CHARLESTON, S.C., Feb. 13, 2016 — The newest Republican presidential debate began with news that rocked the political system to its core. Judge Antonin Scalia, vacationing in Texas, was found dead of natural causes on Saturday. Before anyone could mourn Scalia’s death, the political ramifications of his passing were everywhere.
President Obama could try to unite the country by nominating a moderate Democrat who could win easy confirmation. That is not his style. If he stays true to form and deliberately picks a leftist ideologue, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may fight back.
McConnell said he would deny any vote until after the election. The 2016 presidential race could determine the future of the Supreme Court for a generation. With this in mind, the presidential debate took on an even more serious tone than expected.
The debate was held in Greenville, South Carolina, and was put on by CBS. The lead moderator was John Dickerson. He was joined by CBS newsman Major Garrett and Kimberly Strassel of the Wall Street Journal.
Since the New Hampshire primary four days earlier, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore dropped out of the presidential race. That eliminated the need for an undercard debate and left six candidates on the stage Saturday night.
With that, here are the letter grades for those involved with the debate.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — He bounced back from his worst debate performance and had a solid night. With Chris Christie no longer around to out-argue him, Rubio returned to his polished, prepared self. He took down Donald Trump hard by defending former President George W. Bush. Rubio thanked God that Al Gore was not president when 9/11 happened.
He reminded the audience that former president Bill Clinton’s failure to deal with Osama bin Laden in 1998 was a major cause of 9/11. When challenged on immigration by Ted Cruz, Rubio was able to hit back effectively. “I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision. He doesn’t speak Spanish.” He was not knocked off stride all night and had the best lines. Grade: A—
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — He fiercely defended his brother, who remains popular in South Carolina. He went after Trump hard, but always as a counterattack. He said it was weak to attack women, disabled people and war heroes like John McCain. Bush said that while Trump was building a reality television empire, his brother was building a security apparatus.
In a rehearsed but effective line, Jeb intoned that Ronald Reagan did not tear down people. He tore down the Berlin Wall. Jeb looked like the adult in the room, which was exactly his goal. His willingness to raise taxes on hedge fund managers is not a good proposal. Grade: B+
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — He got in his zingers, telling Donald Trump that adults learn not to interrupt each other. He also seriously intoned that you should not be flexible on core principles. He noted that the poor and the most vulnerable are the ones most hurt by the Obama economy.
He failed to take down Rubio on immigration. His closing was strong, as he made it clear that a proven conservative will not grow government. A Washington deal-maker will. Grade: B+
Ohio Gov. John Kasich — After several miserable debates, Kasich finally had a good night. He answered questions without rambling well over his time. He was less preachy than usual. He still relies too much on kumbaya coming together when most Republicans are spoiling for a political fight.
His assertion that we would not be fighting if he were president was ludicrous. He still recites his resume far too often. Yet his “Coalition of the Civilized” was a good sound bite.
He said, “We thought there were WMD” in Iraq, rather than forcefully stating that there were. He said nothing memorable, but unlike past debates, he did not make any glaring errors either. Grade: B
Dr. Ben Carson — He showed serious improvement on the foreign policy side of the ledger. If America is going to take down dictators, we need a replacement plan. President Obama destabilized Iraq, not his predecessor. He accused Obama of “asinine thinking” on Iraq. Carson pointed out that in war, collateral damage is unfortunate but should not be a deterrent. He was also solid in answering whether financial executives should be jailed.
Carson noted that regulators are looking for people to fine because they have nothing to do. We should start trimming regulatory agencies. The way to get rid of poverty is to get rid of excess regulations. Carson’s main flaw is that he is so low-key that he gets lost in the shuffle. Grade: B
Businessman Donald Trump — This was by far his worst debate. He was magnificent in his New Hampshire primary victory speech. On this debate stage, the calm, reasoned Trump was replaced with his worst id. Calling George W. Bush a “liar” in front of a South Carolina audience that likes the former president was just stupid. Trump even made a rare unforced error by bringing up his support for eminent domain when nobody else did.
Trump praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying, “I like him.” He then blasted Ted cruz, saying, “You are the single biggest liar, bigger than Jeb.”
He did concede that his wife frequently tells him he is wrong. He also promised not to use profanity anymore. Two debates ago Cruz had his bad night. In the last debate Rubio was off. Kasich was unhinged a few debates ago. On this night, it was as if Kasich and Trump switched spots. Trump came off as a lunatic. He is a golfer, and every golfer has a cold round at some point. Trump was ice cold in this round. Grade: F
John Dickerson: He was ultra-professional. His questions were crisp. He let the candidates attack each other, but that was of their own making, not his questioning. He was persistent without being rude. He was polite but firm, and asked relevant questions. This was as solid a moderator performance as there is. Grade: A+
Kimberly Strassel and Major Garrett: They asked far fewer questions than Dickerson but they made the most of their time. Garrett is a seasoned reporter, and Strassel stuck to her Wall Street Journal expertise of taxes and money issues. They both asked serious questions in a professional manner. Grade: A
Justice Antonin Scalia: Cruz called him a “legal giant.” Rubio agreed with Scalia that the Constitution is not a living, breathing document. President Obama, no fan of Scalia’s beliefs, praised Scalia as “one of the towering legal figures of our time.” and “a brilliant legal mind.” Scalia even had a close friendship with polar ideological opposite Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg due to their shared love of opera.
His death was more than the focus of this debate. He will dominate the discussion of the 2016 election. Republican and Democrat nominees will mention him in every speech. Obama called him “consequential.” That was an understatement. Grade: A+