CNN commentators weigh in on winners and losers in CNN debate
Fiorina made strong showing, knocking Trump out of the spotlight
CNN Opinion asked a range of contributors for their take on the CNN debate of Republican presidential candidates. Who were the winners and losers? The opinions expressed in these commentaries are theirs.
Errol Louis: Candidates finally stop dancing to Trump’s tune
The Republican race for president just got a lot more serious.
At the second Republican presidential debate, there was minimal name-calling and personal insults by Donald Trump, and all of the candidates not named Donald Trump rushed into the void, taking advantage of an opportunity to make a good impression – succeeding more often than not.
The clearest winner of the debate was Carly Fiorina, who successfully challenged Trump – criticizing his wisecracks about her personal appearance and challenging his credentials as a global businessman by deftly ticking off hotspots around the world and suggesting ways she would tackle them.
But other candidates took turns at laying out specific plans and contrasting their ideas with those of their rivals. Sen. Rand Paul, a libertarian, took issue with Jeb Bush’s vow to crack down on recreational marijuana, and Chris Christie jumped into the conversation to warn about the dangers of marijuana use leading to abuse of harder drugs – a point underscored by Fiorina, who talked about the death of her stepdaughter, who was a drug user.
The big news in all of this was that the field of candidates weren’t dancing to Trump’s tune. Instead, they talked in a serious way about serious issues, and for considerable swaths of the debate it was possible to forget Trump was onstage at all: Marco Rubio and Christie went back and forth on climate change, and Ted Cruz debated Bush over the process and criteria for naming Supreme Court justices. Ben Carson argued for a two-tier minimum wage.
It remains true that a large percentage of the Republican voting base is disgusted by politicians and convinced that a brash straight-talker like Trump might fix this. But the debate served as a reminder that Trump’s 30% support also means that 70% of Republican voters are looking for a different candidate to support. The debate proved they have plenty of viable choices.
Winner: Carly Fiorina
David Gergen: Carly Fiorina’s night
To be taken half as seriously as a man, goes an old adage, a woman must be twice as good. Her male rivals ought to be taking Carly Fiorina a lot more seriously than that today because she was better – a lot better – than most of them in the CNN debate.
She came prepared with crisp, coherent responses to nearly every issue raised and delivered two of the best monologues of the night – one when she spoke movingly about burying a child lost to drug addiction, the other about empowering every woman to realize her aspirations. She also put down Donald Trump on his slur about her face; he lamely praised her looks when, instead, he should have apologized.
Trump seemed tight at the start, needlessly picking fights, but he got his bearings halfway through and finished upbeat. I doubt he will pay much of a price for his early bombast but he may well see Fiorina, more than Ben Carson, soon nipping at his heels.
A debate that seemed long did have one major virtue: it allowed other candidates far more openings to distinguish themselves. Marco Rubio and Chris Christie took the most advantage: both were much more effective than in the first debate. The race itself, like the debate, is likely to seesaw back and forth for many weeks to come.
David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been a White House adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Margaret Hoover: Advantage, Fiorina
Carly Fiorina won on style and substance. Unlike Marco Rubio, who dominated the few times he spoke, Fiorina made sure she had more than a few bites at the mic. Unlike Jeb Bush, who could only politely respond to Donald Trump’s insults, while still losing most of the exchanges, Fiorina proved to be the only candidate who could effectively push back on Trump and his substance-free assertions.
Her perfectly calibrated and classy response to his insult of her face was an instant classic destined to dominate debate highlight reels. Now Trump is calling Carly Fiorina a “wonderful person” and “beautiful.” That’s the Trump-English definition for “apology. ” That’s Fiorina-English for “a win.”
Fiorina handled the attacks on her business record deftly and then attacked Trump’s habit of hanging creditors out to dry in the wake of his bankruptcies. For a GOP generally in trouble with women, she’s the only candidate that could get away with calling the move to change the face on the $20 bill a pander. And she’s right. We should know our history and make new history – today – by considering Carly Fiorina the breakout top tier candidate of Round 2.
