I teach Senior Government every year at our little Christian School, and Government class is always more interesting when it happens in an election year . . . or in this case, during the election pre-season. I had talked with my kids about the debate process, primaries, and the general election, and we've been tracking the average of national polls every week (as found on my favorite political website, www.realclearpolitics.com). I asked them to watch the GOP debate this week as an assignment, and several of them said something to the effect that they wish they could watch it with me. One thing led to another, our headmaster was consulted, and so it came to pass that, at 7 PM Wednesday evening, I streamed the debate live from the CNN website onto my projector screen, and some 18 students - mostly juniors and seniors - joined me to watch the festivities!
Many of them had never seen a political debate before, while others are hard-core political junkies like me. No one really cared for Donald Trump much, while everyone seemed to enjoy Carly Fiorina's quick wit, Marco Rubio's polished eloquence, and Chris Christie's earnest good humor. We hung around together for about two hours, but the kids' patience wore out around 9:15, so they filed out one by one while I waited for a commercial break to log off the PC, lock up the building, and drive home, where I was able to catch the finale (Over three hours? This was the TITANIC of political debates!). I had also been able to catch the last hour or so of the early debate between the junior league candidates, so by the end of the evening I was politically sated, happy, and ready for bed. Today I got to listen to the students' impressions in class, and I look forward to reading their post-debate essays Monday morning. In the meantime, since this is my blog, I'll share my own impressions. First of all, the "Happy Hour" debate -
The candidates got a LOT of speaking time, because there were only four of them. Rick Perry has officially dropped out, and I don't know what happened to Jim Gilmore, but he's been polling less than .1% pretty much from the get-go, so I guess he's given up too. That left the stage to Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, and George Pataki. Bearing in mind that I only heard about half of the debate, here are my rankings -
LINDSEY GRAHAM - Winner! The man's knowledge of foreign policy is impressive, and his grasp of the nature of the threat we face is solid. He also has the advantage of experience, and his comments about working together with Democrats a la Reagan and O'Neill were a welcome break from the constant demonization of the opposition so current in Tea Party circles. Plus, how can you not like a guy who says that, in his White House, "we'll do more drinkin'!!" Can he be elected President? Not a chance! But would he make an incredible Secretary of State or Defense? You betcha!
RICK SANTORUM - A great performance, eloquent, heartfelt, and inspiring. He's another who will never be President, but he has many of the qualities that would make him a great one. Maybe if there was a freak KING RALPH-style accident (1990's comedy with John Goodman. Check it out!) he'll get the chance. Otherwise, he may not last much longer.
BOBBY JINDAL - Not that great. A few good points, and an inspiring biography, but he's desperate and it shows.
GEORGE PATAKI - He really ought to go run as a Democrat. He would get more support in their party, and he might even get the nomination.
On to the main event - this was more a WWE brawl than a debate. The moderators made it clear from the outset that they intended to promote sparring between the candidates, and boy did they! From Donald Trump's tasteless assault on Rand Paul to Carly Fiorina's magnificent contempt for his shallow compliments, it was "open season on Donald" all night long! Frankly, I was happy to see it. The man is a world-class boor in my opinion, and he's been throwing down some pretty ugly rhetoric from Day One. Obviously, in a debate with 11 people, no one person "wins," so here is my evaluation of the candidates' overall performance. First of all -
THOSE WHO HELPED THEMSELVES:
CARLY FIORINA: If I were to name any one person as the winner last night, it would be the lady from Hewlett-Packard. She dominated the Junior League debate last time, and she pretty effectively dominated the debate last night. From her initial head-to-head with Donald Trump to her beautiful and eloquent closing remarks, she was cool as a cucumber and smart as a whip throughout. I've been thinking of her as a great running mate for someone; now I am thinking of her as a viable - indeed a formidable - Presidential candidate. Well done, milady!
