The Republican presidential candidates finally got the debate they wanted last night from Fox Business: questions that let them largely repeat their talking points, and choose their internal controversies, which largely followed the familiar grooves of Trump versus the field (with the exception of Ted Cruz) on immigration and Paul versus the field on national security. Perceptions of who “won” or “lost” will largely track where one stands on these issues and how they do and don’t contribute to Republican performance against Hillary Clinton, whose name was regularly invoked by the candidates like a witch doctor’s curse, presumably in response to her newly consolidated lead in the Democratic race.

Marco Rubio was the “winner” according to most Republican assessments (e.g., Politico‘s “Caucus” of early-state GOP insiders), partly on style points and partly because he got in the most telling shots at Rand Paul’s heterodoxies on national security. Those more strictly focused on the “true conservative lane” of the nominating contest thought highly of Cruz’s performance, despite his Rick Perry-ish failure to remember the names of all five Cabinet departments he is promising to eliminate. Trump was a calmer version of his old self, and Carson may have reduced the number of people who think he’s a nice genial man with his clearly prepared but wildly irrelevant and nasty shot at HRC’s “lies” about Benghazi! in answer to a question about his own wandering memories of his youth.

On the rare occasions when the Fox Business moderators challenged the candidates, the echo-chamber nature of the conservative take on this contest became glaringly evident, as Jonathan Chait pointed out at New York:

Early in the fourth Republican debate, Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker, one of the debate moderators, asked Carly Fiorina a question that cut at the heart of the rationale of every candidate on stage. Under Barack Obama, Baker noted, the United States has added an average of 107,000 jobs a month. Under Bill Clinton, it added an average of 240,000, and under George W. Bush, just 13,000 jobs a month. Economic growth is the ultimate basis for the entire Republican economic program — the inducement they can offer to explain why Americans should give up things like cleaner air, a higher minimum wage, and more generous social programs.

Fiorina’s reply had no point of contact with the question whatsoever. Indeed, she said, “Yes, problems have gotten much worse under Democrats” — the exact opposite of what the question had stated — before launching into a generic denunciation of the evils of big government. The basic case for changing parties turned out to pose an obstacle that all the candidates had difficulty surmounting.

I don’t know that these candidates think it’s time to make the basic case for change as they grapple for an advantage among early-state conservative voters for whom that case is self-evident. The rest of the electorate enters their rhetoric only via electability arguments like the ones Bush and Kasich tried to make last night, and even then, a very large, perhaps majority, portion of the GOP activist base is convinced that their “team” can win and can only win via a strident message that boosts “base” turnout and polarizes white voters in a way that drives more of them than ever to the polls and into the Republican column. If Scott Walker was still in the race, he might crystallize this claim with serial boasts about his three victories in “blue” Wisconsin despite or even because of his hammer-headed attacks on the hated partisan foe. As it is, the proposition that conservative ideology is a winning proposition in the Year of Our Lord 2016 tends to become a smug assumption barely articulated in inwardly focused debates like the one in Milwaukee last night.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.