The Road to 2016: Post-Debate Scorecard IV
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
-The new tagline for the Fox Business Network (FBN) should be “at least we’re not CNBC.” Neil Cavuto and his team of moderators did a good job on making a debate about the economy interesting an engaging. There were times when the moderators and the candidates got into scuffles, but the overall feel at the end of the debate was that it was conducted, generally, fairly.
-Aside from a terrible performance by John Kasich and another lackluster performance out of Bush, your view of who “won” and “lost” is probably going to come down to who you support for the nomination. Rand Paul had the strongest performance of his campaign so far. While he was the “most improved,” Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were as effective as they’ve been in prior debates. Ben Carson took on brewing controversies around his campaign and Donald Trump stuck to his message.
-The colloquy between Rand Paul and Marco Rubio on the meaning of conservative in the context of 21st century funding initiatives was what a lot of people had been waiting for: an actual debate among the candidates. While Rubio had to bail out of the spirited discussion and pivot to a “rally around the flag” moment on defense, for the time that the two Senators were debating, the “outsiders” were generally forgotten. This could very well be a sign of things to come.
-Note that Ben Carson was almost completely ignored by the other candidates on the stage. If you pull only his tape of last night, he’s basically being interviewed by the moderators.
-The “happy hour” debate was joined by Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee. Christie had the best performance, but it is becoming abundantly clear that this forum is the last step before a graceful exit from the race. Note that Lindsey Graham (whose presidential prospects are polling less than a belief that aliens built the pyramids in his home state) and George Pataki were not invited to attend.
-Fewer candidates on stage translated into a better debate. Dropping Kasich and Fiorina would probably be a good idea for December. (Don’t send me hate mail over Carly, I just don’t see her poll numbers recovering. Ever.)
-If I have to make any predictions about who will be dropping from the race, I’d expect there to be a lot of pressure on Kasich to leave with some dignity if he wants any shot at the “Veepstakes”
-The next GOP debate is in Las Vegas on December 15.
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 has proven a point as the debate cycle has moved along: he doesn’t really need to hit home runs in debates. Trump’s supporters like him because he bucks a perceived insider monopoly on power. Trump has maintained a solid control on, around, a quarter of the GOP electorate. He had a very middling night last night. Certainly FBN is fertile territory for Trump’s business background and success story. There were no major strikeouts by Trump and he generally stayed on point. The awkward comment that Carly should stop interrupting people came off as a bit misogynistic (to be fair to Trump, that probably was not what he was going for, but Kasich was doing far more interrupting than Carly).
Trump didn’t have to win the debate and he didn’t. The one thing that should give Trump some pause is that he generally disappeared in the second half of the debate. This is not the first time that the billionaire has faded as a debate progressed. Honestly, he has done it in each of the debates. Perhaps this is a savvy understanding that most viewers care more about the opening than the second half. However, more likely, the reason behind it is that Trump wants to avoid trying to dive in to substantive policy discussions. Even the biggest Trump fans will admit that Trump’s actual, hard, policy proposals are a bit thin.
Jeb Bush: -2
This debate was not the disaster for Jeb like the last debate where Marco Rubio firmly supplanted his former mentor as the establishment choice for the nomination. That said, this debate was also not a good night for Jeb. It seems like the re-re-reboot of the Bush campaign has already begun to falter. Jeb was trying to, like he did in the first debate, play the frontrunner and target Hillary Clinton. This would work a whole lot better if Jeb weren’t languishing at 5th or 6th in the polls. Jeb desperately needed a win, but he came off as a strange combination of feisty and nervous. Obviously, his handlers told him to rush out the policy points and try to be aggressive. This worked for about the first 15 minutes of the debate. It seemed like Jeb was going to do alright in this fourth performance. However, as the debate wore on, Jeb stopped fighting for speaking time and was generally relegated to an also-ran. There was nothing from last night that forces Bush out of the race, but certainly nothing that will right his seriously listing campaign.
Governor Kasich was an unmitigated disaster. Someone told him he should be aggressive and get the time he’s owed and it came off as petulant and annoying. By the end of the night, it really seemed like Kasich had burned off any good will he had built up in Republican circles. He seriously jeopardized his chance at being Vice President. There’s just no way to put it nicely outside of “John Kasich pulled a Jim Webb” (a reference to the complaining former Democrat candidate). If I were placing bets on the race, I’d think that we’ve seen the last time that Kasich will be appearing on the big stage at a GOP debate. His talk about bailouts and his attempts to try to pick fights with some of the best debaters on the stage was far too ambitious and he came off firmly unlikable.
