The Undercard From Cleveland

At some point today it became fashionable to refer to the 5:00 PM EDT Fox News “forum” for candidates who didn’t make the cut for the top ten official debate tonight as the “Happy Hour Debate.” As a Californian, I find this a rather egregious example of Eastern Seabord chauvinism.

In any event, it wasn’t a very “happy” forum. It came across as a rather testy vetting of the Un-Magnificent Seven by Fox standing in for the conservative movement. The only hostile questions involved electability and the preparation of the field to do battle with the Democrat Party and godless liberalism generally.

A lot of the candidates repeated verbatim big chunks of their rhetoric from Monday night’s Voters First Forum in New Hampshire. And that was particularly true of the two consensus winners, Carly Fiorina and Bobby Jindal. It sure didn’t take a lot to impress WaPo’s Chris Cillizza:

From the start, Fiorina was poised and confident. She followed a halting and seemingly nervous answer by Texas Gov. Rick Perry with a fluid riff on why she was running and how she was best positioned to beat Hillary Clinton. And, she closed that first answer with this quotable (and good) line: “The highest calling of leadership is to challenge the status quo and unlock the potential of others. We need a leader who will lead the resurgence of this great nation and unlock its potential once again.”

That poised and confident answer was a sign of things to come for Fiorina. As people like Perry (still not a good debater), South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (why was he so sad???) and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (angry much?) struggled, Fiorina shined. She repeatedly hit on her knowledge of the world and foreign policy and, smartly for this Republican audience, went after Clinton on Benghazi.

What made Fiorina stand out — more than what she said on any particular topic — was that she looked up to the moment. She was prepared and poised. She rarely glanced at notes. She spoke freely and easily. She had the “it” factor.

In other words, Fiorina gained a lot of experience doing Power Point presentations at stockholder meetings before she was fired at HP (a little item of her biography that has yet to be mentioned at any Republican candidate event). Her closing statement was left on a printer at the hotel where the candidates are staying; this was reported earlier today with some derision given her background with HP, but she regurgitated the statement–again, largely the attack lines on Hillary Clinton she deployed on Monday–anyway.

It’s becoming truly amazing that Republicans do not acknowledge the rather relevant fact that Fiorina has been a dismal failure in both the private sector and electoral politics. Donald Trump loves to talk about “losers;” can he resist applying the label to Fiorina?

Speaking of which: Fiorina was lucky to become just one of two candidates–the other was Rick Perry–who was asked directly about Donald Trump. We don’t know if other candidates were prepared to pull off the combo sideswiping of Trump for his relationship with the Clintons and then a thorough pandering towards his supporters as opponents (like her, of course) of the “poiltical class,” but she got to execute this obvious maneuver.

As for Jindal, he, too, delivered his golden oldies after smoothly citing his terrible approval ratings back home in Louisiana as a badge of honor because he took on big government and bureaucrats etc. etc. He did slow down a bit from his rapid-fire delivery on Monday night, and had one interesting new wrinkle: adapting the ancient law-and-order slogan of “taking the handcuffs off the police” to the U.S. military who are allegedly champing at the bit to destroy ISIS. He also enlisted the IRS in his hypothetical war on Planned Parenthood, cleverly playing on the conservative belief that Lois Lerner and her green-eyeshaded underlings are powerful allies to the Democrat attack on all that is good and true.

There was some pundit sentiment for Lindsey Graham as a “winner” tonight. But Lord-a-mercy, is the man ever frothing for war! He even turned a question about defunding Planned Parenthood into a weird pitch for sending U.S. troops to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

I personally would give some props to that old Phalangist, Rick Santorum. He telescoped the tangled history of welfare reform and “partial-birth abortion” policy into a hymn of praise to himself that undoubtedly amused or angered anyone who actually remembers the 1990s. But he was most affecting when pushing back against a moderator’s planted axiom that the unemployed are lazy welfare bums.

Rick Perry remains a sad mess of a debater. You can only imagine the pain experienced by such smart advisers as Avik Roy and Sam Clovis when ol’ Rick forgot how many years he had served as governor and referred to himself as a “corporate executive type” and claimed the Texas Economic Miracle showed how we could “build our military back up.” The new glasses were not enough.

Finally, it was interesting to see how closely George Pataki’s electability argument resembled Scott Walker’s. Except, of course, for Pataki’s bit about working with Democrats. That’s a clanging non sequitur for both him and for Lindsey Graham.

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.