Opinion writer

As we head into the second Republican presidential debate, everyone seems to agree that the race’s frontrunner, Donald Trump, will be the axis around which the debate itself and the discussion afterward will revolve. That’s almost inevitable, given how enticing he is for us in the media — the person who leads in the polls will always get the most coverage, and the huge entertainment value of Trump’s bizarre candidacy makes him irresistible to reporters, editors, producers, and commentators.

But does the attention we give to Trump actually let the other candidates off the hook when it comes to the substance of their ideas?

They wouldn’t see it that way, of course. They’re desperate for attention, and surely more than a little perturbed at all the time given to Trump’s campaign (according to this analysis, there have been over 2,000 stories about Trump on CNN alone in the last three months). But Trump’s blithe indifference to the details of policy shouldn’t make us throw up our hands and not bother to probe all the candidates deeply about what they would do if they actually became president. If we spend too much time talking about Carly Fiorina’s response to Trump’s insult about her looks and how Trump will respond to her response and how she’ll respond to his response to her response, we run the risk of bypassing the opportunity to get answers to the questions that will actually matter when someone new moves into the White House sixteen months from now.

Let’s take the issue of immigration as an example. The naked xenophobia that Trump encourages and benefits from is without question an important story. So the next step should be to ask how it might affect a Republican president’s options and decisions on immigration. Most of the candidates say they want some form of comprehensive reform over the long run, so how do they plan to win over congressional Republicans who aren’t interested in anything of the sort? When they say we need to “secure the border first,” if “secure” doesn’t mean Trump’s fantasy of a 2,000-mile-long wall, what precisely does it mean? How do they explain the slowdown in illegal immigration in recent years, and what does it tell us about our policy choices from this point on? Since they’ve (rightly) dismissed Trump’s assertion that you could round up and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants in a matter of months, what do they plan to do about those immigrants while we’re waiting for the border to be “secure”?

It isn’t that we shouldn’t keep asking those kinds of questions of Trump as well, but by now no one expects him to offer anything resembling a substantive answer. So if the other candidates want to say that they’re serious but he isn’t, we have to treat them with seriousness.

And speaking of seriousness, there’s an emerging storyline that Trump is becoming more serious as a candidate, which means things like spending more time working rope lines and mixing in site-specific pandering messages when he speaks, of the “How about that local sports team!” variety. But as always, we shouldn’t conflate campaigning and governing. You can run a skilled campaign but still fail to demonstrate that you’d be anything but a disaster as a president. Trump probably thinks that there’s no need for him to offer policy details, since he’s doing pretty darn well just by telling people things like, “We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with the winning.”

I’m sure that if you asked most reporters, they’d say that a Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or Scott Walker presidency is perfectly imaginable, while a Trump presidency (or a Ben Carson presidency) is just hard to contemplate, both because Trump and Carson are so vague about their agendas and because they evince so little understanding of how governing works. But in the case of both groups, we should do our best get the candidates to fill in the details of what their presidencies would actually be like.

To date, most of the GOP candidates have been only slightly less vague than Trump about their policy ideas, and when they release some kind of a plan, we tend to write a story about it the next day, and then move on. But the more they are forced to talk about those plans, the more clearly they’ll be on record and the more we’ll know about the possibilities for the next presidency. If Jeb Bush’s tax plan would be a rerun of his what his brother did, we should force him to answer as many questions as possible about it. If Scott Walker would wage a national war on collective bargaining, that could have a huge impact on the American workplace, and it’s worth exploring.

Debates ought to be an opportunity to learn more about these issues and what the candidates actually think, but the sad truth is that the coverage of tonight’s debate, like the rest of them, will probably center on who got off the best zingers, who looked tired, and who tripped over their words. Squeezing policy insights out of an event where 11 contenders try to get in a word or two before their time runs out isn’t easy, but we all ought to try.