By Avi Davis
Much has already been written about the characterization of the 17-strong field of GOP Presidential contenders as a stellar field of candidates, unlike anything seen in recent memory. That observation was only amplified by the first Republican debate on August 6th,making clear that this campaign has already produced a bumper crop – far out shining the measly pickings of only four years earlier.
And since they are off and running it is time to assess the prospects of these men and one woman. The candidates who will take the lead in this race will not necessarily be those with the most detailed plans for righting the tottering U.S. ship of state; or those with the most refined vision. It will be those those who can project the self assurance of a president. What will ultimately matter in these early days will be not so much what the candidates say, but how they say it – how they look on the stage and how they connect with an audience. Appearances, at this stage, are everything.
If we use these criteria to judge the performances of the first tier debaters on Thursday night ( I did not get a chance to watch the second tier), then the unqualified front runners emerging from the pack are Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Mario Rubio and Ben Carson. Cruz, because he was direct in his statements; did not flinch from his previously announced positions and presented a summary which was more targeted and emphatic than anyone else on the stage; Huckabee because he, more articulately than the others,drew attention to the prevailing malaise of the country and the lack of integrity and absence of vision within the country’s current leadership; Rubio, because he shone as the hardscrabble candidate, recounting his fighting struggle from poverty and debt to becoming a resoundingly articulate champion of American values; And Ben Carson because he was the most likeable individual in the arena – bringing a levity and lightness to an otherwise overly serious discussion, without losing his focus on the gravity of the problems confronting the United States.
On the other hand, the two men who entered the debate as the once presumptive leaders- Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, fell flat and were largely uninspiring; Jeb Bush often looked uncomfortable and awkward – and by my reckoning was the least polished and articulate of the speakers; Scott Walker, who boasts of being just an ordinary guy, actually presented more like an Average Joe, reminding me too often of the actor Chris Parnell who often parodied politicians just like him on Saturday Night Live.
Of the others, Chris Christie did himself no harm when he convincingly roasted Rand Paul over the NSA wire tapping scheme but did not impress as a self assured leader; he was a little too much New Jersey bouncer and less presidential aspirant than he could have been. His unfortunate positioning on the stage at the beginning of the line of speakers allowed the cameras to catch his girth in full profile; Unfortunate, because Americans, at least in the modern era, do not tend to elect fat men to the presidency. Rand Paul, receiving a convincing drubbing from Christie, did not recover well and looked rather deflated afterward. John Kasich came across as a good and honorable man, but not strident in his views nor feisty enough in his demeanour to convince anyone that he would be capable of engaging in mortal combat with the take-no-prisoners Clinton machine.
Which leaves of course the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. Donald Trump captured the limelight before entering the debate with a populist brand of politics which should be familiar to anyone with a sense of American history. William Jennings Bryan in the mid-1890s – and to a certain extent in the two presidential campaigns which followed – became the first candidate to appeal to a wide constituency with a stark, simple message short on specifics but long on bravado. I thought of him as I watched Trump’s performance. Trump’s encounter with moderator Megyn Kelly over his characterization of women has now degenerated into a war of attrition between himself and the press, who devoured his tantrum – and his astonishing continued campaign against her – as red meat – in the process turning him into more of a circus act than a leading presidential contender. He must be starting to realize that ‘The Donald’ brand, honed in a spectacular real estate and entertainment career, does not easily mulch down into political capital. His perpetual frown and surly defensiveness (together with the Megyn Kelly interface and the confusing refusal to disavow a third party stand),transformed him from populist hero into the evening’s bully. And in the end, no one really likes a bully.
But overall, it was a great evening, full of sparkle and energy and it should give those of us fed up with seven years of our failed experiment in progressivism considerable heart that daring and assertive American leadership , coupled with a return to U.S. greatness, could be just around the corner.