The ABC #GOPDebate event was advertised to start at 6:00pm MST, but that was a bait-and-switch because the first 15 minutes were actually spent by Clinton Foundation donor George Stephanopoulos asking the panel what the pre-game narrative was.
Then, in the most awkward introductions in debate history, Chris Christie came out, but Ben Carson didn’t hear his name, so he stood there, offstage, smiling for the camera. At one point you even see a stagehand poke his head and telling him to go, but Ben refused. So Ted Cruz went out. Then Donald Trump showed solidarity by standing next to Ben offstage. Marco Rubio passed them with a “See ya, fellas!” grin, and Jeb Bush with a friendly pat on Donald’s shoulder. John Kasich was introduced last, but then he didn’t know what to do with Trump and Carson just standing there blocking the way.
But first, let me say that he criteria that kept Carly Fiorina off-stage made no sense. She finished ahead of Kasich and Christie in Iowa, and unlike them, she won a delegate. Then with the New Hampshire polls, some have her ahead of Christie and Carson. Bad look by ABC and the RNC.
ABC had a bad night. The sound problems that led to the Office-worthy awkward introductions were not isolated there. The first twenty minutes of questions from David Muir and Martha Raddatz had nothing to do with policy; they were all about having them attack other candidates. Raddatz at one point just came off as snarky, and between breaks, they had Clinton Foundation donor George Stephanopoulos host a round-table to tell us what the narrative should be. The saving grace was conservative writer Mary Katherine Ham as a guest moderator. She had the best questions of the night, by far. It made me wish the Republicans would do a town hall with Ham, Hugh Hewitt and S.E. Cupp as the only moderators. Reince?
Here were what I found the most memorable moments from the actual candidates.
1. BEN CARSON VS. TED CRUZ ON CAMPAIGN RUMORS – Carson was able to start by reminding everyone of Cruz’s dirty tactics on Iowa caucus night, spreading the word that Carson had dropped out. Painted Cruz as Machiavellian. Carson also was able to honor the campaign volunteer who’d died. Cruz gave this slathering apology, but did so by repeating the untruth that CNN had reported he was suspending his campaign. That exchange is really the only thing I can remember Carson doing.
2. CHRIS CHRISTIE VS. MARCO RUBIO ON SCRIPTED LINES – Christie was trying to play Chris Dodd to Rubio’s Hillary, a candidate who has no chance but wants to take someone down with him. Christie managed to fluster Rubio, which led to Rubio repeating a line three times about Obama knowing exactly what he’s doing. The thing is, Christie went after Rubio so ferociously that it just made him look like a petty bully. And the main criticism about scripted lines? All of the candidates repeat scripted lines in the debates, especially Christie.
3. JEB BUSH VS. DONALD TRUMP ON EMINENT DOMAIN – Bush went after Trump for his past support of eminent domain, and I can honestly say in all of these debates, Jeb finally came out victorious after an exchange with Donald. The crowd started booing Trump after justifying his company taking the property of an old woman for a limousine parking lot, and Trump pushed back, to the point that he demonized the entire debate audience as just a bunch of Jeb donors.
4. SUNNY JOHN KASICH – Kasich just seems more comfortable debating in New Hampshire. This isn’t the state of the self-identified Very Conservative Evangelicals, this is more of a Somewhat Conservative Secular state, and it allowed him to make staments like this: “We have to have economic growth, but once we have economic growth I believe we have to reach out to people who live in the shadows. I believe we need to help the mentally ill, the drug addicted, the working poor. We need to help the developmentally disabled to rise, and we need to help our friends in the minority community develop entrepreneurship. In other words, in American, conservatism should mean not only that some rise with conservative principles, but everybody has a chance to rise regardless of who they are so they can live their God given purpose. That’s what conservatism should be.”
5. MARCO RUBIO VS. DONALD TRUMP ON THE DEFINITION OF “CONSERVATIVE” – Just look at these two answers.
Trump: Well, I think I am, and to me, I view the word conservative as a derivative I — of — of the word conserve. We want to converse our money. We want to conserve our wealth. We want to conserve. We want to be smart. We want to be smart where we go, where we spend, how we spend. We want to conserve our country. We want to save our country. And we have people that have no idea how to do that and they are not doing it, and it’s a very important word and it’s something I believe in very, very strongly.
