The final GOP presidential debate before the Iowa Caucuses took place Thursday night in the Hawkeye State before a feisty crowd ready to watch some wrestling. Donald Trump, known for his free-wheeling and constant insults, declined to participate in the debate over his feeling that Fox News had insulted him when he began threatening to bolt. Here are six of the key takeaways from the debate.
(1) Well, Hello There, Rand Paul
Rand Paul had a fantastic night. He’d skipped the last debate because the sponsor tried to put him in the undercard lineup. Instead he did a tour of media outlets and gained the support necessary to secure his place on the main stage. The time off was more than worth it.
If you’re into constitutional governance, Paul always has the right answers. But for the first time he combined those answers with a worthy, all-around performance.
He didn’t just give his typically good answers, he answered thoroughly, suggesting extensive command of the facts, appropriate experience, and rock-solid principles. This was demonstrated whether he was talking about the role of individuals, communities, and government in curbing abortion, criminal justice reform, privacy from a prying government, foreign policy intervention, or other key topics.
— FOX Business (@FoxBusiness) January 29, 2016
— SalenaZito (@SalenaZitoTrib) January 29, 2016
About a year ago, Paul knocked an abortion question out of the park, even though he focused his campaign on constitutional issues. But last night he did it again, answering clearly, concisely, and with conviction about the need to protect human life in the womb both legally and culturally.
His absence from the last debate was felt as much as Trump’s absence tonight. But unlike Trump’s absence, which elevated the discourse substantially, Paul’s absence hurt everyone. He has a way of assessing his opponents’ answers, pointing out what’s good and bad in them, and explaining the underlying issues to lay audiences.
Tonally he seemed calm, cool, and confident. Another thing that helped is that his performance wasn’t tied to Trump. Some candidates did well last night because Trump wasn’t there (namely Bush). Others weren’t well served by Trump’s absence. But Paul’s demeanor was the same with Trump on stage and off.
Of course, it’s very late in the game for a performance such as this to pay off. Tuesday will tell.
(2) Chris Christie Rises
Pundit Mark Halperin said Christie won the debate, which isn’t true. But he had some great lines, such as:
“The days of the Clinton’s getting public housing are over.” -Chris Christie pic.twitter.com/lL64kXBWm3
— The Federalist (@FDRLST) January 29, 2016
He also capitalized on opportunities and avoided pitfalls. While I’m not a fan of the debate interjection of “those guys over there are fighting,” Christie broke up one particularly confusing and lengthy squabble between Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Job Bush by pointing out how difficult it was to follow what they were saying. The fight was about who had changed their mind on immigration and when. He called it “Washington B.S.,” adding that it’s fine to change your mind, but when you’re a governor, you have to explain yourself. This was a great way to kill multiple birds with one stone.
(3) Bush and Rubio Receive Praise
I thought Bush shone in a previous debate, when he landed some punches on Trump. Nobody else saw it. Tonight, the pundit class believed Bush won or performed admirably. I can’t remember what he said (never a good sign), but his demeanor continued to be awkward and halting, even whiny at times. He manages to misread situations, earnestly answering a question from a Bernie Sanders supporter/YouTube entrepreneur (and seriously, why was a Bernie Sanders fan asking questions of candidates in a GOP debate?) while neglecting the sentiments of voters who might actually be interested in voting for him.
And Rubio continues to dazzle many Republicans. He answers questions well and conveys a conservative message. It may help him Monday as his supporters try to convince caucus-goers not already fully committed to Trump or Cruz.
(4) Ups and Downs for Cruz
Right out of the gate, Cruz had a good line. Asked about “the elephant not in the room” — moderator Megyn Kelly meant Trump — Cruz said, “I am a maniac, and everyone on the stage is stupid, fat, and ugly. And Ben [Carson], you’re a horrible surgeon. Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way…” It was a great line, and the crowd loved it.
