Perhaps one of the more noteworthy things to happen last night was the fact that Texas senator Ted Cruz made a more overt play for populist sentiments. At multiple times in his comments during the debate, Senator Cruz emphasized the challenges faced by working people and argued that his plans would help them. He specifically argued that tax reform, repealing Obamacare, and rolling back the regulatory Leviathan would ignite growth for everyone. The economic hollowing out of much of the middle class did not start with the Affordable Care Act, and tax reform is unlikely to be a silver bullet for economic decline. However, at least Cruz put the idea of helping the average worker front and center.
Donald Trump may have given Cruz an opening to run in a more populist direction by his statement that he was "changing" on immigration. Throughout the campaign, Trump has noted the abuses arising out of guest-worker programs, such as the H-1B. Many of his top advisors and allies (such as Senator Jeff Sessions) have been very critical of guest-worker programs, and Trump's pledge to roll back such programs has been key for rallying economically restless voters to his side. At last night's debate, though, Trump started repeating many of the arguments made by proponents of expanding guest-worker programs, talking about a lack of Americans who can do various jobs and so forth. This rhetorical turn caused even many Trump supporters on Twitter and elsewhere to doubt Trump's seriousness on this issue.
An hour after the debate, Trump's campaign sent out a statement clarifying that he was not going to expand the H-1B and would continue to fight to reform guest-worker programs. However, that lack of policy clarity during the debate has stoked some worry among Trump supporters.
Last night's debate also showed the importance of Trump speaking with more policy fluency and clarity on other issues, including the budget deficit and the powers of the commander-in-chief. With four candidates still in the race, the ability to debate policy specifics will become more important,
A key moment in the debate happened near the end, when Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich all pledged to back Trump if he is the nominee. Many #NeverTrump proponents have argued not just that Trump is unfit to be president or that people are mistaken for supporting him; some have tried to imply that supporting Trump for the presidency is a moral crime worthy of exile from polite society. However, Senator Cruz, Governor Kasich, and Senator Rubio are now on the record as saying, again, that they will support Trump if he is the nominee. Thus, it's hard for anyone supporting any of Trump's current rivals to argue that only moral monsters support Trump. (Of course, they can still make other criticisms of Trump without any fear of logical infelicities.)