CNBC Debate Losers: Kasich, Bush, Paul, Carson

Debate moderators Carl Quintanilla (L), Becky Quick (C) and John Harwood question candidates at the third Republican Presidential Debate hosted by CNBC, October 28, 2015 at the Coors Event Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Let’s get the obvious wisecrack out of the way first: CNBC wasn’t the biggest loser at the CNBC debate. The network wasn’t exactly sitting on a mountain of high ratings to begin with.

CNBC will enjoy some wagon-circling approval from the Angry Left.

The most immediate problem facing CNBC is the static it’s getting from NBC brass. (One NBC employee told radio host Erick Erickson that she expected the CNBC moderators to “focus on your money, like every f**king banner in the building says,” instead of swinging into action as partisan liberal trolls.)

The more pertinent question is, why did the Republican National Committee expect that? They boasted of tighter control over this year’s debate schedule. They should have taken a closer look at the biases of these moderators, and set tighter ground rules for the debate beforehand, rather than cornering CNBC producers and unloading on them backstage while this clown show was playing out. They’re lucky the candidates rose to the occasion and made lemonade out of these moderator lemons. If we want to give a meta-Loser award, we might want to look at RNC headquarters.

As for the contenders on the debate stage, it’s not hard to pick the biggest loser of the night, for this could well be the end of Jeb Bush’s candidacy. In fact, he needs to think long and hard about getting out while his endorsement still matters, and he can still generate big headlines with his withdrawal.

Bush demonstrated a stunning inability to read the stage by plowing ahead with a poorly-conceived attack on Marco Rubio’s Senate record. It was the bomb Bush came to drop, and by gum, he was gonna drop it… even though he was clearly no longer over the target. He ended up making Rubio look like the bigger man, which is the very last thing Bush needed right now.

The larger problem with Bush is that he can’t seem to find a rationale for his candidacy, beyond the very thing he started out determined to minimize: his last name. He was correct to think he needed to make a name for himself, but he’s never really done that. He spends far too much time touting his gubernatorial record, far beyond the point where it feels relevant to a national audience.

For example, he talked about how he’s cut taxes in the past as governor of Florida, instead of explaining how and why he thinks the federal tax burden should be reduced today. Asked if he’d trade a dollar of tax hikes for ten dollars in spending cuts, Bush delivered a cute line about the difficult of finding Democrats willing to cut ten dollars in spending… when he could more usefully have pointed out that every single “balanced approach” deficit reduction deal from Democrats has been a swindle, because we get the tax hikes right away, and the spending cuts never.

Even when Bush is right about something, he lacks conviction, and gives the sense that he’d fold under left-wing pressure. He dribbles, when more aggressive candidates would shoot. He also became the latest in a long string of bipartisan candidates who failed to make “check out my website for all the details of my great plans!” work.

He wants to be the optimistic non-angry candidate – in response to the dopey loaded opening question, he said his “greatest weakness” was his inability to fake anger – but he just doesn’t project optimism as well as Rubio. There is a difference between projecting optimism and complaining about pessimism.

John Kasich’s odd strategy of conquering the Republican electorate by insulting it into submission still isn’t working. He’s the angry voice of the Democrat status quo, throwing his weight behind every liberal caricature of the GOP field, selling himself as the “reasonable” Republican who can go along with utter failures like ObamaCare and maybe tinker with them a bit to fix them.

“I want to tell you, my great concern is that we are on the verge, perhaps, of picking someone who cannot do this job,” Kasich thundered in his opening statement.

I’ve watched to see people say that we should dismantle Medicare and Medicaid and leave the senior citizens out in the cold. I’ve heard them talk about deporting 10 or 11 [million] people here from this country out of this country, splitting families. I’ve heard about tax schemes that don’t add up, that put our kids in a deeper hole than they are today.

Later, Kasich bragged he was the “only person on this stage that actually was involved as the chief architect of balancing the Federal Budget.” That will come as news to everyone who was under the impression the federal budget isn’t balanced. Presumably he’s alluding to his support for a balanced budget amendment, but he barely mentioned that, tossing it out in a quick postscript while the moderators were busy moving on to something else.

