What I liked about the debate: substance! Except for Dr. Emptyshirt and our bloviator-in-chief, the debate was mostly an engaging discussion on national security and foreign policy, specifically how we should balance security versus personal liberties and the effectiveness of foreign intervention.
What I didn’t like about the debate: No one really “won.” No one stood out as the winner, nor did a group stand out as co-winners. But since this is a major political party, there were, of course, losers.
Transcript of the debate can be found here. In addition to debate grades, I’ll share what I thought was each candidate’s best and worst lines of the night.
Best line: “…” His opening moment of silence. It was all downhill from there.
Worst line: “I think you have to ask them about that.” When asked whether Senator Rubio or Senator Paul had the correct position in their back-and-forth on whether the government should be collecting our phone data, Carson refused to take a position. He acted as if he didn’t want to takes sides in a fight between friends, but it’s actually, you know, a real issue.
Debate grade: Just a tad more life from him last night, but he’s still such an empty shirt. He continues to defend his amateurishness by pointing to our founding fathers being citizen-statesmen instead of politicians, but A) They mostly did have political experience, and most of the rest were lawyers; and B) Our politicians are still technically citizens. More of the same from Carson. He will continue to slowly slide down the polls. Grade: D
Best line: “We don’t have to fight all the time. It can be done, and we will be great when we join together.”
Worst line: “People have accused me of having too big of a heart.” Humble-brag of the day!
Debate grade: Surprisingly, he wasn’t even in the top three of the Trump-bashers tonight. Instead, he focused on a vision of American unity, which could not be a worse way to win a Republican Primary. Grade: D+
Best line: “I really am.” When asked if he’s ready to commit to supporting the Republican nominee, no matter who it is.
Worst line: Do all his clownish, opposite-of-presidential reaction shots count? If not, I’ll go with, “Well, let’s see. I’m at 42, and you’re at 3. So, so far, I’m doing better.” Bush, for the second time, used his canned “You’re not going to insult your way to the presidency,” line, and Trump responded with the political equivalent of a “scoreboard” chant. So flippant. Plus, not only does pointing to polls does not legitimize one’s platform (Hitler was popular and packing arenas, too), but he also kind of admits here that he has been insulting his way through the campaign. I think Bush got under his skin a bit.
Debate grade: We can’t grade Trump on a normal scale anymore. He’s simply not held to the same standard as other candidates. He was his typical Trumpish personality — at times almost seeming to do an impression of Donald Trump with the way he reacted to others — with no substantive examples to support his platitudes. Oh, and he admitted he’d kill innocent children of terrorists. But none of it will matter because he sounded tough and confident. Grade: napkin.
He’s alive. ALIVE!
Best line: Referring to Trump: “I don’t get my information from the shows. I don’t know if that’s Saturday morning or Sunday morning.” Haha, Trump watches cartoons.
Worst line: “I know what I don’t know.” That might explain why he’s still in this race. Incidentally, his best and worst lines were part of the same response. It’s a microcosm of his entire campaign: on the one hand he’s an accomplished governor with huge financial backing and strong party support, but on the other hand he’s really, really bad at campaigning.
Debate grade: Okay, I’ll say it: Jeb Bush was good last night. It was, without question, his best debate. He finally bothered Trump, who looked a bit off his game during their multiple bickering sessions. The problem is that it’s not the kind of debate performance that erases his deficit. To use a sports analogy, his candidacy was made to sit on a lead and run out the clock. If it were football, he’d be great at running the ball. The problem is, he has no passing attack. His personality is not fit to mount a comeback. So it might have been a good debate for him, and he might catch Carson for fourth if Carson falls into the high single digits, but that’s about it. Grade: B-
She’s a Woman. A WOMAN!
LINE OF THE NIGHT ALERT: Every thinly veiled swipe at Trump. (She mentioned “entertainers throwing out sound bites that draw media attention” and “talking tough is not the same as being strong.”) My favorite was when Trump explained how he’d arrange his budget — by spending more on schools, roads, and hospitals than foreign affairs– she replied, “That is exactly what President Obama said. I’m amazed to hear that from a Republican presidential candidate.”
Worst line: “I fought my way to the top of corporate America while being called every B word in the book.” I can’t imagine why.
Debate grade: She had a three-pronged attack last night. 1) Dent Trump, which Bush and Paul also contributed to. I really think she stumbled on something that could be the strategy to take him down. He’s a Democrat with just a couple issues (immigration, Muslim extremism) that pander to the base. 2) Attack the career politicians, especially the Washington insiders, into which she shrewdly lumped Ted Cruz. 3) Remind everyone why she wears a dress. “If you want something talked about, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” Between that line and the “B word,” it’s clear she’s trying to consolidate female Republicans. This is what you might call a “last resort,” and it won’t work. She’ll be out out of the top six. Grade: B-
The Three Senator Showdown
(My favorite part! Three distinct foreign policy ideologies well represented by U.S. Senators)
Best line: “This is not just the most capable, it is the most sophisticated terror threat we have ever faced. We are now at a time when we need more tools, not less tools.” It encapsulates his debate message: Shouldn’t we leave no stone unturned in our quest to protect ourselves from ISIS?
