I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the September 16th Republican debate. It was a game changer. Where I saw Walker as the likely winner of the primary, I now see an open field. It’s wide open. I’ve watched it multiple times, and here is how I would rank it:
1st Place: Carly Fiorina
2nd Place: John Kasich
3rd Place: Marco Rubio
I base this not on who “won” the debate, but on who had the biggest gains. All three went into this debate as non-starter candidates behind Trump, Walker and Bush, and all three projected stronger and more forceful presence than any of the previous frontrunners. All three were impressive.
Let me start by saying, Carly Fiorina was wrong on many of her statistics and misstated or misrepresented several facts.Let me follow by saying I think that is utterly irrelevant in terms of the Republican primary. The Republicans don’t value facts, they value strength, and Fiorina was the strongest candidate on the stage. She had poise, she had conviction, she had confidence, and she held herself together for the entirety of the debate. Furthermore, she had strategy. She played to the militaristic wing of the Republican base, promising to resurrect boondoggles like missile defense and the 6th fleet, she played to her business experience. She played to many of the core issues that base Republican voters adore. She was unflappable–the only candidate besides Rubio who didn’t flinch at The Donald’s condescending ire.
On the contrary, instead of deferring to Trump’s bluster, she eviscerated it, and did so with a subtlety and nuance none of the other candidates on that stage possess. When the Trump campaign sinks, I will point to September 16th as the night it started and Carly Fiorina as the woman who punctured its hull below the waterline. My guess is it was, in some ways, personal. Trump was the only candidate she ever attacked directly. In a Rolling Stone article a week ago, Trump quipped “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?”
This was a blatantly sexist and demeaning remark, reducing a woman’s qualification for any office to her aesthetic appeal. One got the sense Wednesday night that Fiorina, a woman who rose through the corporate ranks to the rank of CEO of one of the world’s premiere tech companies, has seen a lot of that bullshit and had her fill, and she was having none of it. Her response was succinct and brilliant. Just freeze that video in the previous link at the 33 second mark and tell me what you see in her face and her eyes, and tell me it doesn’t chill your blood. That is cold, deadly loathing. This is a force to be reckoned with. She got a raucous show of applause. Trump, for his part, walked right into her trap and complimented her looks–same mistake, different door. Eight guys in the audience clapped, and, presumably, later spent the night on the couch when their wives kicked them out of bed.
Trump tried fighting back later, arguing she could never manage one of his companies. She responded by pointing out that his casino had filed for bankruptcy 4 times. Trump is sensitive about his bankruptcies, and quick to point out it was never him, just the companies he ran, that ever filed–she had none of it, pinning him and his management style to bankruptcy court. This will resonate with base voters and establishment voters alike, and was a masterful move. She later made a reference to the stress and scrutiny candidates face on a long campaign, all but daring Trump to keep up. If Carly Fiorina was male, I’d call her as the Republican nominee right now. She was easily the strongest candidate on stage, even if she was wrong about most of the things she said. She was the epitome of the Clinton rule: better to be strong and wrong than weak and right, and Carly Fiorina was definitely wrong–at least partially–on most of her points. But damn if she wasn’t the strongest candidate on the stage. I would not be surprised to see her as the Vice Presidential Candidate, and only mildly surprised to see her as the Presidential Candidate.
John Kasich was not the most commanding presence on the stage, but he was mostly solid and had an earnestness about him that conservative voters–real conservative voters, not rabid tea party enthusiasts and evangelicals–should find appealing. Whatever else you fault the guy for, he’s real, and he’s more or less honest. I once had him relegated to the dustbin of this primary simply for his bland presentation and low name recognition, but he addressed both in spades and I think has established himself as a player. His record is sound and he is right to champion it, even if he overstates his role somewhat–they all do that. We all do that. it’s called “padding your resume.”
What Kasich needed to do most was make himself known, bring himself out of the obscurity that would mark certain peril for any chances of the nomination, and he did this. He was passionate, he was strong, he was aggressive–three words I never thought I would ever use to describe John Kasich. He wasn’t the most polished politician out there, but he was the most sincere. His staid, simple demeanor may yet prevail. Call him a dark horse candidate at this point. Where I once had him written off, I now see a fleeting glimpse of hope. His criticism of the Iran deal, however misguided, was tempered by a realpolitik evaluation of the world that we live in. His repeated insistence that we cannot go it alone was grounded and reasonable. John Kasich came across as the only true conservative on stage, and I would not at all be surprised if his numbers surged in Iowa in the coming weeks. As someone who lived in Omaha once, I could see his is simple but steadfast approach to all of the questions and challenges the moderators threw at the candidates resonating with voters in Iowa. If the goal his campaign strategists had for Kasich was simply to break out and be recognized as more than just stage fill, I would say he secured it in spades.
He put himself squarely on the map.
Marco Rubio is very likely going to be the Republican candidate for President–just not this year. He’s still too young, still too unknown, but this will be his year to introduce himself to the voters. If he really wants to be president, he should continue turning in performances like he did in the Sept. 16th debate, avoid any kind of negative advertising or scandal, and hold on as long as he can before bowing out gracefully and throwing his support behind the nominee. This is his year to get noticed, it will not be his year to run. I do expect to see him headlining the ticket in 2020 or 2024, and will be surprised if he never gets a shot.