Winners: Fiorina, Rubio, Christie, Bush
Losers: Huckabee, Trump, Walker, Cruz
Margaret Hoover is the president of the right-leaning advocacy group American Unity Fund, and author of “American Individualism: How a New Generation of Conservatives Can Save the Republican Party.” She is the host of SiriusXM’s “Get It Right with Margaret Hoover.”
SE Cupp: Trump’s bizarre answers don’t hold up
Trump came out swinging – but ended up missing. Not only wasn’t he substantive – again – but he made some pretty bizarre statements. He thinks a flat tax is more complicated than a regressive tax. He said that vaccines cause autism. He wants Syria and ISIS to fight each other. He will get along with Putin. This stuff doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The question is whether any is ever applied to Trump.
Ben Carson also suffered some serious stumbles that will likely hurt him, namely the bizarre suggestion that a “bully pulpit” would have been a better response to 9/11 than fighting terrorists. Saying that Americans aren’t willing to perform agriculture jobs, that our Air Force isn’t “capable” and our Marines aren’t “ready,” is pretty irresponsible stuff.
I think Carly Fiorina, on the other hand, managed to beat already high expectations. She was sharp, quick on her feet and delivered more than one great applause line. Particularly effective was her emotional plea to defund Planned Parenthood. And she used every opportunity to get as granular and specific on policy as she could. I expect her poll numbers to rise.
Winners: Fiorina, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio.
Losers: Trump and Carson.
S.E. Cupp is the author of “Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity,” co-author of “Why You’re Wrong About the Right” and a columnist at the New York Daily News.
William Howell: Candidates dodge tough issues of class, race
No big themes, no clear sense of vision emerged from the three hours of jawing in tonight’s debate. Such are the downsides, I suppose, of putting 11 candidates on a stage and divvying up 1-minute slots for each candidate to make a mark.
So we saw flashes of Christie the populist, Fiorina the Trump slayer, Kasich the sunny multilateralist, Trump the bombast, Rand the constitutionalist, Carson the logician. But their claims didn’t add up to much that was especially comprehensible, certainly not memorable.
To be sure, there were moments – the best, perhaps, being Fiorina telling Trump that women across America know exactly what he meant when he insulted her looks. Rubio gave another strong performance, though it remains unclear whether he can capitalize on these performances on the campaign trail. Huckabee and Walker, by contrast, couldn’t seem to nudge the conversation much at all.
My wish for the next debate on October 28? We narrow down the list, dig a little deeper and force the candidates to say something serious about the confluence of urban challenges associated with class, race and drug enforcement that, just now, only Rand Paul seems willing to discuss.
Biggest winner: George W. Bush, long forgotten, who was invoked as the man who kept America safe – a claim that received the loudest applause of the night.
Biggest disappointment: Once again, no serious or sustained discussion of issues involving race, poverty, and violence in American cities. These were barely recognized last go around. They weren’t so much as mentioned tonight.
William Howell is the Sydney Stein professor in American politics at the University of Chicago.
Dan Pfeiffer: Biggest winner? The Democratic nominee
Carly Fiorina was the big winner tonight. She is the only candidate to date to take on Trump and come out a winner. She was polished, showed policy depth and has the outsider bio that is so in vogue this year. Fiorina now has more momentum than any Republican candidate not named Trump has had in this campaign.
Rubio was also very sharp tonight, but he seems unable to have the sorts of moments that get shared online and talked out around the dinner table, which is why he went down not up in the polls after a similarly solid performance in the last debate.
Jeb Bush was markedly better than the last debate (which is like being the tallest of the seven dwarves), but his most memorable moment was passionately defending his brother whose legacy is an albatross around his neck.
Ultimately, the eventual Democratic nominee was the biggest winner, because the Republican’s continue to unlearn all the lessons of 2012 by taking far right positions on immigration, women’s health, and climate change
Dan Pfeiffer is a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama and served in the White House in a variety of roles, including communications director.
Raul Reyes: Where was Reagan optimism?
At nearly three hours, this was a debate for the true political junkies. To me, the most resonant memory was that of the various Republican presidential candidates, on and off the camera, crying “Jake! Jake!” to moderator Jake Tapper, signaling their desire to jump into the discussion.
