The Road to 2016: Post-Debate Scorecard II
Note: As with the “Road to 2016 Power Rankings” series, commentary is not an endorsement. Also, in the interest of disclosure, I am seeking the Republican nomination for the First District Seat on the Baltimore City Council. Views expressed in this commentary are editorial in nature and not affiliated with my run for office.
A FEW GENERAL OBSERVATIONS
So, who won the Second GOP Debate? Your answer is probably going to be tempered by your own feelings toward each of the candidates. To that end, trying to say that one candidate outright “won” the debate is a difficult question. Rather, the real question should be: “did the candidate do enough to help his or her campaign?” Therefore, let’s review the debate this way: each of the candidates will be given a score from -10 to 10. -10 means that the candidate effectively torpedoed his campaign and foundered. 10 means that the candidate effectively clinched the nomination. The list is presented in no particular order.
The CNN debate wasn’t Donald Trump’s best night. It also wasn’t a killer for his campaign. Most of Donald Trump’s supporters can be characterized by their desire to see the establishment lose its hold on the Republican Party. This feeling will only be bolstered when they watched CNN do everything in its power to try to make Trump look foolish and to make other candidates go after the billionaire. On the one hand, this was the first real time that the candidates had to spar with Mr. Trump since his entry into the race. On the other hand, the “fights” seemed unduly forced by the moderators. While Trump didn’t score any major victories, neither did his opponents.
It’s important to note that, among Trump’s supporters, the fact that CNN went out of their way to try to get candidates to go after Trump will reinforce their perception that the “establishment media” is opposed to a Trump candidacy. This is the strange (and somewhat dangerous) game that the media is playing with Trump: they love him for the ratings bumps that he brings them, but then show their “true colors” when they have him on stage. To Trump’s credit, he was the first live interview on CNN after the debate and was quick to tell CNN that they did a good job and to thank them for the opportunity. While some of Trump’s comments may rub people the wrong way, it’s evident that the man knows how to smooth ruffled feathers when he needs to.
Jeb Bush: +1
There was an interesting divide in tone for Jeb Bush between the first two hours of the debate and the last hour. In the first two hours, Bush was unimpressive. Being drawn into quip-for-quip with Trump about matters of little substance likely found watchers generally tuning out the former Florida Governor. If you aren’t from the Sunshine State, you really don’t want to hear about Bush’s tenure as governor in the early part of last decade. People were interested in hearing a reason why they should vote for the third President Bush in 30 years. In the third hour, Bush became more lighthearted. His answer to the marijuana question: “my Mom’s not happy with me,” was humanizing and showed that, even if he rehearsed the answer, he could actually give an honest answer. Importantly, the third hour also saw Jeb poking fun at Trump rather than taking swings at him. This was a much better tone than the adversarial one that Jeb had taken earlier in the night. all-in-all, Bush maintained his hold as the “establishment candidate” for the time being.
Scott Walker’s debate performance wasn’t bad, but I challenge you: tell me just one of his memorable moments from last night? I watched the whole thing and paid a lot of attention and I think my only memory of his performance was that he would put Clara Barton on the $10 bill (I might even be wrong about that memory). The only other part of Walker’s performance that stood out for me in the debate was Walker’s rehearsed line “we don’t need another apprentice in the White House.” This left me scratching my head because, if he was referring to Donald Trump, then Governor Walker clearly did not realize that the titular apprentice of “The Apprentice” was not Mr. Trump, but rather the coterie of contestants around him.
While most of the other candidates’ performances were generally good enough to keep them in the race, Walker’s campaign is likely in a scramble to find a way to patch up the torpedo hole in their hull. Realistically, Walker’s performance wasn’t “bad,” but it was just nonexistent. From a man who was supposed to be out in front of the race, a second performance with relatively no substance could mark the end of the Wisconsin Governor’s national ambition.
Governor Kasich needs to have a few lessons in “not rambling” and staying-on-message. Like Governor Walker, I can’t point to a single standout moment for Kasich last night. Unlike Walker, Kasich is not at a “make it or break it” point in the campaign. Kasich is comfortably in the position to be the establishment fallback candidate in the event that Jeb Bush continues to fall. He’s doing well behind the scenes collecting money and endorsements. Kasich didn’t need to wow the crowd or go after Donald Trump. This was another opportunity for Kasich to introduce himself to voters, and subtly remind them that, as Governor of Ohio, he sits in the driver’s seat for a GOP-must win state in the 2016 race.
