Last night, all but one Republican candidate gathered for a final debate before the Iowa caucus. I’ve watched all of the debates so far this cycle, as I routinely do; I admit, therefore, that my perspective will probably differ from the average voter’s, who either hasn’t tuned in yet or is only just now, maybe, possibly starting to pay attention. I did not, however, watch the Undercard Debate.
Without further ado. . .
The Moderators: For the most part, I thought the moderators did a fine job. Using video of past comments to skewer candidates was outstanding, and I hope to see more of that use of technology in future debates. About the only foul I can call on the moderators happened when Cruz began to complain about the questions attacking him repeatedly; I don’t think it was a wise move on Cruz’s part, but it was not at all appropriate for Chris Wallace to interrupt Cruz and dialogue with him during his answer.
Jeb Bush: Jeb had, for Jeb, a very good night. He’s still not smooth at debate — whether in the attack or in defense. He has that “I practiced this joke in the mirror” demeanor about him whenever he delivers a joke. He was, however, strong on his defense of his record, strong on foreign policy, and strong on defending his stance on immigration. I don’t agree with that stance, but he did as good a job defending it as one could.
Ben Carson: Dr. Carson has learned not to whine about lack of questions. I believe he got about six or seven questions over the course of the night. After watching him debate after debate, it’s clear he has been studying up on the issues. The trouble is there’s nothing exceptionally inspiring or deep about his answers at this point. Informed generalities are still generalities. I expect him to drop after Iowa.
Chris Christie: Chris Christie’s strategy has been the same for most of this cycle: 1) Attack Hillary. 2) Attack legislators. 3) Mention that he’s a federal prosecutor and a Republican governor in a blue state. 4) Stare at the camera. It’s not a bad strategy, I guess, but it doesn’t resonate well with me. To his credit, when asked about what programs he would cut, his answer on Planned Parenthood was pitch perfect, as was his defense of the unborn when pressed on it. The audience loved it.
Ted Cruz: As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Cruz stumbled twice in the debate, and those two stumbles will haunt him because they will become the narrative. When he attempted to criticize the moderators, I understand what he was trying to do. He was setting up a joke about wanting to pout and leave the stage. The trouble is, as I mentioned above, Chris Wallace interrupted him and ruined the moment. It also left him vulnerable to Rubio’s line about never leaving the stage under any circumstance. Cruz also squabbled with Wallace over responding to a question in which his name was mentioned, which made him look petty. In sum, messing with Fox moderators isn’t worth it. Unlike other moderators, they will not roll over and play dead, and Chris Wallace, in particular, is very deft at needling candidates who try. These were unforced tactical mistakes on Cruz’s part, and they hurt him, in no small part because the effort was unnecessary. I will say that I find his carpet bombing / air campaign rhetoric a bit silly, and he doesn’t need to double down on it. It makes him sound naive about how wars are fought and left him open to criticism about the finer points of bombing campaigns and the need for ground troops. He needs to find a better way to sound strong on the issue.
To Cruz’s credit, he acquitted himself much better on the question of immigration than did Rubio, as Megyn Kelly conceded in the interview following the debate. As an aside, that interview demonstrated why Kelly is so successful; she can wear the two hats of debate moderator and interviewer and switch seamlessly. Cruz clearly noticed and appreciated the distinction. She was annoyed when Cruz insisted with a largely semantic argument that he didn’t want the bill to pass, but let the issue go. Cruz also showed a lot of integrity maintaining his position on energy subsidies. He’s against them, period, and actually drew applause for holding to his guns there.
John Kasich: Again, I am convinced it’s John Weaver’s diabolical influence, but John Kasich sounds like either a crank or a crazy, nostalgic old person whenever he talks. On paper, he should not be this weak of a candidate, but neither should McCain or Huntsman, whom Weaver served poorly in previous campaigns. He’s done a good job governing Ohio, but he has sold his product poorly.
Rand Paul: I know a few folks here despise Paul for his position on surveillance and anti-terrorist positions, to the point where he’s attacked and parodied relentlessly at times. He did, however, give one of the strongest pro-life libertarian arguments I’ve ever seen. I do find his sniping of Rubio and Cruz on Senate procedure a bit tiresome; some of it, though, is because stronger voices have taken up aspects of his platform. I enjoyed his presence, but barring him exceeding expectations in the Iowa Caucus, he’s pretty much done this cycle and needs to go home and defend his Senate seat.
Marco Rubio: As I’ve said, I’ve watched every single one of these debates; I find Marco Rubio’s routine more tiresome every time I see it. He’s tried to infuse his sunny optimism with passion, but he comes across mostly as rushed, anxious, and loud. I thought he did not handle Kelly’s press on him about immigration well, and Bush made matters worse by a) praising him for backing the Gang of 8 bill and b) condemning him for changing his mind again afterward. It makes Rubio look inconsistent, which, coupled with his seemingly anxious posture lately, hurt him a bit for me. I know many people said he won the debate, but I just don’t see it. There isn’t much depth beneath the rhetoric, the platitudes, and the saber rattling. Some have said he’s the Right’s President Obama, and it’s perhaps true. Pres Obama’s speeches were impressive the first three or four times I saw him speak, but it’s the same speech every time. Like slow motion bullet time in movies, it was impressive the first time I saw it, but iteration after iteration later, it has gotten old. Rubio’s rhetorical skills strike me as similar, and I can’t help but imagine that the folks pulling for Rubio are hoping people won’t see through the act before he manages to get himself nominated and elected.
Conclusion: Nothing that unorthodox, really. I thought Bush and Paul had exceptional nights that won’t matter. Christie and Rubio have been doing the same pony tricks for many debates now, and if voters haven’t tired of the repetition, they may well have enjoyed their performance. Cruz needed to shine last night, but two unforced errors botched what would have otherwise been a great night for him. Kasich and Carson need to go away.
Iowa Predictions: Hell, I don’t know. I’ll be shocked, impressed, and depressed if Trump’s 18 volunteers can turn him out a convincing win in the state. The top three will probably be some combination of Cruz, Rubio, and Trump, unless Paul’s large state apparatus wildly exceeds expectations. For Trump to slow down, he needs to finish second and trail by double digits or come in any flavor of third place.