Somewhere in the middle of last night’s debate I began to feel like a five-year-old on a long drive in the back of my parent’s car, whining, “Mommy, mommy is it almost over?” If there’s one observation that can be said about the 3-hour marathon, it’s that it seemed interminable.
The clear winner of the night was Carly Fiorina, with runner-ups including Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Chris Cristie. The biggest losers were Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, and CNN.
It was clear within the first moments of the “Happy Hour Debate” that someone at CNN decided that the entire night would be about Donald Trump. The network had resolved in advance that almost every question they asked would pit one candidate against another, but then gave moderator Jake Tapper no help in controlling the answers: no buzzer, no horn, nada. It hurts me to say this because I am a huge Tapper fan, but almost from the beginning it was clear that the very polite Jake Tapper could not control the format. It’s not that the “fight” mentality of the debate was wrong, but Tapper needed help as a referee. Also they had one of the media’s best questioners sitting next to Tapper, in Hugh Hewitt, and he was way, way under-utilized.
Getting to the candidates, during the first debate Carly Fiorina was the clear winner even though she was at the “children’s table.” While Fiorina had the most to lose because she fought so hard to be there, she took that opportunity and nailed it. She showed herself to be knowledgeable, unshakable, and gave crisp decisive answers. Her two best moments were:
- When the CNN moderators asked her about Trump’s Rolling Stone insult (“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!”), she coolly responded: “Women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said”. A red-faced trump Trump responded by saying, “she’s got a beautiful face and she’s a beautiful woman,” which seemed to make it worse.
- In what seemed to be the best applause line of the night, Fiorina spoke passionately about the Planned Parenthood’s treatment of fetal tissue. “As regards Planned Parenthood, anyone who has watched this videotape, I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, it’s heart beating, it’s legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain. This is about the character of our nation, and if we will not stand up in and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us”
Because of the format, Chris Christie had to fight his way into the conversation from time to time. Example: When Fiorina and Trump were set up to argue about each others’ business history and Christie needed to interrupt to be heard over the chaos. Here’s the transcript:
CHRIS CHRISTIE: Jake listen. While I’m as entertained as anyone by this personal back-and-forth about the history of Donald and Carly’s career, for the 55-year-old construction worker out in that audience tonight who doesn’t have a job, who can’t fund his child’s education, I’ve got to tell you the truth. They could care less about your careers, they care about theirs. Let’s start talking about that on this stage and stop playing — and stop playing the games. Stop playing —
JOHN KAISCH: There’s a —
CHRISTIE: John — I’m not done yet, John.
CARLY FIORINA: A track record of leadership is not a game. It is the issue in this election.
CHRISTIE: Stop — and stop playing — and Carly — Carly, listen. You can interrupt everybody else on this stage, you’re not going to interrupt me, OK? The fact is that we don’t want to hear about your careers, back and forth and volleying back and forth about who did well and who did poorly. You’re both successful people. Congratulations. You know who’s not successful? The middle class in this country who’s getting plowed over by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Let’s start talking about those issues tonight and stop this childish back-and-forth between the two of you.
Marco Rubio did very well, although (and most disagree with me) I felt he took too many opportunities to talk about his family history. His best moments were about foreign policy. He rattled off a list of threats: North Korean missiles, Russian incursions into the Ukraine, and Chinese cyberattacks. And when asked about whether Trump had the required knowledge of foreign policy, he refused to bite:
Well, you should ask him questions in detail about the foreign policy issues our president will confront, because you had better be able to lead our country on the first day.
Not six months from now, not a year from now, on the first day in office, our president could very well confront a national security crisis. You can’t predict it. Sometimes you cannot control it.
And it is the most — the federal government does all kinds of things it’s not supposed to be doing. It regulates bathrooms. It regulates schools that belong to local communities.
But the one thing that the federal government must do, the one thing that only the federal government can do is keep us safe. And a president better be up-to-date on those issues on his first day in office, on her first day in office.
Jeb Bush had a good night also. The former Florida governor needed to prove to voters that he was willing to pick up the energy after a “meh” first debate and he did it. He definitely did it enough to stop his slide; whether it was enough for him to start picking up votes is a different thing. A few minutes into the debate, he launched a prepared attack against Trump’s attempt to influence Bush to allow casinos in Florida with campaign donations. And while Bush was telling the truth, Trump seemed to win the exchange.
Bush hit Trump for insulting his wife, Columba, in a tweet a few weeks ago. Bush, polite to a fault, demanded that his opponent apologize directly to her; Trump refused the offer, but his face reddened. Bush was more passionate in defending his brother’s legacy after Trump ripped Bush #43’s low approval rating when leaving office:
You know what? As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure. He kept us safe. I don’t know if you remember…you remember the — the rumble? You remember the fire fighter with his arms around it? He sent a clear signal that the United States would be strong and fight Islamic terrorism, and he did keep us safe.
The format was awful for Dr. Ben Carson. Being the consummate gentleman, he couldn’t bring himself to butt into the answers of the other candidates, which at times seemed to be the only way to get word in.
Scott Walker had to give a great performance last night, and it’s not that he gave bad answers. But he seemed to disappear for long stretches. Actually Ted Cruz disappeared for much of the time, too. The Texas senator’s answer about Justice Roberts seemed to be a tap dance, but he impressed near the beginning when he was asked about tearing up the Iran deal:
Well, let’s be clear when it comes to experience. What President Obama wants to do is he’s run to the United Nations, and he wants to use the United Nations to bind the United States, and take away our sovereignty. Well, I spent five and a half years as a Solicitor General of Texas, the lead lawyer for the state, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, and I went in front of the Supreme Court, and took on the world court of the United Nations in a case called Medellin v. Texas, and we won a historic victory saying the World Court, and the U.N., has no power to bind the United States, and no President of the United States, Republican or Democrat, has the authority to give away our sovereignty.
And, so, if there’s anyone up here who would be bound by this catastrophic deal with Iran, they’re giving up the core responsibility of commander in chief, and as president, I would never do that.
Rand Paul seemed to give up any pretense of foreign policy moderation and went back to his semi-isolationist points of view.
Mike Huckabee gave great answers on religious freedom and strongly defended his idea of replacing the income tax with a sales tax. But he did not really stand out either way.
Then there is the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Donald Trump. At the beginning of the debate he seemed sharp, calling Rand Paul ugly, and bashing Scott Walker’s performance as governor. But when things turned to specifics sometime in hour
twenty two, Trump began to fade away and seemed out-matched. Not in a way that would lose him support, but I don’t believe he gained any either.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Fiorina pick up a lot of support, probably from Ben Carson. Look for Rubio and Christie to pick up a little support, as well, though not nearly to the extent of Fiorina. Jeb Bush may have stopped his decline, but I can’t see him growing in support. And as for the Donald, I can’t see his support growing based on last night, but he will not lose support either.
The next debate is in five weeks at CNBC. I strongly recommend a buzzer, a bell, a giant guy with a gong or sword — anything to help the moderator control the debate.
Cross-posted at The Lid