Besides being out of touch with the mood of the Republican electorate, Kasich’s pitch as the guy who can make Democrat plans work, with a modest discount on the cost, hurts the Republican Party at large. You just don’t see Democrats doing that to themselves. They don’t dismiss each other’s $20 trillion spending agendas as dangerous fantasies or chicken-in-every-pot schemes. (Kasich actually said that about his fellow Republicans’ tax plans on Wednesday night.)

The governor is far too respectful of the Left’s belief that the one luxury our high-rolling government can never, ever “afford” is a tax cut. He actually does some of the details right. He was on-target when he criticized the new budget deal as more of the same. “You spend the money today, and then you hope you’re going to save money tomorrow,” but he never makes those points with the same passion he invests in conservative-bashing. He orbits good topics like corporate welfare and the Export-Import Bank, but he doesn’t go in for the kill.

It’s hard to recall a case of someone winning the nomination, or the presidency, by burning his own party down.  John Kasich will not be the first. He might not be able to climb back up off the mat after Trump smacked him down on working for Lehman Brothers.

Senator Rand Paul had a decent night, but he needed a lot more than a decent night at this juncture in the campaign. He’s fading away, and he’s got a Senate race to think about. The most telling moment of the night came during his chummy moment with Senator Ted Cruz over auditing the Federal Reserve. Paul and Cruz are theoretically fighting for the same slice of the primary electorate, so when we Paul smiling while Cruz appropriates his issues, it’s reasonable to conclude Paul’s thoughts are drifting back to Kentucky.

It seems harsh to cite Ben Carson as a loser in the debate, because he didn’t say anything likely to hurt himself, but it feels like he missed a moment. He’s been riding high in the polls, and getting attention by swatting down media attacks. He would have benefited enormously from delivering a policy-focused, detail-oriented performance that would take him from affable to presidential.

Carson was in the right groove when he talked about his Medicare reform proposal, but he only spoke about it for a few moments, and didn’t press on to make a convincing case for how his reform could be realistically implemented and why it was necessary. He’s great at coming back to basic principles, as when he declared his individual-choice Medicare plan was justified because “it was never intended that the government should be in every aspect of our lives,” but the voters want a picture of how those principles will blossom into effective action. This is especially true for outsider candidates, who have a history of talking big games, but constantly labor against the suspicion that they don’t know how to turn their big ideas into practical initiatives.

Also, when a candidate speaks in broad principled terms like Carson, it’s easy for others to muscle in on his act. Chris Christie did that to Carson on the Medicare question, taking the step Carson demurred on, and turning the good doctor’s limited-government wisdom into a specific political strike: “Ben is absolutely right in saying that what we don’t need to do is send more money to Washington, D.C. to fi this problem, and that’s what you’ll hear from Hillary Clinton.”

In a similar vein, Carson did a good job of defending the broad outlines of his flat tax proposal – the rate has to be “much closer to 15 percent” than the 10 percent he metaphorically cites from scriptural tithe. Deductions and loopholes must be closed to generate sufficient revenue, economic stimulus from low taxes would generate additional tax receipts, and a huge amount of money can be saved by eliminating wasteful and redundant government agencies.

He just seems reluctant to take it to the next step, and pitch his idea as something imperative, something it’s wrong to oppose. When moderator Becky Quick said a 40 percent reduction in the size of government would be necessary to make Carson’s tax plan work, he ended up in a brief and pointless back-and-forth with her about whether that figure was true, instead of arguing that a massive reduction in the size of government is desirable. No one will ever be able to sell a dramatic tax reform plan without tackling this “Leviathan must be fed!” argument head-on.

Carson seems reluctant to run against anyone, and while a lot of people are responding positively to his upbeat attitude and gentle style, it will inevitably be necessary for even the nicest candidate to throw a few punches. A little bit of aggression is necessary to demonstrate conviction. Some emphasis on detail and process is necessary to demonstrate leadership.

Outsiders don’t get many opportunities to solidify polling surges by decisively addressing doubts about the plausibility of their campaigns, and it feels like Carson passed one up on Wednesday night. It’s a curious outcome, because he has lately been demonstrating a remarkable amount of political savvy, without losing any of his outsider appeal. Fortunately for Carson, he’s been doing so well in this highly unusual primary that he will probably be given another moment to seize at the next debate.