The guys and gals at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and at EmpowerTexans showed the world how to put on a debate last night in Austin. It was fast paced, lively, and, when the moderators were doing the questioning, relevant to the issues at hand. After the moderated debate, each candidate was given a question that came from social media – I didn’t think that portion of the debate was helpful but it did generate interest on the web, so I suppose that the sponsors would consider it successful.
The moderators (Jason Embry from the Austin American Statesman, Pedro Rojas from Univision Houston, and Brad Watson from WFAA) were excellent and challenged the candidates when they were evasive or tried to dodge a question. It isn’t easy to try and keep on schedule while at the same time making certain that each candidate gets a fair shake but they managed to do it and do it well. As we’ve seen in the multitude of presidential debates, too often moderators focus on one or two candidates and the others just sort of stand around hoping to be involved at some point. That didn’t happen with this panel. Kudos.
There was a large crowd in attendance. I didn’t have a chance to count but there had to be somewhere close to a thousand people. For the most part they were courteous and adhered to the rules but there were times when they couldn’t contain their enthusiasm for their candidate. The Cruz and Addison supporters were the most enthusiastic. Craig James received the loudest applause when he took on Jason Embry for asking a “gotcha” question (who is the Sec of Defense). In fact, James took on the moderators a couple of times but was as nice as he could be towards the other candidates. Wanna bet that changes before the race is over? Addison, as is his norm, delivered several “common man” jokes and barnyard references. Cruz repeatedly attacked Dewhurst as expected. Dewhurst largely ignored the attacks but did start defending his record. Leppert’s criticism of both Dewhurst and Cruz was a bit too subtle to call it an attack but he did try.
So who won? Beats me. I think that if you support one of the candidates, you will say your guy won. There weren’t any major gaffes, i.e. no Rick Perry moments, so none of these guys will drop out based upon their performance. What I like to do is to grade each guy’s performance based upon what they need to do to move their campaigns forward. No one really knows when the primary will be held, so declaring winners and losers doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I’ll put them in the order they were on the stage, left to right. Why? Why not?
Craig James – A – His mission was the easiest and hardest of all of the candidates. Easiest because all he had to do was not look like a fool for doing this. Hardest because people were certain that he was a fool for doing this and were ready to dismiss him. No one that was in attendance or watched via the livestream could have walked away thinking that he was a fool. Perhaps they didn’t like the simplicity of his platform but for every person that thinks that way, there will be one that thinks, hmm, simple is good. He was passionate, articulate, became more at ease as the night wore on, and dressed down a member of the dreaded mainstream media to the audience’s delight.
He had a few weak moments but that is to be expected. He certainly showed the “fire in the belly” that so many voters favor. So you can give him whatever grade you want but in my book, he gets an A.
Ted Cruz – B – Cruz had a tough job to do. He’s been running for statewide office about three years now and still doesn’t have much statewide name id. He needed to land a hard blow to Dewhurst, hard enough that he could get free media to increase his name id because even though he has raised a good amount of money, he doesn’t have a large enough amount for statewide media purchases. He knew this and it was obviously his strategy going in. So much so that I think he was pressing, taking so many shots that after a while, the crowd became numb or even agitated at his attacks. After one of his shots, a Charlie Sheen reference, there was a little laughter but also a murmur in the crowd of, enough. After the debate, a woman came up to me and told me that she wanted to go on camera to tell Cruz that he “pissed me off” with that line. I’ve never met this woman before and wasn’t seeking her out, she just walked up to me.
He also struggled mightily when trying to answer a question about what his rate would be on a flat tax. The moderator, Mr. Watson, did not let him get away with trying to dodge the question and repeatedly asked him about the rate. Ted never answered, saying only “as low as possible”. If you are running for Senate, and have been as long as Ted has, you should have some idea by now of what your flat tax details should be, if indeed that is what you support.
He had many high points and was able to get his message out that Dewhurst is not a conservative. Plus his attacks were frequent enough that all of the mainstream media reports on the debate mention his name – so in that respect the plan worked. But those reports are minor and read only by people currently interested in the primary and will soon fade into the woodwork, especially if the primary moves to the summer months. And that is why I give him a B. Good performance certainly but no knockout punch delivered.
David Dewhurst – A- – As the front runner, he had one job to do – don’t screw up. And he didn’t. Some of the Cruz backers were complaining that he took too long to speak and that he sometimes wasn’t as articulate as their guy. True. He tends to hesitate before answering, I suppose going through it in his mind to make certain he is on point. I don’t see that as a negative but a lot of people do. And when he does answer, he goes into the minute details of the issue, which is why he has a reputation as a “wonk”. Again, I fail to see why that is a negative but some people do.
