Last Night’s Republican Debate Winner: ISIS

More than any other year, I find it very difficult to gauge the outcome of these Republican presidential debates. The reason is that in order to do so – it is important to assess them from the perspective of a Republican primary voter. Since last night’s debate was focused almost completely on ISIS, that taps into the “id” nature of this campaign’s appeal to fear and anger rather than logic.

As rational people watching last night’s debate, we can dissect each candidate’s answers logically. But I don’t think that tells us much about how a lot of Republicans reacted. In that sense, I didn’t see much that is likely to change the equation on the status of the race at this point. But I’ll tell you who the real winner is of last night’s debate: ISIS. They got an awful lot of air time with statements like this from Rubio:

But this is what’s important to do is we must deal frontally with this threat of radical Islamists, especially from ISIS. This is the most sophisticated terror group that has ever threatened the world or the United States of America.

One can imagine ISIS members erupting into a standing ovation at being elevated to that level of threat from a Republican presidential candidate and a debate focused almost entirely on how Americans as so afraid of them.

When it comes to the sparring between candidates, the news is that Jeb Bush’s big donors were probably very relieved to watch him finally land a few blows on Trump, who responded to challenges with his typical adolescent “Jeb’s a looser.” Bush came back with: “Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency. That’s not going to happen.” And last night, he didn’t back down. Afterwards I noticed that Trump was pretty red-faced. Not sure what that’s about, but perhaps his doctor needs to re-check that blood pressure.

As expected, Rubio and Cruz had several back-and-forths. Personally, I didn’t see a “winner” in those exchanges. But I suspect that for Republican voters, Cruz prevailed due to the fact that he repeatedly suggested that Rubio had sided with Hillary and Chuck Schumer (even when that argument made absolutely no sense).

For me, the most interesting exchange came between Cruz and moderator Wolf Blitzer. At one point Cruz wanted to interrupt the questioning and Blitzer cut him off. Cruz refused to back down and the two of them went back and forth several times, with Blitzer finally prevailing. When your reputation has been built as the “tough guy who never backs down,” that’s not a good look for you.

For the first time since she vaulted her way onto the main debate stage, Carly Fiorina finally had a bad debate night. It was very clear why she earned the nickname “Snarly Carly” with her grimaces. A lot of her answers seemed off-key (i.e., in the fight against terrorism we need to enlist Silicon Valley to work with the government) and incoherent.

I suppose the big news of the night came at the end when Trump committed to running as a Republican. Of course, I heard that back stage he was once again qualifying that with “but they have to be nice to me.” So you can take that for what it’s worth.

You’ll notice that I haven’t said much about the actual content of what was discussed last night. That is because it can be summed up with three messages: (1) “be afraid…be very afraid,” (2) various levels of “bomb the sh*t out of ISIS,” and (3) “Obama and Hillary are a disaster.”

So that’s it for debates in 2015. We go into the holidays now and come out in January roaring towards Iowa and New Hampshire. I don’t think that last night changed the trajectory of that course very much.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.