The Winner of the Debate Is Debatable

Just a few comments on last night’s debate.

First off, to the moderators: It’s a debate, not a game show or beauty contest, and so you should raise issues, but not editorialize. Of course the questions were shamefully partisan, “gotcha,” and all that, and it almost seems to me that the Republicans allowed themselves to be subjected to that stuff so they could score points by complaining about it. But the bigger problem is that the whole thing was pretty out of control and, as Christie said, rude by even New Jersey standards. The solidarity, promoted by Cruz, of the ten excellent candidates against degrading assaults by the enemy was pretty good for the Republican brand as a whole. It was also good for Cruz. Not because he attacked the media so much but because he had the details of his attack a brilliant mixture of preparation and immediate reaction to the details of what the moderators had said. On that point, Rubio was lame by comparison.

It was a bad night for governors. Bush was horrible. He provoked a fight with Rubio, telegraphed his punch, and was decimated by a predictably well-prepared response. Rubio was comparing himself with Obama in his senatorial irresponsibility, and Bush might have worked with that. But you hit him back and he just gives up.

Later he displayed Bush nerdy wimpishness with both his fixation on fantasy football and his need to have his fantasy regulated. It turns out he’s undefeated in fantasy land. Christie didn’t ascend to rocket science by taking Bush and the moderator out by questioning why anyone should care about fantasy football. (It is true that something less than noble has overwhelmed our country when men care more about football fantasy than football reality.)

I join others in proclaiming that Bush has been winnowed with regret. He, after all, is a highly competent policy wonk, was a fine governor, is a nice guy, and might well be a decent president. The evidence is in, however, that he would be no match for the Democratic nominee.

I also wish Kasich had been better. He is, after all, a leader with a proven record of competence (not to be confused with greatness). His opening screed about the leading candidates seducing the voters with fantastic schemes has some merit, after all. You have to wonder about people who think that either Trump or Carson know enough to president. But Trump did well in marginalizing Kasich as a whiner. And maybe Carson’s tax scheme is fantastic (and he certainly hasn’t nailed its details), but those of the clearly more competent Cruz and Christie aren’t much different. Throughout, Kasich’s comments simply lacked focus; he tried desperately to pack too much in. And it turns out to be death for governors to brag about their records.

I actually thought Christie won the debate as debate. He was extremely lucid, looked right into the camera, was appropriately tough, quick on his feet, and both serious and funny. He was also truthful in laying out what we really have to do when it comes to entitlements. He might be the guy who could actually sell to working-class people the imperative of mending Social Security and Medicare. The real alternative is ending them. On this issue, Huckabee and Trump are demagogues, and maybe Cruz and Paul are too complacent. I think Christie deserves a real look in terms of what it would really take to defeat Hillary Clinton. He won’t get it.

It turns out that tax plans are boring, and there are no significant differences when it comes to them. The limited disagreement is over exactly what kind of cut will promote the most growth. Rubio said — although he didn’t sell — that his plan actually takes struggling families into account. So it also turns out that tax cuts, whatever their economic merits, are not the key to attracting swing voters either in the primaries or in November.

Overall, Cruz and Rubio were really good. It’s debatable who was better, just as it’s debatable how much they will rise in the polls in the wake of the debate.

Fiorina was sound; libertarians doubtless applauded her attack on “crony capitalism,” but her comments, this time, just weren’t distinctive or memorable enough.  The same is even more true of Rand Paul.

Trump, I thought, was as good as he can be and helped himself a bit. He repulsed, once again, everyone who is on to him. But he was funny, comparatively restrained, and carefully stayed within his comfort zone. The debate wasn’t about him, and that was clearly his strategy.

Carson was very tentative and superficial, again, when it comes to economic issues. But once again he displayed his character by explaining carefully — against politically correct liberal propaganda — why someone could be all for protecting the rights of gays and still believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. That’s something his Evangelical base believes and really wants to hear. And the moderator was shouted down when he tried to question Carson’s character by outing his questionable involvement with the nutrition-supplement people. It appears that Ben didn’t exactly tell the truth there, but it was a very rude and trivial question. Overall, the debate, in all likelihood, didn’t do much for or against him. Certainly Carson wins by having the other candidates (save the whiner Kasich) being afraid to take him on, and Christie even wanted to bask in the glory of one of Ben’s thoughtful — even if wrongheaded — ideas. 

If you missed the debate, don’t worry. It probably didn’t have the power to turn you from one candidate to another, or from one party to another.

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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