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Presidential Debates: The Outsiders And Disruptors Are Still Winning (Forbes.com) September 17, 2015

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

Big surprise:  the Republican debate at the Reagan Library did not produce a clear winner, or even a single compelling narrative.  That’s not really the point when you put 11 candidates on a stage for three hours more than a year before the election.  But, since I watched for three hours so you would not have to, here are a few winners and important narratives for you to take away from this event.

(1)  Thanks to Donald Trump, immigration has become the “elephant” in the room. Trump claimed that, were he not in the race, the media and others would not be asking questions about border walls, birth citizenship, or deporting illegals, all of which were front and center at the Reagan Library.  On this issue, and perhaps others, Trump has connected with Richard Nixon’s old “silent majority.”  While the politicians on both sides talk about paths to citizenship or legal status, Trump says we should start by enforcing the laws on immigrations in all respects.  In today’s politically correct era, people have been afraid to say that, and Trump has spoken for them in ways that have changed the debate.  This one is not over yet.

(2)  A year away, this campaign is still dominated by the outsider and disruptor candidates, not by the politicians.   The big story on the Republican side is that the outsiders—Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina—are leading or, in Fiorina’s case, in the ascendancy.  The debate moderator pointed out that those three candidates in total have more than 50% support in the polls.  The problem is that debates are mostly questions about how a candidate would govern, not disrupt, so that makes for an awkward, uneven stage.  Trump, for example, was forced to admit when some of his answers to questions on international affairs were a little thin, that he is not a sitting senator and will know a lot more about that on Inauguration Day than he does today.  Trump, Fiorina and Carson wanted to talk more broadly about leadership, whereas the questions and comments by others were about specific policies.  These are strange times, but I still have to believe that the outsiders and disrupters will not be there at the end.

(3)  In one of the mini-races within the larger contest, Ohio governor John Kasich made some ground against the other moderate candidate, Jeb Bush.  While Bush continues to insist that he is a “conservative reformer,” as Donald Trump was quick to point out, Bush’s ideas of reform are big-government or liberal policies, such as Common Core in education or more welcoming policies toward illegal immigrants.  In personal style, Bush is plagued with some of his father’s so-called “wimp factor” with a dash of his brother’s smugness.  By contrast, Kasich was surprisingly clear, strong and positive and underscored his extensive federal and state leadership.  Kasich entered the race late and has a long way to go, but he made some ground against Bush on stage.

(4)  My winners in terms of debate performance were Marco Rubio, who was well-informed and articulate; John Kasich, the only one who seemed able to make governing experience sound favorable; Carly Fiorina, who continues to be strong and clear, acquitting herself well in her first appearance among the top tier candidates; and Donald Trump, who was in the center of the stage and everything else, made no real blunders and was himself, which is one reason voters like him.  Ben Carson is plenty smart, but is so soft-spoken that a debate with 11 strong people is not his strong-suit.

So-called great debates rarely turn out to be great and, with 11 people on stage, they are not even truly debates.  Some candidates, who are not as well funded, need a home run in the debates to get sufficient traction—it was difficult to see that candidates like Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Chris Christie or Scott Walker scored well enough to add much fuel to their tanks.

To view the column at Forbes.com:


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