clock menu more-arrow no yes

The first Republican presidential debate of the 2016 election, explained

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Before the first Republican debate started, I was worried that the debate would be boring unless Scott Walker took the opportunity to go negative in a big way against Jeb Bush. Walker did not go negative in a big way against Jeb Bush. The debate was not boring. It was the least boring presidential debate I've ever seen, and possibly the least boring presidential debate of all time.

Update: Coverage of the second GOP debate.

Even the early "happy hour" debate for the candidates who didn't make the cut was pretty good and featured a major breakout star. But the overall impression conveyed was one of a party in chaos — lacking institutional coherence or strong leadership — even in the context of considerable policy consensus.

1) Carly Fiorina was the clear breakout star

There is an age-old question about whether you would rather be a big fish in a small pond or a big fish in a small pond. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina made a strong case for the small pond side of the argument with a bravura performance in a second-tier debate that allowed her to break through in a way that nobody in the main show did.

The rules of the game were that the 10 highest-polling candidates would be allowed onto the main stage at 9 pm Eastern time. Candidates who didn't make the cut were invited to a 5 pm loser's bracket debate.

This was actually a group of pretty seasoned politicians, including former governors of Texas, New York, and Virginia and the number two finisher in the 2012 GOP primaries. Fiorina wiped the floor with them, offering, among other things, the best Trump-related answer of any candidate in either bracket:

Here's the thing that I would ask Donald Trump in all seriousness. He is the party's frontrunner right now, and good for him.

I think he's tapped into an anger that people feel. They're sick of politics as usual. You know, whatever your issue, your cause, the festering problem you hoped would resolved, the political class has failed you. That's just a fact, and that's what Donald Trump taps into.

I would also just say this. Since he has changed his mind on amnesty, on health care and on abortion, I would just ask, what are the principles by which he will govern?

Fiorina impressed audiences at home, as demonstrated in the very robust Google search interest in her during and after the debate.

It's still very difficult to see how she could possibly win the nomination, but she did a lot to advance her political prospects last night. One could easily imagine her serving in a Republican Cabinet, and if she can continue to deliver performances this good she'll almost certainly get some consideration as a vice presidential nominee.

2) Fox gunned hard for Donald Trump

Republican politicians have been in something of a bind regarding Donald Trump. They would all like to see someone take him down, but it's not in the interests of any high-profile politicians to be the ones training their guns on him. Consequently, Fox News's broadcast team seemed to have taken on the responsibility themselves.

Bret Baier asked the very first question of the debate, and it was a direct shot at Trump: "Is there anyone on stage, and can I see hands, who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person?"

Trump, as expected, raised his hand in a move that was met with general derision from the audience.

Then Baier kept laying it on thicker, making it clear from moment one that this was bloodsport:

BAIER: Mr. Trump to be clear, you're standing on a Republican primary debate stage.

TRUMP: I fully understand.

BAIER: The place where the RNC will give the nominee the nod.

TRUMP: I fully understand.

BAIER: And that experts say an independent run would almost certainly hand the race over to Democrats and likely another Clinton. You can't say tonight that you can make that pledge?

Then, after a few questions for other candidates, Megyn Kelly took her turn. "Mr. Trump," she said, "one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don't use a politician's filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular when it comes to women. You've called women you don't like 'fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.'"

Trump deflected with a quip, "Only Rosie O'Donnell," but Kelly wasn't having it and pressed him further to defend himself.

And so it went throughout the night. The Fox anchors were tough in general, but especially tough on Trump. They had clearly appointed themselves the task of puncturing the Trump bubble and didn't mind in the slightest if it made them look biased.

3) Trump held his own

I am not, personally, someone to whom Trump's brand of demagogic ethnic nationalism has ever had any appeal, so it's difficult for me to judge what will or won't cause Trump fans to lose faith in him. But from a standpoint of pure professionalism, he took some hard punches and ended up still standing.

As Ezra Klein wrote, Trump "just doesn't fucking care."

Kelly threw lemons at him, so he made lemonade. "I don't frankly have time for total political correctness," he said. "And to be honest with you, this country doesn't either." The crowd cheered.

It's not entirely clear where this sideshow is heading, but I think we saw that the Trump bubble will be difficult to pop. Trump himself is very good on television, and his basic defense of his boorish behavior — "it's fun, it's kidding, we have a good time" — will resonate with those segments of white, male America who feel the country is being ruined by excessive deference to the feelings of women and minorities.

4) Jeb Bush and Scott Walker were meh

Jeb Bush delivered a somewhat shaky performance under unexpectedly hostile questioning. Asked whether America really needed another Bush in the White House, Bush said, "In Florida, they called me Jeb, because I earned it."

Jeb is actually a nickname derived from his full formal name, John Ellis Bush, and not really something he earned at all. Bush deflected adequately but unimpressively on immigration reform and the Common Core, and later delivered an answer on Iraq that was remarkably shaky considering he's already been through several cycles of campaign controversy over this.

There was nothing disastrous about Jeb's fumbling, but certainly a man from Mars who didn't realize Bush leads in endorsements and fundraising and vast family connections would be surprised to learn that this man was the frontrunner.

