Experiencing the Fourth Republican Debate

It's hard to say who won tonight's Republican debate: with eight candidates on the main stage, what would that really mean? The chaos was better controlled – slightly – than with the original ten-person configuration we saw in August, but this evening you still could go a rather long time without hearing from a particular candidate. This necessarily gave the debate a somewhat disjointed feel, and made it hard for any single person to triumph.

This was the most substantive Republican debate so far. The questions were more focused, dealing mainly with taxes and the economy. The moderators asked for specifics. And the candidates called each other out, at least a few times, in reality-based ways: for example, Rand Paul noting that China was not part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, despite Donald Trump's insistence otherwise. There was the usual high quotient of craziness over deporting eleven million immigrants, repealing Obamacare, tithing-based tax systems, and other issues, but that craziness at least was explored more thoroughly than in previous debates.

Below are my two takeaways from tonight, each focusing on a pair of candidates:

1. Trump and Ben Carson did better than you think. Two moments in tonight's debate helped me realize why. At one point Trump was discussing foreign policy, and it occurred to me how perfectly pitched it was to the white working class – adjacent to the "Jacksonian" tradition in such matters, but with an emphasis on avoiding adventures abroad mainly because we need to take care of our own. As Trump put it, our country is "going to hell" – what are we doing "over there"? Why build bridges and roads abroad when our own are failing? This really is a restrained vision of America's role in the world (at least in the context of the contemporary Republican Party), but it's somewhat paradoxically based on nationalist sentiments. Unlike, say, Rand Paul, Trump's distaste for an interventionist foreign policy doesn't come from worries about blowback or concern for our exorbitant military budget; it comes from believing American lives shouldn't be lost to improve the lot of ungrateful foreigners. This, of course, connects to Trump's broader resentment-based appeal to working class Republicans. To the downtrodden, he says: You're being ripped off. And that applies to foreign policy, too. 

The second moment was Carson's closing statement. It was a downer, and a bit easy to dismiss. He mentioned statistics about how many people, over the course of the debate, would have died from drugs or had abortions, to take two examples. But shortly after he finished, it occurred to me that this was very well-calibrated to appeal to evangelicals. Or rather, less of a consultant-honed "appeal" than an instinctive affinity, a fluency with the concerns and language of conservative Christians. It's possible Carson has made too many missteps – from his dubious comments about pyramids to being something of a fabulist when it comes to his life story – to keep from sliding in the polls. I think it's more likely, though, that we all move on and Carson continues to receive substantial support.

In short, Trump and Carson connected with their core supporters in ways that are easy to miss. They don't sound like "normal politicians," which is to say they don't perform in debates the way many viewers (especially journalists) expect. Both have irresponsible plans and zany ideas when it comes to any number of issues. I doubt anyone will claim in the morning that either Trump or Carson won. But don't be surprised, a week or so from now (and beyond!), if they're still doing well in the polls.

2. The media probably will announce Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to have been the "winners" of the debate – but be skeptical of that. In many ways the media's verdict probably makes sense. Both Cruz and Rubio are usually poised and effective speakers who certainly have a greater stock of policy details at their disposal than Trump and Carson. 

I'm not sure how their performances tonight will play out, though. Cruz does not wear well. He is a shameless demagogue, but not a very good one: he doesn't quite pull it off. A few times tonight his applause lines fell noticeably flat. His policies genuinely are radical, from "sound money" to, well, basically everything else. Now maybe, as has been argued, Carson will falter and the evangelical "lane" will offer Cruz a plausible way forward. Given this cast of characters, almost anything seems possible. But I think Cruz is too hucksterish and too extreme to do much better than he's doing now. 

This brings us to Rubio, the frontrunner not yet out in front. I fully understand the case for Rubio. I get his appeal. He gave an enviable performance tonight, though I think he sounds more rehearsed – and thus less genuinely substantive – than his boosters admit. If I were to place my bet now, the conventional wisdom would be to place it on Rubio – and I would. But he didn't have to talk about immigration tonight, and he's not yet been the main focus of attacks. I retain an inchoate but lingering hesitation about his prospects.

In the morning, we'll hear much about Rubio and Cruz. It's November, though, and almost half of Republican primary voters seem to favor Trump and Carson. We should watch these debates with the aim of understanding why that is so, rather than simply waiting for the Republican electorate to catch up with the hopes of journalists. 

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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