LOS ANGELES, Dec/ 16, 2015 — The Republicans have held their fifth presidential debate of this election season. The last time the candidates were gathered together was on Dec. 3 in Washington, D.C., when they all spoke separately to the Republican Jewish Coalition. This was the standard debate format. The debate was moderated by CNN, which peaked in 1988 with Bernard Shaw and has since lost credibility among many conservatives. Unlike Democrat debates held in the dark of Friday night or Saturday night, the Republican candidates want to debate publicly when people are watching.
There are 14 GOP presidential candidates, but one of them again failed to reach the 1 percent threshold required to participate in either debate. Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore was not invited to participate in the undercard debate or the main event.
Letter grades for the debate are based solely on the performance of the candidates without taking into account their standing in the polls. With the San Bernardino attack by Islamists and the Los Angeles school bomb hoax in the background, these debates focused exclusively on foreign policy and national security. This was the adult discussion the American people deserve.
With that, here are the letter grades for the candidates and moderators in the debates.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — Santorum was focused and disciplined from the outset. “We have to stop worrying about offending some people and start defending all Americans.” He offered a vigorous defense of collecting metadata and the right of private citizens to own guns. Santorum was brilliant in pointing out that Islam was a political system as well as a religion. You defeat the caliphate by taking their land. He struck the right balance of seriousness without crossing the line into anger. Grade: A-
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — Huckabee differed with Trump, but very politely. With regards to NSA data collection, he tried to play Bill Clinton’s “mend it, don’t end it” card. He did make a good point that if mosques were peaceful, Muslims should want non-Muslims to visit their mosques. Spying on mosques is fair game if there is cause. He was downgraded from the main stage for this debate, and this performance did not do anything to reverse that slide. Grade: B-
Former New York Gov. George Pataki — He attacked Donald Trump in his opening statement yet was listless in his remarks after that. He repeatedly stated the problem of radical Islam but without offering viable solutions. Grade: C-
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — Graham came across as groveling and pandering, looking like he was on the verge of tears. He attacked Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul as isolationists. He defended Muslims in front of a crowd that was not interested in politically correct remarks. He was too angry and lacked the optimism required to lead. Grade: D
This was a spectacular debate of substance. This debate was exactly what a debate is supposed to be. There were fiery exchanges based on serious policy disagreements. On illegal immigration, Syrian refugees, the NSA collection of metadata and even the Iraq War, Marco Rubio offered the neoconservative vision while Ted Cruz and Rand Paul argued against that approach.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — The key anticipated battle of the night was Cruz versus Rubio, and Cruz won. He had some brilliantly funny lines, one lifted from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “All horse thieves are Democrats but not all Democrats are horse thieves.” On radical Islam, he said, “It’s not a war on a faith, it’s a war on a political ideology that seeks to murder us.” We should bomb ISIS until we can see if “sand can glow in the dark.” He had the hysterically funny line of the night. “We will build a border that works, and I will get Donald Trump to pay for it.” He called him “Donald” rather than “Mr. Trump.” Trump praised Cruz rather than attack him. Cruz is like Joe Pesci in “My Cousin Vinny.” He just knows how to argue and win. He may lose the neocons to Rubio, but Cruz pulls votes from Trump and is the main reason Paul cannot maintain his dad’s Libertarian coalition. Grade: A
Dr. Ben Carson — Carson had a strong opening statement. As a pediatric neurosurgeon he frequently faced life and death decisions. America is the patient and is in critical condition. The cure is not timidity. In the middle of the debate he was headed toward a failing grade. Carson was asked what he considered anti-American behavior or activity in mosques and schools. He did not answer the question. Asked whether Rubio or Cruz was right, Carson said, “You have to ask them.” His refusal to take a stand was a bad moment. Yet after that he showed an inner toughness that his critics wondered if he even had. Asked if he could order air strikes that could kill innocent children, Carson said it was actually merciful to finish the job rather than have death by a thousand cuts. His approach is not ruthless, it is toughness. The job is to protect this country. He also had one of the best lines of the night with regard to his soft-spoken approach: “I don’t do a lot of talking. I do a lot of doing.” Trump called Carson “one of the finest men” he has ever known. Grade: A-
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — Despite barely making the debate stage, this was by far his best debate. He has always argued the non-interventionist foreign policy approach passionately, but this time he also did so in a cerebral and thoughtful manner. Paul started badly, launching attacks on Rubio and Trump that smacked of desperation. Yet during the substance of the debate he parried Rubio successfully on immigration and Trump on The Donald’s plan to shut down the Internet. He attacked the neocons with composure rather than ranting. We need a “realistic” foreign policy, not a “utopian” one. When Christie argued the neocon view, Paul replied, “If you’re in favor of World War III, you have your candidate.” Paul did take a cheap shot about Bridgegate that drew boos, but overall Paul had a solid night. Grade: B+
