Thursday's inaugural 2016 GOP primary debate was much ado about not-quite-nothing.
The so-called "Happy Hour" forum for the lesser candidates kind of spilled the secret more than three hours before the debate began. There was a lot of talk, just a little jazz, but not much in the way of campaign-altering substance.
And it seems that with the exception of a few moments during the main event -- when Ohio Gov. John Kasich offered a robust defense of his decision to expand Medicaid and a moderate position on same-sex marriage, that civil liberties face-off between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), and when Jeb Bush offered some defense of Common Core and turned, awkwardly, to look Trump in the eye during a uniquely Trump litany on immigration -- that's what we all got later in the evening, too.
Put another way: Trump did Trump. The nine other men on that stage doubled down on their established, political personas and expected patterns. It was new to many viewers. And it could affect the polls accordingly. But by night's end we didn't learn much.
The debate didn't seem as though it was starting that way.
At the outset, Fox News's Bret Baier asked all the candidates whether they would pledge to ultimately support the Republican nominee and refrain from running as an independent if the Republican nomination went to someone else. Trump gave a big shrug. Trump will support the nominee if that nominee is Trump, he said; he couldn't guarantee anything beyond that.
Ultimately, what the collection of eight experienced public servants, along with Trump and retired surgeon Ben Carson, also proved Thursday evening is precisely why Trump has not just the lead but a solid hold of a lot of voter energy. There was an awful lot proffered in the main debate that could have and has been said before. There was not much in the way of policy specifics, big or new ideas. And there certainly wasn't a move towards the kind of data and detail that debate experts said would be the key to besting Trump -- or, at least, rattling him.
Trump is a master of performance art with sub-specialty in outrageous comments, while largely saying nothing at all. When he's in rare form, Trump also puts himself near the center of all matters. And he certainly did that Thursday night.
"I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct," he said in response to a question about him having called certain famous women "pigs" and ugly. "I don't frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn't have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don't win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico -- both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody."
And, of course, there was also this:
"If it weren't for me, you wouldn't even be talking about illegal immigration, Chris [Wallace]. You wouldn't even be talking about it," he said. "I said we need to build a wall, and it has to be built quickly. And I don’t mind having a big beautiful door in that wall so that people can come into this country legally."
But what does any of that mean in terms of federal policy, actions that can and would be taken if Trump were in the Oval Office? And, is Trump aware that the wall thing has been discussed and attempted?
We don't know, since the moderators (who were generally sharp and assertive and equipped with plenty of good, probing questions), nor the nine other men on stage, pressed the issue all that much. And while we know that most of the men on that stage are fans of Reagan, fans of small government and balanced budgets and economic growth, it's unlikely many Americans came away from the debate with much in the way of specific policies that each would advance to address the issues that top the list of voter concerns.
None of that is to say that Trump's still-forward-moving campaign is any less a circus than it was before. It's just that, in this critical democratic exercise -- the first of the primary debates -- no one really did anything to take him down, much less take him out.
And if anyone came anywhere close at all but didn't go over the edge, it was Donald Trump himself.