Winners and Losers of the CNN GOP Debate in California

Wow. That was a very long debate. I don’t think I realized going into Wednesday night that I would be forced to watch CNN for hours on end, but c’est la vie, I’m the one who decided to get a job writing about politics, current events and culture. While sitting through the debates was difficult, now I have to parse my impressions of the two events and deliver some kind of logical and coherent commentary and that could prove as difficult as the actual debate viewing.

(By the way you can watch the entire debate if you scroll to the end of this article or you can read the transcript here.)

Let me start by discussing the event itself.

CNN, the debate was too long. Three hours is just unnecessary, especially when the vast majority of your questions end like this, “So, tell Mr. Trump why he’s wrong.” I was very excited for this debate because I think that Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and Hugh Hewitt (the debate moderators) are all great. Tapper may be the most fair and balanced voice in the news media today, Hugh Hewitt is a brilliant conservative and Dana Bash is a solid reporter. Sadly, the questions they chose in the first half of the debate all seemed better designed for a soap opera than they were for a presidential debate.

This carries me to my next point: the part of the debate that focused on “trumping Trump” sucked. The folks on that stage are supposed to be on the same team. The candidates agree on much more than they disagree and they need to act like it. A GOP Presidential debate should be about substance and the first half of the debate was more about petty rivalry and personal disdain.

Lastly, I noticed something interesting last night (and maybe you did too). When the debate finally turned the corner from dramatic train wreck to philosophical debating – Donald Trump went silent. Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Dr. Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, and even Lindsey Graham all made salient POLICY points in different parts of the debate… but Donald Trump was absent from any policy discussion. That’s a big deal, folks. It speaks to the larger point about the “unseriousness” of Mr. Trump as a presidential candidate.

DTrumpThus far Mr. Trump has advanced into the lead for being willing to buck politically correct culture and say things that average Americans are thinking and by articulating the same kind of angst and concern that most of us have. The problem is that the more he speaks, the more we should be realizing that he doesn’t actually have any plans to fix the problems that he (and we) are complaining about. Even worse, did you see the answer that finally forced him to sit out the last portion of the debate?

Billionaire businessman Donald Trump on Wednesday doubled down on his controversial stance that vaccinations are linked to what he described as an autism “epidemic.”

“I’ve seen it,” he said at the second main-stage GOP debate on CNN Wednesday night.

“You take this little beautiful baby, and you pump — it looks just like it’s meant for a horse,” he said of vaccines.

“We’ve had so many instances … a child went to have the vaccine, got very, very sick, and now is autistic.”

The GOP front-runner said he still supported certain vaccines, but in smaller doses over a longer period of time. Under current procedures, he said it’s dangerous for the public.

“Autism has become an epidemic, he said. “It has gotten totally out of control.”

In the wake of his answer, he was pummeled by Dr. Ben Carson and then out-explained by Dr. Rand Paul, who is also against government forcing vaccinations. Paul prefaced his response on vaccines by calling them one of humanity’s greatest advances – but for freedom’s sake, parents should have more of a say in how they are administered.

Anyway, after this point, Trump seemed to fade into the background content on letting the other candidates duke it out over actual issues of substance like the war on terror, ISIS, Iran, the 10th Amendment, national drug policy and more.

So, how would I judge the winners and losers?

Honestly, in a debate this big, it’s hard to do. But I’ve kind of decided to just go with my gut, based on what I saw and heard and reactions in the aftermath.

I’ll start with the “Losers.”

Graham, Pataki and SantorumEveryone not named Jindal in the first debate. Without Carly Fiorina there to really wow the TV audience, the 2nd tier candidates probably won’t make much of an impression. I did think that the debate was lively and interesting, but I love this stuff — most people probably just didn’t care. I thought Bobby Jindal was the clear winner and that Lindsey Graham was adversarial just to be adversarial (proving that he is a one issue candidate), but I walked away thinking that it’s probably time for most of this group (Pataki, Graham, Santorum) to hang up their Presidential aspirations.

Now Bobby Jindal (R-LA) – He may have won the first debate, but honestly, no one cares. I love Bobby Jindal but no one was watching the early debate and up against a one issue buffoon like Graham, a no-name RINO like Pataki, and Santorum… people care even less than usual. When is a win not a win? When it comes in the pre-debate and your name isn’t Carly Fiorina.

Jeb Bush (R-FL) – Once again, Jeb Bush makes everyone wonder why he’s the favorite son of the establishment GOP. While he didn’t have a terrible night, in fact he did far better this time around than last, Donald Trump still seemed to alpha dog him into a corner. When Trump and Bush appear on the same stage, Bush always ends up looking like a beta, and that can’t be good for his presidential aspirations. On the substance, Bush even had Trump beat on more than one occasion… but it just doesn’t seem to matter. For me, it just doesn’t feel like his heart is in the fight.

Scott Walker (R-WI) – I am a big Walker fan, or at least I was, but over the last couple of months the Governor of Wisconsin has lost his shine and faded into the background. He can’t seem to distinguish himself from the other candidates, and the only time we hear about him these days is because he’s misstepped on the campaign trail.

