at Trump rallies. Abusive behavior has long been a fixture of Trump gatherings, my colleagues Dana Liebelson and Sam Stein noted earlier Thursday. But the story exploded this week after video emerged of a man at a Trump rally sucker-punching a protester. On Thursday, Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields published a story reporting that someone had violently yanked her arm at a Trump rally -- and a Washington Post reporter had told her it was Corey Lewandowski, Trump's campaign manager.
CNN's Jake Tapper, moderator of Thursday's debate in Miami, practically begged Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Ohio Gov. John Kasich to condemn violence at Trump rallies. None of them did.
Tapper told Cruz, Rubio and Kasich that Trump has repeatedly encouraged violence against protesters. On Feb. 23, Tapper noted, Trump said he'd "like to punch" a protester "in the face." On Feb. 27, Tapper added, Trump said that "In the good ol' days, they'd have knocked him out of seat so fast," referring to a protester, adding, "Knock the crap out of them. Knock the hell. I promise you I will pay for the legal fees, I promise, I promise."
"Are you concerned at all that these kind of scenes potentially hurt the Republican party for the general election?" Tapper asked Cruz.
Cruz deflected the question, instead blaming President Barack Obama. "You know, we've seen for seven years a president who believes he's above the law, who behaves as an emperor, and he forgot he's working for the American people," Cruz said. "Turn the camera around here. How many of y'all feel disrespected by Washington?" Then he criticized Trump -- not for the violence, but for asking people at his rallies to raise their hands and promise to vote.
Kasich said he worried "about rally violence, period," but didn't blame Trump, instead suggesting (like Cruz) that the violence happened because people are angry.
Rubio echoed Cruz and Kasich answer. "I'm concerned about violence in general," he said. Then he said that the real issue is that people don't respect cops. "The first people facing that violence are our law enforcement officers and they deserve our respect and our thanks for everything they do for us."
As my colleagues Ryan Grim and Igor Bobic report, the responses of Trump's opponents to this question weren't an exception: In general, the debate was polite. But that's exactly the problem. It's the same problem that has prevented the GOP from stopping Trump all year. When they move against him, they do it in private -- or resort to juvenile and ineffective dick jokes, like Rubio tried for a while. Both strategies make them look worse than Trump.
Obama got at the Republican Party's collective-action problem in some comments earlier Thursday. "I have been blamed by Republicans for a lot of things, but being blamed for their primaries and who they are selecting for their party is novel," he said. "There are thoughtful conservatives who are troubled ... by the direction of their party. I think it is very important for them to reflect on what it is about the politics they've engaged in that allows the circus we've been seeing to transpire and to do some introspection."
That introspection didn't happen Thursday night. The only top Republican who's publicly condemned Trump at length is someone who's not running: Mitt Romney. Trump remains on track for the Republican nomination. The other candidates did nothing Thursday night that seems likely to stop him. They've all said they'll support him if he's the nominee. And if -- when -- they lose, they'll have lost without condemning a man who thinks violence at his rallies is appropriate.
At least Rubio made fun of his hands.