The Road to 2016: Post-Debate Scorecard V
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
– This was probably the best of the debates so far. CNN clearly learned that 2 hours was far better than 3 hours for a Presidential Primary Debate. Let’s also realize that the subject matter: “being Commander-in-Chief,” is more interesting and understandable to voters than trying to condense 100-page economics white papers into 1-minute answers. This was the “Bombs and Bravado” debate and it certainly lived up to that billing.
– With a few exceptions (John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, and two testy exchanges with Ted Cruz), Wolf Blitzer was a pretty middle-of-the-road moderator who tried his best to keep the candidates on their time. His follow-ups weren’t “gotcha” questions, but did have the character of drawing candidates who tried to soak up time back to the actual question posed. Dana Bash and Hugh Hewitt were generally fine. Since last debate cycle, I am skeptical of Bash, but this debate showed she can play impartially, so I’ll give her credit for that.
– With respect to the candidates, as we’ll discuss more below, no one had an utterly disastrous night. That being said, some candidates’ armor showed signs of weakness (Rubio, Cruz) while others (Trump, Christie) were able to appear “normal” to voters.
– This was, by far, Donald Trump’s best debate. You might hate the guy (and with some of the things he’s said, you might very well have cause to do so), but in the debate he was generally affable (with the one aside of a bristling confrontation with Jeb Bush) and possibly assuaged some fears about a 3rd Party run. His only “big miss” was on the nation’s three-pronged approach to nuclear delivery systems, but I don’t think many of the voters at home caught his knowledge gap.
– With the exception of Jeb Bush (and a quip from Rand Paul), the candidates generally didn’t “call out” Donald Trump for his incendiary rhetoric. The line “I don’t agree with everything Donald says… but Obama…” was the go-to response for almost any candidate asked about Trump’s comments.
– CNN’s first debate (as Trump correctly pointed out last night) had a lot of questions about “Candidate X, Trump said [something], why is Trump wrong?” The “why is Trump wrong” questioning last night mostly was directed to Jeb Bush (Trump actually came to his defense in a roundabout way). However, CNN’s decision to make the big debate between Rubio and Cruz was a smart way to nuance the “why is X wrong” question. Honestly, for as much as that style failed in the first CNN debate, it was successful last night in getting under both Cruz and Rubio’s debate skill and drilling down on important issues.
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).
It was a good night for Donald Trump. Trump’s supporters will say it was a home run and Trump’s detractors will say he was terrible. Cutting through the rhetoric: it was a solid and humanizing performance that the billionaire definitely needed. Yes, “Make America Great Again” and “Big, Beautiful Wall” and other Trump Tropes were trotted out per usual, but Trump’s best moments came when he appeared to decide to look like a unifying figure. His declaration not to run as a 3rd Party candidate was a gimmick, but it was the perfect venue and time to make the declaration (will he change his mind some time later? Who knows, but his answer did not contain the “if I’m treated fairly” caveat from past answers to that question). Trump also made all the necessary overtures to other candidates on stage. Without actually apologizing, Trump extended olive branches to both Dr. Carson and Ted Cruz. While Trump may be honest that he has come to respect the other candidates on stage, it also shows a degree of political savvy making public peace with the two candidates whose supporters you would like to see join your team (the same candidates looking to poach Trump’s supporters as well).
Part of Trump’s solid performance also came in the other candidates’ refusal to engage with Trump over controversial statements. Indeed, if there is an “Overton Window” in the GOP, Trump has shifted the debate on immigration to a point where Rubio’s “gang of 8” bipartisan solutions look like radical accommodations to the Democrats. (Cruz’s line “I’ll build a wall and make Donald Trump pay for it” was cute, but he endorsed an idea that, four months ago, seemed like a radical departure from the status quo).
The two negatives from Trump’s performance last night were his “punching down” at Jeb Bush. Yeah, Jeb was out of line a few times and was recycling focus-tested jabs, but, when Jeb’s national support is drying up, there was just no reason to engage with him. The other negative was Trump’s facial expressions. It might be petty to make comments about, but Trump’s “mock shock” face needs to go before he’s the nominee.
Jeb Bush: -5
This wasn’t a good debate for Jeb. He delivered tested lines aimed at attacking Trump and tried to appear Presidential and dismissive of the billionaire’s control over the narrative. This was just jarring coming from the candidate languishing in the also-ran poll territory (which Jeb dismissed casually when Trump brought it up). This strange juxtaposition of pretending to be a frontrunner while not running close to the front aside, Jeb started out the debate fairly well. However, as the questions for Bush turned from “why is Trump wrong” to “what’s your plan,” Jeb’s answers became wholly forgettable. (Challenge: with the exception of Jeb’s awkward attempt at a joke in favor of hacking journalists’ private information, can you name me a position or policy Jeb took last night?)
The foregoing would have gotten Bush a -2 on the scorecard (generally forgettable but not bad) if it weren’t for the fact that Jeb made the decision not to go after any of the other “establishment” candidates on he stage. Now, I know what you’re saying “Jeb’s above that, he wants to unify etc.,” my response: almost all the other establishment candidates are beating him in New Hampshire. He needs their voters to come to his side or the Jeb campaign folds up and goes home the day after finishing behind John Kasich in New Hampshire.
