Fox Business News had another great debate last night, the first of 2016. The undercard debate featured businesswoman Carly Fiorina, former Sen. Rick Santorum, and former Gov. Mike Huckabee. Sen. Rand Paul was not there. He and Fiorina should probably replace Gov. John Kasich, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and Gov. Chris Christie for the next main stage debate as they add far more than the sum of their parts to the discussions, and their absence was not to the GOP’s benefit. But the main stage debate was also interesting. Here are some of the takeaways from the debate that also featured Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush.
Cruz Comes On Strong
One of the things that made the debate enjoyable is that, unlike some previous debates, the first 14 questions were not about Donald Trump. Cruz, who seemed to take the most fire from his opponents, was given two tough questions early on. One was about The New York Times‘ hit on him for failing to disclose a loan he took out for his Senate race. He handled it deftly. First he made some effective jabs against the Times‘ overt dislike of him, including “You know the nice thing about the mainstream media, they don’t hide their views.” He joked about some of the hysterical language they’ve used to describe him. And then he explained his loan fully:
We took a loan against our assets to invest it in that campaign to defend ourselves against those attacks. And the entire New York Times attack — is that I disclosed that loan on one filing with the United States Senate, that was a public filing. But it was not on a second filing with FDIC and yes, I made a paperwork error disclosing it on one piece of paper instead of the other. But if that’s the best The New York Times has got, they better go back to the well.
Then came an even tougher question, on whether he’s even eligible to run for president, on account that his American mother gave birth to him in Canada. Many people have acted outraged that the question could even be asked. But Cruz had a good balance between mocking Trump for his turn to birtherism and substantively answering the concerns. Here are some excerpts from his answer, which was punctuated with audience laughter and applause:
CRUZ: Well, Neil, I’m glad we’re focusing on the important topics of the evening.
You know, back in September, my friend Donald said that he had had his lawyers look at this from every which way, and there was no issue there. There was nothing to this birther issue.
Now, since September, the Constitution hasn’t changed.
But the poll numbers have.
Oh no, he di-int! It was effective. He explained his take on longstanding U.S. law that children of U.S. citizens born abroad are natural-born citizens, including George Romney and John McCain, two other men who ran for president.
He also noted that under some birther theories, which require both parents be born on U.S. soil, Donald Trump would be disqualified. Rather, he suggested:
You’re an American, as is everybody else on this stage, and I would suggest we focus on who’s best prepared to be commander- in-chief, because that’s the most important question facing the country.
Trump admitted he’d only raised the issue because of poll numbers. But when he really tried to insist that it was a legitimate question, Cruz said:
Well, listen, I’ve spent my entire life defending the Constitution before the U.S. Supreme Court. And I’ll tell you, I’m not going to be taking legal advice from Donald Trump.
It was effective, and it showed that Cruz is capable of really going after Trump, something he’d been somewhat reticent to do before. As one pundit put it, he’d never seen Trump receive such a beat down.
Trump Fights Back
As effective as Cruz’s thumping of Trump was at the beginning, Trump fought back mid-debate. When asked if he preferred “the face of fear and terror,” he said, “It’s not fear and terror, it’s reality.” When asked about South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s response to the State of the Union, in which she decried his anger, he responded that he and Haley were friends, but added:
But she did say there was anger. And I could say, oh, I’m not angry. I’m very angry because our country is being run horribly, and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger.
That is what it looks like to capture the electoral mood of the moment.
When Cruz was asked yet another tough question, this time about why he was dissing “New York values,” Trump took the opportunity to give a passionate defense of New York City. He mentioned that William F. Buckley came from New York and then gave a more general defense:
When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York. You had two one hundred…
… you had two 110-story buildings come crashing down. I saw them come down. Thousands of people killed, and the cleanup started the next day, and it was the most horrific cleanup, probably in the history of doing this, and in construction. I was down there, and I’ve never seen anything like it.
