CNBC GOP Debate: Who won and who lost?
Another GOP debate has come to an end, and it was decidedly the least enjoyable debate thus far. The conversation seemed less like a natural step towards determining the next leader of the free world and was more reminiscent of the conversation at a bad Thanksgiving dinner. Rand Paul was your nephew complaining about not getting enough food, Ben Carson was your uncle who showed up high, and Marco Rubio was the sexy foreign exchange student you’ve been making eyes with all night. A few candidates emerged from the melee of finger waving, fact denying, and moderator bashing better than they entered, but I question if anyone felt better about the state of democracy after the debate.
A note before I continue: much has been made of CNBC’s handling of the debate. I’ll admit, their moderator casually asserting ‘this is the first real debate’ because ‘CNBC is the best’ was amusing, given the debate that followed. Like, we’re talking about CNBC, a network whose slogan has been ‘good enough of news to be played in a hotel lobby during breakfast without you asking the manager to switch channels,’ and ‘the 4th best news channel to end with the letters BC,’ scratch that, forgot about BBC, make that fifth best.
Many conservative viewers complained that the questions were too antagonistic, and that the moderators were clearly biased. The candidates capitalized on that, giving Cruz, Rubio, Christie and almost every other candidate an applause moment just by attacking the moderators. While I will say that many of the questions were uninteresting, and that CNBC didn’t control the flow of dialogue well (in those respects they were bad moderators) I’d submit that attacks on fairness weren’t always, well, fair. First, for the majority (not all) of the questions, CNBC was simply asking the candidates to explain and defend their records. It’s not their fault that the Republican Party has lurched so far to the right, or that many candidates have proposed ridiculous policies. Second, even if questions were ‘biased,’ having an unsympathetic moderator better prepares candidates to deal with hard questions from the other party. Finally, it’s important to note that we are talking about the race for President. If a candidate defending their record, even focusing on the flaws of their record, is too difficult, perhaps they shouldn’t be running for leader of the free world. By and large, it’s a common theme for the GOP to prefer to complain about purported media bias rather than discuss the issues, perhaps a recessive gene that’s been passed on since Richard Nixon. Both parties could benefit from tough questions, though perhaps they could be asked more artfully. Ok, I’m done.
To the rankings:
- Marco Rubio
Rubio has done well in every debate, but this night he shined. Rubio entered the debate as the possible alternative to both the ‘moderate’ Bush and conservative Trump and Carson. Rubio’s takedown of his old mentor, Jeb, made Bush seem weak and desperate while Rubio appeared to be every inch of a statesman. Rubio stayed on message, stayed positive, and turned each question to his advantage. He continues to be the most naturally talented communicator in the race, and is another step closer to becoming the nominee.
- Ted Cruz
Ted Cruz has been running the smartest campaign in the race. He has the most campaign cash on hand, has a strong field organization, stays on message, is an excellent debater, and is well positioned to sweep up Trump and Carson’s voters should they fall. Tonight, Cruz did exactly what he needed to do. He took on the moderators rather than the other candidates (Newt Gingrich called, he wants his debate strategy book back), stayed on message, and appeared more human even while remaining polished. Yet, by Rubio taking the spotlight, Cruz can watch the Senator rise and fall while he lurks in the wings before sweeping to the front right before Iowa.
- Chris Christie
Second only to Rubio in terms of natural political talent, Christie turned in another excellent performance. He stayed focused on attacking Democrats and the moderators, presented some thoughtful policy, and was funny. Perhaps this might jumpstart a comeback, particularly if Kasich and Bush slip in the polls. Or this might not make a difference, and be too little, too late. We’ll have to wait and see.
- Carly Fiorina
Polished, but not particularly memorable. It’s difficult to imagine people choosing to vote for her after the debate who otherwise wouldn’t have. Still, it was free media, and gave her largely invisible candidacy another moment in the spotlight. Nothing was lost for Fiorina that night, though she should begin to worry about becoming too reliant on debate performances for her campaign.
- Donald Trump
Other than the Kasich put down, Trump was not a bully in this debate, and was surprisingly quiet. Some critics may point to this as sign that his shtick has worn thin and that voters are beginning to move on. However, Trump knows he has a loyal base, and he emerged from the debate unscathed. That’s all you need as the frontrunner.
- John Kasich
Kasich decided that night that he was going to be the adult in the room that got mad as hell about how far right the GOP has gone. He did that well, and also reminded (almost too often) viewers of his record. The trouble is that, with Carson, Cruz and Trump taking 60% of voters, it’s hard to say whether or not Republicans are even willing to listen, let alone agree, to Kasich’s ramblings. He’s veering towards Jon Huntsman territory, and by that I don’t mean to suggest he’s on the verge of a Mormon conversion. One bright spot is that, if Bush does implode, Kasich might be able to make a play for his voters; however, it’s hard to imagine, if judging just by this debate, why they wouldn’t instead go for Rubio or Christie.
- Ben Carson
Carson baffles at debates. He turns in sleepy performances, meanders around questions, and presents policies that often fail to make any sense. In spite of that, his poll numbers go up. Carson had another such night. I’m not really willing to project what exactly is going to happen.
- Mike Huckabee
Huckabee is trying to stay relevant in the race, and it’s not working. He continually defended entitlements, which while courageous in the GOP, it’s hardly a winning issue. He appeared to be more like an angry pastor who watched fascist propaganda for speaking tips than he did a folksy preacher; that’s not good. He is another step closer to dropping out.
- Jeb Bush
Jeb would have been better off risking the wrath of Barbara and skipping the debate to smoke a joint outside with Rand. He took on Rubio early in the debate and lost, and that loss hung over the room for the rest of the night. He gave his usual talking points on his record, which is fine, but he should know by now that warranted, reasonable, nuanced policy proposals aren’t going to persuade voters in the age of Trump and Carson. Also, the kiss comment was weird. You can put ‘a warm kiss from Jeb’ next to ‘Amish erotica’ and ‘Cinnabon catered wedding’ as the least romantic and enticing things in the history of love. Jeb, with slumping polls, needed a good debate. Rubio took his spotlight. Jeb might not ever get it back. Jeb needs a comeback, needs to prove that he can bring something that the other candidates (particularly Rubio) can’t, and needs to do all this quickly. It can be done: ask John McCain or John Kerry about last minute surges to the top of the pack. The trouble is, half of Bush’s appeal was that the was the ‘inevitable frontrunner.’ When you’re no longer inevitable, just why are people voting for you?
- Rand Paul
Consistently the worst GOP debater, he was largely irrelevant throughout the evening. Rand could have ordered a pizza, played some blues, or streaked across stage and no one would have noticed. Put him next to Huckabee as ‘next major candidate most likely to drop out.’
And that was the debate. What were your thoughts?