Everyone has their own take on these debates, and as often as not they are wrong, but here we are. My chief takeaway from tonight was that it was a disaster for Jeb Bush and a poor showing by John Kasich.
Look, I like Jeb. I think he’s obviously qualified to be President, he’s got a deep grasp of the issues, he has assets that might matter in a general election, he’s more conservative than people think, and he seems like a really nice guy and a steady, adult presence. I could happily vote for him as our nominee. But despite some good moments that showed him as a thoughtful and judicious presence, this was an awful showing. His back and forths with Donald Trump left him looking, as Tim Pawlenty once did next to Mitt Romney, and as Mike Dukakis did in 1988, like he was just not the alpha dog in the room. He couldn’t seem to muster genuine anger even when he accused Trump of criticizing his wife. His own wife! He let Trump cut him off, which may be the polite move but given the dynamics between the two was something he could not do, and which his brother would never have let happen in that situation. He referred to his own father and brother as “41” and “43”. And he sounded legitimately unaware of why people are upset at Chief Justice Roberts. Jeb would be an excellent candidate in a different environment and a fine president, but after tonight, it’s hard to see him as a winner.
And Kasich sounded way too John Kerry, with his insistence on yammering about America’s alliances, while not scoring the sorts of “I’m a different kind of Republican” points he needs to win New Hampshire. He sounded out of date talking about the 90s, and [mc_name name=’Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001098′ ] absolutely crushed him in an exchange about the Iran deal, which Kasich inexplicably refuses to renounce.
Donald Trump was, surprisingly, less of a factor in this debate as it went along – the more it got into policy, the worse it was for him (although he gets some points for being the first to raise North Korea as an issue). Trump looked small, red and angry next to Jeb (their exchanges really did favors for neither) and came out terribly every time he tangled with Carly Fiorina. I won’t pretend to believe this kills Trump, he still had his moments of Trumpitude, but his act felt just a bit older than last time around. He brooded on potshots from George Pataki (!) and threw needless insults at Rand Paul. Probably the ugliest part of Trump’s performance was sounding like RFK Jr. on vaccines. Maybe the perfect Trump moment, even more than when he responded to Hugh Hewitt asking about his advisers by just saying they would be terrific people, was in the middle of his rambling defense of his Atlantic City casinos when he threw in as an aside at Christie, “maybe I’ll blame Chris.” It was a vintage “you, Lieutenant Weinberg?” moment.
The winners? Chris Christie had another excellent performance, running as an unabashed 2002 Republican, but I’m still not so sure that there are enough persuadable Christie voters out there to matter. Rubio also always fares well in these settings, and the more of them there are, the more he should prosper – but his fundamental challenges lie in convincing people that he’s more than just a good talker. Carly Fiorina had probably more fantastic moments onstage than anyone (although Christie squelched her defense of her HP tenure), and probably comes out of this with the biggest poll bounce.
I underrated Ben Carson after the last debate, where he just sounded over his head but people warmed to his humility and earnest likeability. He was a little more in command tonight, and has a disarming way of making people feel bad about the fact that he’s not really comfortable in the debate format. I suspect Carson may have a reckoning coming, but that he’s probably still ascending after tonight.
[mc_name name=’Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001098′ ] and [mc_name name=’Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’P000603′ ] were who they always are, although Cruz uncharacteristically got baited by Jeb into admitting he’d been wrong to praise Roberts, and Paul sounded hoarse and ended up more or less arguing that Saddam Hussein had been good for the Middle East. (He also claimed that Reagan talked to our enemies throughout the Cold War, a common Obama talking point. But Reagan never met with Brezhnev, Andropov, or Chernenko – his first summit with the Soviets was with Gorbachev in November 1985, a year after he was re-elected to a second term). The Paul-Jeb-Christie-Carly exchange on drugs was one of the debate’s most serious, thoughtful moments. Mike Huckabee remains good in small doses – every now and then he brought up something that needed saying, like Obama’s manipulation of intelligence – but he really has no business on the stage at this point in his career.
The really interesting question to me, going into tonight, was how Scott Walker would do, since he’s never really had to run from behind like this, but while he was a bit more aggressive, he basically stayed within himself. Walker suffered badly, as almost all the candidates besides Jeb did, from long lapses between questions.
It’s a long road ahead, and most of the candidates still have many ups and down ahead. But I can’t imagine any camp is unhappier tonight than Jeb’s.