And the people in New York fought and fought and fought, and we saw more death, and even the smell of death — nobody understood it. And it was with us for months, the smell, the air.
New York-based media gushed about his response, as did other people from the Northeast. The rest of the country might have found it almost quaint that New Yorkers were sensitive, given how much disdain they seem to show the rest of the country. But nobody can be upset with a man for defending his hometown.
It was a tremendously effective moment for Trump and he continued to perform well as he sparred with others. Like the previous debate, he took a lower-energy approach, and it worked. He seemed serious and prepared.
Rawr, Rawr Rubio
Marco Rubio has received enthusiastic critical reviews from various conservative movers and shakers, but he hasn’t quite been able to translate that into voter support. Last night, he was raring to go. He attacked Chris Christie for being a liberal and, very late in the debate, launched an epic tirade against Ted Cruz as, apparently, history’s greatest flip-flopper, particularly on immigration issues.
Because it was so late in the debate, Cruz essentially didn’t get a chance to respond. But the hit may have worked. The only problem is that it won’t move Cruz voters to Rubio but might move Cruz voters to Trump (under the “I guess I have to go with Trump if I care about this issue” approach). It weakened Cruz and reinforced Rubio’s perception as an establishment candidate willing to shiv the one non-establishment conservative in the race.
Whether it finally gets Rubio some votes, we’ll have to see. But Pyrrhic victories are still victories, right? Wait. Either way, if it helps Trump move up in the polls, he should reward Rubio with the VP slot.
Bush: Solid Guy in Worst Candidate’s Body
Life is cruel. Jeb Bush has absolutely no business running for President — in the sense that his name is Bush, he is the son and brother of two presidents, and people are kind of sick of such ruling families (cough, Clintons, cough). It’s kind of unfair because Jeb Bush was not a bad governor and is certainly more conservative than his brother and father.
At times it seemed like he was the only adult on the stage, whether he was talking about the importance of having a plan to defeat ISIS in the real world (instead of unrealistic TV talk about banning Muslims), the silliness of a candidate under serious FBI investigation being considered for high office, or the short-sightedness of economic protectionism. This is a year for raw emotion over logic, though, even more than most years. He had a great debate, but only by Jeb Bush standards. He still struggles with landing punches or otherwise competing in the current drama.
Another Lost Opportunity for Christie
Chris Christie might be the opposite of Bush. He’s a really bad politician but a great candidate. He’s funny, tells stories, and connects with audiences. Early in the debate, he joked that the State of the Union address was like “Storytime with Barack Obama” where it sounded like everything in the world is going amazing. Later Rubio said of him:
RUBIO: Unfortunately, Governor Christie has endorsed many of the ideas that Barack Obama supports, whether it is Common Core or gun control or the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor or the donation he made to Planned Parenthood. Our next president, and our Republican nominee can not be someone who supports those positions.
Christie essentially denied all this, which led to the easy task of finding proof that Rubio’s attacks had more than merit (e.g., on Sotomayor). All politicians lie, more or less, but Christie was too brazen.
Go Home Kasich and Carson
There’s not much to say. Kasich spoke at length but didn’t distinguish himself any more than he has previously. Carson continues his slow exit from the race. He remains likable but not up to the task of these debates.
Let’s Be Thankful for Good Debates
It’s easy to complain about bad moderating, but ever since the CNBC debacle, the debates have been improved. Tonight the moderators allowed lengthy fights between candidates instead of constantly interrupting them. Follow-up questions demanding that candidates tap dance to the moderators’ demands were kept to a minimum. And the questions elicited a hearty debate between candidates, helping voters make up their minds instead of just reminding Republican voters how much they dislike hostile media.
The distractingly attractive hosts Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo were pointed but not defensive. And the crowd in South Carolina lived up to their reputation as rowdy, boisterous, and possibly inebriated partisans, God bless ’em. The crowd booed questions they found unfair, kept Trump in line by booing him when he got out of line, and a protest of Rand Paul’s absence even broke out at one point.