Worst line: “If you’re an American citizen and you decide to join up with ISIS, we’re not going to read you your Miranda rights.” This might be PPFA bias seeping in, but is this the road we want to go down? What if citizens joined the KKK… would they lose their Constitutional rights as well? Even after murders kill, don’t we give them their rights? Didn’t Timothy McVeigh get a lawyer and a trial? This line bothered me, though I bet it played well considering recent trends.
Debate grade: Obama and Clinton were, as usual, the biggest targets of Republican candidates, but Rubio was saddled with the bronze. Whereas the moderators wanted to induce anti-Trump comments, the anti-Rubio comments flowed freely. He got ganged up on, especially by Cruz and Paul. (Apparently the candidates have noted PPFA’s Power Rankings and want to reel him in.) It was an unusual and uncomfortable position for him to be in, and it showed. However, I actually think he did an admirable job defending mainstream Republicanism’s positions on the NSA, bulk phone data collection, and a hawkish foreign policy. More than any candidate on stage — with the exception of Paul, who doesn’t get as much time to show it off — he can answer any questions with 60 seconds of connected facts and context. (This is in sharp contrast to Trump and Carson, who can talk for 60 seconds and say almost nothing nuanced, or nothing period.) His position as the establishment’s top candidate was not damaged, but always being on the defensive did not allow him to gain on Trump and Cruz. Grade: B-
Best line: “One of the most troubling aspects of the Rubio-Schumer Gang of Eight Bill was that it gave President Obama blanket authority to admit refugees.” Cruz worked all night to tie Rubio to Democrats and the establishment, and I think the message was sent loud and clear.
Worst line: “I’m reminded of what FDR’s grandfather said. He said, ‘All horse-thieves are Democrats, but not all Democrats are horse-thieves.'” His point: all those who commit terror are Muslims. It’s false, it’s misleading, and it’s Trumpish pandering.
Debate grade: “Marco is — has more of an allegiance to Chuck Schumer and to the liberals than he does to conservative policy.” That was his runner up “best line.” He hit Rubio and he hit him hard all night. Together with Rand Paul, the libertarian and Tea Party subsets of the Republican Party were well represented in their quest to hurt the establishment favorite. I think he successfully hurt Rubio’s climb. That being said, this was his first debate with raised expectations, and he fell short of them by not at all going after the leader. He seemed more concerned with protecting second place than winning the nomination. It’s part of his long-game strategy, but he better not wait too long. Furthermore, he was trying to thread a very tight needle between Rubio’s interventionism from the right and Paul’s isolationism from the left. I’m not sure what more moderate foreign policy Republicans were left for him. He’d probably be sharper in a head to head debate, as he’s clearly a promoter of political dualism, but last night he had one too many fronts open, and none of them were against Trump. Grade: B
Best line: “So when you ask yourself, whoever you are that think you’re going to support Donald Trump — think, do you believe in the Constitution?”
Worst line: I couldn’t find one.
Debate grade: Say what you want about Paul, but I don’t think anyone on that stage answers questions as directly. He almost never dodges or meanders off the point. He was also in top libertarian form all night, defending the Constitution and urging America to stay out of foreign entanglements. He correctly blamed both parties for our debt problems. He was well-spoken, on point, and even had one of the better Trump lines (see “best line”). It won’t matter a lick in a Republican Primary, but I was impressed. That was the closest he ever looked to his independent-minded father. Grade: B
The Winner By Default
Best line: “Listen, I want to talk to the audience at home for a second. If your eyes are glazing over like mine, this is what it’s like to be on the floor of the United States Senate. I mean, endless debates about how many angels on the head of a pin from people who’ve never had to make a consequential decision in an executive position.” Man he’s good.
Worst line: “Everywhere is a target for terrorists.” Probably not the line I would use when asked, “How would you make sure fear doesn’t paralyze America?”
Debate grade: Referring the to the senators debating each other: “You sit up here and you listen to this stuff, and you think that so many of these people have had so much to do in this national debate, they talk like they were bystanders. . . . That’s why I think people get so frustrated with Washington, D.C. now. That’s why they’re so angry with the — the electorate is so angry with everybody who is involved in government in Washington, D.C. Because if you listen to the folks up here, you think that they weren’t even there.” That was too many lines to win “best line,” but it speaks to his new strategy. He’s tapping into the antiestablishment wave while also maintaining his authority as a two-term governor. No one riffs better up there. Trump riffs effectively, because it makes him popular, but he rarely follows it up with the substance that Christie can. Cruz, Paul, and Fiorina know their stuff, but they don’t seem to be thinking on their feet and having fun like Christie does. What helped him the most, though, was that he was hardly ever attacked. As the senators went after each other, and Bush and Trump went after Fiorina, and Trump went after Bush, and Kasich pretended people cared about what he had to say, Christie skated. If he ever does become part of the top tier, you can bet he’ll be grilled on his record in New Jersey. Oh, and there’s a rumor he was a federal prosecutor. I wish he would clarify this for us. Grade: B/B+