Marco Rubio: + 2
Senator Rubio has been on a debate winning streak. Last night he was a little bit off of his game. However, Rubio proved that, even at 75%, he was still more than capable of handling the majority of the Republican field. It’s clear from Rubio’s preparation for the debate that he has a go-to line with regard to any other candidate who would attack him. This is particularly smart, but felt just a bit jilted when he made an awkward pivot to national security when Rand Paul came after him on entitlements. That said, Rubio’s performance was more than strong enough to keep his upward-momentum in GOP polling. His moderate approach on finances and his neo-con pander on defense (plans that drew the ire of Rand Paul) were mild enough to appeal to establishment voters and hawkish enough to be palatable to the hard line conservatives.
Rand Paul: +6
Rand Paul finally had his breakout moment. Whether you agree with the libertarian-conservative bent of that breakout is your own opinion, but Rand finally had his moment in the sun. Not only did he get to challenge Marco Rubio’s conservative credentials as well as Donald Trump’s trade acumen, but he was also able to articulate his tax plan better than most of the other candidates and make it clear that he was preserving some popular deductions. The obvious and unavoidable criticism of Senator Paul is that his plan would also include cuts to the Department of Defense, long the sacred cow of the neo-conservative wing of the Party. Paul, finally, has come to the understanding that he was never going to win over that part of the establishment and, as the prodigal son before him, has come back to his senses on libertarianism.
Is it too-little, too-late to see a surge for Paul? Probably. Do I think that he provides a critical check on the policies being pushed by other candidates on the stage? Absolutely. Paul has definitely reinvigorated part of his base after last night’s performance and he should expect at least some support to come back to his campaign.
Ted Cruz: +3
Ted Cruz almost had a “Rick Perry” moment as he was listing off the Federal Departments he would close. Rather than look bumbling, Cruz savvily just repeated the Department of Commerce. It’s obvious that he forgot one, but most people are just going to say “huh, that was a missed opportunity” rather than the calamity that befell Rick Perry. This underscores the reason why Ted Cruz could be a force to be reckoned with as the campaign progresses: he is an excellent politician. The ability to think quickly on his feet and decide to name a department he’d already named than to look forgetful like Rick Perry showed Cruz’s skill. Cruz also attempted to play the mediator between the other two Senators on the stage, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.
Since joining the Senate two years after Rubio and Paul, Cruz has done all he can to get on board with policies from both of his colleagues. Whether it was “Standing with Rand” on drones or voting with Rubio to increase defense spending, Cruz has been positioning himself for the last several years to be on board with both men. This effort, like some of Cruz’s other efforts in the Senate, have been met with a lukewarm response. However, Cruz acting as a mediator last night showed that he would love to position himself as an eventual compromise candidate.
To Cruz’s credit, last night was a solid performance and showed that he could effectively talk about financial issues. Cruz’s toughest questioning came from Neil Cavuto who put Cruz on the spot with a yes-or-no question as to whether he would bail out Bank of America if there was another 2008-like crisis. Cruz said “no, but” and gave a bit of a wandering response. He’ll need to be ready to give tighter answers in the future.
Dr. Ben Carson: +2
Ben Carson’s debate performance, like Donald Trump’s, will most likely not sway supporters or opponents to or from the good doctor’s camp. On the one hand, Carson effectively dispelled the mounting concern that he has not been properly vetted for high office. Carson’s response was humble, honest, self-deprecating, and tinged with humor. This was a rehearsed response, but it was a good one. On the other hand, Carson’s responses on foreign policy remain frighteningly naive (or uninformed). Carson tends to ramble on questions where he doesn’t have a firm grasp on the material. To his credit, his answers were forgettable and vague, but you have to believe that if he progresses much farther on the path to the White House, this is going to be a major liability for him.
Also, the tithing plan with no deductions is economically and mathematically unworkable.
Carly Fiorina: +1
Carly Fiorina does well in the debate format. She has an effective message and she knows what people want to hear. I reiterate my concern that her foreign policy stance toward Russia would immediately push us towards war. Basically, breaking off lines of communication then moving troops and missiles to the border is completely insane. It’s not just saber-rattling like the United States’ position has been with respect to Iran for the last fifteen years, but Fiorina would push us to 1960s level brinksmanship with Russia. This either belies a completely broken understanding of foreign affairs or a direct attempt to pander to the neo-conservative wing of the Republican Party that desires “Reagan” at all costs. (The reason I use quotes around Reagan is that Reagan talked with the Soviets and pulled US troops out of the Middle East. Yes, the US left Reykjavik, but the deal was eventually signed without a breakdown in communication. “Reagan” is a re-imagined ultra-bellicose version of the former President that history just does not support.)
Ms. Fiorina has had per polling bump in the sun. While she still may make some gains, it does not appear that a solid debate performance will bring her any closer to the nomination.