The Battlefield, August 7, 2015

As you might imagine, the battlefield we’re talking about in today’s installment is the battlefield in Cleveland the 17 Republican candidates just vacated after the two debates Fox News conducted yesterday.

Some basic impressions, and then some quick comments on the 17 participants.

First, everybody is beating up Fox News for the questions, and in particular they’re beating Fox up for mean questions given to Donald Trump. This is asinine.

The point of not having Democrat activists disguised as journalists serving as the moderators of Republican primary debates – like for example in the 2012 cycle when George Stephanopoulos helped launch the Democrats’ “War On Women” narrative with an out-of-left-field question about contraception – is not to generate softball questions to the candidates. Tough questions vet the field and nobody should be pissed off about that. The point is to have the questions be fair in vetting them. And there were no unfair questions.

Is it unfair to point out that Trump routinely goes Full Caveman in talking about women on his Twitter and on his TV show? Of course not. What would have been unfair would be a question asking him, for example, whether it would send a good signal for America to elect a president who brings a trophy bride as a First Lady. Even that might have been within the realm of defensible, but nobody got a question like that. At the kid’s table debate yesterday afternoon there were a few questions asking what the hell some of these candidates are doing in the race, and while that might come off as dismissive it’s a valid question. If you’re running in 15th place in the polls you’re basically engaged in scamming your donors and wasting everyone’s time, and you ought to be called out for it.

In fact, the presence of so many candidates on the stage in those two debates, forcing them to restrict their answers to a mere 60 seconds, is a negative. Some of the more thoughtful candidates, like a Ted Cruz or a Ben Carson (Cruz because he has so much to say and Carson because he speaks in a more deliberate, relaxed cadence), are a lot more impressive when they have time to give an answer to a question. In a minute you’re going to get canned talking points.

That’s American politics these days, period. With 17 candidates in the race, there is no way to fix it.

What would have been a great way to deal with that problem is if Fox had set up a tournament rather than a cattle call. Have the candidates seeded by how they’re doing in the polls, and then block out five evenings to run debates over, say, three weeks. Maybe on a Monday night there could be a four-way debate between the #1, #16, #8 and #9 seeds, and then #2, #15, #7 and #10 could go the following Thursday. The next Monday would see #3, #14, #6 and #11, and the following Thursday would see #4, #13, #5 and #12. Pick the winners of those debates through Facebook or Twitter or online polls or something, and the four winners advance to the final round on the Monday of the third week.

If that wouldn’t provide Fox News with better ratings than what they got last night, which we understand was a huge audience to be sure, it would surely provide them with better ratings than they’d normally get. And the positive piece to it is with four debaters going at it over a two-hour show you’d really get to know them as candidates. Lots of opportunities to shine, lots of opportunities to give fleshed-out answers to questions, and lots of opportunities to blow up and ruin a campaign. Which is good – with 17 people in the race we need some implosions to winnow the field down to the candidates who can win.

The debates didn’t really do that last night. Nobody screwed up badly enough to kill their campaign, though there were several at the kids’ table who didn’t have anything to screw up in the first place.

We’ll start with those.

Jim Gilmore: the former Virginia governor, who got in the race a few days ago, has no support and didn’t give anybody much reason to change that. Gilmore seems like a good guy, but he’s an old guy nobody was particularly impressed with when he was a governor 15 years ago. And I can’t remember a single thing he said yesterday other than that he was a governor of a state that got hit on 9/11.

Lindsey Graham: He’s awful. Why is he running? There is a wider gulf between what Graham thinks is his gravitas and what gravitas he actually has than for any other politician in memory. Go away.

George Pataki: Spent a lot of time talking about his record as governor of New York, but after three terms the GOP in that state was basically dead as a statewide force. Another candidate who doesn’t bring anything of interest to the race.

Bobby Jindal: Had an interesting, if provocative, line about how as soon as he was elected he’d sic the IRS and the DOJ on Planned Parenthood. Jindal had a bit more fire to him than the above three, but he still struggled to show the necessary presence to be taken seriously as a candidate even at the kids’ table. Got a question from Martha McCallum about his low approval ratings back home in Louisiana and his answer was squishy at best.

