Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie took the debate last night, and their appearances provided some coalescing points for the Republican Party as it moves towards 2016.
It’s clear the party is aligned on border security as priority one for any immigration reform, and moving towards a flatter, fairer tax system. As for the candidates themselves, Fiorina continued the performance from her first debate and deftly managed to weave in some direct hits on Donald Trump. She managed not once but twice to elicit an increasingly alarming shade of red from Trump, and really rattled him when highlighting his four bankruptcies.
Where she really stood out to many folks was her utterly stunning defense of the push to defund Planned Parenthood despite CNN’s Dana Bash narrowing this to whether there should be a government shutdown.
Division Over Entitlements
Opening up an interesting flank in the debate on entitlements, Fiorina said outside of the debate that until government proves it can excel at execution it doesn’t have the credibility to move forward on reform.
“There are loads of great ideas on how to make Social Security more financially solvent. I do not think there is a prayer of implementing a single one until you get a leader in the Oval Office who’s prepared to challenge the status quo. And I am not prepared to go to the American people and talk to them about how we’re going to reform Social Security and Medicare until I can demonstrate to them that the government can execute with excellence, perform its responsibilities with excellence, and serve the people who pay for it with excellence.”
This puts her in a stark contrast with Christie, who in the Cleveland debate doubled down on the “real talk” needed about entitlements (as if he missed that this was a losing argument in 2012). Christie did much better in the second debate by departing from his need to tell the voters what they should care about, moving instead to highlighting what might concern voters.
In his opening statement, asking that the cameras pan to the audience, Christie hinted at an obvious shift in focus that set a positive theme for him. Whether it was framing how folks in New York were affected by 9/11, interrupting the too-long back and forth on Fiorina’s and Trumps’ business records, he played much better and channeled his natural bombast in a more productive direction. You may not agree with his stances, but he made them all more appealing by shifting the motive behind them to serving people.
Marco Rubio Blooms
Rubio shined once again in two ways. He framed his take on foreign policy in a way that may mollify Americans less than enthusiastic about overseas adventures. In this exchange with Trump, it’s clear he was making a bet that Americans will support him if he adheres to this particular principle on how and when he would use force.
HEWITT: How much responsibility, Mr. Trump, do the senators hold?
TRUMP: They had a responsibility, absolutely. I think we have three of them here…
HEWITT: Senator Rubio…
TRUMP: I think they had a responsibility, yes.
RUBIO: Let me tell you—I will tell you we have zero responsibility, because let’s remember what the president said. He said the attack he would conduct would be a pinprick. Well, the United States military was not build to conduct pinprick attacks.
If the United States military is going to be engaged by a commander-in-chief, it should only be engaged in an endeavor to win. And we’re not going to authorize use of force if you’re not put in a position where they can win. And quite frankly, people don’t trust this president as commander-in-chief because of that.
Rubio’s answers on immigration seemed to channel the numerous mistakes during his foray into the Gang of Eight immigration bill into a more-acceptable path forward with a large majority of Republicans. This exchange in particular highlighted his shift.
RUBIO: Well, let me say that legal immigration is not an issue I read about in the newspaper. Immigration, illegal immigration, all the good aspects of immigration and all the negative ones as well, I live with. My family’s immigrants. My neighbors are all immigrants. My in-laws are all immigrants.
So I’ve seen every aspect of it, and I can tell you America doesn’t have one immigration problem, it has three.
First, despite the fact that we are the most generous country in the history of the world in allowing people to come here legally, we have people still coming illegally.
Second, we have a legal immigration system that no longer works. It primary is built on the basis of whether you have a relative living here instead of merit.
And third, we have 11 million or 12 million people, many of whom have been here for longer than a decade who are already here illegally.
And we must deal with all three of these problems. We cannot deal with all three of these problems in one massive piece of legislation. I learned that. We tried it that way.
Here’s the way forward: First, we must — we must secure our border, the physical border, with — with a wall, absolutely. But we also need to have an entry/exit tracking system. 40 percent of the people who come here illegally come legally, and then they overstay the visa. We also need a mandatory e-verify system.
After we’ve done that, step two would be to modernize our legal immigration system so you come to America on the basis of what you can contribute economically, not whether or not simply you have a relative living here.
The Dividing Line on Planned Parenthood and Shutdown
Ted Cruz provided one of the debate’s better moments and a smart use of this forum to tell the American people something they may not know. When faced with the narrow frame of government shutdown theater, Cruz informed the audience about the details of the Planned Parenthood scandal. This opened multiple opportunities for candidates to expand on the topic and gave air time to a scandal the media has insisted on not covering.
Bash: Senator Cruz, I would just add that, on this stage not that long ago, Senator Graham said that this tactic that you’re pushing would tank the Republicans’ ability to win in 2016.
