Washington Week

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The GOP Debate: 5 Things We Warned You About

Last week, I advised what to watch for in the second Republican debate, so I felt duty-bound to sit through all three hours of it -- if only to see if I steered you right.

Herewith are my findings.

  1. Out-Trumping Trump: One did not have to be a brain surgeon (looking at you, Ben Carson) to know that these candidates came to play, i.e. take the frontrunner down. My money was on Fiorina, and she did not disappoint, but she was hardly alone. 
    CNN helped by framing most of the questions -- including in the earlier also-ran debate -- in "Trumpian" terms. Rand Paul, Scott Walker and Jeb Bush leaped at the chance, while Carson shied away, even when handed a gold-plated opportunity to swat Trump down on the medical necessity of vaccinations.
  2. Holding enemies close. Ted Cruz did it again, praising Trump and refusing to criticize him, even on things they disagreed about. Trump tried to do it too. He started off the night by saying he would not be "braggadocious." But that fell apart almost immediately -- in part because he refused to apologize to Columba Bush for criticizing her spoken English, and in part because his idea of an apology to Carly Fiorina was to call her a beautiful woman. She was clearly unimpressed.
  3. Does policy matter? Actually, once you took your eyes off the dramas revolving around Donald Trump, there was quite a bit of policy debate. Trump defended the anti-vaccination activists, garnering only mild pushback from one of two physicians on the stage. Christie, Walker and Fiorina weighed in on foreign policy (but not on the European migrant crisis). And Carson and Bush talked the economy and taxes. As debates go, this was fairly substantive.
  4. Can anyone not on the main stage break through? Her performance in the first undercard debate catapulted Fiorina from second tier status onto the main stage this time. Lindsey Graham -- with his tart wit and hawkish tendencies -- broke through this time. But it's unclear if there’s any room left at the big table.
  5. Can anything the Republicans do or say help Hillary Clinton? Why, yes -- especially if they are so busy taking each other down that they overlook her almost entirely. There were the predictable digs about Benghazi, and Fiorina did manage to call her a liar. But it is an inescapable fact that none of them will ever get to a debate stage with the Democratic nominee until they survive the primary slugfests intact. Clinton celebrated by making fun of Trump on "The Tonight Show."

Here's the necessary caveat. What happens in the room at a debate might, in the end, bear little resemblance to what happens out in election land. But to the extent that it affects the free media any candidate is able to get, it was a good night for Fiorina, a middling one for Trump and an uncertain one for almost everyone else.