The Republican debate finished at 4am in the UK and was hardly the stuff to help keep even the keenest political junkie awake. The evening slowly warmed up from mild to mildly tepid as candidates vied with each other to say who they would like to annihilate first. Naturally, Chris Christie’s war of choice would come extra large. He didn’t mention World War III by name but he did promise to shoot down the first Russian plane that violated one of his no-fly zones. Carly Fiorina’s war of choice would be with China who, she said, would respect her strength. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz seemed to settle on their own mutually assured destruction whilst Jeb Bush declared open war with Donald Trump. It was probably the most foolish war of the four.
Trump bit back in one of the evening’s few real conflicts and when Trump snarled Bush seemed to cower. It was another ineffective performance from the former Florida Governor and his constant stuttering in prepared remarks would not have convinced anybody that he’s about to become a viable candidate. It is still the big surprise of this Republican race that Bush is failing so spectacularly. He is simply ineffective and perpetually looks lost which might, in all seriousness, have something to do with his choice of glasses. The thick lenses emphasise his eyes, especially when viewed from the side. He can sometimes look startled even when he’s in control. If he wants to revitalise his campaign, he should start by considering contacts or a change of frames. There might yet be a way back for him but time is running out and he’s simply not getting the fundamentals right.
His spat with Trump was unseemly but much about the evening revealed more about the weaknesses of the candidates than their strengths. Trump himself, the front runner for the Republican nomination, was perhaps the least involved but most memorable when he was. We’d heard his replies before and they were typically shy of detail. Bush said Trump won’t be able to insult his way to the Presidency but, in fairness, it has worked pretty well so far. Asked about the nuclear ‘triad’ and which of America’s submarines, strategic bombers, and ICBMs he would upgrade first, Trump prevaricated and clearly didn’t understand the question. Instead he provided the single worst reply of the evening, merely confirming that ‘nuclear, the power, the devastation, is very important to me’. I’m not sure anybody in the audience understood what he meant or whether we should feel worried or reassured by the thought of a nuclear Trump.
Perhaps the most impressive performance of the evening was by Ben Carson who again managed to convince by shrinking back into himself. Imitating a porcupine might be a clever strategy since the others gain nothing by attacking him and he gains everything from their praise. Hostilities noticeably ended whenever Ben had his turn. People might respect him but he has to be careful that respect doesn’t begin to resemble pity. Whether you believe he’s presidential material will still depend on how you view his pyramid remarks and relationship with his friend with the heavenly glow.
Almost as impressive was Carly Fiorina but her ‘impressive’ comes largely by way of Margaret Thatcher, who provided the evening’s best line: ‘If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.’ She sounded strong on matters of self-defence and national security but sometimes her voice has a corporate monotone that is so emotionless it’s like listening to some Vice President of Personnel tell you that your services are no longer required. She’s another who would be well served by modifying her image so it becomes more obvious that she was only the head of Hewlett-Packard and not assembled by Hewlett-Packard.
As to the rest, Chris Christie constantly made a good case but perhaps spends too much time emphasizing his role around 9/11. The message of the night was that he knows the right people and he’s sorted out trouble before. His remark about shooting down Russian aircraft might win over the baccy-chewing wing of the Republican Party but it’s the kind of remark that could (and perhaps should) come back to haunt him. John Kasich still had his usual deathgrip on the end of the main stage. His campaign might have flatlined somewhere around ‘not happening’ but he still talks confidently about being President. It’s hard to see his lasting much longer in the race but some of his interjections were the best of the evening. He’d have done himself no harm but it’s also hard to say it would have made much difference. Rand Paul, meanwhile, was stuck on the other end and seemed to have smuggled a posse of screaming schoolgirls into the crowd. The screaming was noticeably partisan and overblown for even his least significant contribution. It was a constant reminder at how staged this event really is.
That leaves the Rubio and Cruz fight, probably the clash of the evening in terms of actual policy debate. Cruz probably came out on top. Rubio has consistently looked like the one candidate who might surprise everybody by emerging from the field to win the nomination. Last night, Cruz landed some heavy blows, especially on the topic of immigration and citizenship and Rubio looked a little stunned by the end. Cruz himself, meanwhile, tried to steal so much of Trump’s thunder that it was sometimes shameless. He too wanted walls and the tone was calculated to echo Trump’s popular generalizations. In the end, trying to soften but emulate Trump left him speaking meaningless statements such as ‘we will not be admitting Jihadists as refugees’. In every sense it’s as meaningless as Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the country but by softening the rhetoric it had all the faults of Trump’s statement but none of the political advantage.
The meaningless statements were perhaps the single thing we can take away from the evening. Even Trump’s pledge not to run an independent campaign if he fails to win the nomination could be said to be hollow. If the polls are correct, he has every reason to say what he did. If the polls lie or turn against him, it would not take a great work of rhetoric to go back on his word and blame the same Republican party he praised last night. The seeds are there in his repeated claims that the debates are being framed by questions deliberately hostile to his nomination.
In the end, the evening felt like a debate a week away from Christmas when the candidates were already thinking about turkey whilst also trying not to look like a turkey. This was the eighth debate of fifteen. We’re just over half way. The next debate will be in North Charlestown, South Carolina, on January 14. I will try my best to stay awake.