Cruz: Well, let me tell you, Dana, number one, I’m proud to stand for life. These Planned Parenthood videos are horrifying. I would encourage every American to watch the videos. See — seeing your Planned Parenthood officials callously, heartlessly bartering and selling the body parts of human beings, and then ask yourself, ‘are these my values?’
These are horrifying. On these videos, Planned Parenthood also essentially confesses to multiple felonies. It is a felony with ten years’ jail term to sell the body parts of unborn children for profit. That’s what these videos show Planned Parenthood doing.
Absolutely we shouldn’t be sending $500 million of taxpayer money to funding an ongoing criminal enterprise, and I’ll tell you, the fact that Republican leadership in both houses has begun this discussion by preemptively surrendering to Barack Obama and saying, ‘we’ll give in because Obama threatens a veto.’
This opened up a dividing line for when voters continue to look for someone to side with them, not the status quo. Here, Rubio may be weak. While he has often voted to support more aggressive stances taken by Senate colleagues like Cruz, there’s always been the sense that it’s a show vote. Candidates are gaining ground this year by challenging the status quo and being clear about their dissatisfaction with a congressional majority that continues to be ineffective.
Carly has outsider status, and Christie has a reputation for loudly challenging fellow Republicans. These could be put to good use with an electorate frustrated with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. Both also come off as more mature and less likely to need to please the audience, whereas Rubio, while an incredibly talented politician, can come off just as that, a politician eager to please. That can degrade his ability to be seen as the executive in the room.
What About Donald Trump?
The person who excels the most at caring the least about what others think had a mediocre night, at best. One suspected the three-hour format would make Trump’s antics wear thin and start to reveal how loose his grasp of the issues is. This did come across, especially in contrast to Rubio, who benefited the most last night from having Trump as his contrast on foreign policy. Trump’s feeble grasp of the issues allowed Rubio to shine numerous times.
Trump vacillated from “the world is treating America badly and that will stop because Trump,” to rhetoric about how he’d get along with Vladimir Putin, which echoed his early statements to Jeb about how he can get along with everyone as an explanation for his long-time associations with prominent Democrats. One was left wondering if he’d be tough on anyone, and concerned that Trump equated the complexities of the world with what it would be like to build a casino with Putin.
Those who look to Trump as a disruptor of the Republican Party who would bring some real change to DC fast should have watched the first debate. Bobby Jindal was definitive about wanting to bring real change to Washington. He didn’t back down when asked if McConnell and Boehner should be removed from leadership roles. He questioned the value of a majority in Congress considering how infrequently the Republican Party has used it to challenge President Obama.
While Jindal must fight for attention, thus the more potent rhetoric, it was a shame that not one moment of air time focused on his efforts in education reform. He did touch on some extensive plans to make college more affordable afterwards in the spin room, but the miss of the night was the Republican Party not demonstrating how different their approach would be on education.
Carson Does Carson
Ben Carson continues to run his own race and focus on “Carson being Carson.” His exchange with Trump on vaccinations allowed him to show off his kind doctor persona while giving Trump enough space to look foolish speculating about the dangers of vaccines.
As time goes on, one wonders how Carson would shift from decent man who’s happy to be here to someone who can defeat likely Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton. From his performance last night, it’s not clear an electorate would feel confident handing him the keys to the White House.
The largest loser of the evening was John Kasich. Taken outside of his home turf in Cleveland, he continues to fall into the role of scold. He did not brag about speaking Mandarin like Jon Huntsman did in the 2012 cycle, but often came off crass when highlighting his own record. Between being largely unpleasant, telling the audience they should accept the deal in Iran, and siding with folks who don’t want a congressional majority to question whether Planned Parenthood should continue to be funded by taxpayers, Kasich isn’t going to get through a Republican primary.
While improving on his performance in this debate, Rand Paul still does not have a large-enough following to have any path to the nomination. Scott Walker did better during this debate, but was hurt by his lack of air time. Walker did well early on, distinguishing himself from Trump with a great line: “We don’t need an apprentice in the White House because we have one already.”
Walker’s natural consensus-building is always silently on display. Walker also reads the audience well and can sense emotional moments like when Jeb defended his brother by noting “he kept us safe.” Walker mounted a strong defense of the Bush policy, and in some ways was more effective at defending W’s record than Jeb had been.
While Walker is known for his strong stance against public unions in Wisconsin, in debates his style isn’t combative, which may not make a stage of eleven the place he will distinguish himself. Walker’s work will be proving to his backers that he still has a path forward in early states.
Jeb still did not get great traction. His strong moment that played well to the audience was defending his brother. He began to outline some of his policy right afterward.
Still, it was a miss in the sense that the audience didn’t get to see why Jeb would challenge the status quo. If voters are happy with the status quo, they’re going to sign up for four more years of the Obama administration via Clinton. As the race continues, one expects that the Bush campaign will push harder on domestic policy solutions tailored to address the income inequality induced by the Obama economy. This is an area where Jeb can and should be strong, but did not communicate well during this debate.