Republican Debate Grades: Trump Actually Won This Time

Donald Trump, Jeb Bush
AP Photo/John Locher

Tonight’s Republican debate did little to shift the field. After tonight, Donald Trump will remain the frontrunner; Jeb Bush will continue to bring up the rear; John Kasich will continue to be the boil festering on the ass of the American public.

The debate did, however, highlight weaknesses with some of the second-place contenders – all of whom hope to overcome Trump with a bit of luck and a lot of their fellow candidates dropping out.

Without further ado, here are my debate grades. Remember, I don’t give pluses or minuses for purposes of clarity. There’s no grade inflation here.

Donald Trump: A. Yes, dear Trumpian readers, this is the grade you’ve given Trump for every debate. But this time I actually agree. Every debate comes down to moments. Trump had several of them that were simply grand. He looked reasonable in his policy on Libya and Syria – not in small part because the far more fluid Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) agreed with him. He looked hard-core on ISIS – not in small part because Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) didn’t agree with him. He looked tough on immigration. And most of all, he continued to beat Jeb Bush like a redheaded stepchild who dropped his stepdad’s prized Tom Landry-signed football in the outhouse. The exchange that mattered most to Trump came when Jeb said that Trump couldn’t insult his way to the presidency. Au contraire, said Trump: “I’m at 42 and you’re at 3. So far, I’m doing better.” Then he continued, pointing at the middle of the stage, “You started off over here, Jeb. You’re moving over further and further. Pretty soon you’re going to be off the end.”

That’ll leave a mark.

Yes, Trump fudged on the nuclear triad. But nobody outside of Hugh Hewitt and Marco Rubio cares about that.

Ted Cruz: B. Cruz bested Marco Rubio in several exchanges, and he prevented Donald Trump from going off on him. For that, he gets a B. He had a couple of solid lines, particularly when he stated that the Obama administration’s foreign policy had been disastrous not because of incompetence, but because of malicious political correctness. But he seemed unable to distinguish his immigration plans from Rubio’s, and when he was asked directly by Rubio about whether he’d grant citizenship to illegal immigrants, he said he didn’t intend to do so. That’s lawyer-talk for “maybe.” Trump is now outflanking him on the right on immigration. Tonight Cruz looked strong, but Rubio dirtied him.

Marco Rubio: C. The weakest performance of the cycle for Rubio came when he needed his strongest. That’s because he chose to go after Cruz, who looked early as though he had no inclination to attack Rubio. Cruz wants to play conciliator because he wants to avoid playing into his reputation as divisive; Rubio didn’t let him. Rubio attacked him on defense authorization – an unfair charge. He attacked him on immigration, a somewhat fairer charge. He then attacked him on Libya and Syria – and got hammered. Nobody believes at this point that invading Libya was good policy, nor does anyone think that ousting Bashar Assad in Syria is a top priority. Rubio always seems to grasp the issues, but he seemed to be talking around them a lot tonight.

The danger of being the glossiest candidate is that glossy is easily tarnished.

Ben Carson: D. Carson did nothing for himself tonight. He attempted to show some foreign policy chops, but it was too little, too late. He should have fought back strongly against one particularly unfair question from Hewitt, who asked whether he would be okay with civilian casualties in war; he should have pointed out that no one is okay with such casualties, which is why war is hell. He didn’t. Overall, he looked lost. His support will continue to bleed to Cruz in Iowa.

Rand Paul: B. For the first time, Rand showed up to play. Perhaps that was a function of the fact that Cruz has staked out a middle ground on foreign policy between Rand’s isolationism and Rubio’s interventionism. But he did heavy body work to Rubio on both immigration and foreign policy, and he repeatedly brought up Rubio’s weakest resume point, the Gang of 8 immigration reform bill. It hurt Rubio badly. It’s interesting that Paul went after Rubio rather than Cruz, given that Cruz is the most likely candidate to be holding potential Paul voters. But perhaps he figures he’s tried that tack already.

Chris Christie: C. Christie’s getting one-note. If he turns to camera once more in the middle of a substantive discussion and tells us all how we should pay attention to the real issues and stop with all these distractions, somebody’s going to unleash the bucket of Carrie pig blood on him. It was cute the first time. Now it’s just irritating. He wants to come off as brash and plain-spoken, but the rehearsed routine won’t cut it. He may gain some if Rubio loses some of his luster, and he may pick up some of Kasich’s support. That’s his best hope.

John Kasich: Z. John Kasich is the worst, although at least we didn’t hear that his father is a mailman. Kasich’s incessant petulance and ridiculous schoolmarming adds an unwelcome note of annoyance to every debate. The low point: Kasich explaining that some people say his heart is too big. I’m pretty sure people said his mouth was.

Carly Fiorina: D. Fiorina’s dropped off the map. Tonight she tried to swivel to attacking Hillary repeatedly, which was fine. She went off the rails, however, when she couldn’t decide whether she’s the experienced candidate in the race (NOTE TO CARLY: YOU HAVE NEVER HELD ELECTIVE OFFICE) or whether she’s the outsider. And complaining about not being able to speak does age quickly.

Jeb Bush: D. Why is Jeb still here? Other than to be Donald Trump’s punching bag, that is.

So, there you have it. The Cruz vs. Rubio fireworks allowed Trump to slide by on foreign policy – and he handled himself well, talking tough and bluntly. Cruz will likely gain; Rubio will, too, although he performed less well. If Rubio doesn’t, Christie will pick up some of his following.

But Trump remains in front. Tonight, nobody knocked off his crown.

Ben Shapiro is Senior Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News, Editor-in-Chief of, 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.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.