If I’m judging the debate purely by the answers on the stage — divorced of larger context — I’d call the debate for Jeb Bush. Except for his halting closing statement, this was the first debate where we saw not only his grasp of policy but also his foresight. He had a coherent anti-ISIS policy before most of his competitors, and it has stood up well as recent events have demonstrated the extent of the threat. For a moment, it even seemed that he rattled Trump — leaving him to appeal to the moderators to let him finish (never a good move).
But the larger context matters, and aside from the brief exchange with Bush, Trump was Trump, and that’s been more then enough to build a twenty-plus point lead nationally and significant leads in every state but Iowa. Moreover, neither Cruz nor Rubio were at their best. While both demonstrated their command of the issues — and both had their moments (Rubio is consistently winning and Cruz is consistently sharp) — Rubio spent much of the night on the defensive, and Cruz on occasion lapsed into filibustering.
With Cruz and Rubio attacking each other, that might leave room for Christie, and Christie certainly talked tough. But he needs to drop the language of fear. Immediately. Americans aren’t “scared to death.” That’s a leftist stereotype. We’re concerned, yes, and vigilant. But we’re mostly furious. Moreover, spare us the chest-thumping on shooting down Russian planes over Syria. I would hope and pray that our commander-in-chief would think long and hard before initiating an armed conflict with a great power. We shouldn’t fear flexing our military muscle when vital national interests are at stake or Americans are under threat, but does national security mandate shooting down Russian planes over Syria to demonstrate our toughness?
Finally, while I don’t agree with Rand Paul on most national security questions (though I agree with his opposition to no-fly zones in Syria), I deeply appreciate his commitment to his principles. Rand Paul is going to be Rand Paul, and we need more politicians to make arguments from deep conviction.
The bottom line? Jeb had his best debate, Rubio and Cruz hurt each other, and the Trump train rolls on.