The second GOP debate is in the books, and it was rather different from the first one last month. For one thing, Carly Fiorina was in it. For another, Carly Fiorina won it.
I don’t even think it was that close. I would give Marco Rubio a solid second place, but that was mostly because he avoided messy fights with other candidates, spoke clearly and forcefully about topics from character and values to foreign policy, and got the most out of his limited airtime (just below average among the 11 candidates). Anyone looking for substance — as much as can be had in a debate featuring 11 candidates giving one-minute answers, even over the course of three hours — should have found him appealing.
But Fiorina had the answers that, in both style and substance, should be the most remembered ones of the night.
On Planned Parenthood, she was the one who brought the discussion back, in a way that was just short of graphic, to human life rather than merely the question of funding:
On defense, she gave a very detailed outline of what she thinks we need to do (albeit without a plan to pay for it — but hey, you only get a minute at a time in these things). And on the war against drugs, she shared (not for the first time) her very personal connection to the issue of drug addiction, which claimed the life of her daughter. Those were three of the finest moments of the evening.
I’ve made it more than 200 words without mentioning Donald Trump, and I think that’s indicative of the debate he had. He did his thing. I have to think it’s wearing thin. The Reagan presidential library didn’t seem to be filled with a lot of his natural allies; the audience didn’t hoot and holler for his put-downs, which seemed to get pettier and pettier as the night went on, and was even grumbling about them by the end. Trump seemed to react to that. After a few feisty opening exchanges, he was more subdued during most of the rest of the debate. During a few fairly substantive exchanges, particularly on foreign policy, he practically disappeared. That’s saying a lot for someone who still got more speaking time — by a margin of three minutes — over the next candidate. Most often, Trump was simply the subject or object of questions that sought one candidate’s response to something another had said in recent weeks. (Dear CNN: That got old.)
The candidate with the second-most time, almost 2.5 more minutes than Fiorina, was Jeb Bush. What about his performance?
I don’t play golf anymore, but I used to. I would go to the driving range and get a bucket of balls, 50, 100 of them at a time. I would spray them all over the range, some better than others. Then, just as I had two or three balls left in the bucket and was thinking I should just give up golf, I would nail one of the cleanest, purest, longest shots I could have hoped for … and I would think to myself, hey, maybe I can do this after all.
I thought of that after watching Jeb last night. (And again: I eventually gave up golf.)
Amazingly, Jeb once again flubbed a question about his presidential father and brother. Asked whether his naming advisers who had worked for 41 and 43 undercut his promise to be his own man, he said something about how of course they were his advisers, any Republican would have them as advisers because they’d been advisers to the last two Republican presidents, who happened also to be Bushes. Do you really think Trump would hire the same folks as advisers? Would Rand Paul? Do you think the sort of Republican voters fed up with the status quo who have pushed Trump and Ben Carson to the top of the polls think his was the right answer?
Later, Bush volunteered as the candidate to whom Rand Paul alluded as having smoked pot earlier in life — and joked that his mother would be mad at him for admitting as much to 25 million viewers. It was the kind of humanizing spontaneity that Hillary Clinton will unveil in Campaign Rollout 4.0. He had a few other good moments — oddly, one of them was a defense of his brother: “he kept us safe” — but I wonder if they aren’t the fooling-yourself kinds of moments I used to have on the driving range.
I mentioned Ben Carson earlier; I may not have to do that again. Carson comes across as the kind of person who’d be an ideal president … in a world where everyone was normal and reasonable. His earnest demeanor did not do him as many favors last night, in my view, as it did in the first debate. People looking for a non-politician will surely be more drawn to Fiorina. She came across as far more plausible in the role of commander-in-chief.
Just this week I heard some disturbing stories out of the Scott Walker campaign that made me wonder if he’s close to being a surprisingly early dropout from the race. A lot of Walker watchers were eager to see if he could assert himself last night and regain the spark he had for several months. I’m sorry, but I just didn’t see it. He got the least amount of speaking time of anyone on stage, a full 10 minutes less than Trump got, and what he did say wasn’t terribly memorable. It is hard to see how he picks himself back up at this point. I hope I’m wrong about that, because I liked him on paper.
I read a lot of people suggesting Chris Christie helped himself with some strong answers on budgeting, the wisdom and limits of working across the aisle, defense and law enforcement. But we’ve heard a lot of that from him before. Maybe he was able to break through to a broader audience last night. We’ll see.
Ted Cruz held his own; although he was a champion debater in college, it’s clear the presidential debate format doesn’t lend itself to his oratorical skills quite as well. But he will be a factor in this race for a while longer as the most outsider-y actual politician in the race. John Kasich didn’t come across quite as well as he had before a home audience in Ohio last time. He relied heavily on biography as usual and remains positioned to pick up the establishment mantle if Bush really falters, but as of today I’m not sure his ceiling is much higher than that. Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee have already hit also-ran status in my book.
The next debate, and the campaign in general, would benefit from a winnowing of the field during the weeks to come.