Reagan-Bush_Nashua_1980_debate

Last night’s GOP presidential debates were, in Churchill’s phrase, not the end or the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. It’s still a long, long way from seventeen candidates debating in August to voters pulling the first levers of the primaries at the Iowa Caucuses on February 1 and the New Hampshire Primary on February 9. Recall that the winner of the 2012 Iowa Caucus, Rick Santorum, was in sixth place polling at 7.7% in the RCP average on December 27, 2011, a week before the caucus, and in seventh at 3.8% barely a month before the voting began; meanwhile, the winner of the August 2011 Iowa Straw Poll, Michele Bachmann, finished dead last. Already, the contenders have moved on to this weekend’s RedState Gathering.

But if the debates are far from the last word, they still matter as one of the first. And the big debate was good news for Chris Christie, [mc_name name=’Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’R000595′ ], Fox News, the voters and maybe the GOP, and bad news for Ben Carson and [mc_name name=’Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’P000603′ ].

First, a few words on the debate itself. The undercard debate was on during the workday, so even I didn’t get to see it, but Fox drew yuuuge ratings for the big debate – a 16.0 rating, some 50% higher than any primary debate in either party’s history, for a total audience of around 24 million viewers, the kind of viewership usually reserved for Convention nominating speeches (the record for a general election debate is 80 million viewers for the lone Reagan-Carter debate in 1980; the first Obama-Romney debate drew an audience of 67 million). By contrast, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show finale last night drew 3.5 million viewers. (UPDATE: the undercard debate actually drew 6 million viewers)

For comparison, the most watched primary debate in the 2012 election cycle averaged 7.63 million viewers on the broadcast network on ABC Dec. 10, 2011…The previous record-holder on cable news was the Dec. 15, 2011 Fox News debate, which averaged 6.71 million total viewers…The most watched primary debate in the 2008 cycle was the April 16, 2008 Democratic debate on ABC. That debate drew 10.7 million viewers.

That’s a colossal ratings bonanza for Fox News, and the GOP almost certainly has Donald Trump to thank for it – which suggests that Trump’s disruptive, reality-show campaign may end up being more of a benefit to the party and its eventual nominee than most of us might currently think. Sure, Democrats are counting on Trump’s presence rubbing off on the rest of the field, but he also gives them a foil to look more reasonable by comparison – and consider what the final 4 in the Democratic field looked like just a decade ago:

2004 democratic debate

And a very large audience meeting the actual serious candidates for the first time is a good thing.

The questions were barbed and at times overly long-winded, and a few of them were cheap shots, but Erick is right that Fox’s panel mostly stayed focused on the questions GOP primary voters would want answered, and Andrew Stiles is right as well that it’s hard to imagine any of the other networks giving Democrats such a grilling. And honestly, it was as good a debate as you could expect from such a large field so early in the process – we really did get a good introduction, if you hadn’t met them before, to what each of these candidates is like and is about, and a few really substantive exchanges on genuine differences of policy.

Sadly, as I said, I didn’t get to watch the undercard debate. Carly Fiorina drew good reviews, and from reading the transcript it seems that my personal favorite candidate, Bobby Jindal, got the questions he wanted and got to deliver the messages he needed to get across – Ben Domenech thinks Jindal was hurt by the absence of a live audience for his applause lines. So I’ll confine myself to the big 10-candidate debate. My own ranking of how the candidates performed:

1. Chris Christie: Christie, once considered a possible field-clearing frontrunner, has seen his prospects dim for a wide variety of reasons, but last night he really reminded viewers why he became a national figure and why he’s on that stage. Christie was serious, passionate and substantive – his exchanges with Rand Paul on surveillance and Mike Huckabee on entitlement reform were the two most vigorous, issue-oriented discussions of policy disagreements of the whole debate. Christie still has a lot of work to do in order to get himself back into serious contention – those fundamental problems are still there, and his eat-your-spinach message on entitlements is a tough sell in either party’s primaries, let alone the general election – but much like Newt Gingrich in 2012, he served early notice that he’ll be a force to reckon with on the debate stage for as long as he’s in the race. Like Jindal, Christie has the advantage that he can run as both a talker and a do-er – if he can convince people his record in New Jersey is actually a positive, which is much in debate these days. (Christie’s one big missed opportunity was when he didn’t call out Donald Trump after Trump basically bragged about leaving Atlantic City ahead of its economic collapse and name-checked Christie when he did).

