If they’d known the 2016 Republican contest would end up this way – a monument to one billionaire’s ego – CNN and its GOP partners could have switched Wednesday’s presidential debate from the Reagan Library to a more appropriate venue: Hearst Castle, just up the California coast.
After all, William Randolph Hearst and Donald Trump have this much in common. Each ran for president (Hearst, as a Democrat, in 1904). Neither was a fan of those who habla español (Hearst cheerleading for the Spanish-American War). Both plutocrats would have you believe they cared about ordinary folks (Hearst’s slogan: “the people who work for a living”).
Hearst turned out to be a political flop. And Trump? It’ll take a few more GOP debates to see what fate has in store for the man who builds not castles but towers and resorts bearing his name.
Carly Fiorina had the good sense to handle the Trump face-slap with dignity – saying, in effect, that voters are smart enough to know what the man intended.
There were three threshold questions going into Wednesday night’s festivities:
1. Could the GOP’s troika of non-politicians – Trump, Dr. Ben Carson and business executive Carly Fiorina – show they’re more than a protest vote?
2. Could former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush put forward a passion and wit that his friends insist he possesses, but he seems loath to display?
3. Could Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a hot commodity earlier this summer, breath new life into a campaign that’s stalled in the early-primary states?
The answers to those questions:
1. Trump showed no growth – same old Donald; same vagaries about domestic and foreign policy. Carson spoke only when spoken to, a startling low-key alternative to other attention-starved debaters (maybe it’s part of Carson’s strategy that social media trumps television). We’ll get to Fiorina in a moment.
2. Bush showed improvement over his performance in the Cleveland Fox News debate (granted, a low bar to clear). Two moments to remember: when he stood up to Trump and stood up for his brother (“he kept us safe”); at the end of the debate, when he chose “Eveready” as his Secret Service name (“it’s very high energy, Donald”). That should quell his nervous financial base – for now.
3. Another rough night for Walker, already not popular in California GOP circles for bailing on the state party’s convention. Back to Wisconsin for the governor and figuring what to do in Iowa.
If we can call two occurrences a trend, then here’s a big problem with the GOP debates thus far. Instead of a level playing field for the candidates, imagine a radial spoke with Trump at the center of the scheme. For the non-Donalds, the close-up moments tend to be Trump-related – and in a bad way (Bush, for example, asked to respond to Trump’s comments about his wife’s Mexican heritage). Is this because what Trump has to say is all that compelling, or are the moderators trying to keep the big audiences from clicking their remotes?
And that leads us to Carly Fiorina, the star of the Reagan Library debate.
Five weeks ago, I wrote this column about the former Hewlett-Packard executive after her bravura performance at the first of the two debates in Cleveland. Her performance that night jump-started her campaign, bumped her poll numbers and (with the candidate’s persistent shaming of CNN) landed her a spot in prime time.
On Wednesday in Simi Valley, as in Cleveland, she aced it. No other GOP hopeful could match Fiorina’s depth and clear conciseness on defense strategy (missile defense, strengthen the 6th Fleet).
No one was tougher on Hillary Clinton (who else could get away with repeatedly calling her a liar?). Fiorina had the good sense to handle the Trump face-slap with dignity – saying, in effect, that voters are smart enough to know what the man intended (Trump’s feeble attempt to close out that segment by saying he thought she was attractive? Maybe his flattest moment of the night).
Bonus points for Fiorina: she was the only one of the bunch who didn’t pander to the question about a new face on the $10 bill, spinning it into a call for women to be recognized as equals, not an interest group.
Trump, in fact, had several flat moments – taking a swipe at Rand Paul’s hair; saying he didn’t mean to slur Columba Bush, then refusing to apologize to her in person. Most disturbing of all: the ideas cupboard is still lightly stocked.
Does this mean we’ve reached the end of Trump Fever? One doubts it. The GOP is headed for an uncomfortable stretch during which the party will be at odds with itself over government shutdowns, Planned Parenthood funding and fallout from the Iran deal. That’s fuel for the fire for an anti-politician like Trump (it might also give Texas Sen. Ted Cruz a needed boost).
Besides, Trump is good for ratings, which might be why CNN began the debate with an uncomfortable Donald-related question (as did Fox News in its debate). But CNN took matters a step further: clumping the candidates close together; keeping them on the stage for long stretches between bathroom breaks, preventing candidates from speaking for long stretches – all ways to elevate tension.
Maybe Trump isn’t going away anytime soon. But on Wednesday night, there were signs that the act’s beginning to wear thin.
And Carly Fiorina? On the debate stage, she wears it well.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also blogs daily on the 2016 election at www.adayattheracesblog.com. Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.