This past week, the Republican presidential candidates participated in yet another debate, this one focussed on issues of foreign policy and national security. There was rather a lot of substantive discussion, which is a good thing, and several of the candidates performed well. At this time, I’d like to mention just a few observations related to the CNN debate in Las Vegas.
Regarding the format, I think that debates devoted to one broad category of issues, like national security or the economy, allow for some more detailed examination of important subjects. However, some potential voters will not watch all of the debates, and, for those perhaps only tuning in to one event as the actual voting draws near, it might be beneficial to have a forum in which the candidates discuss a wide range of topics to give the public a better idea of their overall positions and philosophies.
Jeb Bush has had a tough time so far in this campaign, so I was glad that he had a good night in Las Vegas. He was solid during the actual debate and also got in a couple of effective one-liners directed against Donald Trump. I especially liked his quip that he wasn’t sure if Trump was getting his information from TV shows on Sunday morning or Saturday morning. (Come to think of it, having Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn as policy advisors might explain a lot...) When asked about others’ proposals or statements with which he disagreed, I thought that Governor Bush managed to present himself as a reasonable alternative without seeming apologetic or lacking in strength, and also to articulate his own ideas for the issues under discussion. Unfortunately, he did stumble a bit during both his opening and closing statements. Maybe he let the pressure of the big moments he’d prepared for get to him. In any case, while I don’t know if Jeb Bush still has a real chance in the race, at least I think he can feel good about his most recent debate performance as a whole.
Chris Christie does seem like someone who could plausibly be seen as a Commander in Chief, but I’m not sure that he’ll have that much opportunity for success in this year’s large field of good candidates. During the debates, I don’t think that Governor Christie should be so dismissive of policy discussions among other candidates. Many of these issues and details are important, and the particulars of the laws enacted by Congress do have a large effect in determining what prosecutors and governors like Christie are able to do when, for example, surveilling or investigating suspected terrorists. On a more positive note, I will also say that, especially for someone known as rather a blunt-talking “tough guy,” Governor Christie showed himself capable of considerable restraint. Standing right next to Christie, Rand Paul accused him of being likely to start World War III and then threw in a gratuitous reference to the New Jersey bridge scandal, but Christie stayed calm, basically ignored Paul’s comments, and just continued making the points he wanted to convey.
It almost seemed as if Marco Rubio had a big target on his back during much of the evening. The moderators often set up direct, conflicting exchanges between him and Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul joined in with criticism of Rubio on multiple occasions. Overall, I thought that Senator Rubio held his own and kept his cool under pressure, but some of what was said about him, along with renewed attention on his immigration views, could potentially hurt him in the race. Still, throughout the debate, I think that Rubio once again did a good job of sounding prepared and knowledgeable and making a case for his positions and past votes, and I continue to think that he would be a very strong nominee.
Ted Cruz could also be a good nominee and conservative spokesperson, and it seems that things have been going his way lately, with polls showing him leading in Iowa. He always has pretty good performances in the debates, and I’d expect those most inclined to support him liked much of what he had to say on Tuesday. In the debate exchanges with Senator Rubio, particularly on the immigration issue, I think that Senator Cruz may have come out with somewhat of an advantage, especially because Rubio was put on the defensive, fending off criticism, much of the time. However, I do think that Senator Cruz may have come across as less than clear or even as evasive on a few occasions, including when discussing his stance (past and present) on legalization of immigrants and when asked why he wouldn’t publicly say the same things about Donald Trump’s candidacy that he’d said at a private fundraiser, and that’s not an impression likely to be helpful to him.
I’m not sure how much point there is discussing anything in particular Donald Trump says in a debate. In this case, he still often sounded very vague and sometimes, as when asked about the nuclear triad, didn’t seem to have any idea what the question meant. In addition, he expressed ideas of questionable practicality and constitutionality (such as shutting down parts of the Internet to deter terrorist recruiting), falsely denied statements he’d previously made, and demonstrated (again) that the sincerity of the things he says is frequently in doubt by complimenting and praising opponents (Ben Carson and Ted Cruz) he’d harshly criticized and insulted as recently as two days earlier. Yet, most of the other candidates didn’t seem willing to express criticism of Trump at the debate, and the usual rules of politics don’t seem to apply to him. So, people will give Mr. Trump credit if one or two of his answers are more coherent than usual, and his supporters will presumably continue to keep him at the top of the polls, as they have since he first entered the race.
As I’ve stated before, I really can’t comprehend the way the public is viewing this primary campaign, but based on the way things have been going, I’d guess that this debate won’t really have much of an effect on the standing of the national frontrunner or of any of the candidates who’ve been polling in the single digits. I am concerned, however, about the impact recent developments, including this debate and its aftermath, might have on Senators Rubio and Cruz. Maybe things will remain basically unchanged in the race, or perhaps one or the other will benefit, but I do worry that the conflicts between them could wind up damaging both candidates. I hope that this is not the case, as both men are capable and qualified contenders for the Republican nomination -- and, if they should fall out of favor, I’m afraid that victory for someone extremely unsuitable would become even more likely than it already seems.