Friday, August 07, 2015

Who Won The First Republican Debate?

by Michael Dorf

During the first Republican primary debate (well, technically the second if you count the warmup act at 5 pm), I took to Twitter to provide my instant reactions, most of which were simply snark. (If you don't follow the Twitter feed for this blog, which is usually just links to posts and Verdict columns, you can see my tweets here.)  Here I'll add a few big-picture observations.

1) It's tempting to ask "who won the debate?"--albeit not in the sense of who was the most persuasive to any particular viewer. Along that dimension, I would give the nod to Kasich or Paul, but that's because Kasich was the closest thing onstage to a liberal on the role of government in helping people (especially with health care) while Paul's foreign policy views are a better fit for a Democrat than for most Republicans. But my first choice for the Republican nomination is not especially salient because I'm not a Republican. So we want to know how the various candidates did with Republican voters. Because I don't share their views on so many issues, it's hard to know. And anyway, as Fivethirtyeight tweeted in the immediate aftermath of the debate, voter reactions are shaped in part by media reactions. Nate Silver then declared Kasich and Rubio co-winners. Given that inconsistency, I'll press on as well.

2) As I said, I personally found Kasich to be the Republican I would be least upset about to see as president, but if actual Republican voters declare him a winner or co-winner, it will have to be in part because of the media bump and in part because of the home crowd. I also agree with Silver about Rubio. Rubio and Walker are both playing for the chance to be the more conservative and more dynamic alternative to Bush. I disagreed with a lot of the substance of what both of them said but I thought that Rubio came across as more sincere and more polished. Walker probably had a big enough lead over Rubio coming into the debate that he'll remain in third place--after Trump and Bush--but I wouldn't be surprised if in the coming weeks the top tier of candidates is said to include Rubio as well. I'd be a little surprised if Kasich moved up into that tier because he's starting from such a low base--and because the "establishment" wing of the Republican Party, where Kasich must hunt for votes, already seems sold on Bush. Still, it's early, so there's plenty of time for things to shake up. If Kasich can break into the top tier, then it should effectively be a four-man race at least through the early primaries: Bush, Walker, Rubio, and Kasich.

3) Trump will undoubtedly hang around for a while, but I think he has peaked. Going into the debate I shared the view that his was a doomed candidacy but I thought his performance was especially bad. Quite apart from the accuracy or inaccuracy of his claims, he didn't even make them effectively. For example, when asked about his four commercial bankruptices, he said he never declared personal bankruptcy, that he took advantage of the law like any business person, and that he had made hundreds of successful deals. I'll bet that most viewers didn't understand this answer, which could have been articulated much more effectively in this way: "I'm proud of my record as a job creator but you have to understand that if you want to succeed in business, you need to take risks. When I undertake a job, I often create a special company for that job. Hundreds of the deals I've made have worked out great, but a few didn't work out and so the companies failed. If you understood business, you would be asking me how I am such a great deal maker that ONLY four of my companies failed." Other Trump answers were simply incoherent, like the claim that he switched from pro-choice to pro-life because he knew someone who turned out great, after his mother decided not to have an abortion. What?? If Trump had started out as pro-life, would he have become pro-choice because he heard about a murderer whose mother had considered but rejected an abortion? I'm guessing that seriously pro-life Republicans will conclude that abortion is not an issue Trump cares about at all and that his current pro-life stance is wholly opportunistic.

4) Despite his supposed great record as a debater, Ted Cruz seemed to do very poorly. Partly this was a matter of airtime. Partly it was that he came across as less likeable than either Walker or Rubio, who are competing to occupy roughly the same niche--dark-haired forty-something conservative. But Cruz made a weak case even in absolute terms. His go-to move was to say that whereas the other candidates say they are conservative, he is the only real conservative. It's true that judged by public statement ideology score, Cruz is the farthest right of any of the Republican candidates, but only by a small margin over Walker and Rubio. And with even Dr. Carson--who by the same measure is to the left of every candidate other than Christie--suggesting that he would bring back waterboarding, Cruz's description of himself as the only real conservative in the Republican race doesn't seem credible.

5) My utterly subjective bottom line in sorting winners and losers is thus:

Carson (gave unresponsive but popular answers and played the neurosurgeon card well)
Fiorina (nobody watched the JV debate but the pundits say she won so she gets a bounce)

Water Treaders:
Paul (stance on surveillance solidified his hold on GOP libertarians but didn't expand appeal)

Christie (no memorable airtime except for testy exchange with Paul but you don't move up from 9th by picking a fight with the guy whose in 8th)
Huckabee (no gaffes but his sell-by date has passed)
Everyone else in the JV debate


KW said...

I think the approval that Kasich elicited with his gay wedding comments gave reason to hope for changing attitudes within the GOP. I don't know how attendance to primary debates works-- I'm assuming the audience was at least majority GOP supporters (because why would a non-journalist Democrat go to that thing), though perhaps Kasich had the benefit of home turf-- but the GOP electorate as represented by the debate audience seems to be prepared to agree that gays & lesbians deserve respect and, to a broader extent, maybe even accept that Obergefell is now the law of the land. I think it is interesting to contrast this seemingly positive response with the reactionary rhetoric of hard-line evangelical candidates, namely Walker and Huckabee, who both strongly condemned Obergefell (and Santorum if anyone was watching; he compared Obergefell to Dred Scott in the earlier happy hour get-together).

Michael C. Dorf said...

