The Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., was the first debate of the real election season (post-Labor Day) and it was certainly an endurance contest for the candidates, the moderators and the viewers. In case you were watching the season finale of Born Again Virgin, don’t have cable or just find the GOP field to be inherently distasteful, don’t worry. Here are the six most important takeaways from the second Republican debate.
1. Worst. Debate. Format. Ever.
I hate to say this, because CNN anchor, and debate moderator, Jake Tapper is an excellent journalist, and his hosting abilities are top-notch. Nevertheless, the questions, the format and the organization of this debate were probably the worst I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s always politically fashionable to complain that a debate lacked substance, but in this case it’s hard to fault the candidates when the moderators don’t ask any substantive questions. During the first 10 minutes, candidates were asked whether they agreed with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (who wasn’t even there) that Donald Trump was too “hotheaded” to have his finger on the nuclear button.
Beyond the bizarre hyperbolic nature of that question, the debate boiled down to asking one candidate to respond to a quoted insult from another candidate. Fox News actually did a much better job of asking substantive policy questions and follow-ups in the first debate than these moderators did. And at a three-hour running time, the process become more tedious as time went on. There was clearly no air conditioning in the room, and the candidates looked hot, uncomfortable and tired by the end of the night.
2. Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio will take big leaps.
Everyone in the debate read from the same 1990s political playbook and decided to jump on Trump the front-runner and completely ignored Ben Carson. The result? Carson got to build upon his mediocre performance in the first debate (where he spoke for only six minutes but skyrocketed into second place). He was more engaging, spoke eloquently on the minimum wage and will probably catch up to Trump in post-debate polling. The rest of the field had better realize that he’s solidifying his grip.
Businesswoman Carly Fiorina sounded more confident and comfortable talking foreign policy than Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) or Marco Rubio (Fla.), which is pretty embarrassing. She also landed the first real hit on Trump by any politician on either side since President Barack Obama’s speech at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Rubio sounded the best of any of the establishment politicians, which isn’t saying much, but at least he didn’t do himself any damage.
3. Stick a Fork in Scott Walker and Jeb Bush.
These guys are so done, they should trade in their watches for turkey timers. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker disappeared for large stretches of the debate, failing to really insert himself into foreign policy discussions or anything else. When Trump pointed out that once the voters got to “know Gov. Walker,” he dropped from second to eighth in the polls, Scott didn’t really have a comeback. He may drop to ninth based on this tepid debate performance.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush whiffed on every prepared attack he had on Trump. His self-deprecating jokes came off as desperate, and his attempt at playing the tough guy fell flatter than his poll numbers. Word of campaign advice to Bush: If you’re going to feign offense and demand that Trump apologize to your Mexican-American wife, don’t back down the moment the Donald blows you off. You either look like you weren’t really offended or you weren’t man enough to stand up for her. Neither is a good look for a candidate battling the perception that he’s weak. Throughout the debate, Bush kept claiming that he was his own man, like a political version of Pinocchio, but I think he’d essentially thrown in the towel at the end when he suggested that Margaret Thatcher (a former prime minister of England) be the first woman to grace U.S. currency.
Speaking of women, or minorities, or students, or the poor, or anybody other than upper-middle-class ideologues, this debate featured zero questions about domestic policy for your average American. There was not one question about education policy, whether for public schools or college. There was no question about riots, criminal justice or mass incarceration. Again, even Fox News managed to squeeze in a Black Lives Matter question.
And even more telling, when Tapper asked the candidates a “fun” question—which woman they would put on the new $10 bill, out of all of the famous, impressive, world-changing women in U.S. history—here is how some of them responded: Two picked their wives or mothers, two picked foreigners (Mother Teresa and Margaret Thatcher), and Fiorina said she wouldn’t put any woman on U.S. currency. Three more picked Rosa Parks, because I think Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. are the only famous black people they know from the civil rights era. I don’t entirely blame the candidates for this, but it’s amazing that in three hours, huge swaths of domestic policy were just ignored in favor of finding out who dissed whom on Twitter that week.
5. The Democrats need to pay attention.
This is a much, much smarter Republican field than in 2012. For all of Trump’s bombast, they are avoiding some of the more ridiculous debate statements from previous campaign years, and some of them (most notably Carson, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Bush) are doing a good job of presenting themselves as friendly, if not overly qualified, candidates for president. When former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders finally go at it in October (still almost a month away), they will need to put on a show for the public to match the passion and engagement that these Republicans have shown in the campaign process. One of the other Democratic presidential contenders—former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley or somebody—is going to have to take a swing, or the Dems’ performance will pale in comparison with the GOP debates thus far.
6. They need to retire the kids-table debates.
Jindal isn’t taking anyone’s place on the main stage, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s own constituents don’t want him to run for president, and it’s unlikely that future network debates are going to expand the prime-time slots beyond 11 people. Time for the also-rans to wrap it up.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.