Wednesday night’s Republican debate on CNN from the Reagan Library lasted for approximately three hours, but felt as if it lasted for all eternity. During the endless conversation, some candidates rose, some fell, and most of the audience fell asleep. The debate may not have clarified the potential nominee – but it certainly clarified who won’t be a factor in the coming weeks.
First, a few notes on the moderators. Hugh Hewitt, when permitted to speak, asked hard-hitting questions; unfortunately, CNN relegated Hewitt to a back seat in favor of the wildly overrated Jake Tapper. Tapper, in the interest of ratings, felt the need to begin the debate with half an hour of Vince McMahon-style “bumfight” provocations, thus focusing the American public on sophomoric attack after sophomoric attack. Only after 45 minutes of such nonsense did the debate settle into some semblance of policy discussion.
So, how did the candidates do? Without further ado, here are the debate grades:
Donald Trump: D. Trump still has the enthusiasm of a large number of people; obviously, Matt Drudge’s poll shows him way out in front. But Trump’s candidacy has been based on two factors: hatred for the establishment, and unwillingness to back down. Trump supporters still hate the establishment, but last night, Trump backed down.
Trump led off with typical love him/hate him Trumpism: he mentioned his “billions and billions of dollars,” but “not in a braggadocious way”; he slammed Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), not only blasting his low poll numbers, but saying he could smack Paul over his looks (“Believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter right there.”); he slammed Governor Scott Walker (R-WI), Carly Fiorina’s business record, former Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL), and pretty much everyone else. Some of this was relatively effective, particularly his attacks on Jeb Bush.
All of that changed nobody’s mind about Trump. But one exchange could damage Trump’s candidacy in a serious way: his tete-a-tete with Carly Fiorina. Fiorina deballed Trump before the entire nation. Tapper asked Fiorina about Trump’s comments last week in Rolling Stone, in which Trump said that Fiorina’s face presented an impenetrable barrier to achieving higher office. Fiorina said, “You know, it’s interesting to me. Mr. Trump said that he heard Mr. Bush very clearly and what Mr. Bush said. I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”
Trump, clearly thrown, responded, “I think she’s got a beautiful face, and I think she’s a beautiful woman.” He leered awkwardly as he said it; it had to be one of the most bizarre moments in presidential debate history.
The exchange told us two things: first, the god bleeds; second, Trump doesn’t do the slightest bit of preparation for these debates. Trump’s popularity is based on the notion that he never backs down. But faced with Fiorina’s response, he backed down quickly. Trump got punched, and he ran.
Just as importantly, Fiorina has been giving the same answer for days. Trump didn’t bother to prepare for it in any way. He paid the price for it.
After the Fiorina debacle, Trump’s bravado seemed to wane. He became significantly more subdued, and that in turn led to more focus on his awful policy answers. Trump is amusing because he fights. But when he doesn’t, he just appears to be a clown. Trump had more time than anyone in the debate, and he used that time in wasteful fashion: he sounded off idiotically and anti-scientifically on vaccinations and autism (Hey, he knows a girl who had a vaccination and got autism! Anecdotal evidence FTW!), bloviated about Syria in nonsensical fashion, and talked about the Iran deal in vastly confusing ways. Trump has had weeks to study, and he came up with nothing. He’s lazy, and it showed.
Ben Carson: D. Carson had a massive opportunity to pick up Trump’s supporters. All he had to do was be genial and articulate. He was genial. He wasn’t articulate. He failed to drop the hammer on Trump on vaccines, even granting him credibility on junk science regarding spacing out vaccines; he soft-pedaled Trump’s utter idiocy on the link between autism and vaccination. He received a handshake from Trump for saying he opposed the Iraq war; Jeb Bush frowned as he turned away. He even said he opposed the war in Afghanistan after 9/11, a ridiculous position given that al-Qaeda housed itself in Afghanistan. Carson said that President George W. Bush should have used the “bully pulpit” instead – the same sort of response Barack Obama might give after smoking too much of Jeb Bush’s pot. On immigration, Carson backed off his position that we can’t deport 11 million illegal immigrants; he vacillated on minimum wage. Where does Ben Carson stand? Nobody knows. Carson appeared uncomfortable, bewildered, unprepared. And the vacuum he presents is no longer a viable, lasting option for dissatisfied Trump supporters.
Carly Fiorina: A. Fiorina’s face plant on Trump was her signature moment. But it wasn’t her only good moment. Her best moment may have been this spectacular response regarding Israel and Planned Parenthood:
Dana, I would like to link these two issues, both of which are incredibly important: Iran and Planned Parenthood. One has something to do with the defense of the security of this nation. The other has something to do with the defense of the character of this nation. You have not heard a plan about Iran from any politician up here. Here is my plan. On day one in the Oval Office, I will make two phone calls: the first, to my good friend Bibi Netanyahu to reassure him we will stand with the state of Israel. The second, to the supreme leader, to tell him that unless and until he opens every military and every nuclear facility to real anytime, anywhere inspections by our people, not his, we, the United States of America, will make it as difficult as possible and move money around the global financial system. … As regards Planned Parenthood, anyone who has watched this videotape…I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain. This is about the character of our nation, and if we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us.
