The Fox News Republican primary debate in August had all the markings of a disaster in the making — an enormous field of ten candidates, most of them obscure or implausible, sharing a stage for two hours. It turned out to be an unexpectedly triumphant, shockingly compelling television moment. That sent expectations for the second debate skyrocketing. CNN expanded the field to include eleven candidates spread across three hours. Not coincidentally, ad prices were jacked up to historic levels.
The result was ... a rambling, overstuffed disappointment. The anchors did an admirable job of forcing the candidates to directly address one another, but there were far too many candidates on the stage for the series of exchanges to constitute anything resembling a proper debate. The determination to let the flow of the discussion keep ping-ponging from one contender to the next meant a loss of perspective on the issues. The candidates ended up going deep on medical marijuana while only discussing taxes in a cursory way. We heard a lot about the business careers of Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump but almost nothing about the gubernatorial records of Jeb Bush or Scott Walker.
Making the evening even more grueling, the three-hour debate was preceded by an hour-long Junior Varsity debate featuring Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, and Rick Santorum. By the end of the evening, we heard a lot of politicians talking but learned very little. The lion's share of the great moments belonged to Fiorina, who doesn't actually bring a very distinct ideological perspective to the race, and America was reminded that our ultra-long presidential campaign seasons tend to be more slog than thrill-ride.
1) Carly Fiorina was dominant on style
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO was the breakout star of the first debate's JV round, performing so well that CNN tweaked its rules to get her on the main stage for the second debate. Upon entering the big leagues she killed it once again, managing to come across as consistently well-prepared without sounding canned. She was unfazed by attacks on her business record, and pivoted flawlessly to an attack on Trump who she said was "forced into bankruptcy not once, not twice, but a record four times."
Time and again on issues ranging from Iran to immigration she returned to her key theme of "leadership, the kind that's needed to get results."
She also had crowd-pleasing zingers to deliver against the party's shared opponent: "if you want to stump a Democrat, ask them to name an accomplishment of Mrs. Clinton." And with her brilliant mic-drop response to Trump's attacks on her looks she proved to be the first Republican to go toe-to-toe with the Donald and emerge with a clear victory.
That said, the substance of her answers often underwhelmed. She talked about "leadership" a lot in part to cover for the fact that she hasn't developed a real policy program. Her riff on Planned Parenthood and the vicious, awful things she saw on the Planned Parenthood tapes sounded great but was totally inaccurate.
2) A more substantive debate disadvantaged Trump
The Fox News hosts spent much of the first GOP debate going hard, personally, against Donald Trump and he wound up triumphing by holding his own. The CNN debate started off on a similar note with the anchors asking various candidates whether Donald Trump had the temperament necessary to command America's nuclear arsenal. The ensuing scrum played to Trump's strengths, setting the stage for zingers like "Rand Paul doesn't belong on this stage — he's number eleven" and prideful boasting like "I think I have a great temperament."
But as the debate became less Trump-centric and more issue-focused, Trump tended to fade away. He simply hasn't taken the time to be able to speak fluently on a wide range of issues. For a moment, he sprung back to life when the debate focused on immigration. But then it passed again to questions about marijuana, Social Security, and Syria and suddenly the difference between real political professionals and a TV showman like Trump were apparent.
3) Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham highlighted a big GOP divide
The most interesting exchange of the JV debate came near the end through when former rising star and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal got into it with Senator Lindsey Graham over the dominant question dividing today's Republican Party — not policy, but tactics.
Jindal forcefully pressed the case for tactical extremism, calling on congressional Republicans to adopt a much more confrontational approach with the White House and refuse to fund the government unless they got to carry the day on a wide range of policy issues. "Give Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi credit," Jindal implored, "at least they fight for what they believe in." Jindal, showing the flashes of down-home southern charm that were missing in his infamous 2009 State of the Union response, said "it's time to get rid of the Republican Party" if they couldn't muster the ability to defund Planned Parenthood.
