The Road to 2016: Post-Debate Scorecard III
Disclaimer: Matt McDaniel, the author of this piece is a candidate for the First District City Council Seat in Baltimore City. While this rankings list does not touch or concern Mr. McDaniel’s race, in the interest of disclosure, Mr. McDaniel has made no endorsements of any candidates and has received no money or funding from any of the candidates on this list. His campaign website can be found here.
A FEW GENERAL OBSERVATIONS
It’s particularly difficult to write a review of last night’s CNBC debate without noting that it was, by far, one of the worst moderated debates that I’ve seen. Part of the blame falls on RNC Chairman Reince Priebus for generally letting CNBC decide not to put a conservative voice on the panel of moderators, but any failure of the Chairman was dwarfed by the absolutely unprofessional conduct of the CNBC moderators. The reaction from other journalists (even those with a Democrat friendly leaning) has been to generally pan the moderators.
While the obvious criticism is that CNBC’s hosts were just hyper-partisan (or, as Ted Cruz put it, “none of [them] are voting in a Republican primary”), it belies a problem we noted at the Republican CNN debate, namely, that the “Republican Debates” is this season’s biggest rated show for the cable news networks. In true media “if it bleeds, it ledes” fashion, controversy sells. Last night, in particular, Republican candidates, largely (though with some very notable exceptions), tried to stick to the issues and not ad hominems. The moderators, liberal agenda or ratings agenda driving them, decided that they needed to spike the animosity. In the end, the GOP candidates all got a bump in my book for having to put up with a clearly anti-GOP panel of moderators.
Outside of the poor performance of CNBC, another observation is that there are far too many candidates on stage. This has been a problem for each of the GOP debates. However, in light of the generally well-reviewed (at least from a style perspective) Democrat debate, the Party really needs to start whittling down the “prime time” candidates. While this will likely cause some consternation among low-pollers, the reality is that we are less than 100 days out of the Iowa caucus. If candidates have not yet been able to define themselves sufficiently to make a play for the top, they should probably consider leaving the field.
Whereas about seven weeks separated the previous two debates, the next debate will be November 10 and be hosted by FoxBusiness and the Wall Street Journal. Like the original idea behind the CNBC debate, this next debate will focus on the economy.
A note on how this scorecard works: the following list is in no particular order. The +/- indicates the candidate’s performance relative to him or herself on a scale of -10 (utter disaster) to +10 (securing the nomination).
Donald Trump did not win the night, but he significantly improved over his previous two lackluster debate appearances. This time, it looked like he had actually gone over what strategies work and which ones do not. Specifically, with the exception of John Kasich, Trump’s rhetoric and talking points were neutral or complimentary towards the other Republicans running. This is a sharp departure from the Trump of the previous debate who led off with jabs at Rand Paul’s looks and political acumen. The night was not a home run for Trump and he was not able to bully his way in to take up the majority of the speaking time as he had done in previous debate settings. However, the points that Trump made were relatively cogent expressions of his vision. All-in-all, if you like Trump, you were pleased. If you don’t like Trump, you didn’t get any new ammunition for later in the primary. That result is among the better that Trump could have hoped for.
Jeb Bush: -7
This debate was a disaster for Jeb Bush. There are no two ways around it. Bush needed a big win, desperately. He didn’t even come close. Mercifully, his campaign will cloak itself in the story that CNBC’s moderators were partisan hacks and attempt to lay low and lick their wounds before the Fox-WSJ debate in less than two weeks. The clear lack of unpreparedness evident in Bush’s attempt to go after Marco Rubio belies a deeper campaign flaw in the Bush camp: they have no idea what the other candidates are doing. We observed this with Jeb’s slow response to dealing with Trump. We wrote that off because very few people predicted that the Trump message would catch on with voters. However, with Bush now slicing salaries and laying off staffers, it’s apparent that any new advice he has gotten didn’t come with a playbook. To think that he would just be able to drop a line like “Marco, we want you to do your job” without imagining that Rubio was completely prepared for a response is baffling. Bush had no moments (aside from the awkward warm kiss aside and his fantasy football prowess) that showed his ideas were relevant or resonant with voters. He spoke for the least amount of time of any candidate and said just about as little of substance. This debate definitely lost Bush a significant portion of his donor base.
Governor Kasich got a lot of time to talk at this debate. The problem for Kasich was that he was on the receiving end of Donald Trump’s only friendly-fire moment of the night and it was devastating. Trump’s assertions that Kasich was only turning a surplus in Ohio because of fracking and that Kasich, as a Lehman Brothers executive, was part of the problem completely caught Kasich off-guard. While the rest of the night allowed Kasich to talk about his moderate agenda and ability to work back-room deals in Washington, the Trump criticism hit at the core of Kasich’s message. Specifically, Kasich is running on being a reformer and someone who can grow economies. If, as Trump suggested, Ohio is growing despite Kasich, that undermines his credibility. Moreover, the Lehman Brothers line was so poignant given Trump’s decision to strike a populist “us v. them” tone against Wall Street because it put Kasich solidly with “them.”
