Frills, Thrills and Strong Wills: The First Debate
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s political theater like no other.
The first Republican debate was almost juicier than advertised. Almost. We didn’t get the explosive confrontation from the Donald that we were waiting for. Still, given the constraints — 10 candidates and only 90 minutes of debating time —the event was strong, lively and surprisingly watchable. But who’s going to get a bump, and who’s going to be bumped? Putting my old political analyst hat back on, I came up with seven top takeaways.
1. Poised to bounce: John Kasich, Ben Carson and Rand Paul
These men will likely see a noticeable bump in their poll numbers. John Kasich, Ohio’s centrist governor, was alive and unpolished, and an interesting speaker — and he deftly mustered some of the more salient parts of his resume, including when he helped to balance the budget back in his House days. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson had the night’s funniest line about, of course, brain-dead Washington; primary voters are going to give him a bump, though it’s not clear whether Carson could handle an attack in later debates. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul had an up-and-down night, but lanced Chris Christie with his dig about being an Obama hugger. And his closing line, about being a different kind of Republican, was a winner. His supporters walked away heartened, even if his near-term poll bump is relatively minor.
2. Ouch — took a hit: Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz
Chris Christie could probably have taken the nomination in 2012, but oh, how he struggled tonight: The New Jersey governor looked a bit out of place, cast about in vain for compelling themes and got smacked in the kisser by Paul with that Obama hugger comment. Huckabee had a tremendous closing, but was for the most part forgettable. Ted Cruz? The Texas senator might still be the nation’s best college debater ever, and he got in a few nice lines about what he’d do his first day as president. But overall, he failed to shine, and probably won’t get any bounce in the polls.
3. Scott “Sleep” Walker
Clearly the Wisconsin governor did his homework — he almost physically jumped at the chance to show off his foreign policy knowledge. But appearance might have hurt him more than substance tonight: For some reason, Walker’s eyelids looked heavy, and his countenance? Just, well, tired. As a result, he never quite looked presidential. This first debate wasn’t fatal for him or, indeed, anyone else. But Walker likely failed to make progress.
4. Jeb was solid, but is that enough?
Noticeably svelte, the once and future king gave a solid performance but did not excel — especially not in the second half of the debate, when he sort of faded into the wide field. Jeb’s best moment? Probably his vigorous defense of the Common Core education standards. Yet, overall, he was milder than we’d expected.
5. The Donald was actually OK, but just OK.
Everyone wondered whether Donald Trump would get poked and prodded by his opponents and lose his temper in an explosion for the ages, his very own Snookie moment. Indeed, some relished the exact prospect. But the political neophyte and surly billionaire mostly kept his cool. Attacks from his opponents were on the mild side, and the Donald answered questions relatively well, from defending his Reagan-esque policy “evolutions” to critiquing policy in China and Mexico.
There was, however, one massive exception: Would Trump support the GOP nominee no matter who it was? The candidate would not say yes, and that refusal could be the one that does him in. The only thing Republican stalwarts hate more than political hot air and President Obama is the possibility of a third-party candidacy that could split the base and propel Hillary Clinton to the White House.
6. The real winners?
Forget the GOP: Megyn Kelly and Facebook may have been tonight’s winners. Fox viewers, of course, already know Kelly is the network’s star, but now the non-Fox universe does: The long-haired anchor tussled with Trump, changed questions when she thought it made sense and just generally shined onstage. Indeed, these debates could be to Kelly what Hurricane Katrina coverage was to Anderson Cooper. Another winner was, as ever, Facebook. Not that we needed another reminder of how broad the company’s reach is.
7. The weird moment
After a truncated discussion of Black Lives Matter, the next TV ad on Fox was about the new movie Straight Outta Compton. Hmm. As they say: “Wait, what?”