A Serious Debate for a Country at a Moment of Serious Crisis

by Jim Geraghty

First, as lengthy as tonight’s debate on CNN was, about two-thirds of the nine GOP candidates on stage turned in solid performances and demonstrated real knowledge and critical analysis of serious crises: how to monitor potential terrorist communications, how to handle Syrian refugees, what to do about Syria’s bloody civil war, when the U.S. should stand with dictators, how to handle Putin, and so on.

One glaring conclusion of the night is that the GOP nominee, whoever he or she is, has a golden opportunity and the country desperately needs a Republican president. The threat of al-Qaeda has been replaced with the greater, more varied, more sophisticated threat of ISIS. The threat grew worse in part because the Obama administration didn’t want to see the threat, didn’t want to acknowledge the threat was growing, didn’t want to admit its policies weren’t working, and didn’t want to break its politically-correct worldview. We don’t look at the social media of immigrants and those entering the country. We don’t always require those who have visited Iraq and Syria to get an entry visa. We don’t pause our refugee entry program. This is a formula for more San Bernadinos and more Bostons and perhaps another 9/11. No Democrat will ever give up the philosophical underpinning that they’re the tolerant and accepting ones, and that their foes are driven by hateful xenophobia. The country needs to change direction from the Obama administration’s path, and no Democrat can be counted on to do that.

Tonight may turn out to be a consequentially bad night for Marco Rubio. He turned in his usual smooth, concise, well-versed, well-rehearsed performance. But he and Ted Cruz had a tough exchange on his “Gang of Eight” immigration reform bill, and if you’re completely opposed to a path to legal status – green card, not citizenship – Rubio didn’t reassure you tonight. Rubio really needed to give a full-throated renunciation of the Gang of Eight bill, and he didn’t. He was walking a tightrope, and you could almost tell from his body language that he could feel the line wobble beneath him. But he’s still a gifted communicator, and he may have avoided any lasting damage.

Rubio brought up Cruz’s past support for a fivefold increase in the number of H1B visas, and immigration restrictionists may not find that perspective such a terrific alternative. Cruz’s statement that “I have never supported legalization and I do not intend to support legalization” sounds like it left a little wiggle room.

For a man who’s supposedly the new front-runner – if not in polls, then in media buzz — Cruz didn’t have a Robert-Redford-at-the-end-of-The-Natural night. Cruz indisputably knows his stuff, backwards and forwards; if you were facing jail time, you would want him as your lawyer. But his answer on what he said about Trump in private was pretty transparent spin.

Trump began with a more serious, somber, direct tone; it served him well. The post-Paris, post-San Bernardino political landscape didn’t need the bombastic, look-at-what-I-can-get-away with Trump. But as the night wore on, he stumbled. He seemed to argue that targeting the family members of terrorists would demonstrate our toughness and strength, and brushed off the point that that act, targeting civilians would violate the Geneva Conventions. (Unmentioned: How many jihadists are fine with their family members becoming martyrs?) He stuck with his plan to shut down part of the Internet in order to prevent “impressionable” young people from being recruited or seduced by ISIS. It reminded me of Tipper Gore’s effort to protect young people in the 1980s by attempting to ban heavy metal music.

Trump appeared to have no idea what the nuclear triad is – “nuclear, the power, the devastation, it’s very important to me.” He seemed to lose his cool during an exchange with Bush, and resorted to his usual shtick of boasting about his high poll numbers. (If Bush is so far behind, why are you so bothered by what he’s saying?) I don’t understand why everyone thinks his pledge to stick in the GOP, win or lose, means much; moments earlier, he said he never meant that Cruz was a “maniac” or had the wrong temperament for the job. He made those remarks Sunday.

Ben Carson… once the man of the moment, now sliding and perhaps out of the top tier. Nice man, good principles, attempting to catch up and do his homework on defense and national security policy, but if you went into tonight thinking he was not a wartime Consigliere, little changed.

Heading into tonight, Jeb Bush looked like toast. He’s still way behind, but tonight you could finally say he actually turned in a good performance. After half-heartedly targeting Trump, Bush finally came up with some crisp phrases to summarize his critique of the frontrunner – “the chaos candidate” who will be a “chaos president.” “You can’t insult your way to the presidency.”

And then, about two-thirds of the way through, Jeb Bush suddenly got under Trump’s skin. “Oh, yeah, you’re a tough guy, Jeb,” Trump scoffed.

Chris Christie always does well in these debates, looking directly into the camera and speaking bluntly. He began with a great opening statement, discussing the bomb threat that suddenly closed every school in Los Angeles, and how the kids in those schools will feel tomorrow morning. But he’s got an annoying habit that he needs to break. Whenever two other candidates get engaged in a detailed debate on policy, Christie scoffs that nobody cares about those minute details, and that everyone is tired of the yapping in Washington, and that Christie is running because he wants to get stuff done. But the details of policy matter! “Quit your yapping, nerds!” is a dumbed-down argument for short-attention span voters.

He lit into Obama – “feckless” and declaring that the policies of the president and Hillary Clinton had “betrayed the American people.” You could almost forget that big hug right before the 2012 election. Almost.

Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, John Kasich – they’ve slipped out of the top tier if they were ever in it, and unfortunately for them, nothing tonight changed that. Carly was her remarkably prepared self. Rand Paul continues to run a libertarian campaign within a Republican party. John Kasich appeared to have his fingers glued together right before he went onstage, and punctuated all of his points with karate chops at the camera.

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