2016 Republicans, Debates

Debate Recap: Carly Won. Now What? (Part One)

September 17, 2015

Last month, Carly Fiorina participated in the undercard and clearly won.  This time she was in a bigger, tougher format with more obstacles and did even better.  Opinions on her ability to run a large technology company are divided, but even Donald Trump would concede she’s a hell of a debater.

So she won.  Her poll numbers will rise, her fundraising will pick up tremendously.  Other a couple/few other candidates will lose the support Carly gains.  You didn’t need me to explain that.  The question is what other sort-of-substantiated conclusions we can reach.  Here they are:

Carly is now the establishment front-runner.  Remember the definition from a few days ago.  It’s not the poll numbers, it’s what will happen if things stay on the current course without any major shifts.  Those changes will happen, but until they do, we care about who is best positioned.

The establishment is an absurdly loose term that is applied differently by each of us who use it.  Some think in terms of elected officials.  Others concentrate on the donor class.  Maybe influential journalists and pundits.  Perhaps big business and Wall Street.  I would even argue several conservative talk show hosts count.  To others it just means moderate and mainstream conservative voters.

Guess what? Whoever you think counts or qualifies, they woke up this morning feeling pretty ok about Carly Fiorina.  She doesn’t have the nomination sewn up yet.  For anyone who hasn’t done this before (and I mean run for president, not win elective office), you only know they can complete the course when they have, something she pointed out herself yesterday.  Still, if you asked the above listed individuals or groups today if they would rather take their chances with Carly or whomever winds up getting nominated, I’d bet the majority would take her.

Besides making the “serious” folks all warm and fuzzy, she avoided saying things that would make her persona non grata to Tea Party voters, evangelicals (some of whom qualify as establishment now), anyone other than the most hard-core Trumpists, those who would definitely vote for him as a third-party candidate.

If you mentally rewind the debate (no need to actually review the video, 3+ hours was enough), you’ll notice Fiorina dove in when she could give an answer where most Republicans are on the same page.  Things like Planned Parenthood is evil, we need an updated Navy, people keep talking about immigration but don’t do anything, etc., gave her an opportunity to let others frame the response before delivering a better, crisper, stronger version.

If the subject would require an answer that half of Republicans would disagree with, whether nominating and confirming John Roberts was a mistake, she stayed out.  How could a single candidate in an eleven-person event do this?  Carly, as a grouchy Chris Christie pointed out, was a champion interrupter.  This is very difficult.  She got more air time than anyone besides The Donald and his jousting sidekick Jeb, but was less offensive than several others who were grasping for attention.

Because she volunteered so often, beyond a couple obvious Trump-related queries, few questions were directly asked to her, leaving participation up to Fiorina.  If you combine her effort in the first debate, the push to get included in the main part of the second, and her performance in said event, this is the best use of pre-primary scrum debating in American history.  Not particularly close either.

Besides pulling herself up from a rounding error in national polls to the 15-20% you’ll see by next week, there’s a foundation.  This wasn’t Newt Gingrich using the moderator as a foil or Hillary Clinton leveraging a dismissive Barack Obama into a New Hampshire win.  While Carly won’t be able to pick her spots this easily when she’s closer to center stage, her other techniques are very repeatable, just hard for others to master.  She doesn’t rely on others making mistakes, but when they do, she capitalizes.

Best of all, she’s created the narrative that she has the experience, tenacity and judgment to fix the mess, but is in no way responsible for the creation of it.  Pretty good trick if you can pull it off and there’s nothing technically incorrect about the claim.  Trump and Carson do not have the same type of executive experience (more on that later), and the others all have political records where they more than once did something that each voter could find fault with.

It will take a little longer for many to believe this is all for real.  Even someone as young as Marco Rubio was already a GOP rock star in 2010, while Fiorina was busy having Barbara Boxer beat her brains in.  It’s like an ugly caterpillar went into a cocoon for five years and came out as a beautiful beyond recognition butterfly (hey, even Trump saw her appearance differently yesterday).

It’s happened before and will happen again.  When it does it’s for real.  One day people saw washed-up actor Ronald Reagan.  Not long after, the Great Communicator was born.  In 2000, University of Chicago law professor Barack Obama lost a primary election for a Congressional seat by over 20 points.