2. Marco Rubio: Like Christie and [mc_name name=’Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001098′ ], Rubio has to have been looking forward to the debates as a chance to focus attention on his core strength, his tremendous personal eloquence and charisma. And if the 10-candidate format limited his opportunities, he made the most of them, and will probably benefit more from his good first impression than Christie. Rubio still has to show that he has the steak to go with the sizzle, and still struggles to get out of the twin shadows of his failed immigration bill and the fact that his record as a state legislator is basically one of advancing the agenda of his mentor Jeb Bush (who was busy taking credit for that agenda from the other end of the stage). Rubio’s an amazing political talent, and being young, handsome, charming, and the son of Hispanic immigrants doesn’t hurt. One of his best moments was respectfully correcting Trump on the sources of immigration, although he missed an opportunity to point out that you can’t build a border fence around Florida.

3. Jeb Bush: Bush’s family name alone gives him more preconceived baggage than anyone else in the race, and any one debate isn’t going to fix that. But if you’re already hardened into a view of Jeb for ideological/partisan reasons, it’s easy to forget how likeable he is. He came off last night as earnest and humble – a man who genuinely understands that if he wins the nomination it will not be by coronation but by having to work for it. And he’s also a serious, optimistic guy who can defend a good record in office and talk issues at a detailed level. But Jeb had his off moments, too. He seemed to have more trouble timing his answers than the other contenders. His defense of his pro-life record was solid, but there was nothing he could do but plead ignorance when confronted with the financing of Planned Parenthood by Mike Bloomberg’s foundation, on whose board he sat. And to this day, he comes off badly when asked about the Iraq War.

4. Scott Walker: Walker enters the serious part of the 2016 campaign with roughly the opposite set of strengths and weaknesses to Rubio, his main competition for the “guy who can unite all factions of the party” role that’s the ideal path to the nomination. Rubio’s the talker, fluent in the language of national politics but short on accomplishments; Walker’s the do-er, who has compiled a strong record of accomplishment in Wisconsin but has struggled at times to translate to the next level of pushing a consistent and principled message in national issue discourse. Like George W. Bush, Walker is more blunt than glib or exciting as a speaker, and his having left Marquette to take a Red Cross job a semester shy of a college degree has some voters worried about his brianpower. Like Rick Perry in 2012, his strong-on-paper position could unravel with poor debate and interview performances.

Walker didn’t really shine or help himself much last night, but far more importantly he got through the debate without any real setbacks. He came across as polite – every time Ben Carson spoke, the camera showed Walker nodding along at everything he said – and down-to-earth (his answer to the question about listening to God was very Midwestern Eagle Scout – basically, that you can tell he’s a Christian because he’s a nice guy). He copped candidtly to flip-flopping on immigration, which voters will generally forgive if you don’t go to that well on too many issues. Walker will, however, need a better answer on abortion – even I, as an ardent pro-lifer, was taken aback by his refusal to distance himself from a question about banning abortion even when the life of the mother is at stake.

5. Ted Cruz: As a national debate champ in college who customarily speaks without notes and paints his issue positions in bold colors, Cruz is a natural fit for the debate stage and one who has the potential to force distinctions into the open. He didn’t stumble last night from that reputation, especially on immigration and national security issues, although he also didn’t help himself with one of his key weaknesses, likeability. But what really concerned me listening to Cruz is that for all his opposition to [mc_name name=’Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’M000355′ ] and the ways of the Senate, he already sounds like a man who is running for Senate Majority Leader, not the presidency. Which is fitting: Cruz is needed in the Senate, and one can sense that his ultimate objectives will be gained or lost there.