Dr. Ben Carson. I’m also a fan of Dr. Carson, but more for his personal character than his political acumen. I appreciate that he’s a conservative, but he seems to have a difficult time explaining why his ideas are better for America than the Democrat’s ideas are. I also like his personality, but it just doesn’t serve him well in a debate with the most adept and aggressive politicians in the country.

John Kasich (R-OH) – The first debate was in Cleveland, Ohio and that was a huge boon to Kasich (the Governor of Ohio). However, this debate was in California, so Kasich wasn’t playing to a home crowd and it showed. Perhaps the most important moment in the debate happened when the weight of the entire GOP field came crashing down on him after he dared to say he wouldn’t tear up the Iran Deal! Every other candidate looked completely flummoxed by Kasich’s stance, and his explanation didn’t help, opening the door for Ted Cruz to step in and destroy Kasich.

The last “Losers” I’ll mention are not really losers, they’re just not winners either, and in a debate this large with a crowded field of solid candidates they couldn’t afford to just “not lose.” Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, and Chris Christie. All three of these men did fine, though Paul did have a few zingers lobbed at him, but none of them did anything to differentiate themselves from the mass, and Huckabee in particular had a very quiet night (except when answering a question about Kim Davis). Christie had the best night of any of the establishment candidates, which makes me wonder if maybe they’ll start giving him a little bit more love in the coming days.

Now, let’s talk Winners.

Ted Cruz (R-TX) – I have never seen Ted Cruz “lose” a debate. Ever. Even when he gets in a debate with a liberal on the street, the Senator from Texas shines when debating politics, and he did so again. Sadly, CNN gave more time to more than half of the other candidates, so Cruz didn’t get much time in the limelight on Wednesday. Hopefully he’ll get more opportunities in the next debate.

Also, did you watch him tear Kasich a new one on the Iran Deal? It was epic!

Marco Rubio (R-FL) – I have never understood the immense amount of disdain that many of my fellow conservatives have built up against Marco Rubio. I know that he joined up with the RINO’s and Democrats on amnesty a few years back – but he has since backtracked from that position, and I don’t think he has failed us on any other major issue… and yet, the conservative base hasn’t forgiven him. I hope the CNN debate gave conservatives some second thoughts about how they’ve treated Rubio, and I hope they’ll now consider lending him their support. Senator Rubio’s best moment may have come on the heels of a question to Jeb Bush about gun control and gun violence. Where Bush argued for some gun control measures, Rubio jumped in to get at the heart of the matter.

Rubio: There’s a broader issue here, Hugh. And there’s a broader issue here as well.

First of all, the only people that follow the law are law-abiding people. Criminals by definition ignore the law, so you can pass all the gun laws in the world, like the left wants. The criminals are going to ignore it because they are criminals.

Here’s the real issue.

The real issue — the real issue is not what are people using to commit violence, but why are they committing the violence? And here’s the truth: Because you cannot separate the social, moral wellbeing of your people from their economic and other wellbeing. You cannot separate it.

You can’t have a strong country without strong people, you cannot have strong people without strong values, and you cannot have strong values without strong families and the institutions in this country that defend and support those families.

Hugh Hewitt: Thank you, Senator.

Rubio: Well, and today, we have a left-wing government under this president that is undermining all of the institutions and society that support the family and teach those values.

That’s some good stuff right there.

Carly Fiorina – Mrs. Fiorina ends up as my big winner (I know, I know there is a name conspicuously missing from my list – I’ll get there). After her dominant outing in the first pre-debate debate, many wondered if she’d be able to shine when debating the big boys. Boy, did she ever. Fiorina came off as both personable and tough, as both thoughtful and decisive, and as both intellectual and funny. To me, putting that all together equals winning. Whether discussing criminal justice reform, drug laws, business, economics or foreign policy, she never misses a beat. She may be the best prepared and most intelligent (sounding) candidate from either party that I have ever seen. She had several important moments during this debate: confronting Trump about making comments on her personal appearance, discussing the death of her child due to drug addiction and her crushing response on Iran and Planned Parenthood.


Fiorina had such a good night that conservative, funny man Steven Crowder felt compelled to put together this super-cut of her best moments.

That’s just awesome.

I wasn’t the only one who thought she took the day, either.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 4.52.11 PM

Alright, by now you’ve probably noticed that the name I haven’t mentioned (in terms of winning or losing) is Donald Trump. Trump belongs in his own category entirely because of the force of his personality and his poll ratings. I don’t think Donald Trump could ever win a debate because he just knows too little about these issues – so that puts him at an immediate disadvantage with me. However, I also know that these debates aren’t all about winning arguments… they’re also about winning voters. Trump does this by the sheer strength of his personality.

So, I don’t think he did anything to win in this debate. In fact, he got beat up pretty good on the issues and on several of his recent missteps. However, I don’t feel comfortable putting him in the losing category because he didn’t really do anything to lose either. All in all, it was probably a wash for Trump, though I suspect he didn’t win any new fans and he may have lost a few.

(This focus group response kind of goes along with that.)

So, what did you think of the debate. Did any of you change your minds?

You can see the entire debate below:

The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by

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