Rubio: Well, I think conservatism is about three things and Donald touched on one of them, but it’s about three things. The first is conservatism is about limited government, especially at the federal level. The federal government is a limited government, limited by the Constitution, which delineates its powers. If it’s not in the Constitution, it does not belong to the federal government. It belongs to states, local communities and the private sector.
It’s about free enterprise, which is an economic model that allows everyone to rise without pulling anyone down. The reason why free enterprise is the greatest economic model in the history of the world is because it’s the only economic model where you can make poor people richer without making rich people poor.
And it’s about a strong national defense. It’s about believing, unlike Barack Obama, that the world is a safer and a better place when America is the strongest military and the strongest nation on this planet. That’s conservatism.
6. WATERBOARDING – The candidates were asked if they’d bring back waterboarding, and if they considered it torture. Cruz said he didn’t think waterboarding met the legal definition of torture but he’d only use waterboarding under Jack Bauer-esque scenarios. Bush said he would not bring back waterboarding. Rubio didn’t really answered the question but pivoted to how we need to send more terrorists to Guantanamo Bay, not shut it down.
Trump: “I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
7. CLOSING ARGUMENTS – Kasich said he had a postive, conservative message. Christie invoked Hurricane Sandy, back when he was a popular governor. Bush invoked Reagan. Carson said he isn’t going anywhere. Rubio made his case for the being the best to put up against Hillary Clinton. Cruz pointed out he won Iowa even though he was against ethanol subsidies. Trump made a joke about Ted only winning Iowa because he stole Carson’s votes, then said he’d make America win again.
– Ted Cruz said he would carpet-bomb ISIS but only specific targets. What does he think “carpet-bomb” means?
– Marco Rubio gave a detailed geopolitical lesson of the Middle East in his ISIS strategy. Then it was Trump’s turn and he said “Bomb the oil and take the oil.”
– Martha Raddatz tried to embarass Ted Cruz by asking him what he’d do about North Korea’s testing of a long-range missile – news that had broken earlier that day – and he said he’d need to attend the briefings to answer her hypothetical about what to do next. She accused him of dodging,and he pointed that he regularly attends briefings but he couldn’t attend one today because he was in new Hampshire. Rubio backed him up.
– John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie were cozy with each other all night, as if they had some kind of alliance saying “Let’s take down Rubio and Trump, and then later we can get Cruz, and THEN maybe we’ll turn on each other.”
– Ted Cruz’s story of his half-sister dying from a drug overdose was one I hadn’t heard before, but it was a powerful moment for him.
– Chris Christie said he was fiercely pro-life, but he’d given exceptions for rape and incest (so far so good…) because he viewed abortion in those cases as acts of self-defense against their violators. What?!
Looking ahead, the polling is showing that Donald Trump should win New Hampshire, and we could very realistically see the first time in GOP history where the winners of Iowa and New Hampshire did so with less than 30%. If Trump loses New Hampshire, it’s a disaster for him. What probably happens is Trump wins, Rubio and Kasich duke it out for second, Cruz and Bush duke it out for fourth, and Christie, Fiorina, and Carson finish in 6th, 7th, and 8th.
Bush is setting low expectations, saying they’ll count landing in the top five as a win, which is insane. The only thing keeping him in the race is a massive amount of money given by big donors to the Right 2 Rise Super-PAC, which is far more interested in tearing Rubio down than giving any reason to vote for Jeb. Now that Jeb has said he’d like to see Citizen United overturned, I say all of the guys who wrote $1 million checks to his Super-PAC should demand their money back.
If Fiorina finishes in the top six, I can see her staying in. Just to spite the RNC helping the networks set up rules ot keep her out of the debates. Christie and Carson should drop out after New Hampshire, barring some shocking turnout. I see Christie then immediately endorsing Bush.