Junior Varsity Debate: Heard almost none of it, but my understanding is that Senator Graham did well and was folksy at times, even while predicting the end of the world as he is inclined to do.
Varsity Debate: I saw and/or heard most of it, although some was in during the replay.
First of all, kudos to CNN. It was, at times, an actual debate. Yes, three hours made it seem like we were binge-watching on Netflix, but there was a lot of substance in there. Even the softball questions (“What would be your Secret Service codename?”) were fairly interesting.
But this is about winners and losers. So let’s get to it.
The biggest winner was unquestionably Carly Fiorina. Before the debate, it was clear that everyone was looking for someone to break out. I think perhaps a couple of candidates “broke out” last night, but none so fiercely as Fiorina. She was consistently well-prepared without sounding canned. Attacks on her business record seemed to bounce off her. She attacked Trump’s business record who she said was “forced into bankruptcy not once, not twice, but a record four times.” When asked about Trump insulting her looks, she didn’t have to say anything more than “all women heard what Trump said”, forcing him to say that she was a “beautiful woman” in a way so patronizing that he would have been better off just saying nothing.
Remarkably, she was the only candidate who refused to answer what woman should be on the $10 bill, pointing out that women are not a special interest, but a majority in the country. Putting a woman on the $10, she said dismissively, was a “gesture”.
Her temperament was tough and serious. I thought she even came off a little harsh. You know how Rush Limbaugh characterizes “feminazis” as humorless and harsh-looking? That’s how Fiorina came across. In the future, she might want to soften it up (not necessarily be more feminine, just more humorous).
That said, Fiorina was grossly and negligently wrong on her facts. She gave a harrowing description of the Planned Parenthood sting videos, challenging Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to watch “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” No such video segment exists. She just made it up.
The biggest loser was Donald Trump. This debate was substantive, and Trump’s schtick is rhetoric. The whole “I’ll assemble a really good team and we’ll fix it” line just fell flat, and Trump faded into the background, especially when it came to foreign policy. Will it affect his commanding lead in the polls? I doubt it. But I think it might be the beginning of the end for him. He did a lot of odd backpeddling, like sticking to, but also amending, his previous statement about how vaccines cause autism. How nuts is that? (By the way, the whole thing about “spreading out vaccines” is bullshit, and perhaps dangerous too).
As for the others….
Bush had his moments. The biggest applause line was when he stood by his brother and said “he kept us safe”. Yeah, except for that thing that happened in his first year. It kind of reminds me of “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln….”
I know many pundits think Bush did badly, and I think he started out the debate badly and finished much stronger. Unfortunately, a lot of GOP voters may have tuned out by then.
Also having good moments were Rubio (although I don’t think he’s a GOP favorite on immigration), and Christie, and Huckabee (if you go for that religious bent), and Rand Paul (whose libertarianism comes off as liberal sometimes). In their own way, they all broke through a little.
I think Walker and Kasich did fine but didn’t break through.
I know a lot of people thought Ted Cruz did well, but I thought that his looking at the camera was creepy.
And Doctor Carson, in my view, really did not help himself. Like Trump, the other outsider ahead of him in the polls, he seemed unsure of any specific policies. For example, on immigration, Carson has previously said that deporting all illegal immigrants isn’t practical. Asked about this sensible position in the debate, he said he doubts that it’s practical but will listen to those who say it can be done. Immigration has been front and center in the GOP agenda for months, and the best he can do is waffle and say, “I’ll listen to other ideas”?
For me, the most disturbing part of the evening was the question on climate change. Yes, they finally got a question on climate change. And they talked about it for a full three minutes! The question, though, was framed in an interesting way: Ronald Reagan’s own secretary of state, George Shultz, has advocated for some kind of action on climate change, just as an “insurance policy.” Tapper asked, why not follow Reagan’s example, and take out an insurance policy to respond to what scientists overwhelmingly believe will be devastating impacts of climate change?
Three candidates responded: Rubio, Christie, and Walker. All three argued that nothing should be done by the American government to combat the problem, and Christie even said that he “respectfully disagrees” with Reagan’s secretary of state (gasp!). But all three also backed up their argument using a factually murky claim: that government efforts to combat climate change won’t do anything to solve the problem (which is, of course, untrue, as the premise of the question pointed out).
Bottom line: Don’t expect the GOP to do anything about climate change.
And what it made it even worse was that it segued into the aforementioned very unscientific conversation about vaccines causing autism.
Trump spoke the longest, and sadly, too many questions were about him or what he said (“Candidate X, Donald Trump says you’re a jerk. How do you respond?”). Here are the times:
Fiorina did most of the interrupting, and it obviously worked to her benefit. Other candidates interrupted to steer what would otherwise have been a good conversation into something within their own bailiwick. I hated it when that happened.
Anyway, it’ll take a few days to determine what impact, if any, this has on the polls. I suspect that not much will change for Trump — his followers have a cult-like devotion and probably thought he was amaaaazing last night. But I expect to see a shakeup, with Fiorina overtaking Carson. And a winnowing of a few more.
That said, I think Ed Kilgore my have the smartest final take on the outcome:
Above all, I don’t think this debate did much to solve any of the Republican Party’s problems. Did it “take down” Donald Trump, as so many hoped? I don’t think so, despite the bountiful opportunities the other candidates — at the earlier “J.V.” debate, where the first four questions were about Trump, as at the main event — had to do so. Did it “winnow” the field? Nobody did that badly, and the candidates with the least steam, like Mike Huckabee, are already committed to a living-off-the-land county-by-county effort in Iowa. Did the “uprising” on behalf of “outsider” candidates with dubious qualifications abate? Probably not; whatever ground Carson lost was probably gained not by the “experienced” pols but by Fiorina, whose background remains a real time bomb that only Trump has tried to exploit.
Should the “outsiders” fade, moreover, this debate did little to help build an “Establishment” consensus behind a candidate prepared to move into the lead just as people start voting. Indeed, an Establishment candidate long left for dead, Chris Christie, may have revived his extremely limited prospects with a good performance tonight. So the long slugfest may have resolved nothing.