Rubio came out strong and confident. He, after Fiorina, was the only candidate who never let Trump back them down or cower them. He sunk a solid hit on Trump when the issue of foreign policy knowledge came up, pointing out that a commander in chief has to be prepared to deal with a potential crisis on day one. When Bush was challenged for delivering campaign answers in Spanish, Rubio had a better response to it than Bush Explaining that his Cuban grandfather taught him to love American values in Spanish, the language that he spoke, he went on to say that if he was speaking to a Spanish speaking audience, he wanted to hear his answers from him directly, not through a translator. It was powerful and it was sincere. Like most of Rubio’s answers throughout the debate, it was delivered with firm confidence, and just passionately enough to be heartfelt without crossing into a rant.
In a party that is aging rapidly, Rubio still seems too young to be President–but what he has started to establish with this debate is recognition in the memories and minds of the people who will be making this choice again in 4 and/or 8 years. He displayed ease, charm, confidence, competence and pluck. The worst thing that could happen to Rubio this election cycle would be to get the nomination, because I don’t get the sense that he’s quite ready for the big game; he’s like a star college quarterback thinking of the draft his junior year. Sure, he could take the plunge and maybe even do well, but staying for the senior season, getting a little more coaching, weathering and experience under his belt would make him a better player when he finally steps up to play pro ball. Getting in the game too early could wreck what might otherwise be a stellar career. This is a candidate to watch in future elections.
The rest of the stage either tread water or lost ground, I think, with no major shifts in either direction. There were mostly flat, tired performances from the remaining panel that didn’t really do anything to stand out or distinguish themselves.
Bush came out a little stronger this time, taking direct aim at Trump’s personal attacks on him and delivering a zinger about Trump’s failed attempt to establish casinos in Florida. Trump denied that this was ever his ambition, but he was lying. I remember when this was going down, and to see Trump brazenly deny this ever happened was telling about how credible he is. Trump most certainly did push for casinos in Florida, and Bush most certainly did shut it down. As someone living in Florida when Bush was governor, I thought it was one of the few decisions of his I agreed with and he did, as he claimed, rebuff all of Trump’s efforts.
While he was more firm and forceful this time than in the initial debate, Bush still doesn’t seem to be a candidate quite at ease with himself or with running for president. There is a tentative stance he assumes on stage, which is unfamiliar to someone who saw the confidence he displayed when running for governor of Florida. I still don’t get the sense that this is a man there because he wants to be so much as a man who is there because he is expected to be. I really think he’d rather be doing something else and will be relieved if the polls ever give him an excuse to say he fought the good fight but is respecting the will of the people and bowing out.
Walker seemed lost in this debate. The man I once thought would win this primary is looking more and more like an android, the Kochbot Mark 16 Candidate Droid™. He keeps reciting the same tired arguments with the insincere delivery of a guy explaining that multilevel marketing schemes are a surefire path to financial independence and wealth–from his basement. Walker’s positions don’t seem to be his own, they seem to be drawn from a list of talking points some puppet master is handing him, and he delivers them with all the conviction of a POW denouncing his country with 6 armed men standing around him in ski masks. I’d write more about Walker but as I ponder what more to say, I realize there simply isn’t more to say. This is a candidate on life support at this point.
To CNN’s credit, they did not allow this debate–unlike the last one–to be The Donald Trump Show. Trump was the number one target of candidates tonight, and was forced to defend a lot of bold claims and outright insults he has lobbed at the rest of them–which is fair. Fiorina, Bush and Rubio in particular savaged him, Fiorina outright demolished him. When you build a reputation as the fastest gun in the West, you’re going to be in a lot of gunfights, and I don’t think this really occurred to Trump before tonight. While he still maintained his trademark swagger, he got rocked on his heels a couple of times.
I think we can safely add women to the list of demographics Trump has or is actively alienating. Aside from his insult to Fiorina’s appearance mentioned above, he was asked to defend his accusation that Bush’s position on immigration was biased because of his Mexican wife. Trump’s defense was that he hears she’s hot. He came across as slightly sleazy and clammy.
The worst thing that happened to him this debate was CNN putting Carly Fiorina on the stage near him (one candidate over, actually, probably so she didn’t slit his throat on stage like a lamb at Eid–figuratively, she did it anyway). The reason I say this is that Fiorina, as I said before, was strong. Trump, who has appeared strong this entire campaign cycle to date, looked like a blowhard. Side-by-side comparisons are true tests; where something that appears good on its own suddenly pales when placed beside the real deal. This debate was the beginning of the end for him. It wasn’t just her; he’s been taking potshots at several of the GOP candidates, but in this debate several of them back-boned up and shot back. I think they wounded him deeply and from here on he’ll bleed out.
