WASHINGTON, November 11, 2015 – The Republican 2016 presidential contenders held their fourth debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Unlike previous debates, this time the focus was on the candidates and not the moderators. Fox Business Network hosted this debate, and the moderators made it clear during the week that professionalism would trump sensationalism. The last GOP debate was a debacle due to the wide panned performances of the CNBC moderators. The other extreme came when Democrats participated in a tea and giggle session hosted by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. Candidates and the American public deserve better than moderators who are either hostile or fawning sycophants. With consummate professionals Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo of FBN hosting this debate, the event was as substantive as meaningful as all debates should be. The third moderator was Gerard Baker of the Wall Street Journal.
Cavuto and Bartiromo specialize in business and financial markets. Unlike the MSNBC model of all liberal politics all the time, Fox Business sticks to its name and reports on business and the economy. This debate was what the CNBC debate was supposed to be, a debate about the economy. With so many Americans desperately looking for jobs, inane questions about divisive social issues and other non-business topics would take the day off.
In an attempt to keep the debate substantive, the field of candidates was winnowed. Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, who was excluded from the previous two GOP debates, would have company on the sideline this time. Former New York Governor George Pataki and South Carolina Lindsey Graham also failed to meet the required 1% threshold. They did not participate in the main debate or the undercard.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal participated in the warmup debate along with two other candidates who have been downgraded. Although New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee were in the top ten, Fox Business was only accepting the top eight candidates. Since Christie and Huckabee had less than 2.5% support, they were removed from the main event and added to the undercard. The undercard was moderated by FBN anchors Sandra Smith and Trish Regan along with Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal.
In terms of letter grades, the moderators were the big winners. They asked solid questions. Grade: A
Santorum showed that he can still connect with blue collar America in ways other Republicans struggle. Grade: B+
Christie did not make any mistakes, and prosecuting Hillary Clinton is a great line he has used before. His closing statement was strong. Grade: B
Huckabee tried to be folksy, but the questions were too serious for his humor on this night. He was just there. Grade: C
Jindal: He was too angry and combative. It is one thing to attack the moderators and other candidates when it is deserved. In this debate, he was the only one with a sharp knife. Grade: D
With that, here are the letter grades for the candidates on the main stage.
Retired Neurosurgeon Ben Carson — He was flawless. After a less-than stellar performance at the last debate, he was very well prepared this time. On the economy and foreign policy, he offered a sober, clear-eyed assessment of the challenges and threats ahead. He looked and acted presidential. He is always calm, but this time was less laid back, which was a good thing. He had passion. Grade: A
Businessman Donald Trump — He was very calm and composed. In the last debate he was too subdued. This time he found the right balance. He backed up his views on trade and immigration with substance, not bombast. Ironically, when Kasich attacked him, he took a softer approach and it worked perfectly. Grade: A
Florida Senator Marco Rubio — He was as polished as ever. He normally wins every conflict, but this time Rand Paul almost argued him to a draw on foreign intervention. Rubio did not make any mistakes, but this was the debate where Rubio did not completely wipe away someone coming at him. Grade: A—
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush — After three terrible performance, he finally had a good night. He was in command of the facts, and presented a conservative agenda without sucking up to liberals. He kept the focus on Hillary Clinton and showed more passion and energy than in past debates. Everyone knows he is cerebral. On this night he finally connected. Grade: B+
Former Kentucky Senator Rand Paul — He normally gets his clock cleaned by everyone. On this night he made a forceful case for non-interventionism without looking like a lunatic. He made lucid, fair points. He did not wander off and start talking about marijuana. He was focused and disciplined. Grade: B
Texas Senator Ted Cruz — He is fantastic when taking on demonic liberal moderators. These moderators were fine so early on he had nobody to fight. He got stronger as the night went on but he was off his game early on. He is strong when tangling with others but with fewer conflicts, he was overshadowed on this night. Grade: B—
Former Businesswoman Carly Fiorina — She was terrible on the economic questions and brilliant on the foreign policy questions. She actually bashed supply-side theory, saying that you cannot lower taxes and reduce spending. This is heresy to Wall Street Journal conservatives. She was fantastic in taking a tough line with Russian President Vladimir Putin. She started badly but got better in the middle of the debate. Grade: C+
Ohio Governor John Kasich — He was obnoxious, constantly interrupting and demanding more time to talk. When he finally had time he delivered a rambling soliloquy on everything and nothing. He looked unhinged. He praised Obama once and tried to suck up to the liberal media. Cruz belted him on bailouts. Grade: F
Moderators: Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo were excellent. They pressed the candidates while remaining professional. Grade: A
Gerard Baker asked a couple of inane questions but was far better than anything at any NBC product. Grade: C