Marco Rubio: + 6
Senator Rubio proved for a second time that he is the best, stylistically and rhetorically, debater in the Republican field. He also staked out a position on foreign policy that was nuanced and demonstrated an understanding of the influences and tactics of other nations around the world. Senator Rubio’s most interesting comment of the night was a brief criticism of Jeb Bush that seemed to slip past most debate watchers in the third hour. To me, this shows that Rubio understands the future of the campaign: Jeb is his greatest rival (from a constitutional perspective, the two men cannot be on the same ticket for President). Rubio is keenly aware that a well-spoken first-term Senator with state legislature experience will draw immediate criticism that he’s just the GOP’s Barack Obama. Rubio has his eyes set on the Vice Presidency and he was proving on that stage to the other candidates why he would be an effective running mate.
Rand Paul: +1
Senator Paul’s campaign has been limping along for over a month. Despite getting only a few questions (and an immediate, unprovoked, attack from Donald Trump), Paul’s libertarian ideals finally clawed their way to the surface. Whether it was talking about the disproportionate impact of drug laws on minorities or non-interventionism, Paul stayed on message. This refreshing decision to stick to the principles that made him an icon for “conservatarians” seeking a new way may come too late, unfortunately.
Ted Cruz: +0
Senator Cruz’s performance in the debate was perfectly adequate. He proved, once again, that he is an excellent speaker. Though he took criticism over the fact that he would likely attempt to force a vote on a funding provision that would defund Planned Parenthood, he also set the expectation for Republican voters to be on the lookout for him taking a stand in the coming weeks. If anything, Cruz used the opportunity on stage to let voters know that he was going to be at the forefront of another Senate shutdown fight in the coming weeks. Cruz was one of the only candidates to outright praise Donald Trump. This continues Senator Cruz’s apparent strategy to position himself to bring disaffected Trump supporters on board his campaign.
This debate was not the end of Chris Christie, but it did point to his irrelevancy. While the New Jersey Governor has some effective lines and came off as being generally personable, his fallback to 9/11 and “prosecuting Hillary Clinton if I’m debating her” were not strong lines. His best moment of the night was a suggestion that Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina shut up about their business careers and focus on the Americans who are out of work and struggling.
Dr. Ben Carson: +2
Dr. Carson is very likely the smartest man in the GOP debate. As with many intelligent people, Carson’s style of speaking is thoughtful and measured. While this works in casual conversation, it gives the appearance of being caught off-guard when candidates like Carly Fiorina are talking at breakneck speed. That said, Dr. Carson came off as personable and considerate. He didn’t take unnecessary swipes at Donald Trump or any of the other candidates on the stage (certainly he had the opportunity when Trump was going on about vaccines). It was clear that Dr. Carson had gotten one major piece of advice from his staff: make sure you talk about foreign policy. When, in the third hour, the moderators were moving on from the topic, Carson was uncharacteristically forceful in requesting time to lay out a (generic-but-competent) foreign policy agenda.
Mike Huckabee: -4
For all the media attention Mike Huckabee got while leading the Kim Davis circus in the past week, he was completely irrelevant in the CNN debate. The blame for this rests more with CNN and their desire to have a confrontational style more than with the former Arkansas Governor. However, where other candidates were assertive about requesting to speak, Huckabee seemed to be content with taking a listening role.
Carly Fiorina: +6
Probably the story of the night was Carly Fiorina’s performance at the debate. Prepared, poised, and ready to take on almost anyone on stage, Ms. Fiorina was clearly putting herself in front of voters as “the woman you want debating Hillary.” It’s not entirely fair to focus on Ms. Fiorina’s gender. Her performance was excellent regardless of that fact. However, to the Republican who is looking at the scandal-ridden, unprepared, and elitist Clinton, Fiorina’s demeanor and knowledge of facts was a startling counterpoint.
The major problem with Ms. Fiorina’s performance had nothing to do with her style. Rather, she had a content problem that needs to be addressed. Her answers on questions about Russia, Syria, and the Iran Deal belied a fundamental misunderstanding of the conduct of international diplomacy. Ms. Fiorina’s advocating that the United States not talk with Vladimir Putin while simultaneously moving heavy arms and ballistic missiles into states surrounding Russia is dangerous rhetoric. These types of provocations would almost certainly escalate tensions to their highest levels since the Kennedy Administration. Ms. Fiorina needs to reflect that Reagan’s “peace through strength” did not shut out communication with the USSR.
Her geopolitical faux pas notwithstanding (certainly there were other candidates who said a few off-the-wall things, but since Ms. Fiorina is widely being credited with the best debate performance, it’s only right to point out a significant problem), Ms. Fiorina definitely raised her stature in the Republican field. Next week’s polls will be very interesting to see if Ms. Fiorina’s popularity can turn into real support.