I agree in large measure with Scott McKay’s fine analysis of last night’s debate but wanted to offer a few thoughts of my own including my conclusion that the biggest winner and biggest loser of the night were not on the stage.
First, a very brief summary of each candidate’s performance:
- John Kasich: Good performance but too much time spent saying the word “Ohio,” despite his having an admirable record as governor. Also, and this is the first time I’ve thought this, Kasich looked a bit old and tired last night; when my wife, who doesn’t follow politics too closely, wanted to tell me who she thought had a decent night, one of her picks was “the old guy.” Still, his message is appealing and if the GOP base were willing to consider a relative moderate on social issues, it’s easy to imagine Kasich doing well against Hillary Clinton.
- Mike Huckabee: Still populist and wrong about entitlement reform but otherwise had a very strong debate with good answers to the few questions that came his way. He came across as passionate and caring, and his use of the renegade blimp as a metaphor for the federal government was fantastic. Huckabee is one of the most likeable candidates in the race and an effective spokesman for his views but is not and will not be considered a serious contender in the 2016 presidential campaign.
- Jeb Bush: May hang around due to still having some campaign cash but offered no real passion, no real distinction from other candidates, and no reason to prefer him over anyone else. His attempt to criticize Marco Rubio over Rubio’s missing votes in the Senate — piling on a similarly failed attempt by a debate moderator — backfired and was, unfortunately for Jeb, his most memorable moment. (The failure of the moderator to dent Rubio with the question should have been a clue to Jeb that Rubio was ready for it, and what Republican candidate wants to appear to behave like part of the worst panel of debate moderators we’ve yet seen?)
- Marco Rubio .: Continues to cement a reputation as one of the best communicators the GOP has seen since Ronald Reagan. He fended off partisan and fundamentally pointless questions from moderators with answers that demonstrated both principle and practicality while aptly balancing indignation and frustration with likability. He, like almost everyone on stage, made a point of being cordial to the other GOP candidates, shown most clearly when Rubio said he continues to have great admiration and respect for Jeb Bush after Jeb launched his feckless attack on Rubio. Overall, Rubio was probably the night’s biggest winner (on the stage, at least — more on that in a moment).
- Donald Trump: Paradoxically, this was probably both his best debate performance and his least memorable one. Trump remains weak on details and was caught in a lie/error by moderator Becky Quick (Trump said he had never made a statement which Quick had pulled directly from his website) but was plausibly presidential and stayed away from the bullying tone that had worked for him early in his campaign but has been noticeably ineffective lately. Instead, he correctly aimed his derision at the CNBC moderators and offered repeated words of cordiality to his GOP competitors (except for an early unpleasant attack on Kasich.) His closing statement, including his repeated mantra that America keeps losing, was a sour and overly negative note compared to the more optimistic tone of others on the stage — at least optimistic if America does not elect Hillary Clinton.
- Dr. Ben Carson: Although he had a few good answers, Carson seemed far too often to be trying to remember things he had memorized during his debate preparations which took him too far, too frequently, from answering the question he was asked. For example, a question about drug pricing should have been in his wheelhouse but he deflected to a broader generic statement about over-regulation. Critiques of his tax plan were some of the few jabs by either moderators or other debaters that seemed to penetrate slightly. I appreciated his overt admission that he’s revisited and changed his view on an issue (regarding energy subsidies). Overall, Dr. Carson came across, as he often does, as a very smart and principled man who simply does not have enough experience to be president. I’d sure love to see him running HHS.
- Carly Fiorina: As always, solid and incisive answers full of detail and principle and practicality but didn’t dominate the event as she had in two prior debates. She warmed the audience to her at the beginning of the debate noting that she was told she didn’t smile enough in the past and then offering a big and slightly goofy, affable smile. Her repeated point that only the large, powerful, and well-connected benefit from big government should be one of the most important precepts emphasized by Republican candidates for every political office everywhere. She had the most politically risky statement of the night, saying almost in passing that the federal government has no constitutional role in setting minimum wages — which is absolutely correct. Carly has seemed in recent weeks to squander her post-prior-debate momentum by her relative public invisibility (at least outside of a few early states, which seems therefore to be a strategic decision, perhaps to preserve campaign cash.) Although her debate performance was excellent, it may not be enough for her to return to the top tier of candidates.
- Ted Cruz .: In response to a question about the debt ceiling and immediately after a CNBC anchor asked one of the other candidates one of the evening’s many outrageous bits of Democratic propaganda thinly disguised as a question, Cruz savaged the mainstream media for their duplicity and bias. It was a similar moment to Newt Gingrich’s attack on CNN’s John King in 2012 that temporarily boosted Gingrich’s fortunes, though I suspect Cruz’s boost to be longer-lasting. I appreciated Cruz’s frank admission that he might not be the person on stage who would be most fun to grab a beer with. Cruz’s answers were detailed, principled, and clearly heartfelt and, as the other young Hispanic conservative on the stage, he seems more and more like the co-front-runner with Marco Rubio (at least to those of us who do not believe that Donald Trump or Ben Carson will end up with the nomination).