Masterful. And Fiorina’s command of the issues remained impressive all night. Her answer on Russia demonstrated knowledge of the issue, as did her answer on Syria. On immigration, she redirected to attacking Democrats for not solving the issue, a smart response.
Fiorina looked strong and in control. She also looked personable: when she discussed her daughter’s death from a drug overdose, her emotion was palpable, even as she acknowledged the need for criminal justice reform with regard to marijuana.
One exchange prevented Fiorina’s A from becoming an A+: Trump’s perfectly accurate attack on Fiorina’s business record at Hewlett Packard, which was plainly below average. She accurately smacked Trump’s business record, but she ought to send Christie a check, given that he saved her with a canned response about how nobody cares about their business successes. Fiorina will need better answers on her business background if she hopes to take the nomination.
Former Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL): F. Once again, the man with all the money looked like the most uncomfortable man on the stage. Bush has no enthusiastic base from which to draw, and his answers landed with soft thuds. His most notable exchanges came with Donald Trump; he insisted that he had rejected Trump’s supposed bribery attempts regarding casinos in Florida, and Trump waved him off. To be fair, the questions did not benefit Bush: Tapper brought up Bush’s failure to support Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, the Iraq war, and even Trump’s attacks on Bush’s wife. Bush’s lukewarm response to Trump’s attacks on his wife made him look weak; his foolish attempt to redirect from his assault against Trump to his general immigration position opened him up to Trump’s “act of love” counterattack. Bad move.
His defense of his brother, George W. Bush, was similarly tepid. Bush is a nonentity, and he showed it. He’s toast. The only question is how quickly establishment types move their support to Marco Rubio.
Governor Scott Walker (R-WI): D. Sweaty, nervous, off-putting, Walker felt the brunt of CNN’s disdain. He received significantly less time than any other candidate – just 8 minutes and 29 seconds. He didn’t do much with the time he had. His sole bright spot of the evening came when he criticized Donald Trump’s lack of experience, but the blow glanced off Trump’s ample visage. Walker will be out of the race quickly; his camp acknowledges that his campaign has boiled down to Iowa.
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX): C. Ted Cruz, in his desire to be seen as likable and unintimidating, was far too passive in this debate. He didn’t catch on to the fact that this debate would not be strictly policed in terms of time until far too late; he didn’t speak for perhaps the first 45 minutes. When he did speak, the gears in his head turned visibly: everything appeared rehearsed. The words that left his mouth were often quite good. Take, for example, his response on Iran:
[T]he single biggest national security threat facing America right now is the threat of a nuclear Iran. We’ve seen six-and-a-half years of President Obama leading from behind. Weakness is provocative, and this Iranian nuclear deal is nothing short of catastrophic. This deal, on its face, will send over $100 billion to the Ayatollah Khamenei, making the Obama administration the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism. This deal abandons four American hostages in Iran, and this deal will only accelerate Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons. You’d better believe it. If I am elected president, on the very first day in office, I will rip to shreds this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal.
But the presentation lacked. Cruz’s campaign strategy seems to be waiting out the possible collapse of Trump and the drop-outs of candidates like Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA) and Rand Paul. He’s got enough money to stick around. But can he shake that sense of unease that seems to settle over audiences when he speaks?
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL): B. He’s always a 7, never a 10. Rubio’s responses are smooth, practiced, sincere. But he has no edge, and he never has a get-up-out-of-your-seat-and-cheer moment. Here, for example, was Rubio’s response on Iran:
We need a commander-in-chief who will stand up and protect this country, and I’ll tell you, I can’t wait to stand on that debate stage with Hillary Clinton and to make abundantly clear if you vote for Hillary, you are voting for the Ayatollah Khomeini to possess a nuclear weapon, and if you elect me as president, under no circumstances will a theocratic ayatollah who chants “death to America” ever be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon.
This is a very long sentence. It is too long to be declarative. It’s typical Rubio: well-stated, but unmemorable. This does not make for soundbites. This endears him to the establishment, who believe that the chief goal of Republican candidates should be inoffensiveness, but it gets no one excited. Rubio has solidified his position as the alternative to Bush – but will he run into the same enthusiasm gap Mitt Romney did in 2012?
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY): D. Was Rand Paul there? If you see him, please call the number on the milk carton. Trump successfully unmanned Paul in the first minutes of the debate. Paul responded by attempting to be above the debate:
I think really there’s a sophomoric quality that is entertaining about Mr. Trump, but I am worried. I’m very concerned about him — having him in charge of the nuclear weapons because I think his response, his…his visceral response to attack people on their appearance — short, tall, fat, ugly — my goodness, that happened in junior high. Are we not way above that?
