After having just sat through over five hours (!) of Republicans debating each other, I have to say my brain is somewhat numb. So I'm not going to try to do any high-level analysis of the 25 pages of notes I took, but instead rely on just snap reactions to what I've just witnessed at the Shrine of Saint Ronald of Reagan's Magic Airplane. I write these snap reactions for a reason, and the reason is to see how differently I saw the debates from all the professional pundits out there. Come tomorrow, I'll read what everyone else has to say, and if the past is any measure, I'll be astonished at what settles in as conventional inside-the-Beltway wisdom. All quotes are transcribed by me hastily, and may not be exact, I should mention in passing, too.
I will also try to keep this column short, because after five hours of argle-bargle from politicians (and wannabe politicians), I think I need a beer or something. Which, of course, I'll wait to quaff until after I finish this. Hence, it'll be as short as I can possibly manage. I promise I'll provide more in-depth commentary tomorrow, after a good night's sleep, how's that? OK, that's enough of an intro, let's get on with it....
It was a very strange division this time around, because with 11 people in the main event, it meant only four candidates were on stage for the undercard debate (which is so much more polite than calling it the "kiddy table debate," don't you think?). Rick Perry's already gone from the race and Jim Gilmore wasn't even allowed in, which left just Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki to debate each other (and the illusory specter of Donald Trump, who is always present at undercard debates). As if to underscore this, the last thing the "warmup" show on CNN showed before they broke to the undercard debate was Trump himself, making big news by actually (gasp!) getting out of his car and entering the building.
They've done some work at the plane-worshipping arena, building a platform in the sky so that the plane can be right behind the candidates! Debates at the St. Ronnie library used to be across the room from the plane and much lower, but they've fixed all that now. Because they did so, the audience seemed a lot smaller, but that may have been just the camera angles used.
If I seem to be meandering around before addressing the debate, well, that's how the first debate started. By my watch, it was 3:22 (my watch runs on Pacific Time) before any candidate even opened their mouth, which left time for the national anthem and an introduction segment that resembled a professional wrestling promo.
Lots of sparks flew during the undercard, because every one of them knew that that was how Carly Fiorina got out of the kids' table and up to the adult table. There was also a lot of Trump-bashing, since he wasn't there to answer any of it back (and because it had also seemed to work for Carly).
What surprised me about this debate was that several times candidates strongly defended positions far outside the normal Republican orthodoxy. Oh, sure, there was plenty of pandering to the GOP crowd on border security and fighting terrorism and other favorite bugaboos of the right, but an astonishing amount of thinking outside the Republican box.
Lindsey Graham promised more war -- in more places -- than any other Republican. That's to be expected; that's his one big issue, really. But he also said that Hillary Clinton "did a good job" in Africa on AIDS, and even admitted: "Yes, I will say nice things about Democrats" on occasion -- which is not really a normal thing to say in a Republican debate. Graham really got into it with Jindal over how Republican candidates have been overpromising things to their voters. Graham, a sitting senator, explained again and again that "President Obama is president" and that even if the Republican Congress passed everything the base wanted them to, Obama would just veto it -- and nothing would change. Graham repeatedly said: "I'm not going to promise what I can't do," and scorned the idea of shutting down the government to gain absolutely nothing politically. Graham ended this spat saying he was "sick of hearing" Republican candidates talk about things that they simply could not deliver.
George Pataki also painted pretty far outside the lines of modern Republican thinking, showing his moderate appeal. When asked about the Kentucky county clerk jailed for refusing to provide gay couples with marriage licenses, Rick Santorum essentially called for ignoring the Supreme Court's ruling to follow God's law, and quoted Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from the Birmingham jail to back it up. Pataki responded with "Wow" to the idea of just defying the Supreme Court, stood up for the "rule of law," and pointed out that King was a private citizen willing to go to jail to point out bad laws that should be changed, and was not actually an elected official who had taken an oath of office. He then silenced the crowd by asking how Republicans would have reacted if the county clerk refused to do her job because she was Muslim. Pataki also talked about supporting a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants, which is not very popular among Republicans right now.
