Would Donald Trump tone down his junior high school playground bombast? Or, for that matter, would he say anything substantive in response to a policy question? Would Jeb Bush show some “cojones” in confronting Trump? Would Carly Fiorina get in Trump’s face, stand up to the braggart who had dissed hers? Would John Kasich be able to shine the light on his many qualifications as a congressman and governor? Would Ben Carson show that you can run as a protest candidate and still survive while being nice? These questions ran over and over through my brain in the hours leading up to the CNN Republican presidential candidates’ second debate. Some 20 million people shared my interest, giving CNN its largest program audience ever.
It was three grueling hours with 11 candidates. (Four lower-tiered candidates debated for 1 1/2 hours before the main event.) So, here’s my impression of what happened.
Donald Trump is still an idiot. (And thank you, Tom Brady. Why not focus on being our Golden Boy quarterback and keep your mouth shut about your pal and golfing buddy, the Donald.)
The first quarter hour of the debate was all about Trump, shining heat but no light. When moderator Jake Tapper steered the conversation into real issues, Trump became noticeably more quiet. Though he continues to grow in the polls, last night his braggadocio was thin gruel for anyone hungry for substance. Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina was forceful and articulate, has very specific and sometimes strange positions, does not suffer fools (e.g., Trump) lightly, and probably gained by last night’s performance. She got off one of the best lines, with indirect reference to Hillary Clinton’s track record as Secretary of State: “travelling is an activity; it’s not an accomplishment.”
Jeb Bush was much higher energy last night and finally seemed to have gotten his act together. He had solid answers on immigration and refused to be cornered by pressure to defend his brother’s moves in Iraq. Jeb said simply that, with respect to W’s foreign policy, “he kept us safe.” He also scored when, in a discussion of vulnerability to interest groups, he recalled how Trump, having thrown his weight and money around in Florida in pursuit of casino licenses, was denied when Jeb Bush was governor. Trump denied the account, saying that, if he had wanted the license, he’d have gotten it. (I’d like to see the fact-checking details on this.)
Chris Christie also put in a credible debate performance, and struck a responsive chord when chiding Trump and Fiorina for arguing about who was a more successful business leader. He effectively congratulated them on their professional careers but called attention to the 55-year-old unemployed or underemployed person struggling to survive economically.
Marco Rubio showed depth on foreign policy, exhibiting Commander-in-Chief capabilities. He was good on criticism of Obama’s strategy in Syria, effectively pressed Trump on how to deal with Putin, and articulate on the complexity of immigration issues. Mike Huckabee spoke to his religious audience, especially forceful in his opposition to abortion, Planned Parenthood, single sex marriage.
John Kasich, having significant records in Congress and as Ohio governor, spoke well but has a lot more to offer than what came through last night. (If he goes deep into the season, I wonder how “moderate” he will be when certain yahoos drop out.) Rand Paul was nuanced in his thinking about foreign engagements and on marijuana legalization, and effective in calling out Trump for the latter’s adolescent behavior. Trump nearly succeeded in relegating Paul to the fringe (both physically and metaphorically) of the gathering. Scott Walker, who ended up having the fewest minutes, also had the least impact. Will he be the next to exit?
We have now had two major Republican debates, with an equal number of those for candidates at the lower rungs of the GOP. Millions of viewers have been introduced to these would-be nominees. We have had exactly zero Democratic debates, and shame on the Democrats. With as many as 20 candidates, the American people have their work cut out for them.
The Democrats, who won’t hold their first debate until October 13, have done a disservice by not putting themselves out there sooner and scheduling so few debates overall. Stonewaller-in-chief, DNC chairwoman Debby Wasserman Schultz is doing Hillary’s dirty work in this regard, and it doesn’t speak well of either of them.
When the armchair quarterbacking has subsided, two potential Republican tickets with credibility may have emerged from last night: Bush and Fiorina, and Kasich and Rubio. Each team includes a candidate with significant experience, a “diversity” V.P. , and a the potential votes that could come from at least one swing state. It’s way too early to make anycall, but, for junkies, an interesting way of benchmarking this intriguing process.
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