By calling Trump sophomoric, however, Paul made a cardinal mistake: if you’re trying to avoid the fray and appear more sophisticated, don’t get in an insult fight. For the rest of the evening, Paul, like Cruz, dutifully abided by the rules of the debate. His only big moments came on drugs and Syria, where he reiterated his out-of-the-box libertarian positions, endearing him to his base but doing nothing to expand that base. And his last answer – what would his presidential code name be – was mockworthy (“Justice Never Sleeps”). As Tapper said, it was a mouthful.
Governor Mike Huckabee (R-AR): B. Huckabee’s strategy in this race is clear: win evangelicals; then win more evangelicals. Last night, he did heavy work on that area in his extremely limited time. (He had the second-least time of any candidate). His answer about Kim Davis got religious Americans out of their seats:
I am here to fight for somebody who is a county clerk elected under the Kentucky Constitution that 75 percent of the people of that state had voted for that said that marriage was between a man and a woman. … I thought that everybody here passed ninth-grade civics. The courts cannot legislate. That’s what Roberts said. But heck, it’s what we learned in civics. The courts can’t make a law. They can interpret one. They can review one. They can’t implement it. They can’t force it. But here’s what happened: because the courts just decided that something was going to be and people relinquished it and the other two branches of government sat by silently. I thought we had three branches of government, they were all equal to each other, we have separation of powers, and we have checks and balances. If the court can just make a decision and we just all surrender to it, we have what Jefferson said was judicial tyranny. … We made accommodation to the Fort Hood shooter to let him grow a beard. We made accommodations to the detainees at Gitmo. I’ve been to Gitmo, and I’ve seen the accommodations that we made to the Muslim detainees who killed Americans. You’re telling me that you cannot make an accommodation for an elected Democrat county clerk from Rowan County, Kentucky? What else is it other than the criminalization of her faith and the exaltation of the faith of everyone else who might be a Fort Hood shooter or a detainee at Gitmo?
Huckabee for the win here. Ted Cruz, who is also vying for the evangelical vote, got hit with Huckabee’s truck on this one. Huckabee may not move in national polls, but he will move in Iowa.
Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ): B. Chris Christie subdued himself to turn in a solid debate performance. He tried to be more magnanimous than the debate, to portray himself as big-hearted and generous to others. At times, it grated. But it worked better than his combative performance in the first debate against Paul. Still, his big answer came with regard to 9/11, when he rightly spanked Ben Carson on his foolish Afghanistan answer:
Let me say this, Jake, is that while that may have been a fine idea that Dr. Carson had, these people were out to kill us. I stood in that region with my family, and every time a plane went overhead in the weeks after that, people’s heads jerked to the sky because they thought it was happening again. You do not need to go through subtle diplomacy at that point. That could be handled later on. What you need is a strong American leader who will take the steps that are necessary to protect our nation. That’s what I would do as commander-in-chief in this circumstance. And that’s what President George W. Bush did in 2001.
He also pledged to prosecute Hillary Clinton on stage, making him one of the few candidates to promise to go directly at the Democratic frontrunner. Will Christie emerge as a Jeb alternative?
Governor John Kasich (R-OH): F. Blustering, braying, bloviating, annoying, irritating. John Kasich may be an establishment favorite, but he was a smoldering garbage heap on the debate stage this time. In the first debate, I gave Kasich an A for his soft-spoken approach. He left it backstage this time. And he proceeded to give leftist answer after leftist answer. Here’s Kasich on Iran:
Now, this agreement, we don’t know what’s going to happen in 18 months. I served on the Defense Committee for 18 years. I’ve seen lots of issues in foreign affairs, and foreign — in terms of global politics, you have to be steady. Now, here’s the — if they cheat, we slap the sanctions back on. If they help Hamas and Hezbollah, we slap the sanctions back on. And if we find out that they may be developing a nuclear weapon, then the military option is on the table. We are stronger when we work with the Western civilization, our friends in Europe, and just doing it on our own, I don’t think is the right policy.
Wut? And here’s Kasich on Planned Parenthood:
When we shut the government down — if we have a chance at success and it’s a great principle, yes. The president of the United States is not going to sign this, and all we’re gonna do is shut the government down, and then we’re gonna open up — open it up, and the American people are gonna shake their heads and say, “What’s the story with these Republicans?” So I think there is a way to get to cutting off the funding for Planned Parenthood. I was in the Congress for 18 years, balanced the budget, cut taxes, got it done. Changed welfare, went around the president to get welfare reform done. There are ways to do it without having to shut the government down, but I’m sympathetic to the fact that we don’t want this organization to get funding, and the money ought to be reprogrammed for family planning in other organizations that don’t support this tactic.
Overall, the length of the debate gave more candidates time to speak about substantive issues, and revealed some serious weaknesses. The big winner: Fiorina. The big loser: Jeb. Only time will tell if Trump’s flaws begin to rankle even his supporters. Once again, the fate of the Republican nomination is in turmoil.
Ben Shapiro is Senior Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News and The New York Times bestselling author, most recently, of the book, The People vs. Barack Obama: The Criminal Case Against The Obama Administration (Threshold Editions, June 10, 2014). Follow Ben Shapiro on Twitter @benshapiro.