So, because I’m a masochist, I watched most of the debate last night (in between feeding and putting kids to bed). Here are a few quick impressions of the overall debate and of the individual candidates.
Overall, I was not impressed. The debate was very poorly done by CNN. That surprised me, given that I generally like Jake Tapper. Rather than focus on policy, they seemed to want to pit the candidates against each other, frequently asking questions along the lines of, “Mr. Trump says you molest goats. How do you respond?” They goaded the candidates into fighting each other and exercised little control over interruptions and crosstalk. The result was more of a dorm room bull session than a debate from the party of Reagan. The first debate made me think I could possibly vote GOP again this time. The second debate made me think there’s no way I could. It was unpleasant and divisive and brought out some of the candidate’s worst qualities.
I think the underlying problem is that there are too many people on the stage, all desperately vying for attention. Someone like Walker, who was clearly loath to interrupt other candidates, falls by the wayside. The GOP needs to pull the plug on this nonsense and narrow the next debate down to something like 5-7 candidates. I suspect this problem will start taking care of itself, though, as the money dries up and more also-rans drop out. Perry was the first to go. I suspect others will follow in the weeks to come.
As to the individual candidates, by order of how likely I would be to vote for them:
Huckabee had a decent night but is rapidly becoming my least favorite candidate. He supported Kim Davis and made a bizarre comparison to prisoners at Guantanamo. He brought out the ridiculous Fair Tax again. And I simply can not embrace his far Religious Right views.
Trump had a very bad night. He was blustery, he was flustered and he was frequently wrong. The other candidates went after him and he lost several challenges badly. Occasionally, he would throw out a good idea but I think he has peaked. Still, that peak has over a third of the GOP primary voters and I don’t think his debate performance is going to hurt him that much. He’s not going anywhere.
Cruz managed to get even further out of my graces. He staked out numerous far right positions that I simply can’t support. He also lied his ass off. He lied about the contents of the Iran deal. He lied about the contents of the Planned Parenthood videos (to date, no evidence shows laws were broken). He lied about John Roberts’ voting record (Roberts voted against gay marriage. Twice). Practically the only thing I agreed with him on was that we should be putting a woman on the $20 bill instead of the $10 bill.
Bush seemed to disappear at times, trying to pull a Romney and avoid getting mussed to badly. He was reasonable on some issues but his biggest calling card is his record in Florida. It’s true that the Florida economy did well under him. It’s also true that his term coincided entirely with the real estate bubble and it imploded right after he left.
Carson seems nice and I like him a lot. I think he’s probably the smartest man on the stage. But there were many times when we was simply out of his element. And his failure to shut down Trump on vaccines bothered me a great deal. There is zero evidence that we are giving kids too many vaccines in too short a time (the viral loads of today’s vaccines are much lower than the used to be). Carson knows this, or should.
Fiorina impressed quite a bit with her poise and was one of the few to propose very specific policies. She demonstrated a quick wit, refused to rise to Donald Trump’s bait and had a good grasp of policy. On the other hand, if you listened to what she said rather than how she said it, her performance was less than it seemed. Her proposals to deal with Russia sounded good but made no sense: the sixth fleet is already strong, we are already conducting exercises in the Baltics and Polish missile defense is a long-term project. She made completely false statements about what is in the Planned Parenthood videos. I think she’s going to do well post-debate but I’m not ready to jump on that bandwagon quite yet.
Paul made very good points on the War on Terror, mass incarceration, the War on Drugs and federalism. No one up there seemed to care. No one in the audience seemed to care. I don’t see it making much of an impact on the GOP field. He’s saying things that need to be said. But he’s slowly disappearing from the race. Mary Katherine Hamm suggested that Paul abandon the idea that he’s going to win the nomination and simply hammer his issues. I agree.
Christie probably had the best debate performance and saved his candidacy from disappearing completely. He made some good points, even when I disagreed with him. He was probably one of the most visible candidates last night, having memorable exchanges with Trump, Fiorina and Paul. What I most appreciated was that he kept trying to wrench the debate away from petty political bullshit toward bread-and-butter policy. I don’t see him going very far with the GOP base, but I don’t think you can stick a fork in him either.
Scott Walker seemed to disappear for much of the night. I suspect he is not long for the race. I’ve been surprised at how poorly he has done.
Rubio continues to impress me. He had a good answer on immigration, was calm throughout the night and stayed out of the most silly exchanges. He was positive, versed on policy and deflected attacks well. He’s probably the only candidate up there that both has a chance at the nomination and has a chance at my vote. Right now, Trump is the leading candidate. Fiorina is about to become the flavor of the month. Bush has all the bigwigs. But do not be surprised at all if Rubio emerges as the consensus candidate. He’s the only one who seems like he could rally the conservative base, appeal to moderates and repair the damage Trump has done with the Latino community. If I were Clinton, he’d be the candidate who’d scare me the most.
John Kasich was probably the most practical candidate up there, frequently talking about how the office and the government really works. He pointed out, correctly, that it makes no sense to tear up the Iran deal if it’s working. He pointed out, correctly, his role in balancing the federal budget and Ohio’s budget. I see him as the candidate who is most likely to govern effectively and temper the more radical parts of the GOP. But he was frequently blustery and is on the opposite side of the GOP base on many issues. He frankly came across as a bit of prick at times. I don’t see him gaining much traction.
So, in summary, I thought it was an awful debate full of bad moments and intra-party sniping. I think Fiorina and Rubio did well. I think Trump and Carson were exposed as not knowing a lot about policy. I think Cruz and Huckabee came across as hard-right religious nuts. I think Christie and Paul made some good points. But mostly, I think it’s time for the field to thin out. Perry is out. Everyone at the “kid’s table” should drop out. I think Walker won’t be in this much longer. Let’s narrow the field so we can get the kind of policy debate and positivism I expect from the GOP. It is, after all, still a a long long loooong loooooooong way to November.