10 Takeaways From the Prime-Time GOP Debate
Donald Trump Is No Republican. The first question of the night—from Brett Baier of Fox News—was simple: Would anyone onstage not commit to supporting the Republican presidential nominee in lieu of mounting his own third party bid? As expected, only Trump raised his hand. No, he explained, he would not pledge to support the nominee unless he was that person. This is not what an actual Republican says. In some ways, Trump’s presence seemed to help the other candidates; by comparison they had more coherent worldviews and were more knowledgeable about public policy, but in another way Trump’s arrival in Cleveland as the leader in the polls diminished his rivals. At least one of them blurted out this resentment. “This is what's wrong!” Rand Paul said after listening to Trump’s answer to Baier. “He buys and sells politicians of all stripes; he's already hedging his bet on the Clintons, OK? So if he doesn't run as a Republican, maybe he supports Clinton, or maybe he runs as an independent.”
Neither Is Rand Paul, Really. Kentucky’s junior senator pounced on Trump’s answer on party unity, but he later tangled heatedly with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over civil liberties. “I’m a different kind of Republican,” Paul said near the end of the two-hour debate. He may be understating the problem. Paul is actually a Libertarian, and a principled one, but he’s stuck in a binary political system. He did get off one of the best lines of the night, though, while turning a gay marriage question into a question about religious freedom and the Second Amendment: “I don’t want my religion, or my guns, registered in Washington.”
Other Rivalries Are Emerging: Republican voters who’d like to see a devout Midwestern governor who has presided over a tightening of the state budget and an expansion in the job market can choose—and probably must choose—between Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich. The state of Florida had two candidates on the stage Thursday night, too, and one them (Marco Rubio) was a protégé of the other (Jeb Bush). Both Floridians seemed to make the points they wanted to make, but they are pursuing the same constituencies. When Bush and Rubio disagreed on the Common Core education standards, Bush gently reminded Rubio of their past. Asked by Baier if he disagreed with “your old friend,” Bush replied, “He is definitely my friend.” It was a deft touch. Carly Fiorina was the star of the first debate, but she must supplant someone to take her place in the Top Ten. Rand Paul, check your advertising budget. Ditto for Ben Carson.
So Are Natural Alliances. To the discerning viewer, an obvious 2016 ticket is Bush and Kasich, which happens to be the two states Republicans must carry in November of 2016. (And Scott Walker has already floated the idea of he and Rubio running together.) On Thursday night, Ted Cruz continued to make nice with Trump, as did Kasich and Walker. In the first debate, Rick Perry made a point of complimenting Carly Fiorina, even hinting that in a Perry administration she’d be a likely secretary of state—although that is not the job she’s actually pursuing.
Kasich and the Poor. Megyn Kelly asked Ohio’s governor about his decision to accept federal funding under Obamacare to expand Medicaid. Noting that Kasich had defended his decision by saying that when politicians go to heaven’s gate, Saint Peter isn't going to ask them how small they've kept government, but what they have done for the poor, she asked him, “Why should Republican voters, who generally want to shrink government, believe that you won't use your Saint Peter rationale to expand every government program?” Kasich did not back down, defending his state’s treatment of the mentally ill and drug-addicted. “Everybody has a right to their God-given purpose,” he said.
Is Jeb Getting His Groove Back? Reviews on Bush were mixed Thursday night. Some found him solid, some found him still too rusty—and strangely subdued. He still has no good answer for the war his brother started in Iraq, but he was poised all night and impressively conversant on a wide range of domestic policy issues. It’s no surprise that the two-term governor—the son and brother of presidents—is ready for prime time, but keeping your head when The Donald is in the house and Fox News questioners are playing “gotcha” for two hours, is an accomplishment in itself.
This Wasn’t Really a Debate. It was, more accurately, 10 simultaneous press conferences in which three interrogators, all anchors on the same network, grilled the 10 candidates on every rumor, guilt-by-association accusation, and dumb thing they’d ever said or done. Some conservative viewers expressed disappointment at the edginess of some of the questions, while Democrats had to be pleasantly surprised, but no one should be shocked that Fox News executives and anchors want to show the world they are, first and foremost, a genuine news organization.
Ronald Reagan Still Casts a Long Shadow. Although none of the candidates in the Top 10 debate went as far as Rick Santorum did earlier (“I am a child of Ronald Reagan”), The Gipper was very much a presence Thursday night. John Kasich used Reagan for cover on health care. (“President Reagan expanded Medicaid three or four times.”) So did Donald Trump. (“Ronald Reagan evolved on many issues.”) Ted Cruz invoked the 40th U.S. president’s foreign policy (“Iran released our hostages the day Ronald Reagan was sworn into office.”), as did Rand Paul, albeit more dubiously. (“I’m a Reagan conservative,” Paul said.) The best use of the Reagan card was Mike Huckabee’s, when asked about Obama’s demonizing of Republicans opposed to the Iran nuclear deal. “Ronald Reagan said ‘trust, but verify,’” Huckabee said. “President Obama is ‘trust, but vilify.’ He trusts our enemies and vilifies everyone who disagrees with him.”
Hillary Clinton’s Ears Weren’t Burning. The Democrats’ presumed nominee came in for more criticism in the first debate than the second. Donald Trump wasn’t criticized too much, either, save for the rhetorical punch in the ribs that Rand Paul launched in the first minutes of the debate. Kasich and Walker actually spoke well of Trump, and Bush was cordial. The former first lady almost got out unscathed until Huckabee took a good-humored shot at both party’s front-runners. “It seems like this election has been a whole lot about a person who's very high in the polls, that doesn't have a clue about how to govern,” he said. “A person who has been filled with scandals, and who could not lead, and, of course, I'm talking about Hillary Clinton.”
Ben Carson Redeemed Himself Just in Time. It came with his last answer, the one in which candidates are supposed to make a statement on their own behalf. Several of them had said in their statements—and all night long—how they were the first to do this, the only one to do that. Dr. Carson’s closing statement riffed off that bragging. Here it is, in its entirety: “Well, I haven't said anything about me being the only one to do anything, so let me try that. I'm the only one to separate Siamese twins. The only one to operate on babies while they were still in the mother's womb, the only one to take out half of a brain, although you would think, if you go to Washington, that someone had beat me to it. But I'm very hopeful that I'm not the only one who's willing to pick up the baton of freedom, because freedom is not free, and we must fight for it every day. Every one of us must fight for it, because we're fighting for our children and the next generation.”