The Reagan Library Debate: Who Won and Who Lost

by Michael Sean Winters

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The first 20 minutes of the Republican debate at the Reagan Library last night were among the strangest television I have ever witnessed. The stage, with its impressive backdrop of the old Air Force One, was turned into a sandbox with the candidates hurling insults, not ideas. At first I thought moderator Jake Tapper has lost control of the debate, but then I realized that this kind of foolishness has been what the GOP contest has been like so far. Finally, Ohio Governor John Kasich stepped in and asked Tapper to tell the rest of the participants that recess was over. It was bizarre.

Trump won. I say this for two reasons, one old and one new. The old reason comes from Machiavelli: If you strike at the prince, make sure you kill him. No one killed Trump. He dominated the first hour of the debate, had more air time than any other candidate, and though he faded as the night went on and the conversation turned to issues on which his relative lack of knowledge and experience was painfully evident, those were not the issues that have driven his rise in the polls. On immigration, his venomous nativism shown through. It is hard to watch, but it is why he is leading the pack. The new evidence? Just before bed, around midnight, I went to to see what they were saying. The four lead pieces all had Trump’s name in the headlines. We are still at the stage in the nominating contest when you should be happy when they spell your name right. Each headline spelled his name right.

Trump also had some of the best moments in the debate. When he turned to Jeb Bush and said, “More energy tonight. I like that,” you knew you were watching a moment that would be replayed endlessly on the morning shows. He and Carly Fiorina got in to a tit-for-tat discussion about their records as a business leader, but no one doubts that Trump is a successful businessman. And, he won the discussion about special interest money. People believe that most politicians are bought and paid for by special interests and, the truth be told, they are.

Carly Fiorina needed to prove that she belonged on the main stage. Last time, she was at the kiddie table. She had the best line of the night, responding to Trump’s disparaging remarks about her looks: “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said." That moment, too, will be replayed over and over. Her answer on Russia was foolish, asserting she would not even talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but she finished that response strong, citing things the Obama administration has not done to strengthen the U.S. military and saying she would do so.

At one point, I thought Fiorina was about to step in it. In debates like this, with so many participants, when you get into the discussion, there may be more than one thing you wish to discuss. She started to link the previous discussion of Iran with the discussion of Planned Parenthood. I thought this a mistake, but she proceeded to nail it, asserting that the Iran nuke deal threatened our security and the Planned Parenthood practices relating to fetal body parts threatened our character. Of course, she lied at the point, saying she had seen the videos and describing one of them in details that do not correspond to any of the videos I have seen. That said, as the night went on, she began to snarl, something she is well advised not to do in future debates.

Ben Carson seemed like a five year old who does not know how to swim and just slipped into the deep end of the pool. The man does not belong on the stage. He spoke in bromides exclusively and, unlike last time, he did not have a strong close. Maybe his soft-spoken demeanor plays well with some slice of the electorate, but I don’t see it.

Jeb Bush needed a good night and at the halfway mark I thought he was toast. But, he gained energy as the night went on, (as noted above, even Trump acknowledged it) and Bush delivered another one of those soundbite moments when he defended his brother George W.: “He kept us safe.” The audience, which was a Bush, establishment-type crowd, gave some of the most sustained applause of the night. Bush also came across as the person he is, a deeply conservative establishment pol who is not a bombthrower. He survives to fight another day, not least because so many of the other candidates bombed completely.

By the time the questions got to Sen. Rand Paul and Gov. Scott Walker, more than a half hour into the debate, they found themselves discussing whether or not a state dinner with the Chinese President should be canceled. This is not how you want to introduce yourself to the American people and both men made the mistake of answering the question instead of pivoting to something more substantive to talk about. Rand Paul had a good moment when he pointed out that the Iraq War did more than anything to increase Iranian influence and power in the region, but I do not think many Republicans warm to what was General Wesley Clark’s argument against the Iraq War. Walker, like Carson, began a response with “That’s not what I said,” which is always a weak way to respond: Only Trump can pull it off.

Gov. John Kasich had some good moments, demonstrating sanity amidst the craziness. But, someone forgot to tell him that this is not yet a general election. His call for working with Democrats is not what GOP primary voters want to hear, and his recalling his years working with Bill Clinton to balance the budget does not do himself any favors with the Tea Party crowd either.

Post-event commentators said that Sen. Marco Rubio had a good night, just as those same commentators said last time. But, Rubio tanked in the polls after the last debate and I did not see anything last night to change his trajectory. On the issue of climate change, he offered not a single solution whatsoever and this earned him applause. It is funny how the GOP candidates like to talk about leadership, but on this issue all they do is talk about job-killing regulations and “left wing government”, playing to people’s worst and most immediate fears without offering any sense of hope. Gov. Chris Christie did the best job channeling Ronald Reagan’s mix of sunny optimism with strongly thrown darts, but he did not get enough air time to shine, and there is still Bridgegate pulling him down. Sen. Ted Cruz showed his strategy again: No one is going to get to the right of him. He always looks straight into the camera, which comes across as forced when you have people standing so close on either side.

Cruz did participate in one of the more interesting discussions, when he and Jeb Bush discussed Supreme Court nominations. Both were right that in recent years, nominees have been chosen who lacked a paper trail, as if that was the most important criterion, a fact that yields the additional unhappy result that there is no one on the high court with any experience in either of the other two political branches. Unfortunately, neither man chided the current state of the GOP worldview which fails to recognize the need to compromise at times with Democrats in order to confirm judges – or pass any meaningful legislation. That very interesting debate, however gave way to ten or fifteen minutes on marijuana. Do we really need so much time on an issue of so little import? Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about the debate is that it began a little past 8 p.m. and it was not until 9:29 that the candidates got a question about jobs and the economy.

It was great entertainment. As a lesson in civics, a disaster. The real winner last night was the Democratic Party. 

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