For most of the debate, he was able to ignore Cruz’s attacks and focus on Obama or defend his record without naming Cruz. He slipped up one time near the end and addressed Cruz by name. Not bad considering how many times he was attacked. He defended his record well and managed to parry the attacks with facts and I still don’t think that Cruz’s main charge, that Dewhurst isn’t a conservative, will stick. He may not be a “movement conservative” but that is different and I think most Republican voters know it. I guarantee you that independent voters think of Dewhurst as a conservative but since they don’t vote in primaries, who cares, right?
His best moments were in his closing statement. First, he told his story. By that I mean, his life story. Cruz had just told the story of his father immigrating from Cuba with $100 and nothing else, making a success of his life, and instilling those values in his son. It is a nice story, one that Cruz tells often but it isn’t “his” story – it is his father’s story, a rags to riches tale. Cruz grew up in an upper-middle class home in a suburb of Houston. Dewhurst looked at Cruz and said that Cruz had it easy compared to him.
I don’t know if that was planned or not but it was effective. He went on to tell how his father was killed by a drunk driver when he was three, how he had to work his way through school, then worked to become successful. His story. Very effective because it negated Cruz’s father’s story and connected Dewhurst with the crowd on a human level. Suddenly he wasn’t this stiff politician on stage but a guy on “real street” to borrow a term from Craig James.
Then he talked about Texas and his record, ending with “We can do it. We’ve done it in Texas. We can do it in Washington.” His supporters, and there are many even if they aren’t as loud as the others, will remain confident in their man after this debate. And that was his only goal, so I’ll give him an A-, the minus because of that one slip up when he said Cruz’ name.
Tom Leppert – C – I hate to give Leppert a low grade because he easily had the most substantive arguments of the night. As usual. But substance isn’t what I’m grading on, mission is. And his mission last night was to move voters his way and I just don’t see that happening based on this performance.
He did a nice job talking about lowering crime in Dallas by hiring more police and offsetting the cost of that by eliminating non-essential personnel in other departments and eliminating whole departments. He was completely prepared to talk about his flat tax plan and did so in detail. He was able to articulate why the 17th Amendment should not be repealed. And on and on.
Unfortunately, voters don’t usually vote for substance alone – they need passion, some deep emotional connection to move from one candidate to another. He may have moved some of the truly undecided but frankly, few of those people were in the room last night and fewer still of those people were watching the livestream. Leppert certainly has passion but he doesn’t have the outward display of it that Cruz does. Or James for that matter.
He is going to have to attack Cruz and Dewhurst more overtly. He did make a couple of subtle mentions of a career politician and a guy running for multiple offices wanting to be a career politician. But that ain’t gonna cut it. He’s going to have to call them out by name on specific differences. He needs Cruz and/or Dewhurst to attack him. And they aren’t going to do it if they don’t see the need. If Dewhurst is the career politician he’s talking about, say it. If Cruz has no record, call him out on it. You don’t need to go overboard with contrasting attacks but they work. And they show voters that you have that “fire in the belly” thing.
But if the race was decided solely on substance, Leppert would easily win. He displayed a breadth and depth of knowledge on every single subject that no other candidate came close to and he’s done it consistently at forum after forum. Perhaps I’m wrong and not giving voters enough credit but I have to stick with my gut feeling and give him a C.
Glenn Addison – A – What was his mission? To move voters? No. To gain credibility with the media and thus get his name out a little? Yes. To get his name in the press no matter what they say about you? Yes.
I don’t know how much credibility you gain with the media when your most memorable phrase is “pull that piglet off the sow’s teat” but it darn sure got his name in the press. As did his offer to provide funeral services for Cruz after Cruz said he’d lay down in front of a train to stop Obamacare. Or that a “bunch of wussy, spineless Republicans refuse to deal with China”. And getting his name in the press is what counts at this point.
He has some themes that “common” voters like. Limiting himself to one term. Abolishing the EPA and other “unconstitutional” departments of the federal government. Standing up to the Chinese and re-opening closed factories in the USA. So when his name gets out there, and “common” voters hear his ideas, some will vote for him. He gets a solid A for his performance.
So there you go. Your grades will no doubt be different from mine and that is a-okay by me. At least you are grading them. Right? You are grading them so that you can make the best choice, right? Hmm? If you aren’t, you should be. No one should get your vote “just cause”.
This was a fun and substantive debate. There will be at least two more with all of the parties on stage and I’m looking forward to each of them.
Many thanks to David Guenthner of the Texas Public Policy Foundation for allowing me to attend.
Craig James – TexansforCraigJames.com
David Dewhurst – DewhurstforTexas.com
Glenn Addison – GlennAddison.com
Empower Texans – EmpowerTexans.com