MARCO RUBIO - I have always admired this man. He is thoughtful, eloquent, with an inspiring biography and some excellent policy ideas. He avoids the extreme rhetoric and borderline racism that the Donald and his minions have embraced, and he also looked Presidential - poised, calm, and unflappable. He has been my first choice from the get-go, and while I am also considering supporting Mrs. Fiorina, Rubio would certainly be a fine standard-bearer.
CHRIS CHRISTIE - I am not a huge fan of Governor Christie, but he needed to bring his A-game last night and he did. Alternating between self-deprecating humor and earnest populism, his performance may well have taken him from the brink of elimination and vaulted him back up to the middle of the pack.
THOSE WHO HELD THEIR OWN:
DONALD TRUMP: I don't like this man and never will like him. The fact that he was polling at 30% going into this debate is a discredit to the party. He is a bloviating, narcissistic windbag with no concrete policy ideas, just cheap shots at his opponents and rhetoric that sells well to angry, low-information voters. That being said, he handled himself with aplomb, reserving his sole childish cheap shot of the evening for Rand Paul. Otherwise, he listened, gave decent answers, and managed to not look like a buffoon most of the time. I'm still hoping he'll have a "Howard Dean moment" at some point and go away for good, but it didn't come last night, and may not come anytime soon. He's learning how the game is played.
BEN CARSON: All my students were saying today: "He's so nice." That is his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. In a field where hardball politics is the rule of the day, he has gained a strong following by being courteous, deferential, and humble while still projecting intelligence and competence. It's an impressive feat that he carried forward last night, but I just don't think he is aggressive enough to secure the nomination, much less be elected. They're right, though - he surely is a nice man.
JEB BUSH - He really needed to come out swinging after his boring and lackluster performance in the previous debate, and that he did. Most of his swings were strikes, with a couple of singles scattered through. He definitely improved on his last showing, but despite his skills at fund-raising, he is a long way from securing the nomination. His spirited defense of his brother was the high point of his remarks.
TED CRUZ - While I don't have the visceral hatred for this man that all liberals and many mainstream Republicans do, his brand of confrontational, burn-the-bridges and take-no-prisoners politics, as well as his saber-rattling foreign policy, is a turnoff to me. I don't doubt his sincerity, but he forgets too easily that in our Constitutional Republic, compromise is a necessity to keep the will of the majority from turning to tyranny.
MIKE HUCKABEE - I have always loved this man and still love him, but his grasp of basic civics is pretty weak at times. The power of judicial review has rested with the Supreme Court for over 200 years, and belongs there. We can't ignore rulings just because we disagree with them. That being said, his essential goodness and decency combined with his excellent debate skills made him a strong performer. He'll continue at the middle of the pack for a while longer, I think.
JOHN KASICH - What an impressive resume this man has! He took a very active role in balancing the Federal budget for the only time in my life, and then did the same with the State budget as Governor of Ohio. He also balances Christian compassion with political realism in a way many in the GOP do not. However, the problem with all of those qualities is that they scream "establishment" in what is almost certainly going to be an anti-establishment year.
THOSE WHO HURT THEMSELVES LAST NIGHT:
SCOTT WALKER - I like this man and I wanted to see him do well. While he definitely tried, the fact is that he came across as flat and rather insipid - a pale shadow of Marco Rubio in more ways than one. He's a young man and I hope he'll be back at some point in the future, because he has great promise. But tonight was not his night.
RAND PAUL - For once, The Donald was right. Paul didn't belong on the big boy stage. I could not help but be reminded of a ten year old tagging along with his teenage brother's gang of friends. His desperate bids for attention and relevance screamed: "Me too! Me too!!" Go away, Rand, and try again another day. This one's gotten past you.
All in all, I enjoyed this debate a great deal. The biggest missed opportunity of the night: Given the location of the debate and the mementoes of the last truly great Republican president that were hanging all around, someone, at some point, should have looked at Donald Trump and said:
"There you go again!"
But for me, the most satisfying moment of all came this morning, when one of my students came up to me and said: "Mr. Smith, I've never cared about politics before. But last night's debate party was so much fun, and I'm really interested now."
My work here is done.