The Beginning of Trump’s End?

The GOP establishment may see some hopeful signs in the second primary debate.

Donald Trump

Don Gone? Donald Trump speaks with reporters after the presidential debate at the Reagan Library on Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, California.

Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

For the people who fund the Republican Party and drive its key concerns—the donors and owners who push tax cuts über alles—Wednesday night’s presidential debate (and its aftermath, in particular) was critical.

Eleven people were on the stage debating, but there were just four viable candidates—five if you count New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—who share a commitment to the party establishment and its core priorities: Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Scott Walker, and Gov. John Kasich. On paper, this is a Squadron Supreme of talent: Bush, the scion of a successful political family; Rubio, the charismatic star of a new, more modern GOP; Walker, the effective right-wing governor of a Democratic state; and Kasich, the “compassionate conservative” who wins moderates with ease.

In practice, however, they’ve done nothing but disappoint. All, especially Walker, have withered next to the incredible success of Donald Trump and his closest rival, Ben Carson, the friendly—and radical—favorite of conservative evangelical Christians in the Republican Party. If Trump were just a sideshow—with no real pull on the shape of the GOP race—this might be tolerable. But in addition to insults, Trump brings apostasy. He wants higher taxes on the wealthy and slams cuts to Social Security. He doesn’t just oppose comprehensive immigration reform—a perennial item on the establishment wish list—he wants to see a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. If Trump can sustain his rise, and turn it into a real campaign, he could upend the Republican consensus and deal a blow to supply-side aspirations.

Given this, what did elites need? They needed their champions to perform—to show that they’re able to fight challengers and establish themselves against their opponents. With a strong performance, one of the five—Bush, Rubio, Kasich, Walker, or Christie—could break out and return to prominence in the polls.

Likewise, the establishment needed someone to wound Trump, even if it opened the door to Carson. Because even if Carson rose higher, it would confirm an important fact: that these “outsiders” are counterparts to Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, and will fall after their 15 minutes in the spotlight. If that’s true, then the elites will eventually win, as long as they hold on and support their best candidates.

The good news is that this debate might mark the beginning of the end for Trump, who struggled to tackle substantive questions on foreign policy, his advisers, and what he’d actually do as president of the United States. More importantly, he faced a confident Carly Fiorina, who slammed and tweaked Trump on his obvious ignorance of key issues. “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina said about his remarks on her appearance to Rolling Stone magazine. And when he took credit for bringing immigration to the front of the race, Fiorina rebuked him. “Immigration reform did not come up in the debate because of Mr. Trump,” she said. “We have been talking about it for 25 years.” For the first time in weeks, Trump was diminished, and only recovered during a blistering—and irresponsible—attack on vaccination schedules. On the same score, Carson was a weak performer, practically sleeping through the debate, and stumbling through answers with his standard blend of genial storytelling and reactionary rhetoric.

But just because Trump lost doesn’t mean elites are in the clear. Fiorina isn’t a Carson-esque radical or an opportunist like Trump, but she’s also an outsider to the GOP, untethered to the establishment. She’ll gain from this debate, but party elites won’t. At least, not now. If there’s a central question to the Trump phenomenon, it’s this: Is Trump new? Is he a disruption in the GOP primary—a force that could upend the patterns of the past—or is he another bubble candidate, like Cain in 2012? If it’s the former, we shouldn’t expect gaffes or mistakes to harm him. If it’s the latter, however, he’ll fall to other vanity candidates as voters search for the next high. Which is why the next few weeks are key. If Trump loses his lead, then the establishment can breathe easier, even as it sees a Carson lead or a Fiorina lead. It means there’s an end to the madness.

“Easier” isn’t easy, however, and if the GOP debate harmed Trump, it also underscored weakness in the establishment. Bush was better than he’s ever been, touting his record, defending his brother, and tussling with Trump. And yet, he was underwhelming. After a strong start, he couldn’t sustain the energy to attack, and was caught off-guard by replies and rejoinders. Worse, he fumbled when asked about Iraq, his foreign policy advisers, and their connections to previous Bush administrations. “I’m my own man,” he said, without showing how, exactly, that’s true.

But Bush, for all his stumbling, soared above Walker, who hardly spoke—he received three direct questions in a three-hour debate, compared with 13 for Trump and nine for Bush—and always answered in talking points about his record in Wisconsin, his devotion to Ronald Reagan, and his defiance of union protesters. In just a month, Walker has dropped from top spots in national polling to the very bottom; he needed to win this debate, and he failed. If, before Iowa, Walker drops out, this was the beginning of the end.

That leaves party elites with three candidates who could walk away as good, or better, than they were before the debate: Rubio, Kasich, and Christie. Rubio has mastered his basic pitch of aspirational conservatism, and on immigration he can make the seamless move from biography to policy to the stories of other people. On the Iran deal, Kasich shined with a forceful defense of prudence in pursuit of national goals, and used his time throughout to pitch himself as a moderate, forward-thinking choice for the party. And Christie worked to move the conversation toward economic issues, where he could portray himself as a fighter for working-class Americans. Neither he nor his competitors had any discussion of economic policy outside of vague generalities. But for the sake of television, it worked.

Of the three it’s hard to say that any is a perfect candidate. But unlike Bush or Walker, they are clearly skilled enough to compete on a national stage, under the pressure of a presidential campaign. In other words, party elites have a new decision: Will they keep the faith with Jeb, giving him cash and assistance even as he stumbles through the primary process, or will they cut their losses and turn their attention to one of these other three? No, the Bush family isn’t a bad bet. But Jeb keeps flailing, and it’s not clear he’s going to get better.

See more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.