October 26, 2021


AP_153485696464-640x427-1Thursday night’s Fox News debate featured a bevy of explosive moments, several problematic gaffes, and a binder full of opposition ads for Hillary Clinton, as debate moderators grilled Republican 2016 presidential candidates with alacrity.

Without further ado, here are the debate grades for each candidate:

Donald Trump: F (if you hate Trump)/A (if you love Trump)/F (if you’re indifferent). Poll frontrunner Donald Trump clearly took the brunt of the heat during the evening. But the very fact that the moderators seemed so pleased to bruise him – combined with the punch-throwing at Trump by other candidates – forestalled what could have been a serious campaign to take him out of the running.

From Bret Baier’s opening question, obviously directed at Trump, about whether anyone would run as a potential third party candidate, to Megyn Kelly’s question about Trump’s alleged sexism, Trump attracted flak like a magnet. Trump looked like a victim, not like an aggressor, and while his policy answers may have been weak tea, his supporters could attribute that weakness to the gang tackle, rather than to the weakness of the candidate himself.

Trump got off a few great Trumpisms. “I fully understand,” he smacked at Baier when Baier tried to drive home the point that Trump could sink the party’s hopes with a third party run. When Kelly asked him about calling women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals,” Trump responded, “Only Rosie O’Donnell.” He then added, “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.” This is red meat for conservatives.

By the same token, Trump’s leftist positions and ideological incoherence were exposed. He essentially endorsed single-payer health care in Canada, before swiveling to say that state restrictions on insurance should be ended. He said his friends in the Border Patrol had told him about the Mexican government’s involvement in illegal immigration, then called the government “stupid” when asked for specific evidence. Not strong stuff.

Jeb Bush: C. Bush looked shockingly uncomfortable on stage. He said, “In Florida, they called me Jeb, because I earned it.” Actually, his parents gave him that name, along with the Bush. He defended his statement that people crossed the border as an “act of love” thusly:

We need to control our border. It’s not — it’s our responsibility to pick and choose who comes in. So I — I’ve written a book about this and yet this week, I did come up with a comprehensive strategy that — that really mirrored what we said in the book, which is that we need to deal with E-Verify, we need to deal with people that come with a legal visa and overstay. We need to be much more strategic on how we deal with border enforcement, border security. We need to eliminate the sanctuary cities in this country.

This is incoherent. He gave similar botched answers on the war in Iraq and Common Core. Bush’s sole pitch is that he is a professional in a group of amateurs. He didn’t look that way tonight.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)80%: B. Marco Rubio had to make the pitch that he was an alternative to Jeb Bush, and he did, with clear, proficient answers on the issues. Rubio even showed his likeability with a great line about God: “He has blessed the Republican Party with some very good candidates. The Democrats can’t even find one.” He made the case that Hillary Clinton was the most experienced person in the field – a clip Hillary will likely replay over and over – and then said that he stood for the future. He looked young and fresh and coherent. His best moment was likely his attack on Bush over Common Core:

Here’s the problem with Common Core. The Department of Education, like every federal agency, will never be satisfied. They will not stop with it being a suggestion. They will turn it into a mandate.

But will his glossy presentation be enough to stand out in a crowded field, when he’s outflanked on the right by Cruz, outflanked in star power by Trump and Bush, and outflanked on the left by Kasich and Christie?

Scott Walker: C. Governor Walker didn’t do poorly, but he didn’t do well. He was simply… there. No big answers, no big moments. On immigration, he gave the right answer on his positional switch: “I said I actually listened to the American people. And I think people across America want a leader who’s actually going to listen to them.” But he never seemed to speak with passion or conviction; he looked slightly uncomfortable the entire evening. Walker may hold his ground in the short term, but if he continues to recede into the wallpaper, other conservative favorites like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)96% will rise.

