It Begins. The first, two-tiered, Republican debates were held in Cleveland, OH, on August 6th, 2015, in the very venue of the upcoming Republican National Convention. As I’m sure readers know, there are now 17 declared Republican candidates–Lord knows who or what might jump in tomorrow–so Fox (co-sponsor, Facebook) held an earlier, second tier “forum,” followed several hours later by the top ten candidates as determined by national polling.
Whether having 17 candidates is a good idea has also been much debated. On one hand, it demonstrates the depth and strength of the Republican party. On the other hand, so many in the center and right are absolutely disgusted with the Republican Party, particularly Congress and congressional leadership, that this factor may end up meaning relatively little. On yet a third hand, having so many candidates tends to greatly truncate the time available for meaningful debates, so in two hours, each candidate has about nine total minutes of rushed talking points. The public has little opportunity to learn who the candidates really are. One can only hope that the field will begin to winnow down to a reasonable number of the right people soon.
For this article, I’m going to stick only with my initial impressions of the candidates, primarily as they presented themselves in the debates. There will be more than enough time for more in-depth assessments where there are fewer assessments to be done and those few are more likely to be the nominee.
The Second-Tier Forum:
Winner: Carly Fiorina (she won by a very wide margin)
Tied for Second: Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal
Carly Fiorina: Fiorina was intelligent, sharp, precise and impressive. She deserves to be in the first tier of candidates more than perhaps half of those featured in the later debate. She made pertinent points without sounding like she was reciting poll-tested talking points. She sounds like what honest Americans would like an American president to sound like: someone that actually appreciates America. I’m on the verge of thinking she could be a good President, and anyone that doesn’t seriously consider her for Vice President is an idiot.
Rick Perry: Perry focused on border enforcement, but not oddly so. This Rick Perry, four years ago, would have had a very strong chance at the nomination. In American presidential politics, few get a second chance. He showed real class in complimenting Fiorina, correctly observing that if she had been negotiating with Iran, we would have gotten a much better deal. He did himself some good, but it may avail him nothing.
Bobby Jindal: Jindal comes off as a very smart, amiable policy wonk, but there is something missing. He has had far more chances at the national limelight than most, and hasn’t been able to hit on all eight cylinders yet. He was apparently an effective governor, but I don’t see the spark of an effective potential president, not yet.
Lindsay Graham: He is now portraying himself as a staunch conservative and defense hawk, but he is the conservative who loves to betray conservatives. He spent most of his limited time talking about all of the troops he is going to send into Iraq and Syria, which was odd and off-putting. Yes, he’s right about a strong defense posture and that if we don’t destroy terrorists over there, we’ll be fighting them in the streets over here in ever increasing numbers, but he’s very late to this new-found faith, and I don’t trust him anymore than I did when he tried to throw open our borders.
Rick Santorum: A nice enough fellow, but his time has long since come and gone. He too has had many chances, but he has never caught on. It’s hard to imagine that even he believes he has any chance of getting the nomination. So what’s the point of his run? He has no unique issues to expose to the public that other candidates won’t.
George Pataki: Three-time Republican Governor of New York State and pro-choice Republican at the time of a very pro-life turn in national politics. Why?
Jim Gilmore: Former one-term Virginia Governor. Why? He reminded me of someone’s retired uncle looking for something to do with himself. He can’t possibly believe he has a ghost of a chance? Can he?
The First-Tier Debate:
This was a very different affair. The three moderators–Brett Baier, Meagan Kelly, Chris Wallace–asked many very tough, individually focused questions, but they also played for ratings, pitting candidates against each other and pushing them to attack each other. Their focus on Donald Trump, particularly in the first hour of the debate, was particularly obvious and obnoxious, and in some ways, overshadowed their otherwise to the point, demanding and excellent questions.
Winners: Ted Cruz and Scott Walker
Second: Ben Carson
Donald Trump: In many ways, Trump is a natural for the times: irreverent, brash, outrageous and willing to trash those in power, including the media. His attitude is attractive to Republicans who have been attacked and ridiculed by those same powers. The audience generally loved him, and he made no real mistakes, but his honesty will really cost him. The first question was who would not promise not to run an independent campaign if they didn’t get the nomination. Trump alone raised his hand, which caused the audience to lustily boo him. The rest of his performance didn’t hurt or help him. That admission, honest as it was, however, did hurt him. It shouldn’t take long to find out how much.