Rick Santorum: Said all the same things he said four years ago, and is still touting all the things he did in the Senate back in the 1990’s. He’s lost ground because the field is better now and Santorum hasn’t done anything in the last three years to stand out. If you ran and lost, and the next cycle you haven’t made yourself any more qualified for the job, what is your value proposition for running now?

Rick Perry: Unlike Jindal, Perry does exude a presence that makes him a believable president. The problem is, Perry’s a marble-mouth. He doesn’t speak articulately, which makes debates a lousy format for him to run in. Perry did a good job defending his record and had some pretty good answers about the border, but the highlight of his performance was when he said Carly Fiorina could do a better job negotiating with the Iranians than John Kerry. And while it was a good answer and made Perry look both magnanimous and wise, you don’t want your highlight to be a compliment to one of your competitors.

Carly Fiorina: Fiorina might actually have had the best performance in either debate. She was on fire – every answer contained great passion, was spot on as an articulation of conservatism and carried with it a sharp wit. When she asked the others on stage whether Bill Clinton had called any of them prior to their deciding to run, and then mused that perhaps the reason no one had gotten the call was that no one had given money to the Clintons the way Trump did, it was the best shot at the frontrunner anyone took.

And at the big debate…

Chris Christie: He didn’t get a Bridgegate question, which was a blessing, and the only points really scored on him were by Trump – who was asked about a casino bankruptcy in Atlantic City he was involved in, and essentially blamed the collapse of the Atlantic City economy on Christie as governor. The most memorable part of the debate where Christie was concerned was when he and Rand Paul got into a hot argument over Christie’s bashing of the latter over the NSA. Christie mostly won the exchange, even though he’s wrong on the issue (it’s not too much to ask that the government get a warrant before rooting through internet accounts and phone records), because Paul made the mistake of bringing up the hug he gave Obama amid the Hurricane Sandy destruction. The conversation stopped being worthy of a presidential debate, but Christie was able to pop Paul with a reference to the hugs he gave families of 9/11 victims – which made Christie look like the bigger man, brought the conversation back to the topic of fighting terrorism and gave him the upper hand since he was a US Attorney prosecuting terrorists at that time.

John Kasich: He speaks mostly in platitudes, and other than repeating ad nauseam the fact that he inherited an $8 billion deficit and turned it into a $2 billion surplus, he didn’t have a lot to offer. But he did manage to articulate the moderate/RINO perspective better than Jeb Bush did, and that could be consequential. More on that later. Kasich also gave a good answer on whether he’d still love his daughters if they ended up gay and wanted to have a gay marriage – he came off as a nice guy who just doesn’t believe in gay marriage.

Mike Huckabee: There is the “why are you running?” question that Huckabee didn’t do much to answer yesterday, but overall his was a solid performance. He held his own against Christie on the question of Social Security reform, even though Christie was correct in advocating changes like raising the retirement age and means-testing the benefits, by noting that nobody chooses to pay into Social Security; they’re forced to, and not to fulfill the promises is tantamount to the government lying and stealing to us. But then Huckabee said Congress shouldn’t have a retirement – which is fine, but as Christie said that’s inconsequential in the grand scheme of entitlement reform. Huckabee was also good on abortion, though he needed to restrict what he was saying to federal funding of abortion – because that’s what’s in front of the public with those Planned Parenthood videos.

Ben Carson: Carson was terrific, but the format stinks for him. He’s a slow talker, so getting an answer in inside of a minute is difficult. But Carson had one of the best lines of the night when he addressed the issue of race by noting that as a neurosurgeon he operates on the part of people that makes them who they are, not their skin or their hair. He’s a super-likable guy, but fighting for attention on a debate stage with nine other people is not really for him. He didn’t hurt himself, but he didn’t help a lot either – everybody is going to continue loving Ben Carson but few will be ready to pull a lever for him.

