I gave quick grades last night that as it happens mainly coincide with Dave’s view. I’ll have more later today, but for right now I’ll throw in Politico Playbook’s lead paragraph this morning, an anonymous quote from a “smart Republican” on the debate:
PLAYBOOK IN-BOX – A smart Republican’s take on last night Fox Business debate: “To me the morning story is that if GOP was worried about Trump or Cruz on Monday, today they’re terrified. These two dominated the debate. … Cruz and Trump separated even further from pack … Rubio/Christie 3rd place draw, Jeb/Carson/Kasich might as well stay home. … [It’s] Cruz and Trump, rest fighting to stay alive. Sad – but true. … Trump has had his best debate performance to date. It pains me, but its true. … Marco was fine. Always looked polished. But Trump and Cruz controlled conversation … Marco had to interject to be involved …
“The party is starting to look like the banks on Wall Street did in April 2008: ‘What did we do?’ … There’s no fixing this — buckle up.”
That’s a cheering thought on a frosty Friday morning, hmmmm?
Anyway, here’s Dave:
The first GOP debate of 2016 was quite the show. With three weeks left until Iowans go to the polls, the seven candidates on stage tonight did not pull any punches. I think we can safely say the Cruz/Trump bromance is officially over.
The first half of the debate featured the candidates fielding questions on how they would defeat ISIS. Their answers included policy proposals such as: telling everybody how awful Hillary Clinton is, how President Obama hates the US as a global power, a Benghazi reference, and some serious sabre rattling over Iran detaining 10 US sailors. I am not sure they heard the good news about said sailors being released a day later. Listening to them, you would think there was another Iranian Hostage crisis on our hands.
The second half of the debate actually had some substantive arguments over tax policy, entitlements, and immigration. This was made easier by the fact there were only seven candidates on the stage tonight. Not 10 or more as we have seen in previous debates. It’s nice when candidates have a chance to actually speak for some length of time, is it not?
As usual, this debate also featured its share of winners and losers. On to the debate grades.
Chris Christie - A: Say what you want about Chris Christie, but he is a very skilled politician. His skills especially shine through in debate formats. Christie had a great night. His answers were polished and on message. He is clearly trying to portray himself as the anti-Washington grown up in the room and he is doing it to great effect. His best moment of the night was getting in the middle of the “debate on the Senate floor” and actually answering a question on entitlement reform. Rubio and Cruz took the same question and turned it into an argument about the VAT tax.
Christie will likely earn some good press with this performance. If he can continue with his blue collar “tell it like it is” theme that worked so well for him in two elections in New Jersey, he could win the Establishment Primary in New Hampshire and maybe give Trump a run for his money there too.
Donald Trump - A-: I think this was Donald’s best debate performance to date. Sure he had some Trumpisms. He’s Donald Trump afterall. But he clearly won the exchange with Ted Cruz over “New York Values” by reminding people how the city came together after 9/11. And his answer on not caring about his business once he is president, because he’ll be focused on Making America Great again, was very good as well.
The only reason I have him an A- was due to the fact Ted Cruz wiped the floor with him on the birther exchange. And it wasn’t close. Trump was the frontrunner coming into the debate and he did nothing to hurt his standing tonight.
Ted Cruz - B+: As usual, Ted Cruz proved to be a very capable debater. The aforementioned exchange with Trump over his eligibility will likely quiet the noise surrounding the issue. His campaign has been losing steam over the last few weeks as a result of it and stopping the bleeding is exactly what Cruz needed to do.
However, it’s becoming pretty apparent that attacks tend to get under his skin a little bit. His answer to the question on his failure to disclose a 2012 loan from Goldman Sachs was a meandering line of excuses and attacks on Hillary and the “liberal” New York Times. And he was clearly annoyed and on the defensive after Marco Rubio dumped a truckload of opposition research on him about his flip-flops on immigration. It won’t hurt him in the short term, but you can bet other candidates have noticed this and will start to needle him more often.
Marco Rubio - B: I’ve said it a thousand times, but he is the most talented politician in this race. His answers are usually well timed and very well delivered. That being said, he gives the same memorized answers over and over again. I am waiting for one of these candidates to ask him “where’s the beef?” like Walter Mondale did to Gary Hart in 1984. He is not great when pressed on his answers and that reared its head when he gave a very weak answer to moderator Neil Cavuto’s fact check on his assertion that President Obama wants to take everybody’s guns.
However, he more than made up for that slip up when he launched a full frontal assault on Ted Cruz’s record on immigration and national security. It put Cruz on defense and deflected the immigration issue, clearly his biggest vulnerability, away from him. So he certainly did not hurt himself tonight. But I am beginning to wonder if Rubio is just a slick talker and not much else. In other words, is he just another John Edwards?
Jeb Bush and John Kasich - C: Both of them needed breakout moments tonight and neither came close to delivering. Kasich gave long, meandering, yet substantive answers that focused more on the 1990s than anything else. I’m not sure why he thinks it helps him. It makes him seem like a relic of the past.
Jeb Bush had a couple of good moments. His rebuttal to Trump on his proposed Muslim ban was very good, and I think he gave one of the better closing statements of the night. But aside from that he was very “meh.” Debates are just not his strong suit.
These two are clearly in the back of the pack among the four establishment candidates. They would have made great GOP candidates in 1996; but in 2016, the voters just do not seem to be buying what they are selling. As I said previously, I don’t expect either of these two to be in the race after the New Hampshire primary.
Ben Carson - D+: Remember the scene in Tommy Boy where Chris Farley is overcome with excitement when he finally passed his college class by the skin of his teeth? I bet those same feelings are permeating in what remains of the Ben Carson campaign. He had some pretty good one-liners early in the night and actually seemed awake throughout the entire debate. That alone earns him a passing grade in my book. Aside from that, he was still the meandering blank slate we have grown accustomed to seeing. I have yet to hear a convincing reason as to why he is still in the race?
Bottom line, I don’t see too much changing after tonight in terms of where the polls stand. It’ll still be Cruz and Trump locked in a tight race in Iowa, and Trump will maintain his lead in New Hampshire. The only change I can see coming is Rubio and Christie starting to separate themselves a little bit from Kasich and Bush in the New Hampshire polls.
18 more days until Iowa. It is only going to get more exciting from here.