My takeaways from Governor Kasich’s performance last night: 1) he wants to invade everywhere and 2) his disregarding of the time limits on his questions made me think that Kasich believed every question posed to him was his last.
To his credit, this debate wasn’t the whiny, angry debate performance like the one from the last time the candidates were on stage together. Honestly, there wasn’t much farther down Kasich could go than the last performance. Kasich decided to try branding himself as a pro-NSA, pro-intervention neo-conservative. My thought on that: well, he’s trying really hard to be Rubio’s Vice Presidential pick (but, in reality, he needs to drop out and endorse Rubio before New Hampshire if he wants that spot).
Also… Kasich said he’d slap down Vladimir Putin. Does he not realize “willfully killing a Russian soldier” is not an insult, it’s an act of war.
Marco Rubio: + 1
It’s a strange situation where Senator Rubio’s weakest debate performance of the cycle still has him among the best on last night’s stage. The back-and-forth between Rubio and Cruz (and Paul) showed that the junior Senator from Florida is not immune from criticism. While Rubio’s supporters will say that Rubio won each of the exchanges with Cruz, it was, at best, a draw on the night. The Rubio-Cruz debate roughly defines the GOP’s fault lines on the surveillance/intervention dialogue. Your thought about who won the Cruz-Rubio back-and-forths probably comes down to your opinion on those issues.
Despite the protestations of Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina, I’d say most Americans’ eyes did not glaze over as Cruz and Rubio sparred on immigration and terrorism. These are issues that, at least in the polls, are important to GOP primary voters. Rubio did not shy away from his message.
Rand Paul: +2
Rand Paul continued to sound, after months of waiting, like the libertarian-conservative candidate we all wanted him to be. Honest folks, even his supporters, realize that this is too-little, too-late for the Kentucky Senator. However, Paul is providing another voice (or a “conscience” depending on your thoughts about interventionism, domestic spying, following the Constitution, and blowback) for the Party to hear.
I did wonder about the strategy of attacking Rubio on immigration when “following the Constitution” on domestic spying and surveillance play better with the GOP base. Regardless, Paul did what he wanted to do. Not sure why he needed a few digs at Chris Christie, but, that’s all water under the bridge… get it?
Ted Cruz: +3
Ted Cruz did well last night. Like Marco Rubio, this was not his strongest debate performance, but it was the first where the Texas Senator had the most air time of any of the other candidates on stage. Sure, he had a few misses on questions (and for some reason just really wanted to talk over Wolf Blitzer for a heated 20 second exchange), but the focus of the night seemed to be Cruz distinguishing himself from Rubio. After last night, Cruz will likely run into problems with his previous stances on immigration and pathways to citizenship. However, Cruz made the calculation that these attacks (if they come from Rubio) are easily countered by Rubio’s record.
Two (potential red herrings but otherwise) interesting points in Cruz’s performance last night: 1) deciding not to take the opportunity to distance himself from Donald Trump and 2) not making the decision to tell Trump that he’d prefer not to be Trump’s running mate quite yet. Make of that what you will, politicos.
Dr. Ben Carson: -3
Ben Carson is the most likable person on stage. It’s clear he’s trying very hard to brush up on his foreign policy and his answers showed, yes, he can relate his intelligence briefings to the audience. Carson’s style, despite media criticism, plays well with average folks. People want to like Carson. People would have Carson as their family physician. However, people just are not looking to put Carson in the White House.
My biggest problem with Carson’s performance last night was his line that no one would have a problem with boots on the ground in Syria (or a statement to that effect). This seems strangely out-of-touch with the sacrifices made by military families when their son/daughter/husband/wife are deployed overseas. Obviously they know that this is a risk of serving the nation, but the cavalier nature with which Carson seemed to suggest that American men and women should be deployed to a foreign theater was a departure from normal GOP rhetoric (something along the lines of: “If I am President, I will not ask our brave men and women in uniform to sacrifice in vain. We have the greatest military in the world and we will use it, but I understand the cost that our military families face when their loved ones are defending American freedoms abroad.”)
Carly Fiorina: +0
Carly Fiorina failed to impress last night. This was the first time when her usual poise and strong demeanor was lost amid the Rubio-Cruz sparring. Frankly, her statements in favor of government-coerced business-NSA cooperation were just as scary as her decision not to talk with Vladimir Putin.
Governor Christie was back on stage at the main GOP debate because of his solid polling in New Hampshire. He’s a solid debater and frequently tried to talk to the “voter at home” to break through the cacophony of the on-stage discussion. However, two major points of concern emerged in Christie’s stances. First, as Rand Paul rightly pointed out, Christie’s declaration that he’d have no problem ordering the United States military to shoot down a Russian plane would probably spark a dramatic escalation in tensions between DC and Moscow. We’ve already seen the diplomatic catastrophe of an accidental shooting-down of a Russian fighter by Turkish forces. Now, imagine that this was an intentional shoot-down order given by the President of the United States.
Christie also made the calculation that the “voters at home” didn’t like the back and forth between the US Senators on stage. Therefore, Christie proposed something along the lines of cutting through the Senatorial debates to keep America safe. Sure, I get that most of the “you can’t do that, it’s against the Constitution” is directed at Donald Trump, but Christie’s proposals also rang decidedly authoritarian at times as well.
In all, I think Christie helped himself in New Hampshire and is doing his best to make a credible run as the establishment alternative in the Granite State.