First, here’s my scorecard from last night:
Losers: Paul, Christie, Kasich, Trump, Bush Winners: Rubio, Huckabee, Middle: Walker, Cruz (though no fault of his own), Carson #GOPDebate
— Benjamin Weingarten (@bhweingarten) August 7, 2015
Now to the takeaways:
1) The moderators did not delve into the core beliefs of the candidates. The Constitution itself was only raised in one question. Where’s the beef?
Perhaps it is naive to think that this matters in a world in which identity politics, sound bites and snark frequently trump all else, but I found the debate sorely lacking when it came to giving candidates the opportunity to expound upon their political philosophies.
As a proxy for this point, guess how many times the Constitution was raised during the debate?
In the case of the moderators, only once, on a question from Chris Wallace to Gov. Mike Huckabee regarding his belief in Constitutional amendments banning gay marriage and abortion.
Only Senators Cruz, Paul and Rubio even invoked the Constitution.
I understand we are living in the Roberts/Pelosi era, in which the Constitution is selectively applied when not treated as a mere piece of parchment, but come on.
I also understand that the moderators were likely more concerned with drilling the candidates on perceived weaknesses and/or questions that would elicit compelling and/or viral responses.
And it’s not lost on me that voters care most about how they are going to put food on the table, education and national security.
But for GOP primary voters, philosophy matters too.
Or perhaps I’m just an old fashioned conservative curmudgeon.
2) The moderators did not lay a glove on Sen. Marco Rubio or Gov. Scott Walker.
Was this calculated? Particularly interesting was that Sen. Rubio was not pushed at all on his support of the Gang of Eight immigration legislation even during a question explicitly about immigration.
3) Sen. Marco Rubio is good at being Sen. Marco Rubio.
That is, Sen. Rubio always comes across as polished, charismatic and likable. This is why in spite of his lagging poll numbers to date, if I were a betting man — as someone who will work to be perceived as the most “conservative” (in spite of his support of “Chuck Schumer’s” Gang of Eight Bill as Sen. Ted Cruz deftly put it), “electable” candidate, who it is thought can pull in Hispanic votes (rightly or wrongly) — I would bet that the party will ultimately throw its weight behind him for the nomination. Of course I would add all the usual caveats about how early we are in the campaign, the fact that there is likely opposition research to be leveled at him (looking at you Gov. Bush), etc. It will be interesting to see how the poll numbers shift in the coming days, and where Rubio’s support comes from as he rises.
4) Former Gov. Mike Huckabee is great on Iran, but not great on everything else.
He’s a very good speaker, no doubt honed by his time in elective office and at Fox News. He is also no conservative beyond his Christian bona fides and solid foreign policy rhetoric. Nevertheless, Gov. Huckabee will likely have staying power through Iowa at the very least, which bodes poorly for Sen. Ted Cruz in particular, whose candidacy rests on being able to garner the support of Huckabee Evangelicals, Paul libertarians, Reagan conservatives and everyone else outside the “mushy middle.”
5) Sen. Ted Cruz was frozen out for a large portion of the debate.
Nevertheless, he was on point when questioned, and was interestingly given some layup questions after the tired “Why are you tearing the country/party apart?” One wonders if his strategy is to simply state that he is the most conservative candidate as indicated by his efforts in the Senate, while letting the other candidates rumble until the field is whittled down and he can start making dramatic surgical strikes.
6) Gov. Chris Christie was made to look small on a big stage. Sen. Rand Paul made himself look small in his attacks on Christie and more broadly.
It was not immediately clear to me what Gov. Christie’s strategy was during the debate. In a field consisting of others with executive experience and achievement, the governor did nothing to differentiate himself. Sen. Rand Paul on the other hand in picking fights with Gov. Christie and Donald Trump to me looked like he was grasping at straws, with a debate plan based more on tactics than strategy.
Of course, there is a place in presidential campaigns for protest candidates, but Sen. Paul has greater aspirations. I am not sure that being combative will play well for him, and it certainly will not for Christie either until and unless it is perceived to be combative on behalf of the American people.
Either way, both of these candidates are in trouble.
7) The debate did not really get into big questions on foreign policy.
A few questions that every candidate should have to answer: (i) How will your foreign policy differ from that of Presidents Obama and Bush. (ii) Who poses the greatest threat to America today, and why? (iii) How do you intend to handle ascendant Islamic supremacists, Russia and China?
In fact, here are 20 such questions that the field ought to grapple with.
8) Ben Carson made two great points, but he did not appear well-prepared.
Carson threw some serious red meat to conservatives when it came to defining Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s political philosophy as secular progressive Alinskyism. He was dead on. His response on colorblindness when it comes to race was similarly powerful. That said, Carson felt unprepared and scripted at the same time during several of his responses. To my mind he is a very intelligent, likable and decent man, but I am not sure he has the experience nor capability to seriously compete in a political battle for the highest office in the world.
9) Gov. Jeb Bush was sort of an afterthought, and frequently stumbled through his responses.
As noted in the postgame show, Gov. Jeb Bush was overshadowed by all of the other sideshows, Trump and beyond last night. One would think that he would have tried to elevate himself above the fray as the serious executive who understands the issues and can tout a supposedly conservative record from Florida. Did he achieve this last night?
Separately, leaving aside my own admitted disagreement with Gov. Bush on Common Core and immigration, I thought that he frequently stumbled through his responses, especially when summing up his arguments. This surprised me.
Lastly, “Veto Corelone” line aside, Jeb did not come off as being as likable and charismatic as George W. Bush, perhaps his most serious political Achilles heal.
10) The debate did not reveal who the stalking horses are.
If you believe that this field comes down to one or two Establishment candidates versus one or two conservative candidates, then you also have to think that certain secondary candidates are going to coalesce around primary candidates and attack said primary candidates’ opponents, in exchange for other political benefits.
For a good example, check out this article about Gov. Christie potentially serving as Gov. Bush’s wrecking ball in exchange for an AG nomination. However improbable that scenario might be, we should all employ this type of logic when evaluating the field.
To date, I would split the field between Governors Bush and Walker, and Senator Rubio on the serious Establishment side, and Senators Cruz and Paul, and Governor Huckabee on the non-Establishment side — not purely on the basis of ideology, but on the basis of where their support resides.
How they will fight each other and make use of the likes of Carly Fiorina, Donald Trump, Governors Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Rick Perry and others will be fascinating.
But it is unclear at this juncture as to how exactly things will unfold.
BONUS: Carly Fiorina was championed by Megyn Kelly as well as Republicans on social media. People have not examined her positions closely.
Carly Fiorina is an articulate and crisp speaker, and having risen to CEO at HP, likely a shrewd politician as well, which is not to be ignored. That said, one gets the sense that the hullabaloo around her yesterday was generated in large part due to (i) the relatively weak performances of many others during the early debate and (ii) the ignorance of Carly Fiorina’s record. On number two, Fiorina is no conservative. She is also politically vulnerable, though no one has laid a hand on her in the Republican field because she is not yet perceived as a serious threat. She is going to be tested on all of these fronts going forward.
Disclosure: I attended a for-pay event benefiting Sen. Ted Cruz. The money paid to attend is listed with the FEC as a donation to Cruz’s presidential campaign.
Featured Image Source: YouTube screengrab/Fox News.