The State of the Race

 

Debate2This won’t be another debate recap post. An army of pundits (Please note: Worst. Army. Ever.) has already dissected last night’s proceedings and the emerging consensus seems about right to me: Carly Fiorina dominated, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie both had some pretty good moments, and Donald Trump’s pilot light kept shutting off. Everyone else was basically treading water. In the undercard debate, Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham both looked serviceable, but c’mon — it’s not that big of a deal to win the NIT.

So let’s play the story forward: after last night, what dynamics play out over the six weeks until the next GOP debate takes place in Boulder, Colorado? (Seriously, RNC? Boulder? Was George Soros’ penthouse booked that night?) Here are some of the trends I’ll be watching for:

Carly in the Crosshairs

Last night, the country learned what those of us who’ve been watching this race closely discovered months ago: Carly Fiorina can stick a knife between your ribs and get you to thank her for it. Her exchange with Donald Trump over the infamous “Look at that face” comment marked the first instance in this cycle of someone coming out of a scrum with The Donald an unambiguous winner. Not only did she manage the magnificent trick of appearing simultaneously dignified and condescending, she actually made Trump look like a beta as he uncomfortably walked back his criticisms. I’m not going to lie: I enjoyed seeing the inspiration for the “cuckservative” epithet get horsewhipped by a girl.

All things considered, last night was a huge triumph for Carly (some especially insightful wags may have seen this coming), but it’s going to bring her a host of new challenges (this is what political philosophers refer to as the “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” Principle).

Now that she’s a serious contender in this race, the scrutiny of her tenure at Hewlett-Packard and the concerns over her lack of electoral experience are going to become much more pronounced. Carly’s succeeded thus far by taking a very clear, poised message to progressively bigger stages. Now we get to see what happens when the process becomes interactive and she has to thrust and parry with the other campaigns. Based on last night, she’ll probably be up to that challenge, but having your breakout moment four-and-a-half months prior to voters going to the polls gives your opponents plenty of time to probe you for weaknesses.

Your Nearest Exit May Be Behind You

I think a lot of people would have lost money (I know I would have) on the proposition that Rick Perry would be out of this race before the second debate. I expect we’ll see more before the third, especially with the talk that we may have already had our last undercard forum.

Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit. Jim Gilmore didn’t even cross the polling threshold for the kids’ table last night. There’s a non-negligible chance that more people are backing me for president than him (Senik 2016: “Padlocking Buildings Throughout the Washington Metropolitan Area”). Save yourself some dignity, Jim, and take up gardening.

The same likely goes for last night’s entire undercard cast. If you didn’t have a breakout moment early, as Carly did, it’s probably over. Bobby Jindal needs to start working on his vision for the Department of Health and Human Services. Lindsey Graham has a kid in Dallas to drone. Rick Santorum isn’t a viable presidential candidate in any field that doesn’t include Mitt Romney and at least one pizza salesman. And George Pataki likely doesn’t have the support of a majority of voters in his own home.

Look, you’ve had your fun. You got a trip to Southern California to offset having to shoot your way out of Cleveland last month. But it’s time to go home.

The Lifeboat Caucus

Among the top-tier here’s who should be nervous right now: Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, and, believe it or not, Scott Walker.

Paul needed this election to be held in 2014, before we all remembered that national security is a thing that presidents actually do. In the ISIS-Ayatollah-Putin era, a guy whose foreign policy arguments tend to be prefaced with “Look, I’m not an actual isolationist” isn’t going to be many peoples’ first pick.

Huckabee doesn’t have much of a lane. The success he had in 2008 was largely fueled by social conservatives but, like Santorum, he’s boxed out with that demographic this time around by the likes of Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. Mike is a very genial guy who’s spent the last few years being extremely well-paid to be a very genial guy. Don’t upset that apple cart. Stick with the job that bankrolls your ability to build monstrosities like this on the Florida coast.

Because he’s been so marginalized over the last few years, a lot of people have forgotten just how good Chris Christie is in front of a camera. (Our own Rob Long recently referred to the YouTube videos of Christie’s New Jersey smackdowns as “Chris Christie porn,” which has to be the most disgusting combination of three words imaginable in the English language). Last night provided a few reminders of those talents. But the cash value of that skill set? Probably nil. Christie, charming as he can be, just represents too much of a compromise for too many voters. And when there are 16 candidates to choose from, you can afford to be picky. Add him to the long list of Republicans who missed their one serious shot at the presidency in 2012.

