The first Republican debate is now history and the polls and pundits are quickly making decisions about who won and who lost.
Here are some of my impressions.
I felt Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, were the most impressive. Kasich gave a strong answer as to why he expanded Medicare in his state to provide health services to the poor despite vehement Republican opposition to doing so. Rubio punctured one of Donald Trump’s balloons by pointing out that most immigrants crossing the border were not from Mexico at all, but were from Central American countries.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was just OK. I’m not sure OK is good enough in the present race. He made no gaffes and gave reasonable answers, but there was nothing that helped him stand out among the other candidates. I always saw Bush as the likely nominee of the Republican Party, but now I think he has a more difficult path to the nomination.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey was also just OK. I think with his problems regarding Bridgegate and the lack of enthusiasm for him within the conservative community, he will have difficulty creating a path to the nomination.
I don’t think Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had a very good night. Many conservatives have seen him as a go-to guy that could be a very strong contender. I thought he was lackluster. He also continues to demonstrate a weak grasp of foreign policy issues. Although many conservatives really like this guy I don’t think most of the rest of country actually knows who he is. I suspect many will still not know who he is after this debate.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, seems to have had his moment in the limelight and may be beginning to fade. I don’t think he did anything in the debate to change that. What was interesting about Paul was his maverick kind of status within the Republican Party. Especially interesting was his much less hawkish stance than most of the other candidates. Yet, he seems to have found it necessary to alter his language on issues of war and peace in a way that no longer seems authentically Rand Paul.
I found former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee among the most disappointing of the Republican candidates. When he first ran for President in 2008 he was such a likeable, folksy kind of guy. He was quite conservative, but was known primarily for not being an angry conservative. He is now an angry conservative, and seems more than willing to vocalize his most extreme views without nuance. Is he trying to out-Trump Trump?
For me, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, have little to recommend them. They are both well out of the mainstream. Cruz has managed to offend many within his own party, and seems more interested in creating controversy than in solving problems. Carson, who is rightly revered for his medical legacy, is basically out of his depth in addressing political issues, particularly foreign policy issues.
I don’t want to dismiss the seven candidates from the “Happy Hour” debate too quickly, but I will. Fox News dismissed them before me. The debate before an empty arena and the pointed questions as to their viability made clear they were not on the same level as the other candidates. This was not appropriate as some of these individuals are serious politicians. Although former HP CEO Carly Fiorina is said to have won among the seven, I am not sure how she or any of the others will be able to gain traction after the evening’s activities.
Oh, wait a minute. I forgot someone. Oh yes, Donald Trump. Since Trump has become the Teflon candidate it is difficult to say that this debate will hurt him, but I certainly don’t think it will help him. I thought he would be more presidential and soften his tone somewhat. He didn’t. It is true that I think the kind of questioning he received made it difficult for him not to respond in kind. I don’t agree with him however, that the questioning was unfair. I think the questioners were equally harsh with each of the other candidates.
I think some of his answers on national television may not play as well as they have in smaller groups. His comments toward commentator Megyn Kelly are already being heavily criticized by many. Also, the argument that he is not a true conservative may be beginning to stick. It won’t happen overnight, but I do think we have seen the peak of his popularity.
Finally I need to say a word about Fox News. Fox News is certainly one of my least favorite news sources. It must be said, however, that Fox put on a really good television show. That is not entirely a compliment, as I don’t think that is what a debate is supposed to be. But, while compelling might be too strong a word, the debate did hold one’s attention. Even many people who have little interest in politics would have found it enjoyable. There were no softball questions. The hosts knew the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate and probed and confronted each candidate directly. There were fireworks and heated exchanges. It was lively and entertaining. We could argue whether it shed more heat than light, but it was after all only the first debate. It likely created an interest level among a segment of the public which may carry through as the campaign moves forward.
While in general I find the overall philosophy of these candidates disturbing, particularly as it impacts the poor, it does provide an important starting point for a public debate in this country. Hopefully, such a debate will lead to better government and sincere efforts on both sides of the partisan divide to develop meaningful approaches to the myriad of problems we will face in the coming years.