With the first primaries still months away, the goal for the participants of last night’s debate was not to come home the undisputed victor. Instead, the prudent, long-term strategy was simply to avoid falling off that already crowded stage into irrelevance.
To that end, most of the candidates performed effectively. Bush did well to pivot away from Common Core and federal control of education, and went so far as to say that—in retrospect—that his brother’s 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake. Because of his lofty position in the polls, this was all he needed to do for the time being. Rubio rather effectively marketed himself as the candidate concerned with America’s future rather than its past. His support for a southern border wall and strong opposition to illegal immigration were matched with comments in favor of making the process of attaining legal status simpler and more direct. Though this would seem a risky position in the midst of the GOP’s current anti-immigrant fervor, he managed to get applause for it, suggesting that he may be both reasonable on the issue and able to garner support for his positions. Paul also performed well, avoiding his father’s pitfall of Iran and swinging hard against Chris Christie’s support of warrantless wiretaps of innocent Americans.
Unfortunately, Paul’s delivery left something to be desired. He remained consistently on the defensive, speaking more often in response to the comments of others than to craft a message of his own. In the next debate, he will need to show assertiveness, positivity, and breadth, fleshing out just what he means by his claim to be a “different kind of Republican.” Nonetheless, these three have not only protected their current standing but may have positioned themselves for advancement as the primaries draw nearer.
Other candidates also performed well without as much flourish. Christie generally performed well and said nothing that would alienate him from the Republican base, including, for better or worse, his shameless appeals to 9/11 in defense of warrantless wiretaps. Cruz put on a decent performance, allowing a measure of substance to shine through his buzzword-laced responses about the “Washington Establishment.” He displayed a sound knowledge of foreign policy when discussing Iran, striking a contrast with candidates like Trump and Carson, who said little to show that they had much awareness of the issues on which they spoke.
The remaining candidates, while not necessarily performing poorly, often blended into the background and failed to garner substantial attention for themselves. Kasich and Carson in particular failed to say anything exciting or memorable, save for Carson’s closing remarks highlighting his own surgical skills–impressive in any case but irrelevant as commander-in-chief. Huckabee and Walker both argued (contrary to current Supreme Court precedent) that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments collectively ban abortion, but otherwise struggled to have a “breakout moment” of their own. Indeed, Walker’s continued opposition to abortion even when the mother’s life is at stake was perhaps the most objectionable view of the whole night. Even when faced with the statistic that 83% of Americans disagree with him on the issue, Walker doubled-down in his support for letting a mother die rather than conduct an abortion. The Wisconsin governor has run thus far on his reputation as a winner in a blue state and the man who took on the unions, but most Republicans know little about his policy positions. Learning that he may be socially to the right of Mike Huckabee could quickly lose him ground. If so, and if he holds fast to that position, it will be a loss he deserves.
Each of these candidates made strong points on particular issues. Huckabee’s comments on Iran made a very lasting impression, perhaps because he immediately followed Paul on the same subject and because Huckabee’s apparent receptiveness towards Paul’s comments demonstrated the success of Paul’s strategy. However, none of these candidates said anything that will guarantee their spot in the limelight for long, and Carson may soon be displaced if the hype around Carly Fiorina’s performance in the 5pm debate is reflected in the polls.
The one loser of tonight’s debate was Trump, and he lost right out of the gate. The first question—probably strategically positioned by the moderators—was whether any of the candidates on stage could not, at that moment, say that they would not run as a third party candidate if they failed to get the Republican nomination. Trump was the sole respondent, to intense boo’s that continued to follow some of his responses throughout the night. He defended absolutely detestable comments about women by turning it into a joke about Rosie O’Donnell. He unnecessarily condescended to Megyn Kelly, the moderator who asked him that question, and vilified the outstanding Fox moderators afterwards with unfounded charges of having attacked him simply for having asked tough questions, even going so far as to promote a tweet referring to Kelly as a “bimbo.” He cited “political correctness,” of all things, as one of the biggest problems facing our country. He asserted that he is the sole reason that immigration policy is a current topic of debate (as if it hadn’t been consistently in the news since the discovery of undisclosed immigrant camps in Texas and ramped up by the story of Kate Steinle’s murder this summer). His one decent response of the night involved foreign policy towards Iran, but the rest of his responses were often far from the point—requiring the moderator to follow-up for a straight answer—or were simply a theatrical display of the sort of politics meant to appeal to those who are angry, do not know why, and want a candidate who is equally angry. However, this may do little to affect his poll numbers. It depends on how many of his supporters really are just the “angry” type and how many can detect a political fraud when it is laid bare before them on a television screen.
All of this, however, says nothing about the substance of the candidates’ responses. Paul often appeared to be the most capitalist-leaning of all the candidates on stage, but his belief that negotiation is still a viable option with Iran is probably misguided. Obviously, Bush’s renunciation of his support for Common Core is a pleasant shift, but one can reasonably question his sincerity in light of his past positions. Several candidates disagreed on whether entitlements should be “saved” or eliminated. And obviously abortion continued to play too big a part of Huckabee and Walker’s platform. However, an in depth analysis of the quality of individual candidates’ platforms and ideologies must come at a later date.
Winners: Marco Rubio/Jeb Bush
Losers: Donald Trump/Ben Carson