Conservative pundits spurn Kasich’s strong performance

John Kasich in New Hampshire earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.
John Kasich in New Hampshire earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate was a useful reminder — as if I needed one — that these events are not being staged for my benefit.

Late in the proceedings, John Kasich put the finishing touches on what I thought was a strong performance by name-checking the conservative Catholic theologian Michael Novak in arguing that the free-enterprise system needs to be “underlaid with values.” No, I haven’t read Novak, but I was intrigued. Earlier, Kasich had what I thought was an effective exchange with Donald Trump over immigration. (The Washington Post has published a transcript here.)

To check in with the conservative media today, though, is to learn that some on the right think Kasich all but disqualified himself.

“Kasich espoused positions that can charitably be called compassionate conservatism, less kindly mini-liberalism of the sort that he says he practiced so successfully in Ohio when ‘people need help,’” writes the economist Irwin M. Stelzer at The Weekly Standard. Adds Paul Mirengoff of Powerline: “John Kasich annoyingly kept demanding speaking time. He used some of it to remind everyone that he’s the least conservative candidate in the field.”

A neutral analyst, Boston Globe political reporter James Pindell, thinks Chris Christie’s strong showing in the unwatched (by me, anyway) undercard makes him a good bet to replace Kasich in future debates. Kasich, Pindell notes, “backed increasing the minimum wage, bailing out big banks, and allowing 11 million illegal immigrants to stay in the country. It is hard to see how many Republicans will go along with the sentiment.”

Clearly Kasich — a top lieutenant in Newt Gingrich’s conservative revolution of the mid-1990s — has been recast as a hopeless RINO. And the notion that he might be the most appealing candidate the Republicans could put up against Hillary Clinton is apparently not nearly as interesting to conservative stalwarts as his heterodox views, summarized by the PBS NewsHour.

As the debate opened, all eyes were on the moderators. Would they manage to avoid the anti-media controversies that befell the CNBC panelists a couple of weeks ago while still managing to maintain a firm hand? My answer is that they partially succeeded. They avoided the snarky, disrespectful tone of the CNBC debate, and the candidates responded with a substantive discussion of the issues.

But on several occasions the panelists were just too soft. One example was Neil Cavuto’s exchange with Ben Carson in which he tried to press Carson on questions that have been raised about his truthfulness. Carson didn’t really answer, and before you knew it he was off and running about Benghazi.

Cavuto’s follow-up: “Thank you, Dr. Carson.”

Then there was the rather amazing question Maria Bartiromo asked Rubio toward the end of the debate, which I thought was well described by Max Fisher of Vox:

https://twitter.com/Max_Fisher/status/664292269554438144

Who won? After each of these encounters, the pundits keep telling us that Rubio is on the move. And yes, the Florida senator has risen in the polls, though he’s still well behind Trump (who informed us that he and Vladimir Putin are “stablemates”) and Carson.

But Rubio’s over-rehearsed demeanor may not wear well. I thought his weakest moment on Tuesday came when Rand Paul challenged him on military spending. The audience liked Rubio’s militaristic response. Paul, though, appeared to be at ease as he offered facts and figures, while Rubio just seemed to be sputtering talking points.

As for Jeb Bush, well, the consensus is that he did better than he had previously, but not enough to make a difference. “He may have stopped the free fall,” writes Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post’s conservative blogger, “but he was outshone once again by competitors.” The questions about Bush’s continued viabililty will continue.

Carly Fiorina turned in another in a series of strong performances. But they don’t seem to be helping her much in the polls, and there was nothing that happened Tuesday night to make me think that’s going to change.

John Dickerson of Slate, who is also the host of CBS News’ Face the Nation, seems to believe the race will ultimately come down to Rubio’s mainstream conservatism and the much-harder-edged version offered by Ted Cruz, who once again showed he’s a skilled debater.

If that’s the case, let’s get on with it. Tuesday night’s event featured eight candidates — a bit more manageable than the previous three debates, but still too large to sustain a coherent line of thought. (What was that about Michael Novak again, Governor Kasich?)

