Highest Rated Cable Program – Planned Ambush or Real Debate?

 

This Thursday’s prime time debate was fun to watch. But it seemed to be much more than a political debate. It was a big game hunt, the biggest ever and so became the highest rated cable non-sports broadcast of all time. 

Compare this prime time 9:00 pm debate to the earlier 5:00 pm debate on the same channel. The 5:00 pm debate was the same old tired political format – several politicians answering canned banal questions & talking about themselves to score some points. Boring and useless. 

But the 9:00 pm fight was unique, the best we have ever seen. This was a live fight between the three Fox moderators and the 10 candidates. The moderators asked very sharp questions designed to probe for weaknesses, to draw blood and to deliver body blows. It was great. If these candidates couldn’t handle Megyn Kelly & her two teammates, how could they ever handle Putin & other bad guys in the world? It was fun.

There was a time when debate moderators tried hard to be fair to all political combatants in the debate. That line was gently breached in the CNN-hosted debate in 2012 between President Obama and Governor Romney. This week, the Fox moderators left that breach so far behind that you couldn’t even see it with the Hubble telescope.

They understood that is debate was only about Trump. America tuned into the debate in record numbers to watch Trump in live action. He was the beast. What is even more entertaining than watching the romp of a beast? Ambushing & goring the unsuspecting beast. Frankly, that’s what Megyn Kelly and her two teammates did. They did everything they could to kill the Donald Trump phenomenon. They gored him, hurt him but they didn’t kill him. It made fantastic TV.

To their credit, the rest of the debaters stayed out of the Fox attack on Trump. Governor Kasich was the smartest. He gave credit to Trump for what Trump had accomplished and then gently pivoted to how he would do it differently. He got the softest questions and he hit most of them out of the park. Governor Bush came across as a policy wonk and not as a confident leader, certainly not as a champion. Senator Rubio was acclaimed by most as a winner for his “flawless” performance. Governor Huckabee was also a winner for articulating his positions clearly and eloquently.  

From our standpoint, the debate provided very little except entertainment. You simply can’t get anything worthwhile with 10 people answering questions in a tiny sound-bite only amount of time. And a debate is a verbal exam as long as the flow is between moderators & debaters. It becomes a real debate only when the debaters attack each other. The only real debate on Thursday was the open exchange between Governor Christie & Senator Paul. Similar exchanges between Bush & Walker, between Kasich & Bush would have been far more useful.

To us, an early debate like this one is useful in thinning the field. The lesson of this debate is that Governors are much better than Senators in 2016, with the possible exception of Senator Rubio and Mr. Trump who is unique. That means Dr. Carson, Senator Cruz and Senator Paul are out. We think Governor Huckabee has his own base within the party but, as in 2008, that base is too small for him to mount a serious bid. We think Governor Walker is not impressive or substantive enough to remain a top contender and Governor Christie is too damaged and too crude for Peoria. If Mayor Giuliani couldn’t make it, then what chance does Governor Christie have?

What about Senator Rubio? He is certainly a charismatic politician and his personal story is highly appealing. But, at least at this stage, he is a junior Obama – all star quality but no accomplishments or track record of governing a large enterprise. We say Obama Junior because he doesn’t project a brilliant intellect or a broad vision that Obama did. That intellect and vision made Obama impervious to charges of total lack of governing experience. Senator Rubio will not be so lucky. Republican Governors will keep hammering him for being Obama, Jr. and belittling him for not having done anything.

The only thing worse than not having any experience is having the experience of losing at every job you had. And that is Ms. Carly Fiorina. He track record is one of successive failures – from Lucent to Hewlett Packard to losing an election she contested.

We think that the final race will come down to Governor Bush, Governor Kasich and Governor Perry, the underestimated sleeper candidate. Governor Perry has a chance only if track record of successful governance becomes a determining factor. Governor Kasich is an interesting story but will he be accepted by the Republican base?

We think Governor Bush will remain as everybody’s second choice, a candidate that Republicans will choose because no one can be angrily against him, because he is all-establishment and because he has the most money. It is possible that he will become a more confident speaker in the next few months. He is also less toxic to women than others and he is more acceptable to the Hispanic/Latin community. His greatest weakness is his remarkable ability to make Romney-like mistakes. And like Governor Romney, Governor Bush doesn’t seem capable of hitting back fast and hard, qualities that both Clinton & Bush campaigns had.

The real lesson of the past 16 years is that Republican candidates matter but their campaign managers matter much more. So which of the three Republican governors have the smartest and most vicious campaign managers? Governor Kasich, we think. 

We certainly don’t rule out Mr. Trump. He has the ability to dominate the agenda and to remain the choice of 25%-30% of the Republican voters. We don’t know if he has the generals or the army he needs to wage a 16-month campaign. Does he have or will he be able to build a ground army to bring out his voters in the primaries? We just don’t know.

Who was the real winner of this week’s Republican debate? Hillary Clinton, in our opinion. The more we saw of this motley Republican field, the better Secretary Clinton looked. And, as Senator Rubio said, no one has the resume of Mrs. Clinton. Remember that in 2012 the generic Republican candidate was beating President Obama in most polls but President Obama won against the real Republican candidate, Mitt Romney.

Getting back to debates – the one we really want to watch is the one between Vice President Biden and Secretary Clinton.

 

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