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — The bar for Rubio is so high, but on this night he got nicked. Rubio can out-debate most people, but not Cruz. Rubio gave a passionate defense of the neoconservative view on everything from metadata collection to regime change. When he tried to show that he and Cruz had the same views, Cruz disputed it. When he attacked Cruz, Cruz smiled while Rubio’s smile was gone in favor of a borderline scowl. Rubio rejected the Libertarian approach and thundered that Americans who join ISIS will not get Miranda rights. Rubio was probably not hurt by this performance so much as Cruz was helped by differentiating himself. His performance was not memorable, but this was the first time opponents drew blood. Grade: B
Donald Trump — Trump remains confounding. Tonally, he struck the right balance. He was not bombastic or comatose. He discussed the issues in a very cerebral manner. His worst quality on this night was his repeated mocking of his debate opponents through facial expressions. On immigration he was very serious and sober. “We either have a country or we don’t have a country.’” “Speak to the folks in Israel. Walls work, if you know how to build. Believe me, I know how to build.” He sided against the neocons, reiterating his opposition to the Iraq War. A big shock came when he was again given a chance to attack Cruz’s temperament. Gone was the “maniac” comment. “I’ve gotten to know him over the last three or four days. He has a wonderful temperament.” That was a victory for Cruz. Trump continued to blast Bush, but refused to attack Cruz. He was also uncharacteristically unifying and humble, by his standards. He would only run as a Republican, not as an independent. “If I’m so fortunate to be chosen…” was less bold than his usual guarantee of victory. Grade: B
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — Christie stayed focused. He trained his entire fire on Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama. He noted that 250,000 Syrians have been murdered on their watch. Asked if he would shoot down a Russian plane if it violated a no-fly zone, he said he would absolutely do it. Russia would be stupid to think Christie is the same “feckless weakling” as Obama. Christie repeated his refrain about governors actually doing things while senators make speeches. Christie criticized navel-gazing senators and reminded the audience of his experience. He stopped the Fort Dix Six terror plot in New Jersey. Christie said the job of the president is to protect the American people. When FBI Director Jim Comey says we cannot vet the Syrian refugees, that ends the discussion. Grade: B
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — Every time Bush takes on Trump, he gets his head handed to him. This time he called Trump the “chaos candidate.” Bush was holding his own against Trump until Trump got in the devastating last word. Trump is at 42 percent while Bush is at 3 percent in the polls. Bush brought up Hillary’s private server before speaking of adverse impacts if China keeps breaching U.S. security. Bush wants to portray himself as the adult in the room, but he was eclipsed by Christie in this debate for that mantle. Bush is a serious policy guy who is just overmatched in these debates. Jeb did not make any mistakes, but try finding anything significant he said. Grade: C
Carly Fiorina — Grade: C- — On more than one occasion she tried to filibuster as the moderators had to cut her off. She quoted Margaret Thatcher near the end in yet another attempt to play the gender card. She hedged from her previous debate comment about refusing to talk to Putin. She far too often lapsed into platitudes. Her opening statement was an attempt to tug at heartstrings. She cited herself as a tested leader who has beaten breast cancer and buried a child. The other candidates just ignored her. Even on her supposed area of expertise, she offered a ludicrous answer. Asked whether tech companies should be forced to cooperate with the government efforts on terror, she did not answer the question. She was asked again. She said no, they need to be asked. She insisted they will voluntarily comply, but offered nothing to back up that assertion.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich — In the last debate he was obnoxious and unhinged. In this debate he was slightly more sane, but just as obnoxious. He repeatedly went over his time, finishing points that contributed nothing. Even when he was right on the policy according to the audience, he was an afterthought. He disagreed with Trump’s proposal to shut down the Internet. He said “Assad has to go,” without offering a cogent plan. That left him open to attacks from the Libertarians on stage. He claimed that he successfully defended Ohio, although there is no record of any terrorist attack against Ohio. Kasich remains that rare combination of irrelevant yet also irritatingly unlikable. Grade: D
Talk radio host Hugh Hewitt — The few questions he asked were legitimate. He did get booed once, but only because the audience misunderstood the question. Hewitt challenged the candidates fairly and respectfully. Grade: A
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer — Conservatives had plenty cause for concern at the start. Blitzer began by asking the undercard candidates a question about Trump’s plan to ban Muslims. After that, Blitzer played it straight down the line. His questions were perfectly fair and reasonable. A couple of the candidates rambled on too long, but Blitzer made every effort to stop the filibustering. His questions were substantive and worthy of a presidential debate. Grade: A-
CNN political correspondent Dana Bash — She was the weak link in the moderator chain. She too frequently went for the “cage match” questions that dealt more with personality than policy. She was polite, but her questions were not as meaningful as the ones asked by Blitzer or Hewitt. Grade: C