The biggest surprise was how unpopular letting hedge fund managers game the tax system has become in Republican circles. Jeb Bush and Donald Trump have both adopted the Democratic position on this, and three candidates showed at least some support for ending the "carried interest" loophole that lets hedge fund bigwigs get away with paying half the taxes everyone else does. Pataki flat-out agreed with Trump and Bush, and even used the scornful term "Wall Street fat cats" in doing so. Bobby Jindal hedged his bet (so to speak) and said he'd only support removing the loophole as part of a bigger tax plan. Rick Santorum wants a flat tax on everyone, but did go as far as saying that his flat tax would be levied on all income equally, seeming to support ending all capital gains tax breaks. Santorum also supported a gradual increase in the minimum wage.
This was all pretty interesting, mostly because it was so far afield from the traditional Republican positions. But it all was largely irrelevant, because none of these guys is polling better than one or two (at the most) percentage points. So let's move right along.
The Main Event
After two hours of not enough people on the stage, we got over three hours with too damn many people on the stage. The eleven, in the order they stood on stage (the middle spots were for those polling highest, obviously): Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, and Chris Christie. Whew! Can we please keep it down to the top eight at the next debate? I mean, really, what did Kasich or Huckabee really add to tonight?
Chris Christie certainly got a lot of air time, even though he was in one of the end positions. He's only polling at just over two percent, but for some reason CNN seemed to love him and he got more than his fair share of answers. Huckabee, Rubio, and Kasich seemed to get the short end of the stick, in terms of face time.
We started with a quickie round of mini-bios. Mike Huckabee called the group the "A-Team," and made some reference to "Mr. T" that was supposed to be a joke (the audience wasn't impressed). Marco Rubio even had a prop for his joke about how he "brought his own water" -- a reference to his worst moment ever in front of a television camera. Ben Carson was gracious and welcomed Carly to the adults' table. Donald Trump, "not to be braggadocious," informed everyone he was a successful and rich man. Two candidates -- Rubio and Walker -- mostly mumbled "Reagan... Reagan... Reagan..." but the best in the Reagan-genuflection category was Kasich, who mentioned that he had flown on the plane behind them when Ronnie was king and all was right with the world. Chris Christie tested out a new anti-Trump gimmick of turning the camera on the audience and stating that the race "wasn't about him... but about all Americans." It didn't really work very well.
OK, that's enough play-by-play, or I'm never going to get to drink that beer.
Overall, I thought the format was a fairly good one, although there were times when the moderators just seemed to lose all control of who got to speak. Several candidates figured out early on that if they jumped in with precision timing, they could get an unearned segment of blather. Some (more polite) candidates didn't figure this out, and thus got shorted. But, overall, the setup was an interesting one that I don't believe I've seen before -- almost every question was couched in "he said this, what do you think" terms, to set up a one-on-one interchange. For instance, Bush would be asked a question about an issue prefaced with "this is what Ben Carson said," and be asked to respond. There were many "Trump-versus-someone-else" pairings, but then again he is the clear frontrunner (and the most entertaining one on the stage). There were, however, also a goodly number of matchups between middle-of-the-pack candidates.
I have to say, I found this interesting and productive. CNN was (obviously) baiting everyone into getting into little personal spats, which did happen a number of times, but more than just fireworks this did provoke some interesting back-and-forth exchanges between candidates with differing (even, at times, opposing) viewpoints. The moderators all followed this format fairly faithfully, and it did seem to work quite well, so I'd look for future debates to copy it (especially on the Republican side, where there is such a huge crowd on stage).