Graham took up the challenge and accused Jindal of lying. "You served in the Congress, Bobby" he scolded at one occasion. Later he told Jindal that the presidency comes with mighty responsibilities including "a certain amount of honesty." Obama, Graham observed, "is not going to sign a bill that defunds Obamacare." Graham promised that once he was in the White House, everything Jindal wanted to see happen would happen. But until then "the one thing I am not going to do is shut the government down and undermine our ability to win" in 2016.
This is the big divide between Republicans in Washington. One faction, stronger in the House, wants to press for maximum confrontation. The other faction, stronger in the Senate, wants to lay low and maximize the odds of a successful GOP presidential campaign in 2016. Normally this debate plays out behind closed doors or indirectly in the press. The Jindal-Graham debate was a rare face-to-face version of this crucial argument.
4) Jeb Bush continued to struggle
Jeb Bush continued to deliver a mostly low energy campaign performance. When invited to attack Trump's fitness to handle the nuclear codes, Bush demurred: "I think the voters will make that determination."
He stumbled through some seemingly obvious questions, including one from conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt about why his team of foreign policy advisors was so full of retreads from his brother's administration. With flat, affectless delivery Jeb explained that he's recycling his father's and his brother's teams because those are the only Republican presidents the country has had in decades. This, of course, is exactly what bothers people.
Later, Bush got sucked into a long back-and-forth with Ted Cruz about judicial nominations. Cruz offered a clear, concise point: in retrospect, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush made mistakes by appointed David Souter and John Roberts to the Supreme Court. Jeb rambled in response: "I will talk about what I will do as president of the united States as it relates to appointing supreme court justices. We need to make sure that we have justices that with a proven, experienced record of respect for upholding the constitution. That is what we need. We can't have the history in recent past is appoint people that have no experience so that you can't get attacked. And that makes it harder for people to have confidence that they won't veer off on this issue."
Asked to clarify if Roberts fit the bill, Bush fumbled around verbally again. These questions about how he relates to his familiar predecessors are some of the most obvious ones he'll face, and yet Bush still lacks snappy answers.
5) John Kasich keeps winning the hearts of liberals
Ohio governor John Kasich, for a second debate in a row, played the role of "surprisingly sensible" in the eyes of liberal observers.
This time his key outreach to the center was arguing that regardless of the merits of the Iran deal, simply trying to tear it up in January of 2017 isn't a realistic plan. "We need to rebuild our relationships with allies," he said "we are stronger if we work with our friends in Europe." A Kasich administration would necessarily focus on enforcement and observation of the terms of the deal and continued international cooperation.
None of the other candidates agreed with this take, and it's unlikely many GOP primary voters do. But it makes a lot of sense!
6) Ben Carson is extremely low-key
In recent weeks, Ben Carson has surged into second place in national polling behind Donald Trump. His debate performance was far from commanding — he spoke in low-key tones, and often in vague generalities — but he was helped by the fact that nobody seemed to feel like attacking him.
To the extent that Republicans are attracted to a political outsider who's also a famous African-American doctor who tells white conservatives they're basically right about everything, nobody is really doing anything to persuade them to change their mind. Trump is scaring the mainstream Republican politicians, in other words, and Carson is not — despite his strong standing in the polls.
7) Policy papers aren't playing a role
Since the last debate two candidates have released major policy position papers. One a Jeb Bush plan for $3.4 trillion in tax cuts of which about 53 percent will go to the richest one percent of the population. The other is an eight-point plan from Scott Walker that would crush labor unions as a political and economic force in the United States.
Neither was mentioned in the debate.
Nor did the candidates talk about Marco Rubio's tax plan or Chris Christie's Social Security plan or Rand Paul's budget plan.
Big, ambitious, formal policy statements just didn't play much of a role. In part that's because so much air time was occupied by Trump, Carson, and Fiorina — three non-politicians who don't really do white papers. But more fundamentally it speaks to the difficulty of having a focused policy debate with so many different candidates running. The moderators ran a much more earnest debate than the Fox one, but it was very difficult for any distinct ideas or viewpoints to break through given the sheer scale of the event.