On the other hand, the best news for Jeb was that his leading rival — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — was utterly forgettable. I literally do not remember what he said or did. He showed up with no zingers, no points to make, and no clear strategy.

5) Rand Paul and Chris Christie had a heated argument about surveillance

A debate moment that combined both fireworks with policy substance was a dialogue between Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on the subject of federal surveillance and counterterrorism.

"The Fourth Amendment was what we fought the revolution over," argued Paul. "John Adams said it was the spark that led to our war for independence."

Christie, conversely, played the old Rudy Giuliani role and offered personal connections to the 9/11 terrorist attack. "This is not theoretical to me," Christie said, "I went to the funerals. We lost friends of ours in the Trade Center that day. My own wife was two blocks from the Trade Center that day at her office, having gone through it that morning."

Paul could be seen visibly rolling his eyes at this invocation of 9/11.

5) Marco Rubio looked like a winner

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio did not say or do anything that will make an all-time debate highlight reel, but he rattled off well-prepared answers to a range of questions.

"This election cannot be a résumé competition" he quipped, because "if this election is a résumé competition, then Hillary Clinton's gonna be the next president."

He repeatedly emphasized the idea that the election needs to be about the future, not the past, a brilliant dig at Obama and Clinton that also works as a dig at Bush. He didn't screw up, he got some shots in at Jeb over the Common Core, he didn't get clobbered for his work on the comprehensive immigration reform bill, and he managed to entirely sidestep the Trump circus.

If the nomination could be simply decided in smoke-filled rooms on the pure basis of "who looks like he'd be hardest for Hillary Clinton to beat," it sure looks like Rubio would be the choice.

6) John Kasich impressed liberals

It's not clear that giving articulate and well-reasoned arguments in favor of ideological deviation is a good strategy in a Republican Party presidential primary, but Ohio Gov. John Kasich did it.

Unlike the other governor candidates, he accepted federal Medicaid expansion money and defended that choice in the debate.

"President Reagan expanded Medicaid three or four times," he noted, arguing that this should not be such a bugaboo. And it just made sense. "I had an opportunity to bring resources back to Ohio to do what? To treat the mentally ill," he said. "Ten thousand of them sit in our prisons. It costs $22,500 a year to keep them in prison. I'd rather get them their medication so they could lead a decent life."

He also offered a broader moral argument, saying, "Everybody has a right to their God-given purpose."

7) There was not a lot of policy

The 10 candidates represented on stage have, collectively, released very little in the way of policy plans or documents thus far in the campaign. But what policy work has been done was not really rewarded with any airtime or discussion.

We did not hear about:

Did we not hear about policy because the candidates don't have many policy ideas, or are the candidates not devising policy ideas because conservative media and conservative leaders aren't interested in hearing the candidates debate policy? It's not clear. But if you arrived at the debate hoping to learn about the GOP governing agenda, you would not have learned very much.

We know that thematically Republicans want to:

  • Have a more aggressive posture on national security
  • Cut taxes
  • Repeal Obamacare
  • Reduce the deficit

Since the first three of these items would all increase the deficit, accomplishing the four in tandem is difficult. And the candidates simply didn't give a sense of how they would handle the difficulty. Ignore it and let the deficit soar like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush? Construct a bipartisan budget bargain like George H. W. Bush? Formulate a tax reform that raises taxes on the middle class like Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney?

8) Fox kept knifing Trump after the debate

Following a debate in which the Fox News anchors went at Donald Trump with guns blazing, the network kept on firing. A post-debate focus group organized by Fox pronounced his performance disastrous. An opinion/analysis piece published on the Fox website after the debate proclaimed, "Trump loses Republican debate but Rubio, Cruz and others triumph."

The moderators of the GOP debate Thursday night at the Quicken Loans arena gave Donald Trump plenty of rope – and sure enough he hanged himself. Right out of the box, the candidates were asked to pledge their support to whomever ultimately wins the GOP nomination; the only hold-out was Trump, who refused to make that commitment and who elicited boos from the audience.

Later, in response to a sharp question from Megyn Kelly about his history of calling women "fat pigs" and "slobs," Trump argued that the big problem with the country was political correctness. He concluded, "If you don’t like it Megyn, too bad; you haven’t been very nice to me." Bad decision, Donald.

It is simply not true that Trump was given rope by the moderators. He was subject to a sustained attack that shows no sign of letting up.

At the same time, Trump's willingness to flirt with a third-party bid even at the expense of audience opprobrium only serves to further set expectations for an independent run as his endgame.

9) We're going to do this again (and again and again)

The Republican National Committee has called for a total of nine debates, so Thursday night's showdown is just the beginning. The full presidential primary debate schedule is not yet final, but we do know when the next two Republican clashes are happening — September 16 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, and October 27 in Boulder, Colorado.

The Reagan library debate will air on CNN, and the Boulder debate will air on CNBC.

Given how heavily the August debate's tone was shaped by the moderators' strategic decision to crush Trump, it may not be a reliable guide to what dynamics will be unleashed when future moderators from different networks apply their own approaches to the problem.

Watch: Why people should watch primary debates: