The first debate of the Republican primary has already brought the derision this moment in the cycle always does: that this is a "clown car" overpacked with second-tier candidates.
That story gets written about every group of primary candidates, pretty much every cycle. There's something about the primaries that shrinks politicians to smaller-than-life figures, pandering to obscure parochial or partisan interests, coming off Olympus to worry about some local concern in Dover, New Hampshire.
And yes, there is something particularly undignified about being on stage with The Donald.
But a direct comparison with the last Republican primary, in 2012, reveals how strong this bunch of candidates is for the 2016 nomination. And the comparison is surprisingly direct: For most of the 2012 candidates, 2016 has offered a stronger, better-prepared, and more qualified rough equivalent.
Jeb Bush, for instance, is more or less Mitt Romney — a respected, technocratic, big-money Republican governor from a gentler decade. Except Bush was actually a conservative at the time, and so he doesn't find himself painfully rewriting his history or groveling to a movement he used to scorn.
Scott Walker is in fact the man Tim Pawlenty sought to play in 2012: The plainspoken, middle-class governor from the upper Midwest who boldly smashed his state's unions and faced the consequences. Pawlenty cheered Walker’s high-profile fight against public workers in 2011, and talked at length about his clash with his own state’s public transit workers.
Rand Paul is, obviously, a less fringy version of his father, with the hard edges shaved off on questions from Israel to civil rights (Still, even if Rand is the most successful libertarian of all time, it now looks like the next generation of libertarians are the ones who will be ready for primetime.)
Ted Cruz is a much improved version of Rick Santorum: As far right as you please, but with a stunning resume — Princeton, Harvard Law, constitutional lawyer, statewide office — and a recent past of fighting the movement's most divisive Senate fights. And where Santorum would talk about, well, anything at any time, Cruz has the robotic discipline and deliberate stuntsmanship that are crucial to contemporary politics.
John Kasich and Chris Christie, meanwhile, are alternate updatings of of Jon Huntsman: independent, moderate governors with deep roots in the Republican establishment who don't mind breaking with their party.
And remember Herman Cain, Mr. 9-9-9, an almost inexplicable 2012 phenomenon, except to the degree that he satisfied a genuine hunger among many conservatives to be seen as a party of inclusion. A modestly successful restaurant executive and regional fed chairman of no particular movement credentials, he had no obvious business running for president. Ben Carson satisfies that same hunger for diversity — and party leaders love to tout the diversity of this field — but he's also, at least on paper, a plausible national candidate: a man at the very top of one of the truly elite professions, brain surgery; and not just a conservative professional who is black, but also a well-known figure to a generation of black Americans. (Carson also turns out to have consolidated some of the appeal of Michele Bachmann, for simply being willing to say the craziest things about Barack Obama.)
Beyond that, the analogies get a little thin. Trump is a singular figure, a product of the New York tabloids with no 2012 equivalent, though Newt Gingrich, with more will than rationale, filled some of the same space, as did Bachmann. Rick Perry 2.0 appears to be pretty much Rick Perry. Mike Huckabee becomes a somewhat weaker candidate every cycle, as his demographic ages out and his charm wears thin. Santorum 2.0 is a poor man's Santorum 1.0. And Marco Rubio's generational campaign has no 2012 equivalent.
But don't be fooled into thinking that this is a weak field, or that most of these candidates would get run over by the Clinton juggernaut. The Democrats are plodding toward the nomination of the sort of solid establishment candidate John McCain was in 2008 for Republicans. The Republicans onstage tonight represent a generation of their party's stars.