KW: I agree. Here's what I tweeted on the point at the time: "FoxNews audience applauding Kasich's hypothetical attendance at his hypothetical lesbian daughter's wedding is (hypothetically) a good sign."

Joe said...

The fact that me and Prof. Dorf thinks Kasich is a reasonable choice is probably a sign that he's doomed as a Republican candidate.

I disagree on some level on Trump losing -- I think for his audience, he shouldn't be listed that way. It is questionable his base is really going to worry too much, if they even watched it, about his debate answers. Do think at some point people like him lose ground as the thrill is off. It is only August.

I'll note that I liked Ben Carson's final statement -- it was amusing and personable. But, listening to some of his comments, it's hard to take him seriously as a candidate. Cruz really comes off as an asshole and this isn't just because of his views. Various accounts suggest Bush didn't come off that well.

Joseph said...

This is obviously subjective but I can't help but feel Trump is being given more credence than Palin was given. Granted that's not saying much at all. Maybe it's because he has been around, and obnoxious, for a very long time, whereas Palin was a mystery to so many that it was easier to turn her more into a mere caricature. Maybe it's because nobody is taking Trump seriously enough to question his basic cognitive function and lack of experience. Megyn Kelly asked a decent question about temperament but it was wrapped up as a question about misogyny (which was fair enough). I can't help compare the treatment of Trump and Palin I see in the media given the lack of focus on the emptiness of Trump's answers last night. To me it's not just that Trump is offensive and unconservative but that he is clueless.

I thought Walker was good to maintain his even keel, not moving or gesturing much, while speaking in a low voice, giving solid answers. Rubio was more earnest and for the moment is on a good trajectory when it comes to the general election while persuading conservatives.

matt30 said...

Fiorina did a fantastic job. She sounded like a person that has done some minimal amount of research on the issues and practiced her presentation. She was Rubio with fewer one liners and more substance (or as much substance you can fit into a 60 second answer). She looked like someone that I could "see" as president. She even got a eared the respect of Rick Perry in one answer. She didn't say any nonsense about starting a war with Iran or bringing "manufacturing"/textile low-wage work back to the US. She stuck to the minimally plausible tax reform/fewer regulations agenda.

The tithing/tax answer made by Ben Carson was just incomprehensible and silly. He might be a good surgeon, but the man knows nothing about government. If Obama is "incompetent" in the eyes of the GOP, Ben Carson has to be orders of magnitude worse.

Bush surprised me by taking it as an actual policy debate forum rather than a style competition. It's clear he has seriously thought about common core and immigration reform. He gave Obama minimal credit for defeating AQ. The problem is I don't know if that kind of Republican can make it through the primary--especially without any flare, style, or well delivered one-liners.

Maybe I wasn't paying attention to much, but it seems like Kasich did a great job running for a second term as governor, but I didn't hear much about national policy.

egarber said...

It was wildly entertaining for sure, but IMO, the only candidate who came across as potentially presidential was Kasich. He was the one candidate who didn't seem to be pandering to somebody. (And it's worth noting that Republicans can't win without Ohio, so he could be a dark horse.) For the most part, the rest of them - save Trump, who is a unique power center - looked like they were trying to walk a fine line: state a position that appeals to the red meat base, but phrase it in a way that comes across as reasonable or mainstream. I just can't see that working in the general election.

One exception is Paul on foreign policy. He is authentic and (I think) correct in his criticisms of our military intervention across the world.

In the end though, largely because of the format, it's hard to say this was really a "debate"; it was more just going around the room tallying who stands where on what issue. A real debate gets into why something is right or wrong. So I hope voters take the time to do a deeper dive on their own. It's a sad thing that so many will base decisions solely on forums like this.

egarber said...

It seems to me that the strongest ticket could be Kasich / Rubio. In addition to their ability to come across as reasonable and potentially bi-partisan, they might give the party strong pull in Ohio and Florida. Of course, it's always hard to know how much geographical association really matters - but with that ticket, it is difficult for me to see Democrats winning both states.

egarber said...

I also wonder how closely Justice Ginsburg is watching this stuff. In a lot of ways, she's an epicenter in the context of any power transition. She deserves the utmost praise and admiration for her work ethic and desire to continue, but how long can that last?

Joe said...

I'm sure RBG is paying some attention though it is realistically too late for her to retire strategically. She is not suddenly going to retire now.

RBG reportedly figures HC will definitely win. I think there are great odds there. Kasich very well could be her toughest competitor but it's hard to see him winning given the current state of the party. He's too moderate for primary/caucus voters, especially some of whom probably are upset they had to compromise (in their view) for Romney last time. The things we see as charming many of them would not. And, I question how many will merely vote strategically, especially since the field is so broad.

RBG's vote also has to be put into perspective. A fourth vote is of limited value at the end of the day. On some issues, she is an important fifth vote. But, if Kasich wins, it might be the case her replacement would vote the same on certain things there. There surely will be changes and a 6-3 conservative majority is seriously troubling. OTOH, if a Republican President wins, the shift in the law overall might make that often seem only the least of our concerns. Obama and the Democrats were key in changing the law as much and at various times more so than the courts.

RBG also has been a judge for over three decades now and that surely leads her to feel an institutional loyalty as long as she is able to do her job well. She also personally must feel tied to her job especially now that she is a widow. Rehnquist felt that too when his wife died, I believe. Finally, she probably realizes a strategic retirement would only be a limited value long term -- the law develops over decades.

Overall, I respect her decision though I did kind of expect her to retire by 2015.