Last night's CNBC debate has been roundly panned. The moderators are being blamed for asking bad questions and for failing to control the stage. Candidates blithely uttered empty rhetoric without pushback from the journalists or each other and the network could not even get the debate started on time.
These are all fair criticisms. But I would argue that in this chaos an important thing happened. Like hockey's recently adopted three-on-three overtime rules, the unwieldy flow of conversation combined with some candidates' clear desperation to attract attention and have "a moment" as they say in the business these days, resulted in some very important takeaways:
- Jeb Bush Is Done. Like a silent movie actor who did not adapt to "talkies," Bush is a politician from a prior era who has not been able to make the transition to today's campaigning. Whether it has been his tin ear for social media or penchant for putting his foot in his mouth, he has floated on "inevitability" and his family name for months while his campaign has sunk like a stone. But last night may have been the death knell. He threw a tentative jab at Marco Rubio and Rubio was ready to counter-punch, flicking aside the older man's zinger and coming over the top with a haymaker. Bush spent the rest of the debate mostly silent and when he did speak, touted his fantasy football team. One would have thought it impossible for someone to make his brother George W. look deft and intelligent, but somehow Jeb managed this trick.
- The Rise of Generation X. I am roughly the same age as both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and while I find their politics odious, I must tip my hat to their understanding of the modern media environment. Rubio sidestepped a high and tight pitch about his shady dealings in Florida (all of which were totally within bounds to ask about and accurate to boot) and Cruz dropped the line of the night when he flashed his Princeton-honed debating skills in skewering the moderators with a real time critique of their questions. That a candidate who has skipped out on his job (and readily admitted as much) and whose rise has been lubricated with a billionaire's largesse, and another one who espouses extreme right wing views on basically every subject under the sun, came out looking like winners should tell you something.
- Joisey Attitude. Given even small openings, Governor Chris Christie displayed some of the natural political chops that once made him a favorite among the GOP donor base. He also took a swing at the moderators and used each opportunity provided to drive home his message. It may not end up making a difference in his polling, but Christie sold his version of governing (which those of us in New Jersey know was, well, a bit exaggerated) while coming off as someone who would not shrink from a debate with Hillary.
- A Kinder, Gentler Trump. Other than the quick strike oppo dump he did on John Kasich (whose shellshocked reaction ended whatever flow he was trying to establish), Trump's shtick was toned down compared to previous debates. I will be interested to see if this version of Trump, equal parts dorsal-fin-flashing shark and guy-now-trying-to-talk-policy works for voters. Trump himself recognized the hedged bet, using his closing statement to take a pot shot at CNBC and bragging about how he re-negotiated the terms of the debate to everyone's benefit.
- Everyone Else. With Rubio, Cruz, Christie, and to a lesser extent, Trump, sucking up most of the oxygen, the also-rans were Rand Paul (why are you still in this race, sir?), Mike Huckabee (ditto), Ben Carson (a paper tiger if you ever saw one who is out of his depth after 15 seconds), and Carly Fiorina (slick presentations may work in the boardroom, but you've been exposed as a shitty CEO and liar on the debate stage).
In another era, after a debate like this, one or more of the candidates circling the drain below 5% would drop out and maybe even a guy like Bush would reexamine whether he should continue, but as was shown in 2012, all a candidate needs to do is get hot at the right time and suddenly they could find themselves in the "finals" for a 50/50 crack at being the most powerful person in the world.
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