Making Sense of This Weird, Weird Night

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, answers a question during a Republican presidential primary debate, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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As I noted earlier, the multiple events we were trying to cover tonight – especially what amounted to a Republican debate and a simultaneous counter-debate – prevented me from giving the kind of focus to the debate proper which I normally would. So my impressions will be more tentative than they normally are.

Let me start with the debate itself.

At the outset we had the round of questions and snarks about Donald Trump. And for the first half hour or more the debate had some of the feel of community access television. There was even some odd tone to the sound system, at least on my hearing. But mainly, I think it felt disjointed and a little odd because the major center of gravity in this battle, Donald Trump, wasn’t there. You had canned, awkward jokes and a lot of off-balance tension. But the big takeaway for me was that after a half hour or so of that, they were done talking about him.

I haven’t looked at the transcript. But my impression was that for the last 90 minutes of the debate, or maybe the last hour, Trump’s name was barely mentioned.

Early on Cruz definitely tried to dominate the stage, making himself the one who would address Trump’s absence and try to wrangle control over the stage. But he quickly slid into his characteristic overweening style that Chris Wallace shot down in an early, extended exchange. He lacked the heft to dominate the exchange.

From there there were really two and half engagements: Bush vs Rubio and Cruz vs Rubio with a bit Paul vs Cruz thrown in.

Rubio seemed too frenetic and hyped up to me. He’s had the same pat, smooth, paragraph length prose answers he’s used in every debate. But with time running out for him, he’s just reciting faster or more agitated or more pissed off than before. But more pissed off at ISIS or just how his campaign is going?

In any case, I think his exchanges with others on the stage did not go well for him – the back and forth with Bush particularly so. In fact, I thought this was Bush’s best debate by a longshot, though I can’t imagine it will do him much good at this point. After that early debate where he went after Rubio and Rubio just shut him down, I thought Bush did Rubio a fair amount of damage in the exchange on immigration. As Kris Kristoferson put it, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. And like Rand Paul, with Bush I felt a sense of, ‘Now that my campaign’s over I can loosen up a bit and be myself.’

I thought Cruz did well against Rubio but fared much less well against Rand Paul, who made him look bad. Cruz was clumsy and cringey at the beginning with the Trump jokes. But my sense was that if you’re open to liking Ted Cruz, he did reasonably well. His closing – again, for people with the acquired taste – struck me as pretty strong.

John Kasich, who I don’t think is really in this contest, just stood out to me for his decency and seriousness. His discussion of those suffering from chronic mental illness and drug addiction struck me as genuine and animated not by polling or a dodge about gun control but a real experience of government’s on-the-ground, practical need to address the suffering of those on the margins of our society. On top of that, it was clear Kasich, having been a policy guy in Congress for a generation and then Governor has really concrete knowledge about the policy, bureaucratic and political moving parts that need to be brought together to address these issues. This is not a paean to Kasich. I don’t agree with him on much of anything. I will only say that he strikes me as a serious-minded elected official with some real knowledge of the issues he’s talking about and some realism about the complexities of addressing them. That stands out on a stage of men who are mainly clowns in terms of either cartoonishly hyperbolic rhetoric or rehearsed lines about things they’d never even thought about two or three years ago.

The night was too jumbled for me to get a real sense of how this whole night played for Trump – whether his gambit worked. My guess is that it likely solidified where he already was. He didn’t dominate the entirety of the debate quite as much as I anticipated. But even though the candidates mainly stopped talking about Trump after a half-hour or more, he still totally turned the evening upside down. Hell, he completely threw me off my game! I can’t watch two totally separate events live at the same time with any level of attention (after the beginning I watched very little of his speech.)

Going back to my post from last night, his line in his interview with CNN was very straightforward and on message: Fox disrespected me so I had to punish them. They said they were sorry and I’m glad they did but it was too late. That is always the message.

I’m curious to hear what others thought the upshot of the whole evening was. I feel like I’ll need to go back and watch more that I missed and get a feel from the news of the morning before my impression solidifies.

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