California Conservatives React to GOP Debate

GOP Debate Fox Business Foreign Policy (Scott Olson / Getty)
Scott Olson / Getty
Newport Beach, CA

There seems to be universal consensus that between the reduced number of participants, and the quality of the debate questions and follow-up from the panelists, the Fox Business/Wall Street Journal GOP debate was the strongest by way of policy substance thus far.

It was also the most polite, in terms of candidates jumping each other (with the notable exception of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who definitely brough his sharp elbows to the show).

Here’s my quick hit on each of the main debate candidates, in no particular order, followed by some observations from assorted California politicos who took in last night’s performance.

Ted Cruz: Yet another extremely solid debate for the junior Senator from Texas. Cruz further solidified his role as the “movement conservative” in the race–with several exceptionally strong moments, especially his fiery rhetoric on immigration.

Jeb Bush: In the first half of the debate, Bush stepped up, but the second half was more flat for him. This was not the “comeback moment” he sought. Unfortunately for him, his most passionate moment came on an immigration question, where his answer was divisive.

Ben Carson: I think he had a status-quo performance, which is good when you are doing as well as he is in the polls. He stepped up on policy issues, but had a few awkward moments. Yet he continues to be the thoughtful outsider with impeccable moral clarity.

John Kasich: I couldn’t tell if the Ohio governor was trying to be irritating, or just aggressive. He certainly pulled off the former, while also managing to stake out a spot significantly to the ideological left of the rest of the pack.

Rand Paul: If his goal was to remind everyone that he is the libertarian in the bunch, mission accomplished. Paul’s shot at Trump about China not being in the TPP agreement was priceless. Paul did well, but he (along with Kasich) is on life support if he can’t notch up his numbers.

Donald Trump: Because almost everyone stepped up tonight, Trump didn’t stand out as much as he has in other debate. He thrived on a more “circus-carnival” type atmosphere. Still, I think he gave a typically “Trumpian” performance that should keep most of his support intact.

Marco Rubio: While I though he performed slightly better at the last debate (aided by Bush), Rubio delivered a strong performance last night. He was ready with solid answers, and to the extent there is a Rubio-Bush “primary within a primary” going on, the winner was Rubio, again.

Carly Fiorina: She had a solid performance. But in the world of expectations I think we are all looking for her to have a “blow me away” night like she did at the first debate, when she won the night from the “Junior Varsity” debate for the also-rans. She will need to step it up at the next event.

Some other observations from around the Golden State:

An excellent debate. Everyone did well, though I felt Ben Carson stood out in the main event by defending his record and giving great policy answers. Chris Christie also did well in the undercard debate by focusing on Hillary Clinton. We were treated to a foreign policy exchange between all eight candidates, in turn, at one point–it was the best discussion America has had about a very difficult issue. I think that Democrats watching this debate had to be worried–and a little jealous.

Ben Carson was cool, calm, collected and likable. Donald Trump’s act is wearing thin and people are tiring. A big loser tonight was John Kasich who may have exceeded Trump in rudeness. Carly had her moments but did her debate preparation include being vaccinated by a phonograph needle? National media are trying to proclaim Rubio the winner, but that may wear off after people recall his total evasion of his first question and unfortunate support of refundable tax credits. Cruz, Paul and even Bush exceeded expectations but their bar was set low.

Compared with previous debates, this one was heavier on policy and lighter on fireworks. That meant a better night for the wonks than the showmen. No huge game changers tonight. All the candidates agree that we need a smaller government, lower taxes and stronger defense. Rubio and Cruz did well again. Jeb had his best debate of the campaign. Trump showed cracks in this more substantive format.

Finally a debate about issues. Rubio and Cruz were on fire, Bush tried hard to keep up with the others. Trump, surprisingly seemed to need a Starbucks coffee to keep him awake. The differences between the candidates seem small, except for Sen. Paul–he is different from the 11 other folks on stage. The good news is that Gov. Christie and the rest understand who they have to defeat: Hillary.

What was clearly communicated were Republican free market economic principals of lower taxes, less regulation, less government intervention, and more entrepreneurship. The message was that Republicans are about personal opportunity and Democrats prefer bigger government as the solution. The theme was clear: this nation can and must do better than a Hillary presidency.

Marco, Carly and Rand owned the night. Nothing changed substantively in the dynamic between candidates. Most campaigns (except Kasich, Jindal and Santorum) leave Milwaukee alive to fight another day.

Overall it was the best debate by far, but I thought Rand Paul had the most salient point–can you be a fiscal conservative if you support massive new military and social expenditures?

On ISIS and defense, Trump looked naive and Rand Paul is just plain wrong. Rubio held his own, proving to be a strong debater. He continues to look like best GOP hope for 2016.