Ben Carson: Carson helped himself by being well-spoken and surprisingly well-informed about the issues. He had several of the best lines of the night. Early on he observed: “there is no such thing as a politically correct war.” Considering Obama’s racially divisive years, his story about his response to a NPR reporter that he sees people as a neurosurgeon, and it’s the brain that makes us what we are, that matters, not the color of the skin, was brilliant. Equally brilliant was his closing that will be what a great many people remember. He is unlikely to ever be the nominee, but this performance will keep him in the race awhile.
Marco Rubio: He stuck to his stump theme of being the candidate of the future, and smiled almost not at all. Suddenly, he was an immigration hawk, and mostly regurgitated talking points about every topic. He didn’t hurt himself, but didn’t help himself either. He’s smart, attractive and a capable politician, but didn’t distinguish himself, and I absolutely don’t trust him on immigration. His actions have been the opposite of his current words.
Jeb Bush: A very unimpressive performance. It was almost like he knew he was fighting his way out of a hole and was sheepish about it. He actually looked pale. He dodged an early question about dynastic politics, and while trying to say the opposite, defended amnesty. He also defended Common Core while trying to pretend he wasn’t. He was reduced to talking incessantly about his record as Florida governor. With comments like: “We need to lift our spirits and have high, lofty expectations,” that was probably his best possibility. He definitely hurt himself. With more performances like this, those that think a third Bush presidency would be a bad idea won’t have to worry about it.
Ted Cruz: Cruz played what he apparently is: a real adult. He sounds like the kind of Senator Jimmy Stewart played, a real America who believes in American values and fair play. He was very calm and direct, knows the issues very well, brought up his disappointment with Republicans who win elections, but accomplish nothing. He swore to always speak the truth and do what he promises. The audience loved that, which is a telling commentary on Barack Obama and most establishment Republicans. He also noted that we can’t win a war against radical, Islamist terrorists with a president that can’t so much as say “radical, Islamist terrorist.” He’s probably trustworthy on immigration, and directly helped himself.
Chris Christie: He made a solid initial defense of his record, and very much got the better of Rand Paul in an argument over terror policy, but most voters have made up their minds about Christie long ago. A year ago he was the presumptive front-runner. Once lost, that’s not something one gets back.
Scott Walker: He began with a weak opening, but became much better later. He was direct, brief, informed, and provided rational, to the point answers. Walker sounded very much like an American, the kind of American that could make a very good president. One of his great lines was the China and Russia know more about Hillary’s Clinton’s e-mails than the U.S. Congress. He smiled, was obviously relaxed, and presented himself well. His only potential problem was in seeming to go along with a moderator’s characterization of his stance on abortion as opposing it in all possible circumstances. He didn’t specifically agree, but if he’s the nominee, it will certainly be used against him. Still, it was a good performance that will help him.
Mike Huckabee: Huckabee is a smart, capable politician who speaks well off the cuff. He had one of the great lines of the evening by accurately playing on Reagan’s “trust but verify,” by saying that Obama’s motto is “trust but vilify;” trust America’s enemies and attack anyone that disagrees with him. Abortion also tripped him up. He made a convoluted argument that seemed to suggest he advocates ignoring the Supreme Court while somehow opposing them with the 5th and 14th Amendments, but never made sense of it. Huckabee has had his chance years ago, and he won’t get another.
Rand Paul: Oh dear. From the beginning, he looked angry, annoyed, and if he cracked so much as a grin, I didn’t see it. For the most part, he presented himself as wild, angry, and spent most of his time yelling for no apparent reason. Paul, upon occasion, sounds rational and even statesmanlike. It’s hard to present yourself as a rational defender of the Constitution while loudly and angrily yelling about it. He even called himself a Reagan conservative, but unlike Reagan’s 11th Commandment (never speak ill of another Republican), Paul did his best to attack several of the others, and in a particularly graceless manner. Paul is, very much like his father, presenting a thin and occasional veil of rationality covering a bottomless well of crazy. Also like his father, his followers will find brilliance in his performance, but he badly damaged himself to others.
John Kasich: The sitting Governor of Ohio, Kasich was a crowd favorite. From the beginning he was loud and boisterous, making very wide and theatrical gestures. He often talked about himself rather than directly answering questions. Unlike some of the other candidates, he really had no memorable quotes. While he didn’t help himself, he didn’t really hurt himself either. Considering he barely made the cut for the debate, he needed to do much, much better.
I look forward to the winnowing effect. There are far too many people involved in this race. The sooner the field can be narrowed to reasonable proportions, the more familiar we can become with the true nature of the candidates.
I don’t expect this single debate to have a truly significant effect on the race–it’s still too early–but it’s a start.