Last night’s presidential debate was legitimately interesting, because there was one issue that was discussed with a remarkable degree of sophistication. Unfortunately, that issue wasn’t foreign policy. That part of the debate can be summed up in Chris Christie’s response to Maria Bartiromo’s question:  “Governor Christie, sometimes it seems the world is on fire. Where and when should a president use military action to restore order?”

Christie’s gonna Christie, so there was a lot of bombast to start:

Lots of people will say lots of different things about me in this campaign and others, but the one thing they’ve never said about me is that I’m misunderstood. And so when we talk to our allies and we give them our word, in a Christie administration, they know we’re going to keep it.
Next, we have to talk to our adversaries, and we have to make sure they understand the limits of our patience.

After Bartiromo followed up by pointing out that Christie hadn’t actually answered the question, he came back with:

Military action, Maria, would be used when it was absolutely necessary to protect American lives and protect American interests around the world. We are not the world’s policeman, but we need to stand up and be ready.

Anyone spot the cognitive dissonance between the first part of Christie’s answer and the second? The New Jersey governor and pretty much everyone else on that stage kept insisting that as president they would be much more forceful than Barack Obama (my favorite was John Kasich saying that he’d tell Saudi Arabia to “knock off” the funding of Wahhabi extremism). Fair enough. Except that when it came back around to the actual use of force, Christie pulled up the reins and tried to put clear limits on the use of American force.

Christie’s implicit theory is that his mere presence in the Oval Office will be enough to deter America’s adversaries from bellicose action. All of these guys think that they’ll sound at least as tough as George W. Bush. The thing is, we already know how that movie played out. While Bush ostensibly demonstrated American resolve by invading and then surging in Iraq, North Korea developed a nuclear weapons capability, Iran accelerated its nuclear program, Russia invaded Georgia, China built up its soft power across the Pacific Rim, and Hugo Chavez expanded the Bolivarian bloc in Latin America. As a theory, the notion that any of these guys would deter Iran from doing what it did this week seems pretty laughable.

So yeah, the foreign policy portion of the debate was bereft of much substance. So was the domestic policy portion, except for the back and forth between Rubio and Cruz on the VAT (which Rubio won). To sum it up in a sarcastic tweet:

There was, however, one area of the debate where the candidates suddenly started talking like seasoned professionals. Consider these snippets:

CRUZ: I recognize that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa….
TRUMP:  NBC Wall Street Journal just came out with a poll — headline: Trump way up, Cruz going down….  in Iowa now, as you know, Ted, in the last three polls, I’m beating you. So — you know, you shouldn’t misrepresent how well you’re doing with the polls….
BUSH:  These attack ads are going to be part of life. Everybody just needs to get used to it….
CRUZ:  Listen, in any Republican primary, everyone is going to say they support the Second Amendment. Unless you are clinically insane….
CRUZ (to Rubio):  I appreciate your dumping your oppo research folder on the debate stage.

There’s more — like Trump correcting Neil Cavuto on his poll bump in South Carolina — but you get the gist of it.

Even Trump’s “mantle of anger” response — is best of the night — was a response to a question about his campaign rhetoric and style.

Maybe I have political amnesia, but the candidates in this election cycle have seemed far more willing to talk about their standing in the polls, the art of debating, and the mechanics of the campaign.

Full disclosure:  I have no idea how this plays to GOP voters. Maybe this is the kind of blunt talk that they enjoy. I don’t know.

There is an irony here, however. In an election cycle dominated by a theme of outsiders usurping establishment politicians, we’ve reached the point in the campaign when everyone sounds way more like Frank Luntz than Ronald Reagan.