Debate #1 Comes and Goes: Two Tiers Emerge

There is a sense where I am less excited for this coming election cycle than I have ever been – there are candidates I just KNOW can and will beat Hillary Clinton, and there are candidates I just KNOW cannot – and yet I am too entrenched in my political junkieism to do anything but engage. The big distraction to the race that this Donald Trump sideshow has been is probably immaterial in the long run, but I confess to just wanting it to go away so that the actual race can begin. I want Marco Rubio to talk about a 21st century jobs program. I want Jeb Bush to talk about a sensible immigration policy. I want Scott Walker to talk about the threat to democracy that today’s public employee unions represent. And I really don’t need to hear Trump talk about how “they’re all just stupid. Let’s face it, I mean, they’re stupid. They’re so stupid. And people have told me, and you know what, they’re idiots. And yeah I have been bankrupt a lot, but you know what, I mean, you need ME to fix this mess.” I want to hear more about Rubio’s vocational school ideas and who exactly sees natural gas exports as the environmental and economic boon that it is. But I digress.

Last night was a good night for those of us wanting to see this Trump sideshow come to an end. He gave the entertainment a lot of people hoped he would, but his lone raised hand at the debate’s first question forced him to reveal himself as the self-promoting hack that he is. Will he actually run as an independent? I suspect his eventual reality TV contract with Fox or whatever it is he’s in this for will not allow that. But to see him stand in the middle of that stage and own his own narcissism probably accelerated his demise a bit. If that moment didn’t, perhaps his proud declarations of “using the country’s bankruptcy laws to my favor” and “giving money to politicians and then they do what I want” will.

The night was a debacle for Trump, and that is true no matter what a single media outlet says this morning. The press has a bigger vested interest in keeping this clown going than anyone. He is fun. He is big. And he is known. But the amount of people with a pea-brain and consequent appreciation for “how Trump says stuff differently” (which is surely true, in that I have never seen someone tackle policy with his intellectual prowess before – “this is just dumb; you know what I will do, I will fix it, because, this is it, we just have to fix this”) is actually not that large. Trump will stand around a little while, but he did not pivot last night and give a single grown-up a moment of “oh wait, he may have something going on after all”. Trump’s days are numbered. In the meantime, just hope for some good laughs.

There is no question I am biased in that I look at that stage and have absolutely no doubt that Marco Rubio is the most capable of defeating Hillary Clinton, and I am typing this morning that Marco Rubio stood out last night as the winner … I am not searching for the conclusion I want to be true – Rubio really did shine. He presents an incredible contrast between stale and fresh, old and new, academic and practical, asleep and alive. On policy he was alert and competent, but in his presentation he was personal, connectable, and likable. He helped himself immensely last night.

The Christie/Paul wrestling match was hysterical, and I did rewind Christie’s moment calling Paul out as blowing air in a sub-committee room three or four times. It also was the classic case of your presupposition determining who you think bested who: If you hold to the Chris Christie view that a vigorous, modern defense is needed against terror you applauded Christie’s takedown of Paul; if you hold to the view that the government is spying on your love life and must stop you applauded Rand Paul saying “the bill of rights” four times in one sentence. It was a good debate moment but not a victory for either guy other than giving them both a little more camera time than they otherwise would have had.

Jeb Bush was everything I thought he would be, with one exception. He was smart but stale. He was prepared but boring. He was competent but not compelling. His answer on his education record in Florida was OUTSTANDING, though. I still turned off the debate believing he just does not have the mojo to win this election. I like him. I respect his immigration approach immensely. But I believe the Bush risk combined with the general lack of, well, lack of SOMETHING, is not going to cut it.

Ben Carson really struggled at first and then was ignored for quite a while, but then wow did he shine at the end with both of his final two moments. He will continue to be in the conversation and did not break out last night, but did keep himself alive so that a breakout may be possible in the future.

Kasich had some good moments and benefitted from the hometown crowd, but he also laid it on a bit thick at moments. He should be discarded only by those who really underestimate his political skill and leadership abilities, but I think he has a ways to go.

Huckabee did well, and the pre-scripted line about the “candidate leading in polls, engulfed in scandal, capturing all the media … and of course I am referring to Hillary Clinton …” was outstanding. But as a candidate, he’s dead in the water. But he did not accelerate his demise last night, frankly, to my surprise.

I am more and more convinced, despite my genuine fondness for him, that Scott Walker lacks the charisma and connectability to win this election. He has the policy and accomplishment chops, but when he speaks, I get a vibe that he just doesn’t click the way a Rubio does. I want to be wrong here, but I do not think i am.

For those who missed the warm-up act, Carly Fiorina was every bit as outstanding as you have heard and read and will be coming into the top 10 shortly.

All in all, I would say the top 10 last night broke into three camps:

Leadership material – Rubio, Walker, Bush, Kasich
Stayed alive and may have staying power – Carson, Christie, Huckabee, Cruz
Just need to go – Trump, Paul

If Cruz wasn’t the smartest guy on that stage he would fall into the third camp, as he really is a heavy underdog in terms of the attributes I think will be needed to carry this election. But he is sharp and in the case of his closing line last night, can be very compelling.

My assessment of the debate matches my own preferences and biases way too much to take any of it too seriously. I think we need a top five in the next three months, and I think we will get it (before Iowa). I remain steadfast: Jeb Bush would make a great President, but he does not make a great candidate. Marco Rubio is the man I see so far who invokes the most certainty of a win over Hillary Clinton. Buckle up.