But later he was bickering with everyone on stage, and it didn’t come off well. He ended up on the receiving end of some of the toughest questions of the night, and he never quite got his footing as much as previous debates.
One impressive thing was when the moderators pointed out that Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) was in the audience and strongly dislikes Cruz and his position against ethanol subsidies. Cruz didn’t take the easy route, but continued to emphasize his plans for phasing out subsidies and fighting regulations dealing with ethanol. Most of the candidates pander to their audience, but Cruz stayed strong.
(5) Trump’s Independent Run
As Paul demonstrated, it’s not a huge deal to skip a debate. Nobody needs to debate and if a candidate needs a night off because he is sore about the moderator, scared of fellow debaters, or thinks he can gain more by not attending, that’s fine.
Further, while many pundits thought it vulgar and unseemly for Trump to use veterans as a pawn in his fight with Fox News — he said he’d hold a fundraiser for wounded veterans instead of showing up at the debate — is it really that awful? In the same way that it’s better for a politician to throw money at your cause rather than at something else. If the money is getting there, that is.
But Trump being gone was … nice. And I say that as someone who generally enjoyed him being in the debates and thought he performed well. But while more or less the entire media complex and that minority of GOP voters who support Trump are very well served by Trump, the rest of the country is not. This was the first debate for the majority of GOP voters who aren’t supporting Trump. Candidates were able to give their answers without being told they were fat and ugly or whatever. And while every candidate should be able to handle dealing with entertaining populist types, it’s also nice to just get a night off from it to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the other candidates.
Trump has always threatened to run as an independent and has mostly fashioned his campaign as an independent run. His break from Fox News really signaled a willingness to make a go of it apart from the party apparatus as well. I guess we’ll see how it goes.
(6) The Media
A few quick words about our political media. First off, let’s look at this. It occurred to me at the start of the debate that, had Trump not been in the race, the last six months would have been little other than political journalists deriding the group of candidates as extreme and dangerous and awful and too conservative. Only because Trump disrupted their narratives have we been saved from more of it.
But take a look at this tweet from a Washington Post political journalist:
This is an actual quote. pic.twitter.com/N15zWenxof
— Chris Cillizza (@TheFix) January 29, 2016
As you read above, Cruz said, “I am a maniac, and everyone on the stage is stupid, fat and ugly. And Ben [Carson], you’re a horrible surgeon. Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way…”
So while that is an “actual” quote, it’s a ridiculous tweet. Or as I put it:
In the same way that this is actual journalism. https://t.co/hQQ1dAPKF5
— Mollie (@MZHemingway) January 29, 2016
Another annoying thing was just the codependency of the media with the Trump circus.
1/ It was a boring debate. For better or worse, almost all the race’s passion and energy was lined up for blocks at Drake University
— Ron Fournier (@ron_fournier) January 29, 2016
Most of us don’t want to admit it. But we missed Trump. Rubio was right. “He’s the greatest show on earth.”
— Marc Caputo (@MarcACaputo) January 29, 2016
Political journalism has become even more focused on entertainment than it was 40 years ago. Journalists are easily distracted, focused on gaffes and gotchas, and struggle to come up with hardly any story other than “so, uh, what did Donald Trump say today?” And while political journalists seem to be fine with this arrangement, many others are not well served.
Trump is a hoot to write about, don’t get me wrong. But if you can’t find 100 angles for stories to serve people outside of newsrooms and Trump fan clubs, you’re doing it wrong.
Tonight’s moderators were, by the way, tough and in some cases snarky against the candidates on stage. That none cried or left in a rage was a silent but powerful contrast to Trump, whether that was the impression he wished to give or not.
A couple thoughts for future moderation: Allow more engagement between candidates, since that’s where the fun is. The last Fox Business News debate was a great example of that. Let’s drop questions that ask, “Would you like to apologize?” or “Would you like to revise your remarks?” They just come off horribly. And question the assumptions to your questions. So many false and disputable claims are built into questions.