This is the quadrennial Republican silly season, when candidates without a prayer of election get their moments in the limelight, sometimes topping the polls before crashing.
After adopting crazy enthusiasms — Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, Pat Robertson, Michele Bachman, Herman Cain and the ever-present Mike Huckabee — the party almost always ends up nominating its most electable candidate. The process is often ruinous, of course, forcing the nominee to adopt positions in the primaries that render him unable to win the general. Mitt Romney's "self-deportation" position on immigration in 2012 is the best example.
With that history in mind, let's look at the Cleveland GOP debate participants, in order of pre-debate polling status:
Donald Trump: Can anyone actually imagine him being president of the United States? A loudmouth egomaniac who demeans women, admits to buying politicians, has never held elective office, yells insults at opponents, is multiply at odds with party policy and (to maximize "leverage") won't pledge to support his party's nominee?
Trump does have one thing going for him: He gives voice to Americans' fear and rage at the status quo and claims to be able to make America great again. We actually are, as he says, losing to the Russians and Chinese — also the Iranians and ISIS (though not Mexico). But turning things around requires strategy, not bluster. Voters get that. He'll self-destruct, hopefully quickly.
Jeb Bush: He was cool, collected, moderate and had a record of achievement as Florida governor to sell. He's courageously running in the primaries as a general election candidate, sticking to positions (on immigration and education reform) that many in the base hate. It was fascinating that Bush was the only rival Trump said he respected. But Bush may be too positive. He said America is on the brink of an era of progress — if we reform taxes, regulation, immigration and health care. But Americans are legitimately afraid that, if we don't — and we aren't — disaster looms. Bush should say that.
Scott Walker: A courageous, successful record fighting public employee unions that were bankrupting Wisconsin. But he came off pale in the debate, the Tim Pawlenty of 2016. Defending a no-exceptions ban on abortion is extreme, a turnoff to women and young voters the party needs to win a general. Plus, he once was for legal status for illegal immigrants, but now wants to build a wall, a punch in the face to Hispanics the party desperately needs.
Huckabee: Clearly a fringe candidate and running for the third time. He doesn't want to waste time passing a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade — he'll do it by decree, invoking the 5th and 14th amendments.
Ben Carson: Clearly a nice man and a brain surgeon, to boot. But utterly out of his league in presidential politics. A president does need to figure things out and learn rapidly, but he should have done a lot of learning before running. Carson clearly hasn't.
Ted Cruz: A scary-smart demagogue and extremist, willing to push the country into financial ruin to get his way. Another name-caller (Mitch McConnell, a "liar;" former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took money from Iran). We can defeat ISIS in 90 days merely by using the words "radical Islamic terrorism?" Cruz is a Donald Trump with credentials. If he doesn't self-destruct, his Senate GOP colleagues will spread the word: He's bad news.
Marco Rubio: A winning personality, with a great come-from-poverty success story. And he understands that American workers are operating in an entirely new (and scary) world economy.
He's a policy entrepreneur with ideas on taxes and college affordability. But, after pushing comprehensive immigration reform through the Senate, he repudiated his work to placate the anti-immigrant base. He might win Cuban votes, but no other Latinos. His abortion position sounds like Huckabee's. And, does America really want to elect another two-year senator?
He might be the party's vice presidential nominee, if it's not Carly Fiorina or Nikki Haley.
Rand Paul: Took on Trump early, then all but disappeared till he got attacked by Chris Christie for wanting to crimp anti-terrorist intelligence. He has a libertarian youth following, but he's already faded toward the back of the '16 pack.
Chris Christie: Combative, a bully, nothing subtle about him. Claims New Jersey is much better off than it was when he arrived, but it's still in bad shape. And, three years later, the Superstorm Sandy mess is still not entirely cleaned up.
But he is substantive, proposing to save Social Security by means-testing it.
John Kasich: Now rivals Bush as the Jack Kemp compassionate conservative of 2016, effectively defending expansion of Medicaid in Ohio and helping the mentally ill while restoring his state's finances.
Kemp always said that economic growth was the key to America's success — and that, in a shrinking economy, social tensions heighten. Kasich agrees: "Economic growth is the key to everything." Bush agrees. Kasich, son of a mailman, also can appeal to working-class voters.
Bottom line: The silly season has just begun and when Trump tanks, someone else will take his place as leader of the "mad as hell, not going to take it anymore" pack — maybe Cruz. But, if history is any guide, the party will come around to ... probably a governor, somebody who can appeal to women, young voters and Latinos.
I'd guess Bush or Kasich. But it might not. There's precedent: In 1964, the party nominated Barry Goldwater. He carried six states.
Morton Kondracke was executive editor of Roll Call and wrote Pennsylvania Avenue from 1991 to 2011. He is the co-author of a biography of Jack Kemp due out in September.