Like a really brutal boxing match between equals, the CNN Republican presidential debate was long and bloody and not terribly conclusive.
For the second time in two debates, the moderators had a big impact. But while the Fox debate revolved around a network decision to demolish (or at least rein in) one candidate — Donald Trump — the CNN debate was skewed heavily by a format that began nearly every question with a quote from one candidate about another, and then allowed follow-up by the candidate quoted. This naturally favored the more combative and quote-worthy candidates, and also guaranteed another Trump-heavy debate.
The candidates who had been on the receiving end of the most errant Trump snarks — about Fiorina’s experience and Jeb’s wife — had a great opportunity to make hay, and Fiorina took full advantage of it.
Her deftly delivered line about women hearing exactly what he said after he tried to spin it away (which managed also to underline a criticism Trump had made of Jeb Bush for dissing women’s health care services) was the line of the night, and was probably only partly offset by the back-and-forth with Trump about her, er, ah, interesting business career. I couldn’t really tell whether Fiorina’s rapid-fire detail on national security issues came across as showing her policy chops or mixing up a word salad.
Beyond that, the constant opportunities to get drawn into murky and divisive sniping made it difficult to name “winners.” The losers were mostly the poor schlubs — Huckabee, Paul, and to some extent Walker — who apparently hadn’t criticized other candidates enough to get equal air time.
But then there was Ben Carson, the candidate who came into the debate with a big upward arrow next to his name.
On the positive side, he managed to get through the debate without so much as once saying the words “political correctness” or muttering darkly about Alinskyites destroying the country. Indeed, the only discussion involving him and conspiracy theories cast him as the defender of traditional medicine against the vaccinations-cause-autism people. On the other hand, he almost certainly hurt himself with his conservative following by confirming and then defending the rather shocking news that he advised George W. Bush in the days after 9/11 to try diplomacy rather than war. Another low moment for Carson was Trump having to remind him that progressive taxation was not some sort of new-fangled “socialist” idea.
The rest of the candidates were largely up and down. People who aren’t tired of the patented Rubio Second-Generation rap or the Cruz I’ll-Fight-For-You rap may have been impressed by those two, who are simply good public speakers (though I wonder who advised Rubio to rant about our “left-wing government” and “The Left” so much). Jeb Bush probably thrilled people who like him already, and annoyed people who don’t; his spirited defense of his brother’s Iraq policies just reminds people of W.’s worst moments and his own confusion over them.
Above all, I don’t think this debate did much to solve any of the Republican Party’s problems. Did it “take down” Donald Trump, as so many hoped? I don’t think so, despite the bountiful opportunities the other candidates — at the earlier “J.V.” debate, where the first four questions were about Trump, as at the main event — had to do so. Did it “winnow” the field? Nobody did that badly, and the candidates with the least steam, like Mike Huckabee, are already committed to a living-off-the-land county-by-county effort in Iowa. Did the “uprising” on behalf of “outsider” candidates with dubious qualifications abate? Probably not; whatever ground Carson lost was probably gained not by the “experienced” pols but by Fiorina, whose background remains a real time bomb that only Trump has tried to exploit.
Should the “outsiders” fade, moreover, this debate did little to help build an “Establishment” consensus behind a candidate prepared to move into the lead just as people start voting. Indeed, an Establishment candidate long left for dead, Chris Christie, may have revived his extremely limited prospects with a good performance tonight. So the long slugfest may have resolved nothing.
By contrast, the earlier “J.V.” debate quickly clarified itself into an angry argument over Republican strategy and tactics between Bobby Jindal — who seems to stand for Trumpism Without Trump, and wants to “burn Washington down” and shut down the government over Planned Parenthood and defy the Supreme Court — and Lindsey Graham, who doesn’t disagree with Jindal on the merits of most issues but argues for being reasonable in order to win the presidency and then go to war in five countries on Inauguration Day. The spirit of the earlier debate sneaked into the main event in a question to a clearly puzzled Scott Walker about Graham’s just-formulated litmus test for exactly how many ground troops we just have to deploy to Iraq. But then they moved on to the next set of insults.
This strange nominating contest will now lurch on into the autumn, probably continuing to freak out political scientists and mega-donors alike — in other words, people not used to uncertainty.