Ironically for a debate that took place at the Ronald Reagan library, the 2016 hopefuls showed that they differ in style from our 40th president. Reagan was known for his sunny disposition. He was a genial man who did not hurl insults at his rivals. He appealed to Americans’ best selves with his innate optimism. By contrast, the Republicans on the stage tonight presented a gloomy vision of our nation, and at time acted peevish and petulant with one another – a far cry from the courtly Reagan.
Yet for all the attacks on each other, the candidates also missed opportunities to call each other out. Nobody pointed out that, for much of her adult life, Carly Fiorina did not bother to vote at all. Nobody mentioned that, under Sen. Marco Rubio’s proposed overhaul of our immigration policies, people like his working class parents would not have been allowed in the country. Nobody asked Mike Huckabee about the religious liberties of American Muslims or Mormons.
The immigration portion of the debate, meanwhile, was a disappointment. The immigration proposal that merited the most discussion was Donald Trump’s impractical, inhumane plan for mass deportations. It was disheartening to see legitimate questions about immigration reform devolve into sniping about speaking Spanish, birthright citizenship and – of course – border security.
Any serious consideration of what to do with the estimated 11 million undocumented people already here was missing – as was any mention of the fact that conservative icon Reagan signed the Immigration and Control Act of 1986, which allowed nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants to get amnesty after entering the country illegally.
Equally troubling was the fact that the “Black Lives Matter” movement – one of the most powerful social justice movements of our time – did not merit any discussion.
The winner tonight? That would be Fiorina. She faced up to personal and professional attacks with aplomb. Her experience in corporate America has clearly given her the skills necessary for making a strong presentation. Not at all hesitant about asserting herself, she proved that she belonged on the big stage tonight.
The loser tonight was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. He has been fading in the polls lately, and this was his chance to show potential supporters and donors that he is still a major player. Instead, between Trump’s bravado and the occasional flourishes of the other candidates – Rubio on foreign policy, Fiorina on her business record – Walker seemed to get lost in the shuffle. Unlike nearly every other candidate, Walker did not have one strong “moment.”
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes.
Van Jones: Fiorina’s human moment
Like most, I thought Carly Fiorina was tonight’s big winner. I think her strongest moment had nothing to do with Donald Trump.
The weak field helped. Trump kicked Jeb Bush around like a failed prospect on “The Apprentice.” Bush’s biggest applause line was defending his brother, which I’m sure the Hillary Clinton campaign loved. Nearly all rushed to promise magical toughness fixes to the Middle East and more deportations, while failing to mention the economy until it was an excuse not to act on climate change.
Fiorina reminds me of a more human Mitt Romney. She is a polished and poised debater. The question is whether her business track record of mass layoffs comes back to haunt her, as it did Romney.
But on Wednesday tonight, she combined personal stories with policy specifics better than anyone else on the stage. Asked about drug policy reform, she gave a heartbreaking account of the loss of a child that moved every watching parent of all parties – and then transitioned seamlessly into a conservative case for reforming our criminal justice system.
That answer was all the more impressive because it came in the midst of a number of strong responses that showed the broad consensus on scaling back our system of mass incarceration. Kudos to CNN’s Jake Tapper for posing a question that moved us past Trump’s noisy racism, and provoked Bush’s apology to his mom, Fiorina’s tearjerker and a healthy dose of substance.
Van Jones is president of Dream Corps and Rebuild the Dream, which promote innovative solutions for America’s economy. He was President Barack Obama’s green jobs adviser in 2009. A best-selling author, he is also founder of Green for All, a national organization working to build a green economy. Follow him on Twitter @VanJones68.
Julian Zelizer: Rivals figure out how to undercut Trump
In the first half of the debate, Donald Trump succeeded in his basic campaign strategy: make the entire contest about him. When most people were watching, Trump was continually a focal point of the discussion. Early, on he launched a series of ad hominem attacks, like telling Rand Paul he shouldn’t even be on the stage and making quips about his looks.
This has been his strategy since entering the race – constantly attack and constantly be attacked. Either way, the result is that Trump is the story. In an age of media-driven politics, where video clips and quick sound bites are the currency of choice, he advances his cause.
