The second Republican presidential debate, main-stage version, ran as long as this season’s finale of The Bachelorette—but, unlike that prior piece of epic reality television, no single candidate emerged at the end with a bright red rose. Another difference: while The Bachelorette finale flew right by, or so I am told, the GOP debate was such that, as the always-waggish Alex Wagner suggested on Twitter, everyone who endured the entire thing deserved “to reward themselves with a long toke of Jeb Bush’s 40-year-old pot.”
The debate’s format was designed to “highlight differences” among the 11 candidates who made the top-tier cut, and moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash of CNN and Hugh Hewitt of Salem Radio did their best to stir the pot. And indeed there was conflict aplenty at the Ronald Reagan presidential library, with Donald Trump, as expected, at the center of it. Pretty much everyone (save Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and John Kasich) threw at least a little, and often more than a little, shade at Trump. The question is whether any of the attacks will stick, or if we’ll find in the days ahead that he remains the Teflon Don.
One of the lessons of the first debate is to avoid jumping to conclusions in the minutes immediately following the melee. Nearly all of us in the political analysis racket knocked Ben Carson’s performance in Cleveland, but the verdict delivered by Republican primary voters was vastly different. With that caveat in mind, herewith a handful of immediate takeaways to be taken for what they’re worth (which is to say, with a sack full of salt).
Seizing the moment
No candidate took the stage with a greater opportunity, or higher expectations, than Carly Fiorina. That she proceeded to steal the show was the insta-conventional wisdom—and, in this case, it’s difficult to argue the contrary. Former Obama communications maven Dan Pfeiffer has posited that the explosion of social media has turned debates into communal experiences in which big moments matter most of all. And Fiorina’s riposte to Trump’s “look at that face” insult in Rolling Stone was clearly the moment of the night: two sentences that were not only composed, concise, and potent, but that roused the crowd in the hall and online, and actually, amazingly, forced Trump into the closest thing (creepy and condescending though his response was) to an act of contrition we’ve seen from him yet.
Fiorina was by no means perfect, and if she now rises in the polls, the oppo hits on her tenure at Hewlett-Packard and Lucent will come hard and fast. But her performance overall proved beyond a doubt that she deserves a place on the main stage, and is a growing force to be reckoned with.
The establishment strikes back
Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie all gave significantly stronger performances here in Simi Valley than they did in Cleveland. Kasich wasn’t quite as strong, but still acquitted himself decently. (Scott Walker, by contrast, did nothing that I could see to pull himself out of his current tailspin.) But aside from Bush, none of these candidates ranked in the top five in terms of the conversation taking place on Facebook, as good a proxy as we have for the social-media universe. The pundit class thought Rubio would get a bump out of the last debate; he did not. The commentariat believes it even more strongly now; I have my doubts.
The story with Bush may be different. His claim that, as governor of Florida, he stood up to Trump when he tried to bring casino gambling to the state appears to be rock solid—and Trump’s denial an outright lie. But winning with the fact-checking crowd will gain Bush little with voters. What may help him more were his funny, humanizing weed admission and his snappy, Trump-jabbing “ever-ready” answer when asked to pick his putative Secret Service codename. For nervous donors and Bush supporters who worried their guy might be following Walker into the land of the walking dead, Bush seemed to me to do enough on Wednesday night to assuage their darkest fears.
The band of outsiders
Make no mistake, there were moments on Wednesday night when Trump seemed like the very last thing Trump would ever want seem to be: just one of 11 wannabes up there on the stage, scratching, clawing, and, most strikingly, silent for long stretches of time. (There was a period where I was convinced he’d either fallen asleep or snuck off for a snack.) But again I suspect that those members of the punditocracy who have declared, for the umpteenth time, that this was the moment when the air began to seep out of the Trump bubble are guilty of wishful thinking. Quick: name a faux pas or misplayed gambit of the front-runner’s this evening that you can plausibly argue will cause his supporters to abandon (or even have second thoughts about) him. I know I can’t. The deflation of The Donald, if it happens, will be a long-term process—and one that will depend on an accretion of factors, not a single bad performance or a silver bullet.
Much the same can be said of Carson, whose turn on Wednesday night seemed unlikely to gain him much ground—but also unlikely to lose him much. As Pfeiffer tweeted, “It’s almost like Ben Carson has never seen a campaign before, he has no positions or policies and doesn’t seem to care.” But that was true before, and his supporters didn’t seem to care then, either.
Cruz, meanwhile, continued the strategy he has followed for months: leave his fellow anti-establishmentarians alone, rail on the administration (particularly on foreign policy, and even more particularly on the Iran deal) and the imperial judiciary, earn dismissal of the mainstream media—and yet continue to garner tons of attention in social sphere. (Along with Trump, Carson, Fiorina, and Bush, he rounded out the top five in terms of Facebook attention.)
All of which is to say that, with the second debate now in the rearview mirror and only four more to go before the voting starts, the outsiders in the race are collectively still in the dominant position in the quest for the Republican nomination. Rolling in to Simi Valley, the establishment was intent on halting this dynamic and restoring what it sees as the rightful order in how the party picks its presidents. But as far as I can see, it failed. Rolling out, the worries that were roiling the party regulars, I predict, will soon give way to something close to panic.