Marco Rubio: + 7
It was Marco Rubio’s night. While the previous two debates have been a good showcase of the Florida Senator’s political skills, Rubio was ready to have a complete standout moment and he did. The candidate many are beginning to realize will be the establishment-conservative candidate going forward, Rubio took charge and did not look back. His crippling dissection of Jeb Bush and his deft handling of personal attacks from the CNBC moderators effectively showed that Rubio would have a good chance of being able to cope with the scrutiny of a fight against Hillary Clinton. Rubio will come away from the debate with a lot of new donors looking to get on board with the most electable candidate in the field.
Rand Paul: 0
Rand Paul had his message and stuck to it. He is trying to do his part in Washington to fight against spending increases and to reform entitlement programs. Paul led and closed with an intention to filibuster the most recent spending increase from the House of Representatives. Paul had a great performance for his Senate re-election bid. I think most listeners, especially given the economic-centered debate topics, are on board with the strategies and ideas from Paul. The response from the average voter should be “great, keep up the fight in the Senate.” This probably is not the response that Paul wants to hear, but it’s the one that his rhetoric produces. To Paul’s credit, however, he certainly presented a thoughtful and cogent economic plan and put himself squarely in the conservative mainstream. This will ultimately make him a more prominent figure and boost his credibility with conservatives as well as the establishment. Also, we would be remiss not to note that there was a brief line of questioning about the Federal Reserve. Fans of Ron Paul, the former congressman and Rand Paul’s father, will note that while the Kentucky Senator did not push to end the Fed, he did strike a confrontational tone with the central bank.
Ted Cruz: +5
Ted Cruz had a solid second place finish behind Marco Rubio. Cruz both helped his brand considerably and, most likely, sent the establishment figures in the Party scrambling for an anti-Cruz game plan. As we have noted here before, Cruz has been playing a long game courting evangelicals and playing nice with Donald Trump. On the one hand this could be a gamble to get Trump’s supporters if Trump were to falter. This is also an attempt to make sure that the majority of criticism is deflected by the frontrunners while allowing Cruz the opportunity to present his message without fear of negative attention. Cruz, who has struck an ultra-hard line against the establishment figures in the Party and is disliked by Washington insiders (as well as former President Bush), used the debate to pain himself as a maverick (this time, a conservative one) fighting for disaffected individuals. Get ready to watch him leverage his position in the Senate to push that message. Cruz won big points even among voters supporting other candidates for his brilliant panning of the CNBC moderators. Cruz won some good will last night and it will probably play well in some of the early primaries.
Governor Christie had some good moments and was generally able to present the message that he had come to the debate to present. Christie’s biggest downfall is that he just can’t seem to separate himself out from the pack with a particular idea or program that is uniquely his. With that in mind, Christie was able to switch between entertaining and no-nonsense fairly well. In the end, Christie is probably looking to be Attorney General in the Rubio administration.
Dr. Ben Carson: 0
Ben Carson’s performance was truly neutral. Despite his rise to the top in Iowa and his steady increases in national polls, Carson’s opponents on stage were generally uninterested in engaging or attacking the Doctor on his ideas or proposals. Criticisms from the CNBC moderators of Carson’s tithe-plan were probably right, financially, but those criticisms were buried beneath the overall poor moderating job done by CNBC. Carson didn’t falter (despite his thought that gay marriage isn’t marriage, he at least acknowledged, I think, the rights of gays and lesbians to marry under the Constitution… so I guess that’s an improvement) and didn’t hit and major home runs. He will likely stay in contention for the top spot.
Mike Huckabee: 0
Mike Huckabee, like Dr. Carson, generally didn’t do anything to help or hinder his campaign. Unlike Dr. Carson, former Governor Huckabee has basically no showing in national polls and his evangelical base has nearly completely dried up. While Huckabee was able to play peacemaker a few times in the debate and at least tried to get his fair share of the time allotted, his performance was unsurprisingly forgettable.
Carly Fiorina: +2
Carly Fiorina won the “kiddie table” debate at the FoxNews debate and was the most dynamic figure at the CNN debate. While Fiorina continued to make her points in a clear and crisp way, the CNBC debate was dominated by Rubio and Cruz. To Fiorina’s credit, she was able to get out of a debate moderated by a business network without taking any (more) heat over her middling tenure at HP. In all, Fiorina enhanced her brand only in so far as her contention that she would be an effective opponent against Hillary Clinton.