During the first two hours, the moderators often used Trump’s statements (on immigration or on Fiorina’s business record for example) as the basis of their questions to other candidates. Very often the split screen would show answers by someone like Christie, with the other half of the screen still on Trump whether or not this was relevant.
But during the last hour of the debate, when fewer people were watching, his opponents started to show that the best way to undercut is to talk about issues. Besides all the blows Trump suffered, including the basic message that he is an entertainer rather than a leader, the camera was no longer focused on him.
Many of the candidates had their moments. Carly Fiorina scored points with conservatives when she talked about defunding Planned Parenthood, as well as her call for policies to help women in the workplace. Her overall performance, including her retort to Trump’s comments about her appearance, won applause. Sen. Marco Rubio offered emotional answers to the questions about immigration and showed his chops on foreign policy.
Sen. Ted Cruz got in a few criticisms of the Supreme Court, while John Kasich boasted of his deep experience and ability to move to the center.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker touted the record of his administration, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie finally had a chance to talk about issues other than scandalous bridges, including economic growth and law and order. His performance gave a boost to a dying candidacy.
Paul discussed drugs and criminal justice as well as the need to limit American involvement overseas. Ben Carson spoke about vaccine policies and defending free markets and wealth. Jeb Bush had a chance to defend his brother’s policies after 9/11, connecting his statements to how he would address terrorism.
Whenever foreign policy came up, Trump almost seemed to duck down behind his lectern. Just as important, all of the candidates started to make tougher statements about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, remembering that ultimately she would be the main target of the GOP. “Who will prosecute Hillary Clinton?” asked Christie.
While this debate probably won’t knock Trump off from his pedestal, it offers a road map to his opponents about how to undercut his success. Shifting to issues and shifting to policies – not allowing him to shape the entire conversation – is the best way to trump Trump.
Winner: Anyone but Trump, although Trump was not a clear loser.
Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society” and co-editor of a new book, “Medicare and Medicaid at 50: America’s Entitlement Programs in the Age of Affordable Care.”
Maria Cardona: Rivals knew it was make or break
Tonight’s debate finally started to break the Trump fever! The other GOP candidates found their inner adults, stood up to Trump – somewhat – and importantly, demonstrated their command and experience on policy details and their more realistic solutions to the country’s problems.
While they are all wrong on the issues – their immigration divisiveness and their focus on defunding Planned Parenthood to the point of forcing a government shutdown are dangerous territory and weaken the party’s general election viability – it was clear they all knew how much was riding on their performances.
Carly Fiorina was masterful throughout the debate. She was adroit, witty and showed she would not back down, but did so in a very graceful way. She also schooled Donald Trump and many of the others on foreign policy and other issues. She played and looked the part.
Marco Rubio shone brightly when discussing foreign policy, and his and Fiorina’s command of subject matter was a stark contrast with Trump, who was completely absent from the discussion.
Jeb Bush did a much better job this time around, but still lost tonight. He is such a cringe-worthy, awkward candidate. And while he went toe to toe with Trump at times (and had a good, funny line towards the end when asked what Secret Service code name he would choose – Eveready, he said looking at Trump, because it’s “high energy” ), he looked uncomfortable in his own skin every time he tried to defend himself or get tough with Trump.
Will this be the beginning of the dimming of Trump, who up until now had gotten away with myths, bluster, distortions and outright lies in the place of facts, solutions, pragmatic approaches, respect and grace? Still early to say, but at least the candidates scored some important points against Trump and used the opportunity to let voters get to know them better.
Winner: Carly Fiorina
Loser: Jeb Bush
Maria Cardona is a political commentator for CNN, a Democratic strategist and principal at the Dewey Square Group. She is a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and was communications director for the Democratic National Committee. She also is a former communications director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Buck Sexton: Fiorina trumped Trump
The biggest winner from Thursday night’s CNN Republican presidential candidate debate: Carly Fiorina. Not only did she speak with expertise and fluency on policy, but Fiorina added some emotional inflection and personal touches to connect with the voters. Most importantly of all– she managed to be the first candidate to go toe-to-toe with Trump on stage and come out the clear victor.
