I expect Donald Trump’s support to wane slightly after last night’s debate. Of the eleven Republican presidential candidates to appear, several of his rivals are likely to gain.
Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio pulled out strong performances; Chris Christie had some effective moments, too.
Scott Walker was allowed plenty of airtime but came off as bland; Mick Huckabee came across as pleading for our indulgence (he had least business being on the stage). Ben Carson lost ground by relying too much on low-energy generalities. Kasich had one or two strong moments but relied too much on his record of performance in Ohio and the Senate. The demand was for vision, and a sharp take on policy.
The moderator, Jake Tapper, with occasional questions from Dana Bash and radio personality Hugh Hewitt, did a great job of keeping the three-hour debate focused. It was a strenuous format. Candidates were called on unpredictably. Tapper shifted the topic of debate often and quickly, sometimes arbitrarily cutting off comfortable discussions. By and large, candidates spoke spontaneously and avoided boring set speeches. Ted Cruz and Scott Walker were the worst when it came to spontaneity. Cruz, of all the major candidates, is the most personally unappealing. And, although Fiorina came across as powerful and poised, she fell back on rehearsed remarks too much, both in her discussion of the military and in the closing.
It was fascinating to hear how the candidates varied. Their discussions of the legalization of marijuana, of the consequences of US’s military involvement in Iraq, the Iran nuclear deal, immigration reform, and the role of the Supreme Court under John Roberts, were particularly revealing. Only Rand Paul and Ben Carson resolutely refrained from saber-rattling. The other candidates vied to out-do one another with violent promises. Scott Walker promised that if elected President, he would undo the nuclear deal with Iran ‘on day one.’ Fiorina likewise asserted that we should have no dealings whatever with Vladimir Putin, a position that Bush, Trump, and Paul all used to draw a contrast. Several of the candidates invoked Reagan, insisting that the US is strongest when engaged diplomatically with the world’s scariest players.
Trump claimed that he would restore respect for America and ‘get along with everybody,’ but, when asked about his limited knowledge of foreign affairs, said only that he would put together a first-rate team. Bush pleaded, more effectively than did Kasich, for a foreign policy committed to multilateralism and steady global engagement. When one of Bush’s rivals tried to attack his brother’s record after 9-11, Bush’s simple response, ‘he kept us safe,’ drew sustained applause.
Cruz’s worst moment came when he tried to disavow his one-time support for John Roberts, whom he now depicts as an arch-enemy. Trump’s worst moment came when he tried to compliment Carly on her beauty. He also failed to summon a convincing reply when Bush accused him of having tried to get concessions on casino gambling from Hillary after giving her campaign money.
Bush’s best moments came when he admitted having smoking pot forty years ago, when he argued for a nuanced approach to immigration, and when, in the debate’s closing moments, he threw out the goal of propelling the US toward a high-growth-rate economy. Marco Rubio showed his command of a rational immigration reform plan, but looked callow when he proclaimed that he had missed votes in the Senate because (essentially) the entire direction of Congress is mistaken. His announced determination to leave the Senate in order to seek the presidency shows how unprepared to be president he really is.
All in all, the debate was refreshing in its breadth and intensity. In the press of competition, the candidates, desperate to differentiate themselves from one another, came across quite candidly. The bracing back-and-forth of this, the second GOP debate, casts into relief the dangerously lackluster character of the Democratic field. A Democratic contest between Hillary and Bernie is going to make for poor entertainment indeed. For now, the energy is with GOP field.