Ted Cruz: A. Cruz was easily the most consistently conservative candidate on the stage. Over and over again, he gave pointed, substantive answers. Cruz’s biggest moment came when he said that as commander-in-chief, he’d make it clear, “if you join ISIS, if you wage jihad on America, you are signing your death warrant.” In his final statement, Cruz turned not to bragging about his record – a boring answer from a lot of boring candidates – but to what he would actually do on his first day in office. His key line came when he blasted the Republican establishment:

We got a Republican House, we’ve got a Republican Senate, and we don’t have leaders who honor their commitments. I will always tell the truth and do what I said I would do.

Cruz’s hope is to capture any collapse in support from Trump, while showing viewers over and over again that he is an intelligent, professional candidate, not merely a fireworks-creating ballbuster. He achieved that tonight, especially given the fireworks surrounding him.

Mike Huckabee: C. Huckabee’s pitch is very specific and very credible: he’s a religious conservative, and he ran as one. Huckabee’s argument on the pro-life position – that the Constitutional protections to life ought to apply to the unborn – was very strong and will certainly play well in Iowa. Huckabee’s answer on government spending was strong as well. His answer on entitlement spending was insanely weak, however, and pandering with regard to how to solve the problem (he suggested ending Congress’ pension plan, which would affect approximately 0% of the red ink all over the Social Security budget). The question is whether Huckabee can generate any attention in such a crowded field after running a surprisingly strong campaign in 2008, and apparently relying on that base again this time around. Huckabee didn’t gain much tonight.

Ben Carson: B. Ben Carson said very little during the debate; what he did say was charming and funny. He isn’t a presidential candidate, and he didn’t look like one. He looked like a wonderful fellow, quick on his feet and light on the issues. He also appeared to go out for a hamburger during the first half of the debate. Carson’s finest moment came during his close, when he said that he didn’t care about skin color, because he operates on the “things that make us who we are” rather than skin. He added, “I’m the only one to take out half a brain, but if you went to Washington you would think somebody had beat me to it.”

Chris Christie: D. Christie’s night will be defined by his exchange with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)93% on national security. Paul, defending his positions on curbing intelligence surveillance, said that he wanted to distinguish intel from terrorists from other surveillance activity. Christie blasted him:

Listen, senator, you know, when you’re sitting in a subcommittee, just blowing hot air about this, you can say things like that. When you’re responsible for protecting the lives of the American people, then what you need to do is to make sure that you use the system the way it’s supposed to work.

Paul accused Christie of not understanding the Constitution: “You fundamentally misunderstand the Bill of Rights.” Then Paul dropped the hammer: “I don’t trust President Obama with our records. I know you gave him a big hug, and if you want to give him a big hug again, go right ahead.” Christie responded by talking about hugging people on 9/11. It was not a good look. Christie may have taken out Paul, but in the process, Paul took him out, too.

Rand Paul: D. Paul was in attack mode the entire night. With his campaign stalling, Paul went after candidate after candidate. He attacked Christie on national security, Trump (“He’s already hedging his bet on the Clintons, OK?”), and Trump again (“News flash, the Republican Party’s been fighting against a single-payer system for a decade”), among others. Each attack was cutting and on-point. The attacks also made Paul appear desperate.

John Kasich: A. Kasich benefitted from the hometown energy, the friendly questions, and the fact that nobody in the audience knows who the hell he is. He gave one of the more effective answers of the night with regard to Donald Trump when he praised Trump’s supporters without praising the man himself. He spoke frequently about his record and his persona. Kasich may be Jeb Bush’s and Chris Christie’s worst nightmare: a moderate Republican at best in a key swing state without the Bush baggage.

The biggest winner of the night wasn’t on the main stage: Carly Fiorina, by not participating in the car wreck and standing out in her own field, made herself a viable top-tier candidate. But the debate itself helped one candidate above all others: Hillary Clinton. Her name barely came up, mainly because the candidates seemed determined to answer moderator questions rather than turning the argument against the presumed Democratic candidate. Republican voters may have learned more about the distinctions among the candidates, but Hillary Clinton just got a lot of help in identifying Republican weak spots. There’s little doubt she’ll exploit them with the help of a fully compliant media.