Halperin’s Game-Change-y Analysis of a Presidential Cattle Call

Curious about how this weekend’s mammoth, 17-speaker First in the Nation Republican Leadership Forum in Nashua, New Hampshire, went, I consulted Bloomberg Politics, and sure enough, Mark Halperin had prepared letter grades (actually three, for “style,” “substance” and “overall”) for every one of these birds, yea, even unto Peter King. For the most part, what the reader learned about each candidate or proto-candidate was a murky stew of Halperin’s impressions in Nashua and Halperin’s prejudices about the field and American politics. Check out this review of Carly Fiorina:

Her stump speech, strong at CPAC, has gotten even better. She has two of the three Holy Trinity elements of message: biography, and where the nation is currently positioned along the arc of the American Experience. What she’s missing is policy proposals. Still, an overall performance that is elevated by a heroic optimism. Poll numbers and fundraising remain question marks, but her consistency and quality of performance at multi-candidate events now seem pretty assured.

Gee, must have missed that day in school–or maybe it’s Sunday School–where the Holy Trinity of message was discussed. In any event, what Halperin’s account somehow misses is the only thing you really need to know about Fiorina: she’s assured a place in the field up to and beyond New Hampshire as the Un-Hillary, someone who by virtue of her gender does not risk “bullying” charges when repeating every anti-Clinton line imaginable, thus making sure they are all heard.

Then there’s this assessment of Chris Christie:

Continued his newfound emphasis on entitlement changes to push his record of reform and image of truth teller. Plus: leader, leader, leader. Seems to have found a balance between confidence and brashness. Used his aplomb on the big stage to push his way closer to the top tier, but not a game-changing performance.

Again, the salient fact about Christie is that his standing among Republicans and the general electorate is hovering near elimination levels, and he’s chosen a theme–“entitlement changes”–that may preserve a role for him as a “truth teller” but will more likely make him one of the more reviled figures in American politics. So no, there wasn’t in Nashua, and won’t ever be, a “game-changing performance” by Christie, and that might be worth saying.

Or take two middle-of-the-pack presidential wannabes, Huckabee and Rubio. Guess which one Halperin likes:

Still transitioning back to the mode of hard-charging presidential candidate from the mellower tone he took as TV and radio personality and paid speaker. Needs to goose his poll numbers in order to return to the center of the conversation and raise money. Like some of his rivals, he must elevate his game on the issues of the day (including national security and Washington gridlock) or be dismissed as yesterday’s news. Too much same old same old, and an over-reliance on the Clinton meme, despite his charm, smarts, and wiles. Underrated as an Iowa force, but, as of now, not as a New Hampshire one….

Speaks about the American Experience and his own family history like an old pro, making him seem wise and thoughtful beyond his years. Continues to hit his stride, creating believers within the party and the press. When he leverages his youth to make his optimism seem more organic, he stakes a greater claim than Walker, Bush, and the rest of the field to being the right leader for a better future. Enshrined his place in the top tier more solidly than ever before.

There’s nothing wrong with having strong opinions about this or that presidential possibility, prior to and following a particular event; we all have them. But it just strains credulity at this early date to look at a single event and judge Marco Rubio as a top-tier candidate and dismiss Mike Huckabee–the only speaker in Nashua who has ever won a presidential primary–as a superannuated doofus, particularly if you are widely regarded as the Voice of Beltway Horse-Race Journalism.

I’m with Sam Wang on Halperin’s assignment of letter grades to the speakers:

I think these “grades” reveal at least as much about modern political journalism as they do about what happened in the Granite State.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.