Rand Paul: Paul didn’t have a good night. He lost the exchange with Christie, and got a face-full of pie soon after when Trump told him  “You’re having a hard time tonight.” But Paul did manage to score early, amid the first question asked about taking a pledge not to run as a third party candidate. Trump refused to do so, and mumbled something about how he wants to run as the GOP nominee but won’t give up any “leverage” if he’s not. Paul burst out with an interruption, attacking Trump for buying and selling politicians of all stripes and hedging his bets – and he definitely won that exchange. Trump came back with the fact that he’s given money to Paul, but what the Kentucky senator raised was a good point in response to Trump’s narrative about how all the politicians are whores and he’s the only one who has integrity – which is that the guy who buys access to politicians is just as much a participant in the buying and selling of politicians as the politicians are. Huckabee also picked up on that later in the debate, and you’re going to hear more about it because it’s as much a weakness for Trump as it is a strength.

Marco Rubio: Rubio did about as well as he could in the debate. He reiterated the story of how he comes from humble beginnings and he had some good foreign policy and national security answers. All of it was polished, well-delivered, passionate and presidential. Rubio’s problem, though, is that like Jindal he just looks like a kid up there. But last night’s performance should help him. He’s going to be relevant in this race again after fading for the last several weeks.

Scott Walker: Walker was mostly a squeeze box of talking points, and at this point there is a valid criticism that whoever his consultants are need to go – they’re sucking the life out of him by having him saying the same things over and over again. That said, he didn’t make any gaffes like he’s been accused of making in the past, he was polished and articulate in what he said and he had a home run of a line when he quipped that the Chinese and Russians probably have more of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails than Congress does. That really worked for Walker because Hillary’s e-mails haven’t gotten the attention in this presidential race so far that they should be getting. Walker now owns that issue for the time being.

Ted Cruz: It didn’t seem like Cruz got to talk enough. When he did he was outstanding. But Cruz didn’t have any big zingers or super-memorable lines. He was good on the deficiencies of the Iran deal and he was especially good near the end talking about how his life changed as a kid when his father found God. But in a short-answer format like this, you score when you get to beat up somebody, and Cruz didn’t make any attacks on other candidates. He did hammer Mitch McConnell, though not by name, when he mentioned that conservative priorities aren’t being advanced by Republican congressional majorities because the leadership doesn’t share those priorities. Cruz probably needed to own the debate seeing as though he’s a world champion debater, but nobody really was able to do that.

Jeb Bush: If there was a true loser in the debate it was Bush, who came off as wooden and blew answers to two major questions – one about whether dynastic politics is a problem in America (“they call me Jeb in Florida, because I’ve earned it” – what the hell is that supposed to mean?) and another about whether the Iraq war was a mistake. By now he ought to have good answers for those and he simply doesn’t. He also denied calling Trump a collection of ugly names as reported in a POLITICO piece yesterday, which looked good last night but is likely to blow up in his face when the POLITICO reporters come back and corroborate their story. All things considered, Kasich and Christie are establishment moderates far more interesting to watch than Jeb is, and this debate coming on top of a series of stupid mistakes his campaign has been making very well could let some air out of his campaign to the benefit of the Ohio and New Jersey governors.

Trump: Several pundits called his performance a “collapse,” and if you were looking for evidence of a collapse you could certainly find it in his mumbling answer for why he wouldn’t pledge to support the GOP nominee if it wasn’t him. You could find it in his whining at Megyn Kelly when she hit him with the question about the nasty things he’s said publicly about women, and you could find it in his stupid answer to Chris Wallace about his business bankruptcies – he actually bragged about how he used the bankruptcy laws to tube a quartet of business deals when there were a million better ways to answer that question. But Trump spent more time speaking than anybody else in the debate and he got to reiterate his message trashing the political class and Obama and talking about how he’d make America great again. The people who like Trump will complain that he got harder questions than the others; the people who don’t like him will respond by saying those questions look hard because he gave terrible answers. At the end of the day he really just comes off as boorish and irritating, and while that’s what a lot of voters are looking for out of frustration with the failure of the GOP’s congressional leaders to fight Obama, at some point when they start looking for more Trump isn’t going to be able to provide it. He gave an indication of that last night.

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