- Chris Christie: Another solid performance, doing better than any of the others in speaking not just to the audience in the room but to the nation. (One wonders why none of the others did the same after Christie used looking directly into the camera to such great effect in the last debate.) Like many of the others, he went after the moderators, in Christie’s case for a question (asked of someone else) about fantasy football, wondering why we’d be talking about that when we have 18 trillion dollars in debt and are threatened by ISIS and al Qaeda. He speaks clearly and gives his answers in fewer words than most of the others, quite an achievement for a lawyer. His answer to what he believes should be done about “climate change,” an issue that he, alone among all the GOP candidates, seems to think is important in the sense of it being substantially caused or curable by humans, was as good as it could be for conservatives: whatever should be done should not be done by the federal government. Christie has had prior very solid debate performances but it remains unclear whether the GOP base is willing to truly consider him and forgive his famous hug of Barack Obama which some blame for Obama’s re-election in 2012.
- Rand Paul .: Continues to stake out the most liberty-oriented and libertarian positions and gave a great answer about reining in the Federal Reserve. Still, something about Senator Paul comes across as more of an activist and perhaps a thought leader than as a man who should be president — and I say this as someone who is more supportive of Paul being president than most of the GOP base is. An evening without foreign policy questions kept Sen. Paul nearer the other candidates on policy issues, a double-edged sword for a struggling campaign.
The biggest on-stage winners were Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. The biggest on-stage loser was Jeb Bush. Also, although few people are willing to say it, Ben Carson did himself no favors on Wednesday. Each of the other candidates gave solid performances but not enough to substantially move the polling needles: The weak will stay weak with their order slightly shuffled and Trump will stay strong but stagnant.
The biggest loser of the night was, by far, without question, undoubtedly, and most assuredly, CNBC and by extension the entire “mainstream media.”
Carl Quintanilla, theoretically a very capable journalist, demonstrated what happens to people’s brains when they are educated at the University of Colorado in Boulder, as he was. His low point came when asking Dr. Carson if it represented bad judgment on Carson’s part when a company put the doctor on their web page without Carson’s permission. The audience rightly booed.
Becky Quick asked the most infuriating question of the night, bringing out the thoroughly debunked fiction that women earn only 77 percent of what men make, a claim that analysis by both conservative and liberal media outlets have shown to be false. (See here, here and here.) It was disappointing that none of the candidates called her out for blatant fabricated propaganda but Carly Fiorina did a good job pointing out how disproportionately harmful Barack Obama’s policies have been (and Hillary Clinton’s policies would be) to the economic prospects of women.
John Harwood, who also writes for the New York Times, has offered repeated defenses of Hillary Clinton’s various shenanigans through his social media accounts and had no business being at the debate last night. His questions were largely bald-faced Democratic talking points and he overtly lied about the Tax Foundation’s assessment of Marco Rubio’s tax plan; during the debate, the head of the Tax Foundation tweeted that Rubio was right and Harwood wrong. Remarkably, when Rubio called Harwood out for having made the same error a couple of weeks earlier and having to issue a correction, Harwood adamantly denied it; it turns out Harwood was lying about that, too. Apparently Harwood studied journalism at the School of the Big Lie.
I naively thought that John Harwood would know that he entered the debate with skepticism from conservatives and that he would therefore ask less partisan and more policy-oriented questions. But he, like so many in the media, lives in a liberal bubble into which such self-awareness cannot penetrate. One example was asking Mike Huckabee whether Donald Trump had the “moral authority” to run the country, which Huckabee answered perfectly, attacking the question and saying that Trump, like everyone else on that stage, would be a far better president than Hillary Clinton.
John Harwood was the loser among losers on Wednesday night.
The repeated evidence, called out by the candidates and magnified by today’s fact-checking, of the mainstream media’s liberal bias was the most dominant overall takeaway of the night, an interesting outcome for a presidential debate.
To be fair, two other CNBC folks, Jim Cramer and Rick Santelli, asked solid policy-oriented questions aimed at eliciting real information rather than a “gotcha” moment. If they had been the only questioners of the evening — Cramer a moderate liberal and Santelli fairly libertarian and exceptionally pro-free-market — the event would have been much better for everybody and much more informative for the voting public.
Therefore, my selection as the biggest winner of the night is…
The Fox Business Network, whose anchors routinely demonstrate an understanding not just of finance and markets, but of liberty, capitalism, and the Constitution.
As a financial markets trader who has been watching CNBC since I got to the Chicago Board Options Exchange in 1987, it give me no pleasure to see CNBC fall into propagandist mediocrity. But just as Fox News is capitalizing on dissatisfaction with obvious bias and partisanship throughout most other news organizations, Fox Business stands to take viewers from CNBC at an even more rapid pace following the disgraceful performance of Quintanilla, Quick, and especially Harwood.