For that to happen, though, Trump and Carson are going to have to fade. And despite months of predictions (including some by me) that their support would collapse, they remain at the top of the heap. As long as that’s the case, Rubio versus Cruz means precisely nothing.

“The Democrats are laughing,” Cruz said at one point in response to a question about immigration. In fact, the Republicans have given their rivals plenty of comedic material during in 2015. The question is whether that will change in 2016 — or if Hillary Clinton will be laughing all the way to Election Day.

Live-blogging tonight’s Republican presidential debate

CTfk7dvXIAASug4.jpg-large

11:19. Well, I thought Kasich won by a lot, though if past performance is any guide, Republican viewers will disagree. Rubio was OK but over-rehearsed. Bush did little to help himself. Trump was pretty good — and a lot better than Carson. And that’s a wrap.

11:11. OK. Closing statements.

11:07. I’ve zoned out.

11:02. So what’s going on? “That was fun. Let’s have a third hour”?

11:00. Maria Bartiromo tosses a softball: How can any of you match up with Clinton’s experience?

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 11.03.33 PM

10:55. What do you mean “More questions coming up”? We’ve only got five minutes to go, and we’re heading into a commercial.

10:54. You get in an argument with Cruz, you look good. So Kasich looks good. Fiorina: Socialism!

10:50. You know, I would have liked to hear five or six minutes from Kasich on the notion of ethics and values on Wall Street. He cites the Catholic theologian Michael Novak, who’s written a book called “The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Might be the most important thing anyone has said all night, and it’s said in passing, with the debate clock ticking.

10:45. Dodd-Frank blah blah blah price of soap this is an outrage. Bleah!

10:42. Rather than talking about ordinary people, Bush talks about his deep empathy for bankers. Community bankers rather than mega-bankers. But bankers.

10:40. You know who else has disappeared? Carson.

10:37. Kasich finally gets to talk, and he’s rambling, trying to hit every foreign-policy point that’s been brought up in the last 20 minutes. Worst answer I’ve heard from him. Make one coherent argument that viewers might remember.

10:34. Opposing views.

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 10.33.37 PM

10:32. Paul: If we enforce a no-fly zone, we’re going to shoot down Russian planes, and you’ll be sending our sons and daughters to the Middle East. Reminds everyone that he opposed the war in Iraq. Trump gets booed when he criticizes Fiorina for interrupting Paul. Rubio calls Putin “a gangster.”

10:28. Fiorina knows them all.

10:27. Trump is asked if he’ll stand up to Putin. His answer, essentially, is that he and Putin are buddies, and that Russia is useful in the war against ISIS. Bush jumps on him. Trump comes back with a semi-coherent response about not wanting to help Syrian rebels when we don’t know who they are.

10:16. The Bush Campaign Death Watch is only going to become more intense after tonight. If he were otherwise a good candidate, it would be one thing. But he’s been less than compelling on the stump, he doesn’t have a particularly compelling story to tell about his years as governor of Florida, and the Bush brand is pretty badly tarnished.

If Republican voters decide to go with one of the extremists, Bush gets frozen out. If they go with a mainstream conservative, Kasich and Rubio seem like far better bets at this point. It is very difficult to see how Bush can get back into the race.

10:08. Every answer that comes out of Rubio’s mouth sounds totally rehearsed. Rand Paul — remember him? — scores some points by going after Rubio’s tax plan and sounding like he can actually think on his feet. Paul: “Can you be conservative and be liberal on military spending?” Now Cruz jumps in to talk about sugar subsidies, of all things. Fiorina is talking about zero-based budgeting and a three-page tax code (definitely shorter than the Bible).

Bush has disappeared.

10:01. Did Clinton really say we’re going to have to live with 2 percent annual growth, as Bush just claimed?

9:57. Cruz: “There are more words in the federal tax code than there are in the Bible.” A very telling point because — uh — what?

9:56. This popcorn is good.

9:55. Purely from a performance point of view, Fiorina is turning in yet another strong debate performance. Yet despite predictions by analysts that she will start to move up in the polls, she’s stuck within the ranks of the also-rans.

