The Road to 2016: Post-Debate Scorecard VII
A FEW GENERAL OBSERVATIONS
– The elephant not in the room was that Donald Trump boycotted the debate over unfair treatment by Megyn Kelly and FoxNews executives. He went on to say that there had been enough debates already. Consequently, he decided to throw a fundraiser for veterans and got Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum to join him after their FoxNews undercard debate. So, basically all the coverage of the GOP Debate was prefaced with coverage of Trump even though Trump wasn’t there. For Trump, that’s great continued media dominance. Will it hurt him in Iowa? Nah. Trump’s supporters have shown (at least in polling) to have coalesced solidly behind their candidate.
– Given the moderation of the FoxNews debate, Trump’s decision to boycott seemed pretty smart in retrospect. Both Cruz and Rubio were hammered over past inconsistencies by Fox anchors and both had their worst debate performances of the cycle. Trump dodged a significant bullet by opting-out.
– FoxNews’ moderators were bad. Not CNBC bad, but probably the second worst moderation panel of the debate season. Not only was Megyn Kelly completely out to prove a point that she couldn’t be bullied (thoroughly interrupting John Kasich and others and talking over them), but Chris Wallace’s dismissive looks to Rand Paul’s supporters was uncalled for. More than the personalities, however, was the decision to target candidates with gotcha questions. Much of the debate had nothing to do about policy, but rather “here’s what people think about you, why are you not this bad?” This was on display perfectly in a question asked to John Kasich about his comment that, if he gets to Heaven, he expects to be asked what he did for the poor. The moderator, in this case Kelly, asked, in response to this comment, whether people like Ted Cruz would wind up in Hell. No less egregious examples of poor moderation could easily be found in dredging up Christie’s Bridgegate scandal just to point out that an aide was indicted and asked only Ben Carson a complicated foreign policy question.
– Other pundits liked the use of old statements and videos to confront Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio over apparent policy inconsistencies. Whether you support either candidate will color whether you think those are inconsistencies. However, the problem with the format is that, especially on complex issues, neither man was given nearly enough time to respond to a question framed: “are you lying now or were you lying then.”
– One last comment on the moderators: it’s not about them, it’s about the candidates. FoxNews thrust its personalities into the spotlight. It’s a pure ratings gimmick and it probably worked. The hypocrisy here, though, is that it is the exact same criticism that the network leveled at Trump. Fox has little standing to call out Trump for diminishing the political process when they are doing very much the same thing. Likewise, Fox’s coverage of Trump’s decision to skip Fox’s debate was entirely focused on changing public opinion against Trump. While this could certainly happen, Fox “reporters” saying, without attribution or by interviewing random people that “this will definitely hurt Trump” makes Fox’s defense of “journalistic standards” eye-roll worthy. If anything, Fox’s coverage actually proved Trump’s point that Fox had no intention of being fair.
– All-in-all the sense of the night was that this was just a bunch of guys arguing about who should be second place. Maybe this is the wrong impression, but without Trump, who, in most polls now is almost doubling any other candidate’s numbers, it just seemed lacking the necessary gravitas for a presidential debate. It wasn’t as bad as the CNBC debate, but this was the second-worst debate of the season.
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). This will be followed by an overall grade (A-F).
It doesn’t matter that Donald Trump wasn’t on stage (and was holding a rival event a few miles away). His presence loomed large over coverage of the debate. To the credit of the debating candidates, aside from a few prepared quips, there was no direct attempt to bring the New York billionaire into the debate. This was probably a smart move. The less people thought about the fact that Trump is likely to do very well in Iowa and New Hampshire, the more each of the man on stage could get voters to imagine him as President.
Trump’s event raised a reported six million dollars for veterans’ organizations. Yes, it was for show, but at least that money is (probably) real. If Trump were to disappear tomorrow, at least that money will do some good despite the awkward manner in which it was raised. The Trump event didn’t have any major flourishes and featured Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum (the two prior winners in Iowa). Obviously, Trump is hoping the two social conservatives (who are polling near 0 in Iowa) can pull a few percentage points away from Cruz. If that happens and the margin of Trump’s win in Iowa is razor thin, his entire strategy is vindicated.
The competing event was tailored so that networks like CNN and MSNBC could cut in for a few minutes for Trump’s speech then return to their normal programming. Having watched several Trump rallies, it was clear he gave a truncated version of his stump speech because he knew the networks weren’t going to be interested in cutting away for a whole hour.
In all, it doesn’t look like Trump either hurt or helped himself with skipping the GOP Debate.
Jeb Bush: +3, Grade: B
This was, probably by far, Jeb Bush’s best debate. not only was he out from under the scornful eye of Donald Trump, but he was even able to land some shots on a clearly-off-his-game Rubio. I’m the first top admit I have, generally, written off Bush’s campaign because of declining poll numbers and just months of poor performance relative to spending. However, the somewhat glib and quippy Bush we saw last night could have a chance to bring some New Hampshire voters around to his side. It’s probably not going to be enough to keep Bush’s donors on his side after losing to Trump, but, if anything, Bush vindicated his long-time partisans who have insisted that there is more to the former Florida Governor than an awkward debating policy wonk who is burning through money.