6. John Kasich: Kasich had a home field advantage, as the Cleveland crowd rallied behind the man who led the Ohio GOP ticket to a smashing victory less than a year ago in winning re-election by 30 points. And he’s no neophyte, having won his first election in 1978 (Walker, by contrast, talked about being a kid during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis) and spent years hosting his own show on Fox News. So we shouldn’t be surprised that he was by turns wistful, hopeful and stolid. But he did little to distinguish himself, while revealing in his answer to the question about his biggest vulnerability – Medicaid expansion in Ohio – that he really doesn’t have a counter-argument to the charge that he can’t be trusted not to go along with big-government liberal programs at the drop of a hat.

7. Mike Huckabee: Huck seems a bit crankier and less mischievously charming than during his insurgent campaign eight years ago, and in a field with so many other faithful pro-life social conservatives, it can be hard to remember why he’s there. He did have some excellent moments, as he hasn’t lost his gift for one-liners (Trump could be heard laughing loudly with Huckabee’s closing statement), but he also provided some of the weirdest moments of the debate, like his insistence that his “Fair Tax” would use taxation of pimps and prostitutes to save Social Security.

8. Donald Trump: If you define a “gaffe” as saying something unexpected that’s harmful to a candidate, Trump didn’t gaffe or implode at this debate as some expected he might. He actually had some decent answers to questions here and there. But Trump was Trump – rude, dismissive, blowhard-y, not especially conservative, and ultimately shallow on the issues. The debate didn’t so much injure Trump as reveal him. What is likely to damage him in the longer run with GOP primary voters is simply how the Fox questioners drove home his liberal record, his unwillingness to rule out a third-party bid, and his less-than-respectful way with women (and kudos to Rand Paul for going after him directly for plotting to bolt the party, although when Trump shot back at him, I doubt that Trump knew – I didn’t – that Paul wears a hearing aid). And the really entertaining but also off-putting part of the debate was Trump’s role as the living incarnation of Americans’ worst suspicions about the donor class, as he freely and crassly admitted to giving money to Hillary and multiple other Democrats – as well as many of the Republicans onstage (others piped up to complain that he hadn’t given to them) in order to buy influence. The Trump phenomenon will still take some time to dissipate, but forcing him to share a stage and answer questions next to more professional and even-tempered candidates isn’t going to help him with the contrast over time.

9. Rand Paul: Rand Paul was supposed to be the guy who could be younger, hipper and less nutty than his dad, and so build a libertarian/conservative fusion coalition that could actually threaten for the nomination. So far, his campaign has gone poorly, and last night showed why: even more than the substance of his views on surveillance and foreign affairs, his shrill and dogmatic tone was far too reminiscent of his father. Paul is an asset to the GOP as a Senator and spokesman for his faction, but maybe even more than Cruz, Huckabee or Kasich, he really came across as a guy with a very hard ceiling who is mainly just there to represent the people who already agree with him, rather than as a builder of bridges. His closing argument about his urban-minority outreach efforts was strong, but too little, too late.

10. Ben Carson: The Gravis post-debate poll has Carson as the winner of the debate in terms of improving his favorability, but while his surprisingly soft-spoken performance may have made people like him more, it’s hard to see how anyone watching the debate came away thinking that the brain surgeon was prepared to get in the ring with Hillary Clinton, let alone the Oval Office. Dr. Carson’s obviously a highly intelligent man – I was waiting for him to respond to Megyn Kelly’s question about his readiness by telling her that politics isn’t brain surgery – but he spent the whole debate with the air of a guy trying to skate through a meeting he hasn’t prepared for. His reputation for bombast may have felt overblown after watching his polite demeanor next to Trump, but like Trump it’s clear that as a political amateur, Carson just doesn’t have the policy depth to compete at this level. Last night, he didn’t even have the rhetorical aggressiveness to score any real hits.

It’s a long, long way to the finish line, and all the candidates still have a lot to prove. Later debates will undoubtedly focus more on the candidates’ policy platforms, which in mid-summer tend to be pretty sketchy (Jindal is the furthest along by far in having issue platforms and plans). But 24 million Americans got a good first look at the top half of the GOP field.