The first GOP presidential debates did something remarkable: They whetted America’s appetite for even more entertaining and somewhat informative appearances by the candidates.
Don’t worry on that count. Republican Party leaders have scheduled about a dozen additional debates. The next one is scheduled Sept. 16 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, certainly a shrine for many of the candidates who name-dropped the 40th American president.
The Fox News moderators had done their homework. Instead of being lapdogs for GOP positions on issues, they generally lobbed tough questions, especially when the top 10 candidates squared off in prime time. One highlight was Megyn Kelly’s challenge to Donald Trump for his often-offensive comments about women. Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Chris Christie also had to respond to somewhat brutal assessments of their records.
The conceit of nudging candidates to engage with one another worked several times to spark frank exchanges, led by the barbs between Christie and Rand Paul on national security.
The debate likely changed few minds on who are the frontrunners for the GOP nomination. Trump’s appeal to disaffected Americans was on full display, though his tell-it-like-I-see-it posture (“We don’t win anymore”) quickly got tiresome. The more thoughtful qualities of John Kasich, Marco Rubio and Bush came across, helping their causes, though Bush continues to fumble whenever asked to address foreign policy.
But Ted Cruz did nothing to break out of the pack or engender confidence in his ability to govern. Paul mostly got lost in the shuffle. Walker fumbled for answers on why his job creation tactics had not worked as well as advertised (shades of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback). And good luck to Mike Huckabee being taken seriously after that suggestion to “tax the pimps and prostitutes.”
Meanwhile, Carly Fiorina was the clear “winner” of the early debate, calmly and directly making her points about America’s future while outshining more experienced politicians such as Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Lindsey Graham.
Ultimately, many Republican voters watching at home were probably pleased to see their party has a big stable of candidates running for president, ranging from the well-qualified to the outclassed. Hello — and soon goodbye — Ben Carson, George Pataki, Bobby Jindal and Jim Gilmore.
But the debates had their pitfalls, too. The biggest was the lack of probing questions and substantial answers on the economy and jobs.
Bush pledged 4 percent annual economic growth, yet put forth little information on how to accomplish that. Cruz, Trump and others blasted the villains of the moment — illegal immigrants — while ignoring the fact that this relatively small number of people are hardly snatching good-paying jobs out of the hands of Americans.
Even as Sunday’s anniversary of the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Mo., drew near, the candidates — with the exception of a soft-spoken but deflective Carson — were not adequately challenged to explain how their leadership could improve race relations in this country.
The Republicans’ hatred for Obamacare, Medicaid expansion and Planned Parenthood came through loudly and clearly, though they offered few realistic plans, for instance, on how to deliver better health care. One exception was Kasich, who nailed the conservative case for expansion of Medicaid eligibility and made a brave, eloquent statement in defense of gay marriage.
Finally, during extensive questioning on foreign affairs, too many candidates — led by Graham — seemed overly eager to send more young American men and women onto the battlefield to die for causes wrapped in the argument that military force, not diplomacy, can resolve modern ideological differences.
The economy and other significant issues will deserve much more attention in Round Two of the Republican debates next month. Don’t forget the popcorn.