For anyone who believes in a smaller, less costly, and less intrusive government, last night’s GOP debate was truly dispiriting. For anyone who believes in a serious discussion of the important issues, it was even worse. But at least it was grand political theater.
My thoughts on how the candidates did (roughly in order of performance grade):
Carly Fiorina. Carly was the hands down winner on debate points. There is no doubt that she is smart, prepared, and thinks quickly on her feet. She sounds, well, presidential. I can imagine her in the Oval Office, and we probably could do worse. That said, she seemed anxious to inherit Lindsey Graham’s “Dr Strangelove” mantle of strident militarism. And, while her personal tragedy makes it understandable, her stand in the drug war is lamentable. On abortion, I’m pro-choice, so I clearly disagree with her, but I thought her answer on planned parenthood was formidable. Expect to see a big rise in the polls next week.
Marco Rubio: Rubio often seems to be campaigning for last non-Trump standing, low-key, acceptable to nearly all conservative factions. He debates well, even if he seldom scores any real “moments.” Most viewers will come away with a good impression. Alas, he is another uber-hawk, but he appears more sober and stable than some of the others. I think he helped himself long-term, though it might not show yet.
Chris Christie. Debates fit Christie’s style, and he performed last night. He was the only candidate to talk sense about entitlements, but spent way too much time on his law and order shtick. You get the feeling he would rather be running for sheriff. And his 9-11 talk was emotional but over the top. Probably helped himself, but that’s a pretty low bar.
Ben Carson. Carson was Carson, low key, not terribly well informed, but extraordinarily likable. I honestly can’t recall what he said about any issue, other than schooling Trump on autism and vaccines. He didn’t have a big moment like his brain surgery line in the last debate, and I doubt he helped himself much – but he didn’t hurt himself either. Besides, his strength comes from meeting him, especially with evangelicals. Unless he blows up in one of these debates, they won’t have big impact.
Rand Paul. There were glimpses last night of what a Rand Paul candidacy could have been. His answers on war in Middle East and the drug war were terrific. But he showed little spark most of the night and wandered off into vaccine La-La Land with Trump. Good Rand/Bad Rand
Ted Cruz. I thought Cruz had an off night. Normally, I find him a compelling speaker, even if I disagree with him on substance. Last night, I found him canned. He delivered mini campaign speeches rather than answered questions – and in an odd, overly dramatic voice. He probably didn’t hurt himself with his fans, and is positioning himself to pick up Trump supporters, but his rush to the right is disconcerting. Earlier in his Senate career, he flashed occasional libertarian streaks. Those are long gone now.
Jen Bush. Well, he showed more energy, and pretty much anything would have been an improvement over his last debate performance. But he still provides absolutely no rationale for his candidacy. Why, exactly, does he want to be president, other than that it is the family business. And, he did nothing to distance himself from his brother. His performance wasn’t terrible, but certainly won’t rescue his flailing campaign.
John Kasich. Kasich started strong, playing the adult in the room, but then all but disappeared. A solid conservative in Congress, he insists on running to the Left, as if the GOP is desperate for the return of Jon Huntsman. That might be good enough for second or third in New Hampshire. But, after that, what?
Donald Trump. I’m sure his fans loved his performance. But I would hope the combination of juvenile insults and lack of policy specifics will run thin eventually. And his answer on autism and vaccines wasn’t just ignorant, it was dangerous. Trump is pretty much impossible to critique – he is what he is. Sadly. His performance won’t hurt him (his fans don’t care), but it may help cement his ceiling in place.
Mike Huckabee. Huckabee gave an impassioned plea to become chief theologian in the emerging sharia regime (echoing Jindal and Santorum from the first debate), and delivered an over the top call to defend Western Civilization, but otherwise had little visibility.
Scott Walker. Walker really needed a home run to revive his fading campaign. At best, he delivered a bunt single. Aside from his “taking on the unions” schtick, which is a bit stale, does anyone remember what he said? Does anyone remember that he was there?
This was supposed to be the best GOP field in decades. So far, it’s been a tremendous disappointment.