The CNBC GOP Debate: 10 Takeaways and Predictions
The Republican debate last night was disappointing — if you were a liberal reporter sniffing for blood, or a cynical observer following politics in a spirit of schadenfreude. In stark contrast to the Democrats’ debate, which sounded like a late night stoners’ argument over utopia in the dorms of Wesleyan, this was a stage full of adults, who broadly agreed on certain profound fundamental truths that America has pursued since her national founding:
- Life is sacred and we each have dignity, which means that each competent adult is finally responsible for his own success or failure.
- Government exists to enforce fair rules and promote the common good, not to steal each of our handkerchiefs with the promise of wiping our noses.
- Every agglomeration of power by the government comes at the expense of the people.
- Business is fundamentally an honorable vocation.
- A nation should be ruled by laws, not temporary coalitions of people with grievances.
Not bad, for a debate whose subject was the potentially dry topic of economics, which could easily have been lost in the weeds of wonkish policy arguments, or the fever swamps of personal attacks. And the candidates managed this despite the hostile questions of CNBC’s moderators.
I won’t attempt a rundown of the whole debate. Instead, let’s look at the high points and takeaways that tell us where the GOP race may be heading. Ten lessons from this debate:
- Ted Cruz is poised for a breakout. His answers were more assured, replete with facts and confident than any other candidate’s. Do not be surprised if you see his poll numbers push upwards in the next few weeks, as he peels away wistful voters from Ben Carson and Donald Trump — Republicans who hadn’t really noticed Cruz before, but who now find him a more plausible standard-bearer than those political newcomers. It didn’t hurt that Cruz roused the crowd by defending his fellow candidates against the questioners. That was a real Reagan moment.
- Marco Rubio will be the candidate around whom more centrist Republicans cluster. He was far more assured tonight than Jeb Bush, whose performance was less impressive than John Kasich’s. Whatever you think of his track record of serving the Party establishment, Rubio is a natural politician, with a powerful story to tell.
- Jeb Bush has only one real selling point — the fine job he did governing Florida 20 years ago. As such, it is no more impressive than what John Kasich did in Ohio. Everything else that made Bush a presumptive front-runner for many months can be attributed to dynastic and party connections, which are things that do more harm than good in a fully disrupted race such as this one.
- Donald Trump is still appealing, and he has moved the needle on the immigration debate quite far in the right direction. But his schtick as provocateur has worn out its welcome, and now that debates are more substantive and policy-oriented, his lack of clear specifics and absence of long-held principles is becoming increasingly obvious.
- Ben Carson’s warmth and sincerity are still his strongest attributes. But the spaciness of his speaking style seems to mirror his newcomer status, and does not inspire confidence when he stands beside hard-boiled politicians ready with detailed talking points. I fear that at some point the media will try to turn him into the 2015 Dan Quayle.
- Chris Christie is a powerful communicator, who when he drops out of the race will become a sought-after surrogate for whichever candidate he backs, and will likely find a role in a future GOP cabinet — perhaps as Director of Homeland Security.
- Rand Paul is a unique and valuable voice of principle in the Republican party, and we cannot afford to lose him in the Senate. Pretty soon he will need to choose which race to run, and we should all hope that he chooses wisely.
- Carly Fiorina, better than any other candidate, articulates the specific dangers of growing government. Her grasp of the evils of crony capitalism, and its role in promoting socialism, is critical to advancing conservative goals. If she stays in the race much longer, she is close to cinching the vice-presidential spot; should she win that, she would make that office more consequential than it has been in many decades.
- Mike Huckabee is a strong and appealing speaker, with a powerful narrative of taking on the Clintons in Arkansas. A hard-working and honorable public servant, he has re-fashioned his populism in a free market direction.That said, his low poll numbers look unlikely to move. We should hope that he finds a role in a future administration, with some say in vetting judicial appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court.
- The race likely will narrow, and soon. Of the candidates running, only Trump, Cruz, Carson and Rubio really stand a strong chance of cinching the nomination. There won’t be any breakouts for Fiorina, Huckabee, Kasich, Paul or Christie in Iowa or New Hampshire. Jeb Bush seems inclined to soldier on for months to come, soaking up some of the money that would otherwise go to Rubio — which ought to give hope to those of us who seek a more conservative candidate.
That said, with my predictions now on the table waiting to be confirmed or refuted by events, we should all be encouraged by the high level of the candidates, and hope that these debates provide a civic education in solid conservative principles to a country that badly needs persuasive advocates of fiscal sanity and ordered liberty.