The GOP's First Debate: Who Won & Who Lost?

by Michael Sean Winters

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I one of the news stories this morning, last night’s debate was described as “scintillating.” Were we watching the same debate? What the nation witnessed last night was a Republican Party that is so out-of-touch with the American people, it felt at times like we were watching the Onion’s version of a Republican debate. Everyone played true to form, but the forms are mostly ridiculous.

I thought the biggest losers of the night were the Fox News panelists. Evidently, I was alone in my judgment. In this morning’s New York Times, Frank Bruni lavishes compliments on the questioning because it was tough and put the candidates on the spot. CNN’s Anderson Cooper said something similar last night immediately following the show. It is true that the questions were tough, but then the panelists – and the other candidates – let the candidates deliver platitudes and nonsense, all without question. Exhibit A? After saying he would tear up the Iran nuclear deal on Day 1 in office, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin said he would re-impose sanctions on Iran “and get our allies to do the same.” The obvious follow-up was to ask how he would get the allies to do so, whether he thought of China and Russia as allies, for they were party to the sanctions, and what would he do if the allies and China and Russia declined to re-impose sanctions, or if he thought sanctions could work if only the U.S. applied them. This obvious follow-up was not asked or answered and Walker's jibberish answer was allowed to stand.

The star attraction, last night and last month, was The Donald and he was little different on the stage from what we have seen before, although his bombastic, over-confident riffs work better in an interview than in a debate format. The reasons for his appeal – candid, unwilling to play by other people’s rules, brash, a keen disdain for professional politicians, a disdain many voters share – were on full display but the limits of that appeal were also evident. The first question asked him to say he would not mount a third party big and he declined. That does not sit well will a roomful of lifelong Republican operatives. The fact that the debate opened on that note showed the impatience of Fox executives with the Donald.

Trump’s most contentious moment came when Megyn Kelly asked about his disparaging comments about women. As predicted yesterday, there was a risk in going after this media panel, he did it anyway, and look for Fox to replay the exchange with Megyn Kelly on a near-continuous loop for the next forty-eight hours. It was his worst moment of the night, and points to the vulnerability of having someone who speaks before thinking as a candidate. That is part of his appeal, but it does not wear well over time.

Sen. Ted Cruz positioned himself well to pick up Trump’s supporters should Trump self-implode or grow bored with being a candidate. The Fox News focus group thought Cruz was the winner. The sheer meanness of the man was as obvious as his intelligence and that is a combination that works well in today’s GOP. If anyone did himself a favor last night, it was Cruz.

Many commentators thought Jeb Bush was a bit flat and that his decision to stay above the fray hurt him. I did not have that impression at all. He is running as the establishment candidate – and how he could run differently? His primary objective last night was not to morph into something he is not, but to remind viewers of just what a conservative record he compiled in Florida, and I thought he did that effectively. Some of his responses were a bit disjointed but that bothers professional commentators more than it does Joe six pack. Bush had a good night last night, reminding his supporters of his gravitas and poise, and reminding everyone of his conservative record.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also had a good night, sparring effectively with Sen. Rand Paul over national security and with Gov. Mike Huckabee on Social Security. I happen to think Christie’s plans to reform entitlement spending are misguided, but he came across as someone, like Trump, who was willing to talk plainly about a difficult issue and, unlike Trump, he had specifics and a plan. He was feisty without being over-bearing and benefited from the format with so many people on the stage. One-on-one, his pugnacity grows tired more quickly.

Former Governor Mike Huckabee showed why he was the last man standing in 2008. Crisp answers, obvious passion, all of it wrapped in a warm personality that has learned how to work the camera with almost Clintonesque (Bill, not Hill) charm. Even when he is articulating a position that would strike many voters as extreme, he does not seem like an extremist.

Ohio Governor John Kasich did well, introducing himself as an average guy who may not be the most crisp in his answers but who is willing to share his feelings and justify his decisions, even those that do not fit with current GOP orthodoxy, such as his decision to expand Medicaid in his state. At the end of the day, voters want someone who cares about them, but they want someone who is smarter and more articulate than them. Kasich has plenty of time to refine his presentation and Team Bush should consider him their greatest threat for the more moderate wing of the GOP. One of the most telling moments in the whole debate came when Kasich said that while he opposes same sex marriage as a matter of policy, he had recently attended the wedding of a friend who happened to be gay. The comment drew applause. From GOP activists. The issue of same sex marriage is as dead as the Wicked Witch of the East when the house fell on her.

The biggest candidate loser of the night was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. It was interesting to watch the post-mortems. I flipped between the channels, and some people like this or that candidate’s performance. No one even mentioned Walker. The man has a serious charisma deficit. Every time the camera turned to him, I wanted to hit a snooze button. He had one good line all night – about the Russian and Chinese hackers knowing more about Hillary Clinton’s emails than the U.S. Senate – but it came too late in the night for him to become a force on the stage. The same could largely be said for Dr. Ben Carson, who had a very effective closing statement but made little imprint in the first 115 minutes of the night. He got the Admiral Stockdale “Why am I here?” award.

Senator Rand Paul, like Trump, showed why he appeals to some people and the limits of that appeal. He defended his libertarian sensibilities in his exchange with Christie, but with ISIS beheading people, many Americans are quite content to have their cell phone and email records exposed to a broadcast search if it will help catch the bad guys. There are fewer Fourth Amendment purists than Sen. Paul thinks. And, as GOP operative Steve Schmidt said after the program, Paul seemed “peevish” all night, confirming one of his worst personality traits. Chris Matthew thought Sen. Marco Rubio did a great job, but I suspect my friend Chris looks at Rubio and sees a Kennedy, young, handsome, able to articulate a visionary response to a pedestrian question. I thought Rubio did only marginally better than Walker and Carson at not blending into the scenery and the Fox News focus group sided with me, not with Matthews: They thought Cruz and Huckabee won the night.

It will be interesting to see if the debate, and the post-debate analysis, sways the polls. Seven of the ten candidates could easily see themselves kicked to the kiddie table next time, replaced by Carly Fiorina who had a strong performance in the undercard debate. I have the sneaking feeling that Donald Trump is just going to get bored with his own candidacy and drop out at some point, maybe like Ross Perot, getting back in at the last minute. Bush solidified his status as the establishment candidate, and establishment candidate’s usually win, with Christie closer on his heels than before and Kasich now on the same track, but further back. Cruz and Huckabee will begin looking for ways to become the candidate of the base, a hard task with Trump taking all the oxygen out of the room. Walker must do something, and something fast, to justify why so many people have heretofore seen him as a credible candidate. Rubio needs be get past his cotton candy banalities about the American Dream. The others took a big step towards memory lane.  



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