As for Walker, his decline has to rank right up there with the Trump boomlet as one of the biggest surprises of this cycle. Yes, he’s been getting back to basics lately with some serious policy ideas, but the damage may have already been done. The core problem is that Walker has spent the past few months chasing the news cycle and trying to be wherever he thought the conservative base wanted him, which has undercut his core value proposition: that he’s a guy who fights on principle and focuses on the big issues. And it doesn’t help matters any that his modus operandi at the debates seems to be to give as brief an answer as possible and hope that the moderators will move on. Mr. “Unintimidated” seems to be playing scared. I don’t expect his campaign to pick up any steam until they can get over that contradiction.

The Contenders

A quick rundown of the guys who are still in this:

— I’ll be honest: Ted Cruz’s appeal is lost on me. And that’s saying something, because I don’t have much in the way of policy differences with him. I’m just inherently nervous about any candidate whose cadence makes me think I’m about to get ripped off on a trim package. Cruz seems to have settled on a strategy of drafting off of Trump right now. Maybe that works, maybe it doesn’t. But I’m always skeptical of campaigns where the strategy largely centers around a series of contingencies breaking in just the right way.

— We can agree on this much: Ben Carson wins Mr. Congeniality. And my guess is that’s what his supporters are rewarding him for night now. Carson has all the hallmarks of an October front-runner: someone everyone likes when nothing’s on the line. I don’t want Ben Carson to be president. I want Ben Carson to sit down with the country every night over a cup of tea and tell us how his day went. We’ll see how many people come to the same conclusion as this campaign rolls on.

— Every debate brings with it a stream of press accolades for John Kasich. I don’t get it. Kasich strikes me as a less self-important Jon Huntsman: a guy whose primary constituency is the media because his primary sensibility is a slight sense of guilt at being a Republican. This feels like it blows up on the runway.

— I continue to believe that we’re underestimating how big of a sinkhole the Jeb Bush campaign is. Jeb has been running this campaign, officially or otherwise, for the better part of a year now. Last night is the first time I can remember him getting a genuine applause line — and it was for his brother. The Bush campaign looks increasingly like the Clinton effort: one that’s stumbling because it assumed that supply creates its own demand.

— To hear Team Jeb! tell it, they’re taking the slow and steady approach. Well … one out of two ain’t bad. Marco Rubio, however, may actually be executing that strategy to perfection. Rubio is well-liked, always impressive at these debates, scratches a key demographic itch for the party, and has a wide range of Republicans who are willing to give him a look. That’s a pretty good hand to play. And while he hasn’t had any huge moments yet, he’s consistently good, the cumulative value of which shouldn’t be underestimated. Based on the number of erstwhile Rubio-Fiorina supporters who I’m now hearing say that they may have gotten the ticket upside down, however, he’s going to have to step it up a notch or risk taking the lead in the vice presidential sweepstakes.

— As we watched the first debate here at Ricochet last month, a lot of people thought that the hostile questioning of Donald Trump would be his undoing. I never bought that. Did they make him look like a buffoon? Yes. But, people … buffoon is the brand.

Last night, however, may have actually changed something, because Trump committed the cardinal sin of an entertainer: he was boring. The bull got into the china shop … and proceeded to take a nap. Trump seems to have begun thinking that to be president he may actually have to act like a presidential candidate — which undercuts everything that makes him compelling/repellent.

I said a few months ago that I thought the eventual undoing of the Trump campaign would be when the novelty started to wear off. We’re not there yet. We may not even be close. But last night was the first time it felt like we could at least be seeing the beginning of the end.

There are 82 comments.

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  1. Member

    Look, I am never, ever going to get back together with TRUMP.

    But, I really, truly, do appreciate him being there.

    He makes the wishy-washy candidates take a stand, which is the last thing they want to do.

    He makes the guys beholden to the special interests try to defend those interests.

    And he makes everyone else (namely, Carly) actually campaign.

    Seriously, everyone, he’s never going to get the nomination. If he acts as a trial run for the real race, he’s done *all of us* a favor, no matter how annoying it seems right now.

    Mitt could have used the same in 2012. Imagine life right now.

    • #1
    • September 17, 2015 at 6:26 pm
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  2. Member

    Whenever mainstream people on the right use alpha/beta it always feels kind of sad. Its always in the context of people I like and people I don’t like.