We’ve noted several times here that John Kasich has the best delegate math to go up against Donald Trump. With the possibility of capturing winner-take-all Ohio, Kasich’s prospects in the “late game” of the GOP primary season are better than both Rubio and Bush (et al.). The problem for Kasich has been that either folks aren’t taking him seriously or that his moderate streak of Republicanism is being drowned out both in the establishment lane of the primaries (or by virtue of the Trump fire blanket over any other press coverage). Kasich did well last night. It wasn’t his best performance (that was probably his first where he pushed for a more tolerant Republican Party), but his answers on combating mental illness and trying to be a compassionate leader likely humanized him to voters.
Marco Rubio: -3, Grade: C-
This was Marco Rubio’s worst debate. That being said, it’s not going to hurt him because it was also Ted Cruz’s worst debate. While the other candidates appeared more at-ease without Donald Trump, Rubio seemed wooden and rote. This became especially clear in an exchange with Jeb Bush over immigration. In a reversal of an earlier debate where Rubio roasted Bush over his comments about the Florida Senator, this time it was Bush with the jabs and Rubio on the apparent defensive.
FoxNews took pleasure in trying to call out Rubio’s apparent contradictions and it seemed like Rubio was consistently off in his responses. Sure, falling back on “we need to be safe” is a fine line in the Republican Party, but giving non-responsive answers will only get him so far. In this case, to those whom much is given, much is expected. Rubio is a better debater than what we saw last night.
Ted Cruz: -5, Grade: C-
Ooof. Where to start on Ted Cruz’s performance last night. Look, did he do anything catastrophic for his campaign? No. He will still run a very close race in Iowa and has a very good chance at winning. However, especially in a debate where the moderators are chaffing under the withdraw of Donald Trump over perceived unfairness, going after them in some of your first answers really was not the smartest move on Cruz’s part. However, this has become part of Cruz’s schtick, so we could let it pass until he made an awkward half-threat-half-joke about walking off stage if he wasn’t treated fairly. While we can give him the benefit of the doubt and say he meant it as a joke, the delivery made it seem like he might be serious. That was definitely not the time to make that type of threat-joke (unless he was actually going to do it).
A lot of Ted Cruz’s veneer began to wear thin as the night rolled along. The first broadside came from Rand Paul who rejoined the stage for the debate. Rand unleashed an assault on Cruz for not really being part of the Liberty Movement and that he was just playing politics to try to get some of Rand Paul’s father’s ex-supporters. The fact that Cruz was absent for a vote on an Audit the Fed bill was Exhibit A for Paul as to why Cruz is not trustworthy. Likewise, Paul, seemingly teaming up with Rubio, assaulted Cruz for his decision just to play politics to get ahead. Coupled with a FoxNews video showing Cruz apparently flip-flopping on issues, Cruz’s responses were weak. He’s a good speaker, but trying to use high rhetoric when people are outright calling you a liar was not the right call.
Dr. Ben Carson: -8, Grade: D+
Ben Carson is the most likable person on stage but there’s really no reason for him to be there anymore. His jokes are good and he is straining to try to seem competent on foreign policy, but, at this point, even more than Jeb Bush, Carson is an afterthought (both of the moderators and among his fellow debaters).
A point of frustration: FoxNews decided to rub Ben Carson’s face in the fact that the neurosurgeon isn’t a foreign policy buff in a question directed at him over the invocation of NATO’s Article V protections if Russia invaded Estonia. Not only did FoxNews deliberately word the question in a way to confuse Carson, but they also asked it of no other candidate. Let’s be clear: invocation of Article V in support of Estonia against Russia could lead to an apocalyptic scenario and World War Three. If Fox cared about the answer, they’d have asked the other candidates as well. Instead, it just looked like they were trying to make Carson look ignorant. His answer was bad. Bravo Fox, you did no one a service by that.
Governor Christie, like Jeb Bush, seemed more personable in this debate setting. Christie generally refrained from any pointed attacks against Rand Paul or the other candidates on stage and then only a small back and forth with Rubio.
Especially given the two flip-flop videos that Fox decided to play were directed at Rubio and Cruz, Christie’s long-running argument that Senators are just wishy-washy politicians was effective. Christie wasn’t talking to Iowans last night, but rather he was focused on New Hampshire. There’s still one more debate before New Hampshire, so Christie could afford not opening up with guns blazing. Rather, this was a good night for him to get his message across and be heard.
Rand Paul: +6, Grade: A-
Rand Paul won the debate. I’m not sure how much that will actually help him in Iowa where he’s polling around 5% (Don’t believe the polls! His campaign and others say.). His answers on criminal justice reform, the failed drug war, incarceration rates of people of color, and the fact that he’s attempting to find real solutions to the national debate over policing practices should remind everyone that the libertarian streak in the Republican Party is sorely under-represented in the Presidential primaries. Paul’s critique of Cruz was probably the best last night and his defense of his father was important.
This was the Rand Paul that his supporters wanted to see and that pundits were predicting would make him a force to be reckoned with in the campaign. This does seem to be a bit too-little and a lot too-late.
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.