What to Look for in Tonight’s Debate

Candidates for the Republican presidential nomination gather again tonight for their second debate. But a lot has changed since the first Republican debate, so here’s a preview of what to look for.

Dr. Carson Will See You Now

Or more to the point, you will see him. Ben Carson got a little lost at the last debate, though a few responses he gave at the end left a big positive impression. Since then, he has surged to number two in the polls, on the verge of overtaking Donald Trump in at least one of them. He seems to be the preferred candidate for people who like their political outsiders with a lot less bluster and braggadocio. So while the first debate felt like it was all about Donald Trump, this debate is going to be a lot more focused on Carson.

The question is whether his mellower brand of outsider appeal can continue to capture the support of a Republican base that is clearly in the mood to disrupt the status quo. Carson launched his political career with a sharp dissection of President Obama in Obama’s presence at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. I’m not going to say he needs to bring more of that, because he’s doing just fine without my help. But we should look to see which side Carson chooses to emphasize now that he’s likely to get more air time and more attention.

Can Anyone Put Donald on the Defensive?

Trump’s signature style is the lack of apology (or shame, depending on how you look at it). His strategy is to always be on the offensive, always attacking, never apologizing, never admitting error or explaining himself. I guess I can see the appeal of this, when you consider how much time the Republican leadership in Congress spends on the defensive, apologizing for its existence.

But can Trump keep this up forever? I mean at some point the insults, the bluster, the blatant flip-flops (most recently on Syrian refugees) have got to catch up with him, right? This may just be an act of faith on my part, but at some point, I believe he’s going to end up on the defensive, and that will clash so violently with his whole strategy that it could create a lot of trouble for him.

That’s especially true now that he’s up against two other political outsiders with styles that could neutralize his own. Trump’s abrasiveness could look petty and vindictive next to Carson’s kindly-family-doctor demeanor. It could also backfire when launched against the flinty exterior of Carly Fiorina, one of the few candidates who can compete with him for a brash, tough, outspoken manner.

Can Carly Wrestle the Pig?

Last time, Carly Fiorina was the star of the “kids’ table” debate, for candidates who didn’t make the cut for prime time. That earned her a ticket to the main debate this time, so we’re waiting to see what she’s going to do with it.

This has been the summer of Trump: CNN, for example, has posted nearly 2,159 items on Trump in just the first three months of his candidacy, a level of exposure no other candidate can even dream about. In the last week, Fiorina has shown that the way to get media attention is to become part of Trump’s media story, but to do so in a way that makes you look good and him look bad.

Note that this ad is a direct response to Trump’s disparaging comments about Fiorina’s appearance, but it actually comes across as an attack on the Democrats for treating women as a “special interest” to be pandered to.

That’s the right approach. While she has to take into account the media environment, Fiorina has to avoid playing Trump’s game. As Heather Wilhelm warns, “When dealing with Donald Trump, after all, being ‘offended’ or ‘horrified’ or ‘disgusted’ about his latest ‘outrage’ is the worst thing you can do.” He eats it up, and to his fans, it only makes him look more like HE FIGHTS™ and doesn’t care what people think about him.

I’m very much on Fiorina’s side on this, and I don’t mind a little bit of “I am woman, hear me roar” in her response. Donald Trump is the sexist pig the feminists warned us about. But Fiorina needs to take into account the old adage about the downside of wrestling with a pig.

Will the Real Nominee Please Stand Up?

Outsider candidates are the only ones rising in the polls, but let’s face it: they are very unlikely to actually get the nomination or to become president. So while the three outsider candidates are likely to soak up a lot of attention tonight, it’s almost certain that the real contest will be which of the candidates with political experience manages to break out in tonight’s debate. We seem to be down to four options.

Scott Walker

I wrote last week that Walker needed to recapture the glory of his Wisconsin exploits by telling us what issue he was going to fight and win on in the national debate. Now he has and it is…the same issue: government employees’ unions, right-to-work laws, and the elimination of the National Labor Relations Board.