    You’re being this guy.

    Don’t be that guy.

    • #2
    • September 17, 2015 at 6:28 pm
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  3. Member

    The next debate’s in Boulder? Next thing you know the RNC will stick the convention in Cleveland.

    Agree with your Kasich take, Troy. He’s not as appealing as his perfect-storm victory in OH would indicate. He’d have been perfectly positioned for VP if he’d stayed hidden here. But he introduced himself to the country and blew it.

    • #3
    • September 17, 2015 at 6:35 pm
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  4. Member

    Thanks for the pic of Huckabee’s palazzo, now that I know how much the care and feeding of conservative media types cost, I’m not surprised we invented the Thatcher and Reagan tiers. How about a picture of chez Senik?

    • #4
    • September 17, 2015 at 6:39 pm
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  5. Member

    Troy Senik, Ed.: There’s a non-negligible chance that more people are backing me for president than him (Senik 2016: “Padlocking Buildings Throughout the Washington Metropolitan Area”).

    I understand you and I are about the same age, so I think you’ll still be a little too wet behind the ears by inauguration day. But hey, 2020 ain’t that far off.

    • #5
    • September 17, 2015 at 6:39 pm
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  6. Member

    Agree with dnewlander that Trump has value — mostly by drawing unprecedented audiences, which are then exposed to an impressive field of candidates.

    • #6
    • September 17, 2015 at 6:44 pm
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  7. Thatcher

    Ouch

    And George Pataki likely doesn’t have the support of a majority of voters in his own home.

    • #7
    • September 17, 2015 at 6:48 pm
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  8. Inactive

    Ted Cruz: He could crush Trump and has the bonafides for the right wing, but your criticism is spot on from last night. They need to be worried. He has been an outspoken Senator for a while, won cases before SCOTUS and is a textbook of knowledge. He can’t show up acting like he knotted his necktie too tight again.

    Carly Fiorina: I love her fight and taking down Trump. Your comments are perfect. Now comes the scrutiny and there may be some issues that slow the train to the nomination. She is reviled by some libertarians that prioritize privacy and the 4th amendment. She is still a leader, but do not expect calm seas and smooth sailing.

    Trump: Down, but not out. What’s next? If he continues the “I’m gonna be best…” schtick he is short lived. If he realizes he got hit in the mouth, this is the big leagues, and details matter more than insults, then gets down to concrete strategy and policy he can be very dangerous. I met a guy years ago that was a contractor for him on Trump Tower. He told us a story about how Trump would blow in, walk through, but then tell everyone how many screws in the switch plates weren’t vertical. He has attention to detail we haven’t seen yet.

    • #8
    • September 17, 2015 at 6:50 pm
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  9. Chief

    Petty Boozswha:Thanks for the pic of Huckabee’s palazzo, now that I know how much the care and feeding of conservative media types cost, I’m not surprised we invented the Thatcher and Reagan tiers. How about a picture of chez Senik?

    Here’s a pic of Casa de Gabriel, sitting on some prime real estate in suburban Mesa, Arizona.

    stock-footage-an-abandoned-trailer-sits-in-the-middle-of-the-mojave-desert

    • #9
    • September 17, 2015 at 6:52 pm
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  10. Member

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.:stock-footage-an-abandoned-trailer-sits-in-the-middle-of-the-mojave-desert

    I’ve been There. It’s a lot bigger on the inside:

    Chez Gabriel

    • #10
    • September 17, 2015 at 7:00 pm
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  11. Member

    Buffoon may be the brand, but every sitcom buffoon eventually has an episode where they demonstrate effectiveness.

    Trump is Trump all the way down, as Jonah Goldberg might say. A great danger for him is that his schtick will get old.

    • #11
    • September 17, 2015 at 7:02 pm
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  12. Editor
    Troy Senik Post author

    Guruforhire:Whenever mainstream people on the right use alpha/beta it always feels kind of sad. Its always in the context of people I like and people I don’t like.

    It may be a horserace term for most political journalists, but it has a slightly more distinct meaning for those of us who’ve worked with pack animals. Trump’s appeal has been couched almost entirely in his dominance of personality. Watch that video again. Carly got his tail between his legs. The description fits.

    You’re being this guy.

    Don’t be that guy.