Fiorina was joined by several other candidates with standout performances. Sen. Marco Rubio (who if not the eventual president, might make a great secretary of state) came off as polished on stage and wonky on policy. The same was true for Sen. Ted Cruz, who burnished his constitutionalist credentials at every opportunity and focused his fire on President Barack Obama’s administration rather than his fellow GOP candidates. Gov. Chris Christie, for his part, also turned in a solid performance, as he managed to pull off both bravado and charm – even managing to sound earnestly conservative a few times.
The biggest loser tonight? Donald Trump, not only because he clearly didn’t win, but he even failed to be the center of attention beyond the opening minutes of the debate. Trump is, of course, style over substance, but even his style faltered tonight.
And while he had a few entertaining, humorous moments, Trump also had some head-shaking blunders. His non-apology to Fiorina, where he called her “beautiful,” crashed and burned – you could almost hear the groans across America.
Others in the “not good enough” category were: Sen. Rand Paul, Gov. Scott Walker and Gov. John Kasich, all of of whom may be following Gov. Rick Perry’s lead in exiting the race much sooner than they anticipated.
Dean Obeidallah: Race leaving reality show behind
Surprisingly, this was not episode No. 2 of the “Trump and Friends” reality show that many expected (and frankly some hoped for from an entertainment point of view.)
This was much more of a substantive debate, in part because the candidates refused to fight with each other or the moderators – with a few exceptions, i.e., Donald Trump versus Rand Paul. This allowed the debate to reveal a contrast between the candidates who were pandering, offering conservative GOP primary voters red meat on issues, and those candidates who were being realistic and responsible, such as on issues like immigration and the Iran nuclear deal.
For example, Jake Tapper challenged Donald Trump (using a quote of Ben Carson) about his plan to deport the 11 million plus undocumented immigrants as being unworkable. We heard Ted Cruz boast that he would tear up the Iran deal if elected president. But Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich focused on enforcing the agreement. And Carly Fiorina called out Trump’s proposal to end birthright citizenship as being wholly impracticable because it would require amending the 14th Amendment.
The race is now moving from the reality show mode to one of substance, which might be a little less exciting, but better for voters in assessing the candidates.
Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM’s weekly program “The Dean Obeidallah Show.” He is a columnist for The Daily Beast and editor of the politics blog The Dean’s Report. He’s also the co-director of the documentary “The Muslims Are Coming!” Follow him on Twitter: @TheDeansreport.
Tara Setmayer: Fiorina stole the show
Once again, Carly Fiorina stole the show. Her comfort level on stage, command of the issues and her ability to deliver razor sharp responses, cut down Donald Trump with the precision of a political scalpel. Fiornia accomplished something no other candidate on that stage was yet to do: She made Donald Trump and his egomaniacal, larger than life candidacy look small.
While Trump engaged in his typical nonsequitur, ad hominem attacks, Fiorina came across thoughtful, prepared and tough on issues both foreign and domestic. When Jake Tapper asked Fiorina to respond to Trump’s insult of her face during a Rolling Stone interview, and his attempt to walk it back by claiming that he meant her persona not her looks, she simply said to thunderous applause, “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”
At that point, Trump pulled up lame. He responded, “I think she has a beautiful face. She’s a beautiful woman,” which was met with crickets and collective incredulity from the audience. It was one of the most memorable exchanges of the night. It felt as though Trump showed up prepared for a Comedy Central roast, not a debate to help decide the next leader of the free world.
Another standout moment came during a discussion on defunding Planned Parenthood over its fetal organ harvesting controversy when Fiorina looked into the camera and challenged President Obama and Hillary Clinton to “watch these tapes. … Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain. … This is about the character of our nation, and if we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us.” A man sitting next to me said, “I just got goose bumps.” As did I.
Both Carly Fiorina and Sen. Marco Rubio, who in his own right had another very strong night, especially on foreign policy matters, came across as the adults in the room and delivered powerful performances on issues that resonate with the American people. We’ll see if that’s reflected in the polls moving forward.
Winners: Fiorina, Rubio, Christie
Losers: Paul, Kasich
Tara Setmayer is former communication’s director for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, and a CNN political commentator.