Reagan Wannabes: The 2nd 2016 GOP Debate

So here's what we learned from the second Republican presidential debate: Carly Fiorina knows how to sell her message -- and how to plant a shiv. Jeb Bush was a prep school pothead. And Donald Trump has neither the inclination nor the capacity to transcend his shtick and become a serious presidential candidate.

In a debate that clocked in at nearly three hours, CNN's Reagan Library extravaganza offered something for everyone. Each candidate served up at least a couple of effective moments, mixed in with stretches of less-than-stellar delivery. CNN had signaled in advance its intention to get the candidates to directly engage with each other, and engage they did. The moderators' questions were crafted specifically to draw random pairs of debaters into back-and-forths, mostly over policy differences. Not all the questions landed with equal success, but for the most part CNN found a way to introduce substantive themes via the entertainment-friendly framework of conflict. Unlike last month's Fox News debate, which turned largely on the moderators, the Reagan Library event kept its focus on the debaters.

The big winner of the night was Carly Fiorina, the participant whose inclusion came about only after CNN relaxed its rules. Fiorina accomplished something that debaters too often fail to do: she came to the stage with a specific plan and stuck to it, displaying energy, passion, and discipline. Time and again Fiorina managed to shoot down her opponents with subtle digs, and unlike the two other outsider candidates she has clearly been boning up on domestic and international affairs. She may not clinch the nomination, but with this performance Fiorina has placed herself squarely into vice presidential contention.

Fiorina is not a perfect debater. She strives too hard to show that she has mastered her material, and she does not always know when to stop talking. Furthermore, Fiorina lacks a naturally pleasant voice; her overly nasal inflections call to mind Lily Tomlin as the phone operator Ernestine. Yet Fiorina uses language effectively, articulating her message in what can best be described as a corporate-inspirational style. Her sentences are crisp, clear, and concise -- every phrase sounds as though it ought to be accompanied by a PowerPoint slide. Which is not to suggest that she is dull. Fiorina gave an especially strong closing statement, invoking Lady Liberty and Lady Justice in what amounted to a hat tip to the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan.

And she took no crap from Donald Trump. Fiorina shamed Trump over unkind comments he had made about her looks, and she did so without making herself the victim. Trump's defensive rejoinders -- "I think she's got a beautiful face" and "I think she's a beautiful woman" -- came off as tone-deaf and patronizing. Even more damning was Fiorina's look of utter disgust as he spoke.

Trump did not have a good night. The debate started with Trump as the center of attention, but over the marathon length of the program it became increasingly apparent that he was out of his depth. What the evening conclusively proved is that Trump is unable to discuss public policy issues at anything deeper than a bumper sticker level. By the end of the debate, when he started spouting pseudo-scientific malarkey about vaccines and autism, his blathering seemed almost pathetic.

Trump's chief success came with his mauling of Jeb Bush, a mauling made possible by Bush's profound ineptitude. On several occasions Bush trotted out manufactured confrontations with Trump that went absolutely nowhere. For instance, Bush demanded that Trump apologize to his wife, but when Trump refused, Bush was left without a backup plan, leaving the matter hanging.

When he has opportunities to talk policy, Bush is obviously up to the task, but as a performer he comes across as so ill at ease that the audience never gets comfortable enough to listen. Although he grew stronger as the debate progressed, for much of the evening Bush stood onstage with a sickly smile plastered across his mug. At times it looked like he wanted to rush offstage and vomit.

As for the other contenders, the best natural performer remains Marco Rubio, though he should not have opened with a joke about the California drought, given the devastation that fires are wreaking around the state. Scott Walker, desperate to reassert himself as a player, got off to a decent start by going after Trump, but later he used a discussion of international terrorism to foolishly cite his experience facing down protestors at the state capitol.

Without a doubt the most enigmatic person on the stage was Ben Carson, whose low-key, self-effacing delivery makes him sound like Chauncey Gardener. His cadence is so halting that it verges on the soporific, yet that same reticence forces listeners to lean in and pay closer attention. Carson's prime asset at this point may well be his likeability, a form of political currency that cannot be minted. But being a nice guy carries a candidate only so far, and at times Carson drifted in and out of focus like a ghost among the living, sort of there and sort of not.

Perhaps the signature camera shot of the night was one that occurred not during but before the debate. As part of the opening setup CNN showed the candidates on their way to the debate set, striding down a hallway in the Reagan Library. The location felt almost felt like a high school corridor, and it wasn't difficult to envision the candidates as students heading off to class. Most of them walked in pairs -- Rubio with Carson, Trump and Christie bringing up the rear. And all by herself was Carly Fiorina, the new girl in town, whom the others hadn't gotten to know. After her debut on the big stage, it's safe to say they know her now.