    Don’t be that guy cannot follow posting an Offspring video. Posting an Offspring video is the most “don’t be that guy” move of all. (If I didn’t find emojis degrading, I’d be winking here).

    • #12
    • September 17, 2015 at 7:04 pm
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  13. Editor
    Troy Senik Post author

    Scott R:Agree with dnewlander that Trump has value — mostly by drawing unprecedented audiences, which are then exposed to an impressive field of candidates.

    This strikes me as the more plausible case: you come for Trump, you hang around and watch everyone else.

    I’d quibble with the argument that he’s forcing other candidates to take stands. I don’t see any evidence of that. Who’s he pushing on substance in these debates? Now, you can certainly argue that he’s bringing certain issues more to the fore, but we can debate whether or not they’re worth the candle.

    I, for instance, am both a fairly strong immigration hawk and a critic of birthright citizenship as a policy matter. That said, I think the time we’ve sunk into that issue has mostly been wasted. It’s an extremely small part of the immigration question and one that you could only change through an effort entirely disproportionate to the outcome.

    • #13
    • September 17, 2015 at 7:09 pm
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  14. Editor
    Troy Senik Post author

    Petty Boozswha:Thanks for the pic of Huckabee’s palazzo, now that I know how much the care and feeding of conservative media types cost, I’m not surprised we invented the Thatcher and Reagan tiers. How about a picture of chez Senik?

    fortress-of-solitude-superman

    • #14
    • September 17, 2015 at 7:12 pm
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  15. Contributor

    This sounds right. Rubio’s performance impresses me a bit more than it has others, however. I would be sorry to see Walker out. But a guy who cannot talk the talk is not going to be allowed to walk the walk.

    • #15
    • September 17, 2015 at 7:13 pm
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  16. Member

    To paraphrase a line from “the Social Network”, if Cruz could have crushed Trump, he would have crushed Trump. But he’s seemingly content to play Trump’s Mini-Me until the likely sputtering out or implosion of the the Trump campaign. People are likely to remember this phase, though, and it’s going to be a ceiling on Cruz’s appeal. I understand that he expects to pick up Trump’s supporters. It doesn’t make him look like a leader.

    To be fair to Cruz, some of the things that put me off about him are superficial, but they add up. One thing he can’t help is having Chris Wallace eyebrows, which give him a plaintive look, and a pursed mouth that makes it look like he’s about to cry. He uses this “look” to some effect; he knows how to project fiery indignation. In sheer IQ, Cruz is hard to beat, but that’s not what elections are about. If you love Cruz, great, don’t let me discourage you; but if you don’t love Cruz, he comes across as Eddie Haskell crossed with Al Gore.

    • #16
    • September 17, 2015 at 7:16 pm
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  17. Member

    @Troy

    A tip of the hat to u sir

    • #17
    • September 17, 2015 at 7:20 pm
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  18. Member

    The end of Trump will be when he fights with Chuck U Schumer for camera time. Combover vs Plugs.

    • #18
    • September 17, 2015 at 7:20 pm
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  19. Inactive

    Buffoon? Boring? Word choices matter.

    • #19
    • September 17, 2015 at 7:35 pm
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  20. Inactive

    In real time, I had the same reaction that most people did to the several Trump/Fiorina exchanges, that Carly came out looking strong and poignant. But there’s one place where I think he may have drawn some serious blood. Carly’s record at HP.

    Trump trashed Carly’s record hard last night. He violated the unwritten rule of the intrasquad scrimmage, that it can be physical as long as no one gets hurt. Trump went for the throat against his teammate, and you can bet the Trump zealots are going to pile on. I’m going to assume no one in that camp is taking Christie’s advice to focus on the real opponents, the Democrats.

    I’m pissed about the failure of the GOP leadership to follow through on its promises, too. But Trump is such a classless pea-brain, it’s maddening that his brand of vitriol finds any constituency in the Republican base.

    • #20
    • September 17, 2015 at 8:00 pm
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  21. Coolidge

    Troy, you’ve said everything I’ve been thinking. Just so.

    • #21
    • September 17, 2015 at 8:16 pm
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  22. Member

    Petty Boozswha:Thanks for the pic of Huckabee’s palazzo, now that I know how much the care and feeding of conservative media types cost, I’m not surprised we invented the Thatcher and Reagan tiers. How about a picture of chez Senik?

    Not just big, also fugly.