Sometime between then and his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address, he found his voice.  The rest is history.  FDR sounded one way as the vice presidential nominee on a badly losing ticket in 1920.  Then he contracted polio.  The guy who ran for governor in New York in 1928, is the one books are written about.  When the switch is flipped, the lights go on.

Carly is not as charismatic as Reagan, Obama and FDR, but who is?  However, she’s a damn good candidate, and as you’ll see below, others will need to adapt or flee accordingly.

Bye Bye Bobby.  A couple days ago, Bobby Jindal had an opening, a chance to move over to the establishment bracket, bringing with him true conservative credentials, and as he managed to point out several times yesterday, a record of legit budget cutting.  Even with the new construction of Carly’s World, there was space for Jindal.  He can show his application of conservative principles to governance, she can’t.

Instead, he doubled-down on angry, insurgent, burn the Capitol Bobby.  Bad, lethal move.  In a world where Ted Cruz both exists and can say similar things with way more finesse, aplomb and specificity, this is a losing battle.  If you’re going to taunt the Trump, move yourself where the voters who most hate him reside.  If you’re going to rail endlessly against government, perhaps you shouldn’t have spent your whole adult life inside it.

Many thought he did fairly well yesterday, and some strong conservatives were heartened, but it’s a dead end.  Since his poll numbers were so feeble, nobody will realize there was ever an opportunity to squander.

Sayonara Scott.  Yesterday, Scott Walker officially won the Tim Pawlenty Award for promising on paper governor who proved beyond a reasonable doubt he’s not presidential material.  Most candidates referenced Ronald Reagan more times than advisable.  Walker was likely the champion here too.  It was an especially bad contrast as mentioning the Gipper reminds the audience of the presence gap between candidate and icon.  While more energetic and forceful than last time, he said few things beyond solid generic GOP talking points.  He wasn’t wrong, those lines are used for a reason.  They work and are usually accurate.

But you need to bring more to the table at this level.  In another year, with a thinner field, perhaps he improves and builds out his voice.  There’s no time for that now, and Fiorina has taken his place as the Goldilocks Republican.  She may stumble or fall, but if it happens, someone else will fill the void.  Walker is done.

Jeb is barely hanging on. Consensus is better than last time, as well as was reasonably expected, but not enough.  Consensus is correct.  His donors have a reason to hang on for a few minutes, though those already thinking about someone else didn’t hear anything to cause reconsideration.

He’s no worse at this or as a candidate in general than his dad, Bob Dole, or Mitt Romney.  Those three won 4 of the last 7 GOP nominations.  None won on their first try.  All lost general elections, with the only win 41’s Reagan-aided victory.  Though Trump still leads the polls and there are no positive Hall of Famers in the field, this won’t cut it.  Either his legacy baggage or lack of charisma and great delivery are survivable but not both.  Unless several others face-plant, Jeb is as finished as it looked before the debate.

Remember, while Fiorina is doing better in Iowa and New Hampshire than nationally, the reverse is true for Jeb.  Debate podium position is determined by national numbers.  The path to a nomination goes through the early voting states.

Rubio is Rubio is Rubio.  Any independent observers picking a non-Carly winner or thinking it was a tie chose Marco.  As always he did well, and while his poll bump might be modest and will likely fade soon, eventually some of the competition will drop out and he’ll get more room to fly.  When you think about Rubio being at the mercy of debate flow and moderators, Fiorina’s strategic acumen sticks out more.

He’s the best communicator.  Unlike Carly, he has a smile in his repertoire.  For those of us who like hearing a positive message, he can find the pure silver lining in any bank of clouds.  Unlike Walker, he sounds like Reagan almost as often as he mentions him.  Rubio just wasn’t as able to control the flow.

The same applies to the race itself.  Though he’s every bit her equal as a candidate, Fiorina now controls her own destiny while Rubio needs to wait for her to stumble or eventually try to take her out.  They are both sitting in the same bracket and even before yesterday, she led in both kickoff states.  These are two of the three strongest general election candidates the GOP has, and the other (John Kasich) has a harder sell with strong conservatives.

Watching how Fiorina and Rubio position against each other over the next few weeks is arguably the most important glimpse into the early 2016 future.

This concludes Part One.  More soon.

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