By Hastings Wyman –
Last week’s second presidential debate revealed a transformed frontrunner. Admittedly, Donald Trump could still throw out a gratuitous insult. And his braggadocio hasn’t disappeared. He did, however, exhibit a quality not previously associated with the brash real estate mogul: He listened.
Despite belittling Rand Paul in his early remarks, Trump looked and listened intently later when Paul expressed his outside-the-box views on marijuana and the incarceration of non-violent offenders, many on drug-related charges.
Later, when he spoke of his co-candidates as an impressive group of people, it was as if the new Trump realized he was not the only elephant in the room. Other folks, with other backgrounds and expertise, might not be better suited for the top job than Trump himself, but they did have something to offer the nation. That realization, if this perception is correct, brings Trump closer in line to being a leader, not an entertainer.
The post-debate polls have not yet come out, so whether this new, improved Trump was as successful as the old Trump in winning support among Republican voters remains to be seen. But at a minimum, it allows many folks who are more intimidated than impressed by his bombastic persona – not face, persona – the opportunity to imagine him in the White House, if not successfully, well at least not disastrously.
In addition to Trump, there were ten other candidates on the stage.
Marco Rubio was articulate and knew his stuff. He brings some JFK-style good looks to the party, and that’s not going to hurt him. We’d guess he’s many folks choice for the veep slot, but he may well go all the way to the presidential nomination. He’s that good.
John Kasich did a good job of listing his accomplishments and showed he’s one of the adults in the room. This year’s Republican audience, however, wants red meat, and that’s not Kasich’s style.
The same was true of Jeb Bush. He did have more energy and did respond forcefully to Trump. He also spoke articulately about foreign policy. But he needs an A+ and scored only a B+. Incidentally, while his comments about Trump’s reference to Bush’s Mexican-born wife appeared genuine, Columba Bush has been touted by the Bush camp as his not-so-secret weapon in winning Latino votes. You can’t run with the hares and hunt with the hounds.
Carly Fiorina got high marks across the board for her skilled performance, and deserved accolades for bringing a woman’s deft touch to the stage, more than holding her own in the process. She spoke forcefully about issues, such as defunding Planned Parenthood. But she speaks too often in abstractions, such as “leadership,” and did not sound like
someone who knows how to be president. This oft-repeated, “On day one, I will … “ is a nice rhetorical device, but is more simplistic than realistic. She needs more substance and less dazzle. She’s smart and may yet get it.
Rand Paul’s iconoclastic position that states should decide their on marijuana laws, including legalizing recreational use of cannabis, may have fallen flat on some GOP ears, but it could help him with the college student vote, which he is already organizing, much like his father did before him. Plus he made a good case for his essentially isolationist views on foreign policy.
Chris Christie performed well, but he didn’t break out of the pack. Mike Huckabee was genial, polished and knowledgeable. His religiosity might help him in Iowa, but this go-round it’s not at the top of list of the GOP bases’s requirements for the White House. Ted Cruz showed his debate skills, but with a shrillness that didn’t always come off well. Scott Walker defended his record against Trump’s attack very well, but here again, he has not managed to move into the realm of the top contenders. And soft-spoken Ben Carson performed as he always does, which has served him well. He did especially well on an issue not in his comfort zone, i.e., raising the minimum wage. He suggested a lower minimum wage for young people entering the workforce, with a higher minimum wage for older folks more likely to be supporting a family.
In the earlier “cocktail hour” debate, Lindsey Graham took it hands down. He presented a strong and rational case for his hawkish views. He responded to all questions knowledgeably and with ease, sounding well-informed and never as if he were reading from a script. He used humor effectively. His limitation, as in the first debate, is that even if he is right in his analysis of ISIL and the US role in the Middle East, putting more US troops in harm’s way is simply not a popular policy right now, even among the usually hawkish rightwing Republicans. Stay tuned.