CNN’s debate at The Reagan Library last night was remarkable for a number of reasons. On the main debate stage, there were no real questions asked about the biggest story of the moment: the flood of migrants pouring into Europe. Nor were there any real questions asked about the biggest policy challenge confronting the next Republican president: what do to about repealing and replacing Obamacare. Nor was there an opportunity given for Hugh Hewitt, famous for grilling candidates extensively about their basic knowledge of foreign policy, to follow up on his interview with Donald Trump and find out which of the candidates had done their homework.
These decisions don’t make a lot of sense to me. Reducing the debate conversation to a Junior High series of queries about what candidates have said about each other – “Yo, Carly, Trump says you’re busted, whaaaat?” – makes no sense to me. And given Hewitt’s prowess as an interrogator, it’s surprising he was not the source of more and tougher questions for the candidates. But the debate was nonetheless revelatory and should shake up the race significantly, in part for moments that developed organically in somewhat surprising ways. In rough order of performance, a few takeaways:
1. There is only one headline, and that is the political arrival of Carly Fiorina. She gave the best answer on Planned Parenthood. She gave the best answer on Donald Trump’s insults. She gave the best answer on the ten dollar bill. She gave solid answers on her business record and drug policy. In what was essentially her prime time introduction to a Republican electorate that was only just becoming aware of her existence after the first round of debates, she proved to be the quickest and most capable debater on the stage.
Note: You will see many reporters today saying that Fiorina’s description of what happened in the Planned Parenthood videos is made up or exaggerated. I don’t understand that at all – did they miss this one? Oh, right, they missed all of them.
2. Marco Rubio continues to impress and had the second best performance. The crowd of California donors and loyal Republicans was obviously a friendly one for him and his rhetorical approach, and when he had the opportunity to answer, he played well to the crowd and seized several opportunities. His initial zinger about the water drought fell flat, but he rebounded quickly. The only caution is that he had a good debate performance last time, too, and it didn’t result in any real benefit for his poll numbers.
3. Jeb Bush had the best non-Carly moment of the debate, defending his brother in the context of the argument about Iraq. He tangled with Trump largely on non-policy matters, and came out the better in most of the exchanges. As it turned out, he was the candidate who seized the opportunity to invoke The Reagan Rule on Title X as a line in the sand for where Republicans stand on Planned Parenthood. The moderators didn’t take this and run with it, but I expect it will be a point of delineation between the candidates in the future on the subject.
4. Chris Christie’s 9/11 rhetoric is tiresome for me in part because I’ve heard it so many times, and his drug war pro-life frame, which he has also used repeatedly, doesn’t work on me either. But I would grudgingly acknowledge that his performance last night was marked by several good moments – turning the camera toward the crowd at the beginning, a strong close at the end, several solid attacks. To the degree there is a market for law and order Republicanism in this current climate, Christie speaks for it and does so very well.
5. The biggest question for Fiorina is whether her inevitable rise following this performance comes at the expense of the other outsiders in the race. Ben Carson did just fine, with little to damage his standing, but he also missed some opportunities. His answer regarding immigration was vague and unclear. He passed on a chance to more directly reject Trump’s comments about vaccines, which could have been a moment that showed him to be the more serious outsider. Carson’s win in the first debate snuck up on the media, including myself, but this seems to have been a genuinely average performance.
6. Similarly to Carson, the frontrunner, Donald Trump, seemed to take a step back from his prior brash style to more of a low energy approach. For one stage of the debate, he did not speak for more than half an hour. His statements seemed more defensive on more than one count. His insults didn’t connect as well when offered in front of a small group of people. He spent time punching down in odd ways at George Pataki and Rand Paul, he seemed less confident in a space where he wasn’t getting into it with the moderators, and he genuinely lost two exchanges with Carly and Bush. If previous patterns hold, this should not hurt him in the polls in the slightest.
7. Ted Cruz did well when he had an opportunity to speak, though that was again less than you would expect given his skill as a debater. Cruz’s problem in such a large field is that he starts to ramp up to a story just as the moderator is about to cut him off. He remains more quiet than we expected, perhaps as a purposeful strategic decision. The exchange with Bush about John Roberts was not particularly good for either candidate. But he was smart to find and directly address the camera.
8. Bobby Jindal was the clear winner of the undercard debate. I saw a number of journalists suggesting it was Lindsey Graham, but I don’t buy it at all – Jindal essentially was able to position himself as the only real outsider on the stage, and that stands to his benefit. His tangling with Graham on Planned Parenthood and his disgust with Washington Republicans stood out, and if there is anyone who could elevate from that debate to the main stage next time, it’s him.
9. Scott Walker is generally being tagged as the loser of this debate in early media interpretations because he did not talk enough – this is in part because he got relatively few questions, and had to jump in to make himself heard. Walker’s “apprentice in the White House” line was actually quite good. But his closing statement was uneven, and on a stage with so many colorful characters, he fades into the background. Walker is struggling to recover from the worst month of any of the candidates, and it may prove to be impossible.
10. Rand Paul did better this time around – he was far more likeable than in the first debate, and the conversation he had about drug policy will likely resonate with younger voters. He does better when he is more calm and pleasant-sounding as opposed to the prickly, confrontational tone he took in the first debate. He stayed in his lane and likely won’t see much movement one way or the other.
11. Mike Huckabee had a performance similar to Paul’s – a few likeable moments, a few scored points. His delivery remains the most impressive and charming, which is infuriating for those of us who dislike his brand of politics. But like Paul, he also just stayed in his lane – there was nothing here that would expand his appeal or take away from others.
12. Lindsey Graham alternates between dark warnings about radical Islam, black comedy about the state of affairs in Washington, and lengthy bouts of Senate-splaining. For a certain crowd, this approach works, and many people were tagging him as the winner of the undercard. I doubt he sees any bump however, as there are other more uplifting candidates who look like the future and offer just as much warmongering.
13. Multiple pundits were ranking John Kasich’s performance significantly higher than this, but I don’t see it. The overwhelming takeaway from his comments in debate were that he was absolutely committed to not tearing up the Iran deal. What is the constituency for that in the GOP base? His attitude of bipartisanship digs into some of Bush’s old school appeal, but this was not a good performance – he lacked the benefit of a crowd that would cheer whenever he mentioned the word “Ohio”.
14. Rick Santorum’s economic throwback of an agenda was delivered with Santorum’s normal combination of prickly irritation at being underappreciated. He is frustrated that this is not connecting to the degree it did last time he ran, but Santorum is facing a field of candidates that is much more talented and inspiring.
15. George Pataki was also there.
The overall takeaway: Expect a significant bump for Carly Fiorina, a modest bump for Marco Rubio, and of all the candidates likely to make the main stage next time, Bobby Jindal has the best chance. Still struggling: Scott Walker.