"How many times can the same people ask the same questions? You just get tired of it."
Donald Trump has said a lot of things over the years—about banning Muslims from entering the US, about deporting undocumented immigrants en masse, about how he could have had sex with Princess Di—so it was inevitable that he would one day say something that everyone could agree with.
It came well into the second hour of a Republican town hall event Tuesday night, in which CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and a cast of carefully curated ordinary Americans got a chance to ask each of the three remaining GOP presidential candidates questions, one by one, and those candidates each got the chance to completely ignore those questions and spray clouds of rhetoric like startled, flailing squids. It was a rerun, in other words, of the same episode that's played out over and over again during this interminable primary campaign.
The night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, began with Cooper asking Texas Senator Ted Cruz about his suggestion that US law enforcement should patrol "Muslim neighborhoods" as a way to combat terrorism—a plan that has been roundly condemned by New York City law enforcement officials who tried monitoring local Muslims and realized it didn't help anything. Cruz shrugged off the criticism, calling New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio a "left-wing radical," and raising the specter of Europe's Muslim-dominated "no-go zones" where the police fear to tread, a fairly common myth floating around the far-right wing.
The exchange set a pattern: Someone would ask Cruz a question, and he would either avoid answering or find a way to bend it to his purpose. A job interview–style query about Cruz's biggest weakness prompted a monologue about how dang much he loves the Constitution. A father asked Cruz if he would support a bill aimed at stopping the Department of Veterans Affairs from overprescribing drugs—a measure named after his son, who died of an overdose while in VA care—and the senator just repeated vague platitudes about VA reform and the war on drugs.
A woman asked what Cruz would do specifically for women, and he rambled about how great his mom and wife are (in other words, he isn't going to do anything in particular for women). When Cooper brought up the ugly campaign fight over a National Enquirer story accusing Cruz of infidelity—a story that Cruz has accused Trump's campaign of planting—and asked whether the Texan would support Trump as the party's nominee, Cruz hemmed and hawed for long minutes, then basically refused to answer the question.
Trump was even more difficult to pin down during his hour onstage, though you can't fault Cooper's efforts. The CNN host naturally brought up the day's biggest political story, about Trump's campaign manager Corey Lewandowski getting charged with battery after grabbing a reporter's arm at a campaign rally. Trump insisted that Michelle Fields, the journalist, had changed her story; then, after being presented with the evidence, he showed a Torah scholar's appetite for parsing whether she actually "fell to the ground" or "almost fell to the ground."
The implication was that Fields is lying—not about being touched, as Lewandowski and the Trump campaign initially claimed, but about the severity of the touch. Later, when Cooper brought up a spat the two candidates had over Trump's retweeting a nasty photo of Cruz's wife, Trump replied, "He started it," and the CNN anchor shot back, "That's the argument of a five-year-old."
When it came to foreign policy, not day-to-day Twitter spats, however, Trump seemed less prepared. The most substantial exchange came when Cooper challenged the candidate to clarify some of his statements about nuclear proliferation, since Trump has said he's worried about more countries acquiring nuclear weapons, but also OK with Japan, South Korea, and maybe Saudi Arabia getting nukes. Trump's response was, basically, Whatever, if it means the US does less to police the world, fine. Later, he pulled the same light-on-details act when he said the US government should provide healthcare and education, and then said no, the states should, or the private sector should get involved, or something.
We've seen this all before—the avoidance of questions, the pandering, the almost pathological focus on talking points. The latter was most grossly displayed Tuesday when a police officer who'd been shot 15 times while fighting a white supremacist who was attacking a Sikh temple asked the Republican frontrunner what could be done to combat prejudice. Trump had a chance to soften his tone, to look presidential while interacting with a man universally regarded as a hero. Instead, he trotted out some stuff about Muslim terrorism, and once again, completely ignored the question.
Ohio Governor John Kasich, it must be said, actually did answer questions, including those about unpopular stances he's taken in the past. As the campaign's third wheel, he doesn't have the luxury of ignoring the queries of interested voters. He won't be president no matter how well he performs at events like these.
Kasich's hopelessness, like Trump's bluster and Cruz's smarm, was nothing new. When Wisconsin primary voters cast ballots next week, they'll be choosing from the same menu they faced before the town hall; the same spread of squabbling and half-truths will be laid out, growing increasingly stale for the next few months, until the Republican Party finally lands itself a nominee. In that sense, Trump's complaint about being tired of debates was the truest moment in a night that was short on them—he's as eager to see the end of this as voters are.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.