    • #22
    • September 17, 2015 at 8:18 pm
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  23. Inactive

    I’m surprised you find Walker’s “decline” surprising. It seems to me entirely predictable. Somnambulance hardly seems like a winning quality.

    • #23
    • September 17, 2015 at 8:26 pm
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  24. Member

    Casey:I’m surprised you find Walker’s “decline”surprising.It seems to me entirely predictable. Somnambulance hardly seems like a winning quality.

    I think a lot of us are surprised by Walker’s ho-hum performance in the debates and silly campaign errors. My three favorite picks this spring were Walker, Perry, and Jindal, which tells you how different I am then whoever answers polls.

    • #24
    • September 17, 2015 at 8:42 pm
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  25. Inactive

    Cruz would make the best president, but Rubio is the best candidate for the general election.

    • #25
    • September 17, 2015 at 8:54 pm
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  26. Member

    Z in MT, you nailed my choices too. On policy, brains, ability to stand up to the left. That those three have gone to the dogs is largely the result of Trump taking all the O2 out of the room. Do you remember about a month ago when Walker and Perry both made big policy announcements on the same day? I don’t either, but they did.

    Trump is, as I have repeatedly said, a paid stalking horse for Hillary. He is being promised something, perhaps exclusive rights to develop in the Northeast corridor, when she is elected. In return he’s a hand grenade among the Repubs. One down, 16 to go.

    When Hillary is indicted and drops out, Trump will too.

    • #26
    • September 17, 2015 at 8:57 pm
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  27. Member

    Troy Senik, Ed.: So let’s play the story forward: …

    Just about everyone acknowledges that Carly was the alpha on that stage. The nomination is hers to lose as long as she continues to project leadership.

    Who can unseat her?

    Trump will give it a go, but his party-wide influence is limited, and he knows that Carly will embarrass him in a head to head challenge.

    Christie might challenge her, but he’ll have to shed the “it’s not about me” persona that worked so well for him last night. Counterproductive.

    Kasich? Swing and a miss.

    Cruz? Challenging Carly from the right will only strengthen her among the GOP establishment.

    Rubio’s talents will assure that he gains popularity, but she’ll make him look like a prep school kid if he dares to challenge her leadership and experience.

    Jeb? Too polite. But, Jeb! + $$$ could be trouble if the rest of the party fails to unify behind Carly. T

    Are any of the others likely to even mount a serious challenge?

    • #27
    • September 17, 2015 at 9:24 pm
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  28. Member

    Jeb! and Trump seem to be the Yin and Yang of the (R) primaries and the world will be a better place when both are yanked and yanged out.

    • #28
    • September 17, 2015 at 9:28 pm
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  29. Contributor

    I agree with Troy’s analysis, but I also found myself nodding along with Mark Levin tonight. Levin’s point: Christie, Fiorina and others correctly joined in criticizing Boehner and McConnell for failing to do much of anything in Congress to oppose President Obama’s agenda, but where were they in 2013 when Ted Cruz and Mike Lee were trying to stop Obamacare?

    Fiorina gave an impressive performance last night as an articulate, full-spectrum conservative, but she last ran for office as a quintessential moderate California Republican. There is also her tumultuous tenure at HP to consider.

    Rubio has impressive gifts and tea party bona fides, but jumped aboard the amnesty-first-security-never Gang of Eight bill, providing conservative cover for Chuck Schumer. Not exactly reassuring.

    Christie sounded great–a full-throated conservative. Too bad about the contrary record in New Jersey.

    In short, I’m going to take my time and watch events unfold.

    • #29
    • September 17, 2015 at 9:38 pm
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  30. Member

    George Savage: Levin’s point: Christie, Fiorina and others correctly joined in criticizing Boehner and McConnell for failing to do much of anything in Congress to oppose President Obama’s agenda, but where were they in 2013 when Ted Cruz and Mike Lee were trying to stop Obamacare?

    The shutdown strategy was controversial, even among conservatives. Fiorina didn’t support it, but she actively spoke out against Obamacare.

    George Savage: but she last ran for office as a quintessential moderate California Republican. There is also her tumultuous tenure at HP to consider.

    How else could one have a chance at winning statewide office in California?
    Her HP tenure will be attacked, and she will have to defend it. So far, there doesn’t seem to be much ‘there’ there, but I’ll admit that it is a wildcard.

    • #30
    • September 17, 2015 at 9:58 pm
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