A Trump-free debate reveals a Republican party trying to be as nuts as he is

I know you are, but what am I?
I know you are, but what am I?
Image: AP Photo/Chris Carlson
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Absent the loudest mouth and the wildest ideas, could the final Republican presidential debate before voting begins offer some redemption for what has been largely a race to the bottom?

In a way, yes, as the remaining candidates reminded voters in Iowa and New Hampshire that they all once shared a reasonable approach to a thorny policy problem—developing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants—and are now running away from that stance as fast as possible.

There are approximately 11 million undocumented US residents, most of whom have been in the US for more than ten years, and they are at the center of the debate over immigration reform. Amnesty may be unpopular, but mass deportation is inhumane and infeasible (Trump, of course, has endorsed it).

Bringing up the subject, Fox essentially dropped an attack ad on Marco Rubio, featuring clips of the Florida Senator endorsing a path to citizenship at various times in his career. Rubio was part of a bipartisan senate effort to pass a law that included beefed-up border security and a path to citizenship—an effort he has now forsworn.

This brought Florida Governor Jeb Bush into the fray to criticize Rubio for “cutting and running” from his efforts to build a consensus; Bush now supports something he calls “earned legal residency” for undocumented immigrants.

“You used to support a path to citizenship,” Rubio protested. “So did you!” Bush replied.

And not just them. Fox had another attack-ad style montage, this one of Texas Senator Ted Cruz discussing his desire for comprehensive immigration reform and his willingness to support Rubio’s bill with certain amendments.

Not so, protested Cruz. His amendments would have stopped a path to citizenship.

But libertarian-minded Kentucky Senator Rand Paul wouldn’t let him off the hook, saying his support for immigration reform was support for a path to citizenship. “I was for legalization,” Paul said. “If you have border security, you have legalization,” adding that Cruz has an “authenticity problem.”

Of the three candidates who missed out on this exchange, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie once supported a path to citizenship but now does not, and physician Ben Carson’s stance on the topic is confusing. Only Ohio Governor John Kasich supports a path to citizenship.

So what is the Republican debate stage without Trump’s bombast? Five candidates too afraid to defend their records for fear of alienating Republican voters, and, in Kasich, one candidate widely seen as too candid and moderate to win.