Professor Rick Vatz says Kasich and Rubio excelled; Trump was Trump and had a good night; Cruz was brilliant but insulting; Christie was strong; and Rand Paul thankfully is gone.
Thursday night's Republican debate was preceded and clouded by as many or more distractions than any other presidential debate in memory.
Two American vessels were commandeered by Iran, and U.S. Navy sailors were held at Farsi Island, humiliated and forced to articulate a "confession," reminiscent of active Cold War enemies, rather than countries headed toward a detente.
Secretary of State John Kerry thanked Iran and celebrated the fact that "we can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago." Republicans saw no reason to celebrate the embarrassment to the United States.
In her response to the State of the Union address by President Obama, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley created controversy by criticizing "the siren call of the angriest voices," admittedly referring to Donald Trump but then backing off the day of the debate.
This Republican debate has already ruffled the feathers of Rand Paul, who may be right in his anger at not being on the main card in said debate, that even though he is wrong on just about everything else. He also shockingly gave the middle finger to the media on ABC Radio, showing his profane, unprofessional and juvenile disgust at his exclusion. Issue: A, temperament, F-.
That left the debate membership to Donald Trump; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio; Ben Carson; Gov. Chris Christie; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Too much time on distractions
The distractions received too much time, and the debate between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz over whether questions about his eligibility went way too long, although it was a legitimate issue to bring up and about which to have an exchange.
Donald Trump was Trump throughout, including reemphasizing his support of his policy of preventing Muslim immigration into the United States. He was asked if he would reconsider, and his iteration of the unambiguous "no" reflects his strength as a candidate and his weakness as a potential president.
He is unapologetic and oversimplified. His citing of China's culpability on North Korea and their alleged duplicity on trade makes him look like he is the only one who knows about the subtle meretricious behaviors of Beijing.
Ben Carson, a wonderful man, as always, demonstrated his decency and likeability, but he was completely inarticulate on foreign policy. He was on the mark in bringing up the disproportionate effect of regulatory rises in product cost on the middle class and poor.
Marco Rubio was as eloquent as ever about the destructive passivity of President Obama and about the centrality of the Second Amendment. He was specific about how to deal with perpetrators of violence in America. His defining of ISIS vis a vis the president's underestimating of them was clear and convincing.
His attack on Ted Cruz's Value Added Tax, defended by Cruz, elicited a great substantive clash that appeared to be a draw, until Christie argued that both ignored the critical issue of entitlements. His articulation and command of the issues dominated the debate.
John Kasich was mostly excellent, wisely dropping his previous attacks on Donald Trump and showing himself as the only candidate concerned about jobs and economically raising the tides for all ships. He brought up late Sen. Strom Thurmond, though, which may have helped him with a South Carolina audience, but whose mention should and will put off everyone who wants racial equality and fairness.
Jeb Bush warned about taking political ads too seriously, days after his overly hostile ads against Rubio are becoming legion. On the other hand, his general understanding of issues was impressive, if coming too late in the game to boost him.
Chris Christie's strength was arguing the necessity of having a governor who makes executive decisions. His criticism of the president's State of the Union's naiveté about the state of the world was compelling. He brought up of the president's hostility to police and sanctuary cities, but to not even acknowledge claims by African Americans that there have been significant irresponsible actions by a relatively few police officers makes him vulnerable to a perception of tunnel vision. His closing remarks as "a fighter" were telling.
Ted Cruz is always the same: brilliant, tough, unyielding and hard—and insulting. He is gaining strength, but his inflexibility and rigidity will not win a national election. Rubio's litany of flip-flops of Cruz was devastating, culminating in his anti-defense positions, eliciting a claim by Cruz that he wants to build up the defense of the U.S.
Cruz was destroyed when after taking a shot at New York, Trump brought up 9/11 and won a rousing cheer from the audience, as Cruz nodded and applauded Trump in his (Cruz's) momentary defeat.
Fox Business News moderators Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto were clear, fair, non-judgmental and unobtrusive, save for Cavuto's bickering with Trump.
Trump was lovable to all those who like him, and this point is important: Trump is never anger-ugly. It was a good night for him.
Professor Vatz teaches political persuasion at Towson University.