At times, the exchanges got quite heated, leading to almost shouting matches between candidates. Not exactly presidential, but definitely good television -- which was crucial in keeping me awake during the three-hour yak-fest. Most of the trash-talking was indeed aimed at Trump, but nobody really ever landed a clear knockout punch. The best snappy anti-Trump comment came from (as expected) Carly Fiorina. The setup: Trump and Bush got into a spat over Bush's gaffe about spending too much money on women's health (Trump predicted the line would come back to haunt Bush), when Bush tried desperately to explain while Trump repeated (talking over him): "Why did you say it?" At one point Trump said "You said it -- I heard you say it." Immediately afterwards, Fiorina was asked about Trump's "face" comments about her in Rolling Stone, and his attempt at an explanation (that he was talking about her "persona," not her looks). Her answer? Trump just said "I heard you" to Bush, so Carly flung it right back at him: "I heard you. Women heard you." Carly certainly can think on her feet, and she knew when to keep it short. It was easily the best shot at Trump all night. Trump tried to regain momentum by saying "Carly's got a beautiful face," but the audience wasn't impressed much at all (it reminded me, in fact, of Obama's "You're likeable enough" line to Hillary Clinton, eight years back).
Chris Christie (and, to a lesser degree, John Kasich) kept trying to rise above it all and denounce all the intra-party bickering, but this never really got much traction. Ben Carson apparently was advising George W. Bush after 9/11 (who knew?) and told him not to go to war, or something. This is where my notes got increasingly difficult to read, entering the fifth hour of nonstop Republican-on-Republican violence.
Both debates were notable for how little scorn was heaped on Democrats. Oh, sure, Obama got plenty of denouncing, and the odd shot was taken at Hillary Clinton, but with so much infighting among the candidates and naked revulsion for the Republican leaders in Congress, it was kind of in the background all night long. Even the media didn't get much scorn, which was odd for a Republican debate (Donald Trump did force Hugh Hewitt to admit that he'd called Trump the "best interview in America," which was kind of humiliating for Hewitt).
I did find the marijuana segment interesting, especially Jebbie admitting he smoked pot 40 years ago. But that's probably just my own personal bias (it seems that every time online voting happens on political issues, the marijuana enthusiasts overwhelm the voting -- go figure).
OK, speaking of recreational chemicals, that beer is calling me. In fact, it's shouting my name from inside the fridge ("Help! I'm locked in the refrigerator!"... if anyone remembers the album A Child's Garden Of Grass, that is...). The penultimate question was what the Secret Service should use as a code name for each candidate, should they win, which ranged from the bizarre (Christie: "Trueheart"; Kasich "Unit One"; Carson "One Nation") to the merely amusing (Fiorina: "Secretariat"; Walker: "Harley"; Cruz: "Cohiba"; Huckabee: "Duckhunter") to the downright hilarious (Trump: "Humble"). Bush got the best line off here, when he answered "Eveready -- because they're high energy, Mr. Trump."
So that's it for snap reactions. Who won? Who lost? At this point, I have no real idea. Trump didn't seem to do himself any damage, and nobody else on the stage seemed to damage him much either. Christie got much more time than he deserved, but I doubt it's going to do him much good with the voters. There were several interchanges between two candidates, but I have no idea which of these will get picked for the endless loops in all the recaps on the news. Bush tried mightily to fight back against his sinking image and sinking poll numbers, but I really didn't see any breakout moment from him. Fiorina will likely get another small bump in the polls, as she was clearly one of the best at quickly reacting in the moment. Walker seemed as bland and non-committal as ever. Ben Carson seemed adrift at times, but then he always does. Cruz got shorted for time, as did Rubio and Huckabee -- and none of them ever really had a breakout moment. Rand Paul did his Rand Paul thing, and only really got animated on the marijuana question.
So I guess I'd call it a Trump win, with Carly Fiorina getting the runner-up prize. Nobody really fell flat on their face, so I don't really have any idea who "lost" the debate, unless you want to count the five that didn't even make it on the main stage. But then again, nobody really stood out as a huge winner tonight, either.
Whew! Done! I thank all that's holy the Republican Party has limited these things to once a month, because I would certainly stop paying so much attention if they were spaced any closer together. So I'm off to read what everyone else thought about tonight, and I am definitely off to crack that beer. I think I've earned it, personally. Five-and-a-quarter hours of full Republican immersion makes me not only want to chug a beer, but also to take a long shower. Until next time, that's what I thought -- please share your own reactions in the comments.
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