The problem is that this is too much like what he did in Wisconsin. Public employees’ unions are a central issue on the state level, where lavish pay and benefits is a major component of state budgets. But it’s more of a tangential issue on the federal level. It’s not something that will make a big dent in federal spending or the size of the federal government. The things that would make a difference—like entitlement reform—are the issues that would take the most courage for a presidential candidate. So I’m not sure this will be enough, especially with Trump promising that he’s going to fight everybody all the time on everything.

Ted Cruz

Cruz’s key strength is that he’s the thinking man’s radical—the anti-establishment candidate who can articulate his arguments with the aplomb of a Harvard-educated debate champion. That’s his superpower, and he has to show us that tonight. He has chosen not to take on Donald Trump directly, in the hope of winning back Trump’s supporters six months from now, but he has to differentiate himself. Trump has actually done Cruz a huge favor: the most far-out, wild-eyed radical in the Republican field now looks thoughtful and intellectual by comparison. He needs to capitalize on that.

Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio is the guy they would send you if you called up Central Casting and asked for a young, handsome, charismatic, up-and-coming presidential candidate. His problem is that he’s so well cast for the general election that he doesn’t hit the right notes for a contentious primary, where the voters are looking for someone more fiery and populist. He can’t out-radicalize the radicals or be more outrageous than the reality TV star. But he needs to stake out some ground on which he’s going to fight, and convince us he can do it effectively.

Rand Paul

Rand Paul’s most fiery moment in the last debate was a back-and-forth on surveillance and national security with Chris Christie. This is exactly what he needs to avoid right now, because voters have largely moved on from those issues. He needs to talk about the kind of issues Donald Trump has raised—immigration and trade—and give a spirited defense of his own libertarian answers to Trump’s protectionism. The optimistic libertarian strain of the Right is his brand, and he needs to remind us of that.

What Are You Doing Here?

There are three other candidates in tonight’s debate who have to convince us that they belong here: Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, and John Kasich. Christie is too moderate and his signature appeal is on issues that have been stolen by others (combativeness by Trump; union-busting by Walker). John Kasich is way too liberal for the base, but not a big enough juggernaut to impress the establishment. And I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone who thinks that Huckabee is in this for anything except to sell another book, or maybe as a hiatus between Fox News Channel shows.

These guys need to show us why they’re here and why they deserve to move up in the field, or else they’re going to have to start getting out of the way.

Nobody’s Going to Care About the Kids’ Table

Last time, the “kid’s table’ debate of those outside the top ten helped raise Carly Fiorina to the next level. That won’t happen this time, because this kids’ table features Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, and George Pataki, which means nobody is going to watch it. That’s a shame in one respect, because Jindal is a successful governor, a smart and highly accomplished guy, and someone who is potentially an interesting candidate. But he’s just gotten lost in the crowd so far, and I’m afraid tonight is not his big opportunity to change that.

Can Jeb Make Us Like Him?

Jeb Bush is actually in the most difficult position of all the candidates. On the one hand, the Trump surge might cause some to flee to the safety of a guy who is considered the leading establishment candidate. But the poll numbers don’t seem to show that. I think a lot of people realize that we need to counter Trump with another anti-establishment candidate—one who is ideologically coherent and has a real track record.

Bush is actually less of a compromiser than he gets credit for. I suspect he’s farther to the Right than his brother, who was farther to the Right than his father. He would probably be doing a lot better if his last name weren’t “Bush,” which is why his campaign uses the “Jeb!” logo. But so far, that exclamation point seems optimistic.

He can’t just count on us to run screaming away from Trump. He needs to give us a positive reason to like him, and tonight is his opportunity to do that.

As the Summer of Trump closes, the rise of a few other candidates, like Ben Carson, gives us the hope that this is a horse race again, where other candidates have the opportunity to break out and make the campaign a little more interesting. Let’s hope for our sake that they manage to do that tonight.

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