Steve is back for his take on the second GOP debate...
Every debate has its visual moment; the sound byte that stands out not only for its inherent drama but because it succinctly conveys the broader narrative of the entire event.
Carly Fiorina’s dramatically compact smack to Donald Trump’s jaw (“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said”) in one moment altered the landscape of the nomination process. Fiorina took down the schoolyard bully.
If this is a reality show, reality finally showed up last night. And this is what it looks like.
Look for Trump’s ratings to crest and then finally begin to slide back. Trump did not have a good night last night. He began the evening with an utterly unprovoked cheap shot at Rand Paul about the senator’s low standings in the polls. In so doing, Trump seemed to fully personify Webster’s definition of bully: picking a fight with the weakest person in the room. Trump was defensive about his lack of command of fact and detail; he was wobbly about how he would solve specific global crises and deal with leaders. Most telling of all: as the debate progressed, Trump receded from view, fading as the answers required more detail, more fact, and more concrete explanation of what he would actually do if elected.
Ben Carson’s mysterious ascent in polls may prove to be a short-lived function of his outsider status in a party that appears hell-bent to shun traditional politicians. In the debate, Carson seemed to be trying to hover above the bickering and punching. Unfortunately he achieved this in the manner of a dirigible… filled with hot air to the point of becoming a lightweight.
How big a problem does Scott Walker have? In the first draft of this analysis, I realized I had only mentioned ten candidates. I had forgotten Scott Walker was even on the stage. Walker insists on shrinking all the world’s issues into recurring incarnations of his battle with the Wisconsin teachers’ union, making him appear smaller, whinier, and more provincial with each such invocation.
The final loser: CNN. Jake Tapper exerted little control over the debate last night, and his malleability in allowing random candidates to weigh in without justification or provocation turned the last hour into a shouting match. Those who know me will gasp when I tell this truth: the Fox moderators did a much better job running their debate. Carly Fiorina wasn’t the only female winner last night… Megyn Kelly won big over Tapper.
Unfortunately for the Republican Party (and for the technicians who must accommodate eleven podiums per stage) nobody is going to disappear based on last night. The staggering three hour length of the debate – five hours, counting the kiddie table – enabled every candidate to get quality camera time, and they used it well. The truth is that there are no egregious weaklings (Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann) in this crowd.
Marco Rubio continues in his role as the Beaver, the surprising kid brother who radiates earnestness and has always completed his homework on time, but somehow manages to convey that he still needs the adult supervision of Ward and June. Rubio was poised and articulate, and he continues to audition beautifully for the Vice-Presidency for anybody but his state-mate Jeb.
Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee are locked in an important side-show to see who can emerge as the choice of social conservative block of the Republican Party. They are strikingly similar: fiery orators who elevate every issue to a measure of moral purity, Christian faith, and uncompromising principle. Occasionally, they are even clever enough to try to find some semblance of the constitutional grounding along the way. Both turned in reliable performances in the debate, but sooner or later the Christian right is going to have to choose, as their bus can only afford to carry one of them past South Carolina. My money is on the one with the money.
Rand Paul had his moments last night – he deftly exposed the party’s selective embrace of the tenth amendment while advocating for Colorado’s right to get rocky mountain high, and he displayed more empathy than the rest of the crowd combined when he spoke about how the war on drugs has been waged largely on African-Americans in inner cities. But too often he played the role of the petulant, misunderstood high school nerd who can’t understand why everyone else does not see the world as clearly as he does. Wonderfully placed in his lonely position at the podium furthest to the left, Paul seemed like he had once again wandered onto the wrong stage.
Chris Christie is the oversized question mark in the field. Having burned his bridges in Jersey, his options today seem to be that he will either become President of the United States, or open up a 24 hour cheese steak stand on the arcade in Seaside Heights. Last night, sprung from those cages his staff created on highway nine, he invoked a populist stand (“turn the camera to the audience – this is about them, not me!”) which was disingenuous from a guy who would be the Donald Trump of this campaign if this campaign did not have the actual Donald Trump already in it.
Which brings us to the final “neutral” performance, Jeb Bush, who gamely stepped up and forcefully engaged with Trump, pouncing only the issues where he appeared to have his counter-attack well planned. When CNN teed up Trump’s accusation that Bush was weak on immigration because he was married to a Hispanic woman, Jeb demanded that Trump apologize directly to his wife, seated in the audience. Jeb’s biggest hit of the night was defending his brother (“he kept us safe”) against Trump’s harsh critique, and he turned the tables on Trump on the issue of big donor influence, claiming that Trump had tried to use his money to lobby for gambling in Florida. Jeb was indeed more energized than in round one, but winning the prize for “most improved candidate” is not going to be enough. Jeb Bush needs to get his act in gear, or he risks Hilary Clinton’s current dilemma – a spiraling erosion of faith among the party faithful. In the final analysis, though, it is a mistake to think that his big problem is that he is named Bush; it is that he actually is a Bush – replete with all the awkward body language, meandering syntax, and aloof patrician goofiness that fueled the careers of Saturday Night Live comics from Dana Carvey to Will Ferrell.
Carly Fiorina was the neutron bomb of the show last night, exploding into the scene with a ferocious intellect, startling command of global nuance, and the ability to craft beautifully constructed, lushly flowing, and intensely logical paragraphs in real time. Her answers were compact and delivered with a burning intensity that commanded the hall. Hilary Clinton beware: Carly flashed the razor edges of a velociraptor in her graphic attack on Planned Parenthood. Some will say that she may have been too alpha in the debate; that she came across as cold, arrogant, and harsh, and yet her unguarded acknowledgement of the agony of losing a child to drugs demonstrated a willingness to be open and human that has been wanting in the front runners of the party faithful, Bush and Clinton. In the final analysis, her retort to Trump’s “look at that face” comment was this evening’s contribution to Presidential Debate history. She may as well have said, “No, Mr. Trump. You’re fired!”
John Kasich is playing a smart, cagey game. He seems to understand that deep, deep, down, the Republican Party always flirts with crazies (see the 2012 Bachmann Cain Santorum Overdrive), before realizing at the last minute that it really should go to the prom with the student council president who is also captain of the football team. Kasich is therefore taking the role of the shadow-Bush, ready to step into the centrist lead role should Jeb succeed in his ongoing effort to self-immolate. Kasich showed all the right moves last night: his lectures on the folly of “first-day-in-office” promises and “go-it-alone” global diplomacy were masterful. His big three words (unify, lift, and hope) are winners.
The Kiddie Table
Let’s not waste time. Lindsay Graham solved his low T problem, but nobody cares. None of Graham, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, or Rick Sanctomonium are not going to be called up to the big leagues even if they expanded the rosters to 40 candidates on September 1. For the first time in my life, I will say the words “follow Rick Perry’s fine example.”
The outcome of this debate will be to muddy the waters further, as the prior poll leaders (Trump and Carson) will decline slightly, Fiorina and Kasich will rise, and the others will stay in place. But Rance Priebus’s deep secret terror that Trump will seize an insurmountable lead is over. We are in for a long slog.
The final irony? The Citizens United ruling – celebrated as an overwhelming Republican judicial triumph – will be the engine that keeps all eleven candidates at podiums, as each of these candidates seems to have a billionaire ready to fund them through South Carolina. This, in turn, will prevent anyone from the critical mass needed to break free… continuing to weaken the candidate who ultimately prevails. The law of unintended consequence strikes again, and it will keep all eleven of these people from being fired.