The fourth Republican debate is in the books, and it lived up to its billing: it was long, it was boring, and it definitely gave the candidates a chance to shine. Most of them took that chance; a few didn’t. The big winner: Fox Business, which demonstrated that handling a debate isn’t that tough when you’re not concerned chiefly with bolstering your personal fame (*cough* John Harwood *cough*). Excellent, on-point questions designed to allow answers.
That made for less fireworks. It also gave all the candidates the opportunity to show their stuff.
Here are the grades:
Donald Trump: B. Trump is Trump. He does Trump things. Sometimes those Trump things are incredibly awesome – as when Trump killed two political birds with one stone by silencing John Kasich and asking for time for Jeb Bush, emasculating both simultaneously. Sometimes Trump says stupid nonsense, as when he got smacked by Rand Paul for jabbering about China, a non-signatory to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Sometimes, he hits a bunny rabbit in the form of Carly Fiorina. But he’s always entertaining, and he’s never dull. The only lasting impact of Trump’s debate performance tonight will be him stepping on the godawful Kasich.
Ben Carson: B. Carson had an opportunity to shine tonight, as he spent all week in the media’s crosshairs. When asked about it, Carson gave a rather tepid answer. He explained that lies aren’t the same as legitimate questions, and then smacked Hillary Clinton for her outright lies on Benghazi. It was a strong answer, but it could have been tougher – he should have said that the media are a passel of liars dedicated to ruining conservatives, particularly black conservatives who wander off the left’s racial reservation. Had he done that, he would have brought the crowd to its feet. Carson missed the mark when asked about Syria, but his closing was strong. He didn’t lose anything tonight, and continued media attention on him will make him stronger, not weaker.
Ted Cruz: B. Cruz had another good night. In particular, his answer on amnesty was terrific – his line about journalists favoring amnesty because they don’t have to worry about illegal immigrant journalists working for cheaper was memorable. The problem for Cruz remains his tendency to get stuck in the weeds. He sounded wonkish on policy, but filling 90 seconds with details of your tax plan is a recipe for boredom. It’s a debate, not a Q&A in a New Hampshire library. His answer on banks could have been great, but Cavuto stepped on him. As always, moments of greatness swathed in paragraphs of slightly-awkward policy talk.
Marco Rubio: A. Rubio speaks in paragraphs, and that normally puts him at B level. Only one moment truly elevated him: his brutal knifing of Rand Paul over national defense. His description of Paul as a “committed isolationist” stuck, and it hurt – and then Paul was dumb enough to double down on it in his closing statement. We may spend too much on the military, but in an era in which President Obama has sliced our military readiness to the bone, Rubio wins that argument hands down.
Jeb Bush: D. No. No, no, no. Jeb billed himself as a tough customer before the debate. “Jeb Can Fix It!” “Jeb Won’t Be Mr. Nice Guy!” Well, he both failed to fix it and was Mr. Nice Guy. In every single debate thus far, an exchange like this has occurred: Candidate A walks all over Jeb; Jeb protests; Candidate A walks all over him again. Tonight, Candidate A was John Kasich, who insisted on talking over Jeb after Jeb told him to let him answer the question. Jeb backed down. As always. Jeb’s answers weren’t particularly bad, but they were also unmemorable. And when Trump has to butt in to get you time to talk about amnesty, you’re toast. Just another brutal night in the longest slog of Jeb Bush’s life.
Carly Fiorina: C. Smooth as always, but she didn’t help herself. She didn’t have any big memorable moments. She needs them at this point.
Rand Paul: D. Rand Paul actually had one great moment: when he said his tax plan was not designed to be revenue neutral but to balance the budget through slashed government, it was an excellent reminder that Republicans are allowed to want smaller government. But then he filled the rest of the debate with talk about the Federal Reserve and slashing the military. He may be playing hard for that Ron Paul vote, but if that’s his upper limit, he needs to get out.
John Kasich: F. Kasich said early on that he had stepped on every toe in Washington, D.C. during his time there. He proceeded to stomp on every toe in the room, including that of the audience. He never shut up and he never shut down. In the room in which I viewed the debate, every time Kasich opened his mouth he earned audible groans. And his little speech about how the job of the president is to be caring made rational people throw up a little in their mouths. Kasich is Jon Huntsman without the magnetic charm. Blech.
Overall, we won’t see much movement in the race after this debate. The novelty’s wearing off. That also means that time is running out on the other candidates to stop Donald Trump and Ben Carson. This race is getting more interesting by getting less interesting.