Cruz seems to be a one trick pony, warning about the evils of Iran without evidence, fact or any information whatsoever. I am convinced he has never read the Iran deal, because he didn’t say a single thing about it that was remotely accurate, but didn’t let that stop him from excoriating it in apocalyptic terms, deeming it a threat to western civilization.
Cruz scrupulously avoided direct challenges to any of his opponents, but burned Obama in effigy on stage so many times they had to disable the smoke detectors to avoid clearing the theater. Cruz didn’t do anything to distinguish himself, despite being given opportunities to do so. Instead, he used his time on stage as free advertising, speaking directly to the camera and delivering Cruz For President speeches in lieu of answering any questions. I half expected to hear a voice over from him saying “I’m Ted Cruz, and I approve of this message” after every answer he gave. I’m not sure who or what he was going for; I doubt he lost any supporters in the debate, but I doubt he gained any either–so what was the point of even showing up?
Ben Carson was flat. Flat like a tire. Flat like a glass of soda left out all night. Flat like week-old roadkill. He didn’t make any mistakes, but he didn’t make any points, either. He was just. . . there. In a debate that was lively, even raucous at times, Ben Carson was–flat. One has to wonder if he wasn’t freaking out before the debate and his campaign manager gave him a couple of 10mg Xanax tablets to calm him down. He almost spoke in monotone. He didn’t really bring anything to the table, established himself as a biblical candidate with his tithe-based tax plan, and otherwise. . . No really, I can’t remember much about Carson. I can’t even find much more than that in my notes.
Rand Paul was reasonable, sounded good when talking about restraint in the use of military force, and generally came across as lucid and sound. While the political observer in me thinks he will blow this all tomorrow with some wild stunt, judging by this debate alone he was a reasoned voice of sanity and restraint on topics like Iran and military intervention. He didn’t get a lot of stage time, but made good use of what time he did by outlining reasonable and serious positions, not pandering to any particular base.
It was an interesting strategy, similar to that which his father employed in Presidential elections to no success before, and a striking contrast from his wild publicity stunts since gaining the Senate. I found myself thinking less about what he was saying and more about whether it was an homage to his father, the apple falling close to the tree, or some sort of gambit whose denouement has yet to present. I don’t see Paul as any more viable a candidate than his father, but he did bring a less bombastic approach to it and I could see, given time, him actually finding a way to take his father’s approach and evolve it into a legitimate run for the White House. It will not be under the Republican banner, but this is good practice for him.
I shouldn’t even need to point out Mike Huckabee is not a serious candidate. The only thing he said that caught my attention was when he claimed that Christians in America are persecuted and Muslims are getting deferential treatment. I couldn’t help but think of the kid who went to jail for building a clock. He called letting a Muslim keep his beard while doing his job while jailing Kim Davis for not doing hers persecution. Goodnight, Mike, see you in 2020.
Christie didn’t perform well at all. I can’t quite place my finger on it, and have watched the debate three times to try, but something about him just doesn’t sell. Christie seemed to be all over the board. Where Rubio, Fiorina, Kasich and Bush clearly came out with well defined strategies and played them well, Christie gave the impression he was just sort of winging it. There was something vaguely desperate about his appeal to his glory days as a former prosecutor and promising he would prosecute Hillary Clinton in debates–that’s not how debates work. It was weird. Every time I went through the debates I rewound through that bit and never did get an answer to the “what the hell?” my mind asked when he said that. This is going to sound morbid, but looking in his eyes during the entire debate as he spoke, I was reminded of dogs at the pound. They have that same look in their eyes. Go back, watch him again, tell me I’m wrong. He just wants you to take him home and vote for him.
In summary, all my previous predictions–except that Trump and Carson won’t win–are up in the air. If the GOP can stomach a female president, Fiorina is a strong candidate–though I still expect she will get the VPC slot on the ticket, because the GOP likes the little ladies but we all know they can’t handle big decisions, right? If the establishment has a clue, she’s their pick at this point. I suspect they are still holding out hope that Bush will get his heart in the game or Walker will pull his head out of his ass and start showing people how he won all of those elections he likes to brag about, before someone thinks to go re-check the results and confirm it was all on the level.
I’m really interested to see how Fiorina does. She is the first female Republican candidate for President to ever stand on stage in a debate, and she not only held her own but managed to dismantle the ostensible frontrunner. She was a pit viper, hiding in the leaves, striking, and retreating to wait for the venom to work. I suspect the bites she got on Trump will start their effect over the next few weeks. At this point, I consider the serious contenders to be–in no particular order–Kasich, Fiorina, Rubio, Bush, and Walker. I don’t see any of the other six as serious players in any context. Of the so-called “junior varsity” Republican players, they had another chance before this last debate and none of them distinguished themselves like Fiorina did in the first debate–at least, not enough to secure a position in the next one. You can write them all off now.
This is the most diverse and colorful array of characters the GOP has fielded in a long time–possibly ever. The traditional rules seem to be in a state of flux. Contrary to what many in the media are saying, I don’t think I could attribute that to any single candidate so much as a perfect storm of historical and political events uniting at a single point in time. I can’t wait to see how this plays out.