Report Card: Which Candidates at the GOP Debate Got a Gold Star?
Sorry, Republicans, but it’s still Donald Trump’s world. And sorry, Donald, but now you have to share it with Ben Carson.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that Carly Fiorina won herself a big patch of political territory in Wednesday night’s marathon 11-candidate debate on CNN. But the conventionally wise have been consistently wrong about this campaign, and I wonder if voters were equally impressed with her performance.
There’s no question that Trump, the clear front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, had an off night. The blustery mogul is at his best when he can feed on the energy of a fired-up crowd, but the audience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was small and consisted mostly of party insiders. They showed him very little love.
His worst moment came when he claimed, without elaboration, that if he were president he would “get along with” Vladimir Putin and somehow convince the Russian leader to support U.S. foreign policy goals. Sure, and maybe Putin will give him a pony, too. You had to wonder if Trump has given more than five minutes’ thought to relations with Moscow.
But he stuck to his guns on the issue that propelled his rise: immigration. Trump’s claim that he can somehow deport 11 million undocumented men, women and children is absurd, ridiculous, unthinkable, cruel, dishonest — pick your adjective. But it has electrified much of the Republican Party base, and I’m betting that his supporters heard him loud and clear.
Meanwhile, Jeb Bush’s attempts to go after Trump reminded me of the time when British politician Denis Healey said that being attacked by his patrician rival, Geoffrey Howe, was “like being savaged by a dead sheep.”
Bush tried gamely to land a punch, at one point demanding that Trump apologize to his wife Columba for the ugly things he has said about Mexican immigrants. Trump refused, and that was that. Bush is taller than Trump but for some reason could not contrive to loom over him. Mano a mano, the billionaire still seemed large and in charge.
Carson has zoomed to second place in most polls, and I think his debate performance will give him another boost. His soft-spoken, low-key approach might annoy the political cognoscenti, but voters apparently like it, perhaps because he doesn’t seem as needy or desperate as the others.
I thought his best moment was when he was talking about border security and related his recent trip to Arizona, describing simple measures in one county that had reduced illegal crossings almost to zero. Sometimes practical solutions have more impact than high-blown rhetoric.
If Fiorina wanted to convince everyone of her toughness, she succeeded. She barged in whenever she wanted, no matter who was speaking, and she icily backhanded Trump over his piggish remarks about her face. I thought she overdid the Iron Lady routine when she declared she “wouldn’t talk to [Putin] at all,” but any woman running for high office faces unfair pressure to project strength. She made this factual error: A constitutional amendment must be ratified by three-fourths of the states, not two-thirds.
Did she do enough to vault into the top tier of candidates alongside Trump and Carson? Maybe, but she’s starting from the low single digits. And while she nailed Trump for his sexism, I thought the extended back-and-forth over their accomplishments in business was the one exchange in which he was a clear winner. If Fiorina gets tarred as a mediocre CEO, what qualifications does she have to run on?
As for the rest:
John Kasich was upbeat and reasonable, qualities that would definitely help him in the general election — but maybe not in the primaries.
Chris Christie was sharp and funny. His campaign probably isn’t going anywhere, but after Wednesday it still has a pulse.
Marco Rubio was stridently, alarmingly hawkish. Where doesn’t he want to use military force? And did his youth make him seem vigorous or callow? You decide.
Mike Huckabee was so apocalyptic on Iran that he must have frightened any children who happened to be watching.
Rand Paul seems to have become a libertarian again, sticking up for individual rights. And unlike the others on the stage, he spoke out for peace rather than war.
Scott Walker looked, once again, out of his depth. The party establishment once thought this guy was its savior? I expect his slide to continue.
And finally, the unctuous Ted Cruz looked and sounded as if he were trying to sell me a reverse mortgage. No thanks, senator.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is [email protected].
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