In the first three debates lack of policy prowess did not seem to harm Ben Carson or Donald Trump. Nevertheless, as voters get closer to casting votes and the debate exchanges sharpen, one wonders if they will lose credibility, even with supporters who tend to focus on the candidates’ personalities rather than their specific policy stances.

As for Trump, he, for once, was caught spouting nonsense. In the exchange over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which drew in Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and moderators Gerard Baker and Maria Bartiromo), Trump continued to bang the drum for tariffs. There was this exchange:

And as you understand, I mean, you understand very well from the Wall Street Journal, currency manipulation is the single great weapon people have. They don’t even discuss it in this agreement.
So I say, it’s a very bad deal, should not be approved. If it is approved, it will just be more bad trade deals, more loss of jobs for our country. We are losing jobs like nobody’s ever lost jobs before. I want to bring jobs back into this country.

Hey, Gerard, you know, we might want to point out China is not part of this deal.

True. It’s true.

That’s right. That’s right.

Before we get a little bit off-kilter here …

But isn’t that — isn’t that part of the problem? When I say, Senator, that if — if this deal is not ratified by — by the U.S. — by the Senate, then it would actually give China an opportunity to grow its economic leadership, which it’s been seeking to do? And if the U.S. is unable to take part in this trade deal with these countries in Asia, China will take the lead?

There is an argument that China doesn’t like the deal, because in us doing the deal, we’ll be trading with their competitors. You’re exactly right. But I think we’ve sort of missed the point a little bit here.
There is an important point, though, about how we discuss these trade treaties that I do agree with Mr. Trump on. We should negotiate from a position of strength. And we also should negotiate using the full force and the constitutional power that was given to us. I think it’s a mistake that we give up power to the presidency on these trade deals. We give up the power to filibuster, and I’m kind of fond of that power.
We give up the power to amend. And I think, really, one of the big problems we have in our country is, over the last century, really, so much power has gravitated to the executive branch. Really, Congress is kind of a bystander. We don’t write the rules. We don’t make the laws. The executive branch does. So even in trade — and I am for trade — I think we should be careful about giving so much power to the presidency.
Thank you. Thanks, Senator. 

An ordinary candidate would be embarrassed, even humiliated, to be shown up in such fashion. Whether other candidates will follow up on his error remains to be seen, but it was a revealing moment when his extreme rhetoric and reality were plainly at odds.

Although less obvious, Trump’s equally significant gaffe on Russia and the Islamic State suggests another area of vulnerability. He repeatedly insists that we should be pleased Russia is in Syria taking out the Islamic State. This is false. Russia is not going after the Islamic State, which is one reason why its presence there is not in our interest. It will be interesting to see if and when one the of more knowledgeable contenders turns to him at some point to tell him he doesn’t have his facts straight on a serious, central national security issue.

Carson continues to have difficulty articulating his own positions. On jihadists he had this jumble of words:

What we’ve been doing so far is very ineffective, but we can’t give up ground right there. But we have to look at this on a much more global scale. We’re talking about global jihadists. And their desire is to destroy us and to destroy our way of life. So we have to be saying, how do we make them look like losers? Because that’s the way that they’re able to gather a lot of influence.
And I think in order to make them look like losers, we have to destroy their caliphate. And you look for the easiest place to do that? It would be in Iraq. And if — outside of Anbar in Iraq, there’s a big energy field. Take that from them. Take all of that land from them. We could do that, I believe, fairly easily, I’ve learned from talking to several generals, and then you move on from there.

Take their territory away to make them look like losers? Yes, but how? And how does “taking away their oil” come about? A few catch phrases strung together does not make for a policy, let alone a showing he understands the situation on the ground.

His response on whether to break up the banks was indecipherable:

Well, I think we should have policies that don’t allow them to just enlarge themselves at the expense of smaller entities. And certainly some of the policies, some of the monetary and Fed policies that we’re using makes it very easy for them, makes it very easy for the big corporations, quite frankly, at these very low interest rates to buy back their stock and to drive the price of that up artificially. Those are the kinds of things that led to the problem in the first place.
And I think this all really gets back to this whole regulation issue which is creating a very abnormal situation. This country was — declared its independence in 1776. In less than 100 years, it was the number-one economic power in the world. And the reason was because we had an atmosphere that encouraged entrepreneurial risk- taking and capital investment. Those are the fuels that drive it.
And what we’ve done now is let the creep of regulation turn into a stampede of regulations, which is involved in every aspect of our lives. If we can get that out, it makes a big difference. And even for the average person, every single regulation costs money. And it’s shifted to the individual.
So — and it hurts the poor and the middle class much more than it does the rich. They go into the store and they buy a bar of soap, it costs 10 cents more, they notice it. And the middle class, when they come to the cash register, have a whole cart full of things that cost 5, 10 or 15 cents more, they notice it. It is hurting the poor.

Not every voter cares about policy nuance. But when candidates are so ill-prepared to address major issues their support tops out. The majority of the GOP electorate does not want an ignoramus as its nominee. And that’s a problem for the two front-runners.