Our readers probably watched the CNN debate Wednesday night and therefore do not need this writer to tell them what they saw. So I won’t bore you with a rundown.
Instead, a few impressions to offer of the 11 candidates scratching and clawing for airtime amid Jake Tapper’s incessant attempts to turn a crowded political debate into a WWE-style food fight…
1. Carly Fiorina won. That’s pretty clear. She won because she gave Republican voters what we want — the aura of a strong leader with passionate convictions who’s not afraid to articulate them with an edge. Fiorina tore Donald Trump apart with a very few words when asked about his insulting comments about her face, she gave one of the best answers about Planned Parenthood and whether an effort should be made to defund it, and her foreign policy answers displayed a knowledge of national security and American interest that for eight years hasn’t even been part of the analysis in the White House. That’s impressive for a non-politician; her fellow outsiders in the race have both suffered fairly significantly from a lack of specificity on policy, particularly foreign policy, that Fiorina has largely overcome.
2. Donald Trump opened the debate by beating up on Rand Paul, but by the end the buzz seems to be that he got taken to the cleaners. That’s what the critics were saying, of course, and the critics have always dismissed Trump. His fans won’t hear anything of the sort, and they’re right to say that he didn’t make any suicidal gaffes outside of perhaps dabbling, though not too deeply, in the anti-vaxxer goofery and after the debate Ben Carson clobbered him for suggesting that vaccines cause autism.
But at some point he’s going to have to move beyond “When I’m president, we’ll have the classiest and most luxurious vaccines you’ve ever seen,” and demonstrate that he has the kind of policy knowledge that Fiorina showed off in her first foray onto the big stage.
3. Ted Cruz gives good answers, but it’s been two debates now in which it sure seemed like nobody wanted to give him any time to speak. The one time he was given a truly substantive and interesting question he came up with perhaps the most meaningful answer of the debate; namely, on the question of John Roberts as the Supreme Court Chief Justice appointed by George W. Bush. This occasioned a back-and-forth with Jeb! Bush, who attempted to chide Cruz for now being critical of Roberts but was steamrolled by a brilliant answer. Cruz noted that conservatives keep voting for Republicans and never seem to be satisfied with the results, largely because Republican presidents (all recently named Bush) take the easy way out rather than to do the hard things.
And Cruz looked at the nominations of David Souter instead of Edith Jones and Roberts instead of Mike Luttig as examples of the failure to deliver for conservatives. He noted that if Jones and Luttig were on the court instead of Souter and Roberts, Obamacare would have been found unconstitutional three years ago and all the state laws banning gay marriage would still be alive. Cruz then admitted supporting Roberts as the nominee, and said he regrets it.
Cruz scored against Bush in a significant way, so much so that Karl Rove then took to Fox News in the post-debate analysis and held in his hand a National Review piece Cruz had written in support of Roberts at the time. Which is disgustingly disingenuous on Rove’s part. Ted Cruz was Solicitor General of Texas at the time and destined to argue cases in front of the Supreme Court — does anyone really expect Cruz to have poisoned the well by dumping on the prospective Chief Justice?
Still, what Cruz said was spot-on. The Bushes nominated two Supreme Court justices with no particular paper trail to prove an ideology, and in so doing weakened the court when to engage a full-throated ideological fight could have changed America for the better. That’s a great reason not to elect Jeb! as president — particularly when despite his reticence to use his last name the former Florida governor has done little to demonstrate his presidency would be any different from the uninspiring tenure of his father and brother.
4. On Jeb!, it’s obvious by now that he’s not getting better, isn’t it? When his best moment in a three-hour debate in which he got more air time than anybody but Trump was when he touted the fact that his brother kept America safe for seven years after 9/11, it’s hardly a self-endorsement and it’s definitely not a salve for those who struggle with the idea of yet another Bush in the White House. And when he did show some zest it was to chide Trump for making statements about Jeb!’s wife being a Mexican and to demand an apology — which he didn’t get, and instead Trump gave him a backhanded compliment about not being as “low-energy” as he’s been.
Jeb! is several inches taller than anyone in the field, and you would think that would make him look the part of its leader. Instead, he’s just sort of there. It’s just not enough, and the donors who staked him to $100 million or more before this campaign got started look like fools soon parted from their money.
5. Marco Rubio needs to become a bigger player in this primary, because he’s terrific. Scott Walker should be, but if he’s going to resurrect his campaign it won’t be in a debate, because he’s not a debater. Chris Christie would be a major player if folks didn’t know about his record in New Jersey. Ben Carson doesn’t seem to know much about any of this political stuff, but Gosh Darnit he’s affable.
On the whole, this is a heck of a good Republican field. Even the John Kasichs and Rand Pauls, who seem like they’ll be out of this race before long, would have been major contenders in each of the last two presidential cycles.
Which is why these food-fight debates with 10 or 11 candidates sharing a stage like crabs stuffed in a bucket don’t do justice to the process.
It’s probably too late to execute an idea like this for the current cycle, but rather than a kid’s-table debate and an 11-candidate food fight once a month, why not a tournament?
With 16 candidates, why not set aside five nights over, say, two and a half weeks, and seed the field based on an average of polls? The #1, #8, #9 and #16 seeds could have a semifinal round on a Monday of the first week, with the #2, #7, #10 and #15 seeds going at it on Wednesday. And then on the second Monday it could be the #3, #6, #11 and #14 seeds, with the #4, #5, #12 and #13 seeds. After each of those debates, viewers could pick winners through some means established by the TV networks — Twitter, Facebook, an online poll, or whatever — and then the four winners could meet for the grand finale on the third Monday.
If that were to be the format we wouldn’t have food fights. We’d have some good discussions and less crab-in-a-bucket attacks on each other. And we might actually figure out which of these people needs to be the GOP nominee.