I think the reason is that Fiorina has made a conscious decision to compete for the large share of the Republican electorate that wants and expects to be lied to — the abortion video she’s seen that doesn’t exist, her alternative history of her time at the top of Hewlett-Packard, her demagoguing on the Affordable Care Act. The problem with that strategy is that the free market (as she might put it) has decided, and they’re going with Trump and Carson.

9:46. Fiorina makes a brazen pitch for all those Scott Walker supporters out there.

9:42. “If Republicans join the Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose,” says Ted Cruz before making some truly tortured analogies about bankers and journalists. “We’re tired of being told we’re anti-immigrant. It’s offensive.” Of course, it’s also true.

9:38. Kasich and Trump both looked good on the exchange on immigration. Trump was a little more controlled than he usually is, but Kasich nevertheless exposed him as a charlatan (as he’s done before). Bush makes a point that’s both reasonable and instantly forgettable.

9:34. Trump likes Ike.

9:33. Neil Cavuto hits Carson with the first tough question of the night — his trustworthiness regarding his life story. “What I do have a problem with is being lied about,” Carson says. And then, without answering any of the questions about him, he goes after Hillary Clinton for lying about coming under attack in the former Yugoslavia. (As if that wasn’t a huge story in 2008.) “People who know me know I’m an honest person.” Cavuto: “Thank you, Dr. Carson.”

So the panelists are handling themselves with considerably more dignity than the CNBC folks did a couple of weeks ago. But “Thank you, Dr. Carson” is not an adequate follow-up. There has to be a midpoint between the snark and disrespect shown by the CNBC panelists and the failure to press the issue that Cavuto just showed.

9:28. This shingles commercial is disgusting.

9:27. If you’re just checking in, welcome to our steam-powered vintage live blog. If you’re not accustomed to old media, remember that you need to hit refresh every so often to see new content.

9:22. OK, let’s find this mother Carly Fiorina claims she talked with. There’s a pattern here.

9:21. Let’s repeal all of Barack Obama’s rules, Bush says. Among other things, he would repeal net neutrality. And he casts regulation as contributing to poverty and lack of opportunity.

9:18. Bush is whining.

9:16. John Kasich has a shambling, friendly-uncle style that I find appealing. He’s very conservative, but he comes across as less ideological and less hard-edged than some of the other candidates, as well as less prepped than Rubio. I’ve thought for some time that he would be the Republicans’ best bet in a general election. But in the current environment, he’s been cast as a hopeless RINO.

9:12. Nativist Trump opens by saying we can’t have higher wages if we want to compete with other countries. Wonder how that will play with his America First supporters. Carson says a higher minimum wage would hurt African-Americans trying to enter the job market. Marco Rubio says a higher minimum wage “would make people more expensive than a machine.”

“Welders make more money than philosophers,” Rubio says. “We need more welders and less philosophers.” Thus combining populism and anti-intellectualism, which are kissing cousins in any case.

8:58. Stephen Hayes says the most pressure is on Jeb Bush and Donald Trump. My suspicion is that the pundits are poised to say two hours from now that Bush had a good night — as long as he gives them something to hang their hats on.

8:47. What I’ll be looking for tonight: Can the Fox Business Channel rise above the very low bar set by CNBC? Will Ben Carson hold up under what is likely to be a heavy barrage over his tales of dubious truthfulness (West Point, Yale, the belt buckle) and just plain dubiousness (Muslims, the Holocaust, pyramids)? If Carson crumples, can Donald Trump reassert his dominance? Can Jeb Bush get back into the race?

***

I’ll be live-blogging tonight’s Republican presidential debate on the Fox Business Channel. Why? I’m finding that live-tweeting is more and more dissatisfying, as it becomes a contest to see who can be the most clever and snarky and thus generate the most traffic.

Besides, I’ll be writing something up for WGBHNews.org tomorrow morning, and it seems to me that blogging is more likely than tweeting to yield useful notes. So tune in here at 9. And feel free to weigh in with your comments — using your real name, of course.