So it turns out the Republican candidates were right after all.
They wanted a substantive debate with a minimum of theatrical, gotcha questions. They wanted a debate in which they were the focus, not the moderators.
They got that debate. We got that debate. And it was pretty good.
We got moderators who asked insightful questions and followed them up – at least some of the time – when the candidates didn’t really answer them.
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We got a glimpse of real domestic and foreign policy positions, and we got a sense of the real divide among candidates and in the Republican party itself.
Yes, moderators were more accommodating – sometimes too much so – but is that an awful thing? The role of debates isn’t for moderators to draw blood on our behalf. It’s for candidates to lay out what they believe and question what others believe, then let us decide if they’re brilliant or wacky.
What did we see? As always, we have grades.
Ben Carson – Grade: D
After a week of getting America’s attention – albeit for fending off questions about his personal story – Tuesday was Carson’s chance to fill in the rest of the pages for voters. It was his moment, more than any other candidate. He was terrible.
His early answer on the minimum wage appeared to tell everyone that we’d all be better off if our wages were lower. His answer on foreign threats had all the makings of a high-schooler trying to fudge his way through an essay test he hadn’t studied for.
Then there was his answer on big banks, which was ... well, no one seemed exactly sure what it was.
It was one of the worst debate performances of the primary season, and it would definitely have been the night’s worst, if not for ...
Donald Trump – Grade: D-minus
As usual, Trump had the night’s most memorable lines. But on Tuesday, he got booed for them.
First there was this dismissal of fellow candidate John Kasich: “I built unbelievable companies worth billions and billions of dollars. I don't have to hear from this man.”
Then he peevishly asked about Carly Fiorina: “Why does she keep interrupting everyone?” It was not a good look.
Trump also was in over his head, as many expected, in a debate that emphasized policy chops. Candidates pounced on his simplistic foreign policy answers, and especially on his insistence that we can ship 11 million undocumented immigrants back across the border.
Unlike other debates, Trump didn’t fight back much. It was almost an acknowledgment that he was out of his league, at least on this one night.
Jeb Bush – Grade: B-plus
The question about Bush isn’t whether he had a good night Tuesday. He did. The question is whether it will make a difference to his struggling campaign.
We think it can. There are a lot of days left in the primary season, and Bush has a lot of dollars in the bank. Also, the top candidates showed more than ever Tuesday why they might come back to the pack.
Bush showed why he still is in the picture should that happen. He smartly contrasted himself more with Hillary Clinton than his fellow debaters. He consistently found the seam between the extreme candidates on the stage and the moderates in the party that need an alternative.
It was the debate he and his donors needed to live another day. That’s a low bar, but an important one.
Marco Rubio – Grade: A-minus
There’s at least one candidate every primary season who’s a fantastic debater yet doesn’t see that translate into poll bounces.
Marco Rubio is a fantastic debater. He takes specific policy questions and expands them into broad principles. He speaks in narratives that resonate. He’s deft when attacked.
He was all of those things Tuesday, and he also managed to avoid talking about immigration and having to side with Trump’s anti-amnesty position. The only ding Rubio didn’t avoid was Rand Paul questioning how a “one trillion dollar” child tax-credit was conservative.
It was another strong performance. Will it result in a poll bounce? Maybe not, but if Trump and Carson slip, he continued to position himself to meet them.
Carly Fiorina – Grade: B
Fiorina, once again, was the most precise, no-nonsense policy debater on stage. There were times in which she seemed ready to cram all of her stump speech in those 90 second answers, but in topic after topic, she had something meaningful to add to the discussion. A solid performance.
Ted Cruz – Grade B
Cruz, like Rubio, is a strong debater, although he’s more reliant on one-liners that don’t play as well in the debate format.
Cruz also reestablished himself as the candidate for the conservative purists. Although pundits like to compare the blustery Trump to the loud Bernie Sanders, it’s Cruz who’s more similar. Both are policy candidates. Both speak with an angry edge. Both want fundamental change.
For Cruz, that means abolishing agencies and ripping up the tax code. As with Sanders, it’s the kind of stuff that speaks to the base. But it’s never been what won the presidency.
Rand Paul – Grade B-plus
Paul reminded voters Tuesday that he’s among the most thoughtful candidates in the race – the one you’d most like to sit with to talk policy and principles. It was his best debate – his jousting with Rubio was both substantive and entertaining – but even so, he remained little more than the outsider who had some good moments.
John Kasich – C-minus
Take away the complaining about his speaking time, and the long-windedness when he did speak, and the annoying interruptions of other candidates, and Kasich had a decent night as a moderate Republican presence on stage.
Except you can’t take those things away. In trying to look like the adult on stage, Kasich looked like the scolding adult. That’s not the way to get noticed.
Peter St. Onge