The Republican Candidates: Substance vs. Style: What Trumps What?

The first debate(s) showed us that the Republicans are often in a war between substance and style.  Can a candidate emerge that will combine both?  Or will theatricality and style Trump competence and substance?

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse August 13, 2015 

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981) August 13th, 2015


AMMAN — The Debate last night was not the farcical circus it could have been.  Aside from Megan Kelly’s activism (how was it the job of her as a moderator to put in a big plug for candidate Carly Fiorina and her standout performance from the earlier second-tier kids-table-debate as the main debate for the top ten began?), she, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace did a good job of keeping the debate lively and interesting with pointed, challenging questions and also kept the more rowdy candidates in line.  They were overall very fair, giving each candidate chances to shine but also putting them on the spot.  Trump was leading in all the polls so it is fair that he got more airtime, and most of the other candidates got the time they deserved relative to their standings in the polls and how close they are in these polls to each other.

The New York Times

The exceptions to the overall fairness were Scott Walker and Rand Paul: Walker was third in many pre-debate polls and second in others, while Paul had tended to also be at the top just behind Walker, Bush, and Trump, so the moderators should not have allowed them to be the next-to-last and last candidates in terms of speaking time.  But still, the debate was good television and surprisingly had a good amount of substance.  Below is an attempt to rank the ten candidates from the main debate (plus Carly Fiorina whose performance was pretty much the only major takeaway from the kids-table-debate of the bottom seven) in terms of substance, then style.

Substance rankings:

#1 Governor John Kasich (OH)

I’ve got to be honest; I had no idea who the hell John Kasich was before this debate.  But I do now, and I was very impressed.  He seems to be 2016’s Jon Huntsman: a substantive, serious, accomplished, sensible, rational Republican who is not afraid to compromise to get results and who does not run on hatred or discrimination in any way.  Of course, all this means that he has zero chance of being chosen by the Republican base as their champion since they seem to abhor most, it not all, of his qualities, even if it would improve their chances of winning in the general election.  Kasich is the popular governor of Ohio.  He was one of a small number of Republican governors who supported Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, and gave a very rational and eloquent defense of this decision, talking about the relationship of the mentally ill, prisons, and emergency-room-care costs to Medicaid.  He did a great job referring to many specific achievements with specific numbers, discussing his record of success in Ohio on multiple fronts with ease.  He also touted his record as a congressman in Washington as Chairman of the House Budget Committee, where he was instrumental in helping to achieve a balanced federal budget with the Clinton Administration and Congress. He showed moderation on both gay rights—saying it was time to accept the Supreme Court ruling and move on—and on immigration, a moderation that will be key in the general election as the election takes place within the United States of America, not just the states of the rebellion of the so-called “Confederate States of America.” This man should be leading in the polls, but the fact that he is not says much about today’s Republican Party. He seems to be the most well-rounded candidate, with national and state experience and a record of balancing budgets and expanding healthcare.

#2 Governor Christ Christie (NJ)

Christie had a lot of details on his record of service—from being a U.S. Attorney that was appointed on September 10th, 2001, who helped to lock up and prosecute terrorists under the Patriot Act to being a governor dealing with tough budgetary and economic issues and having to govern in a blue state—that he weaved in comfortably and impressively into his answers.  He had a lot of specifics to discuss but was able to tie each of them into broad themes as well.   Christie was very eloquent and passionate when discussing everything from terrorism to balancing budgets and dealing with social security, and made an impassioned case for surveillance in a feisty exchange with Rand Paul.  Paul made good points, but Christie won stylistically and many would also say substantively.

#3 Senator Marco Rubio (FL)

Senator Rubio gave a good talk about immigration, talking about the need for comprehensive reform, and demonstrated his knowledge and experience on the issue and getting quite specific.  He talked about his own personal, family, and political background—weaving each one into a compelling narrative—and he talked about how the economy has changed dramatically just in the last few years in a way no other candidate did.  He was clear and sharp, addressed what he was asked directly, and had clever and effective attacks on Hillary Clinton.  He definitely had one of the most substantive performances in this debate.

#4 Senator Rand Paul (KY)

Paul’s points on ISIS were misleading, but he made a solid case for civil liberties and his defense of them as well as for trimming spending.  Yet his line about wanting to “collect more records form terrorists, but less records from innocent Americans” was, to use Christie’s words, ridiculous, because, as Christie also pointed out, “how are you supposed to know” people are criminals or terrorists before they commit their acts,  and that’s why some degree of surveillance is necessary.  That’s not to say that his point was invalid, or that Christie’s points don’t deserve some scrutiny, and Paul made valid points on surveillance and defended them well, even if Christie arguably got the better of him. Paul’s opposition to the Iran deal made absolutely no sense.  Still, even with his even performance, Paul still brought more substance to the table than most.

#5-#6 Tie: (former) Governor Jeb Bush (FL) and Governor Scott Walker (WI)

Governor Bush did a great job defending the humanity of illegal immigrants while still making a competent case for how to deal with illegal immigration.  He did a good job selling what he claims are his achievements in education during his governorship, but that record is actually spotty and questionable at best.  He answered the question on him being his own man well, gave complete answers that addressed what he was asked even if he stumbled verbally.  He sort of flubbed a question about his approving of a Bloomberg charity budget that included funding for Planned Parenthood (the current overblown Satan in Republican politics) but then ended that question with a strong defense of his overall “pro-life” record. Hard to say he did “great” or even “good,” he did ok.

Scott Walker was weak on immigration, against the only practical solution—comprehensive immigration reform—and instead doubling down on his closing of any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently in the country.  His came off as extremely anti-labor/union.  He is just as impractical on abortion, calling for a total ban with no exceptions.  With all his solutions, he was for extreme positions that are generally untenable in the general election.  He had little substantive to say, and was unable to answer even a basic question about foreign policy (likely because he knows almost nothing about foreign policy) and like the other candidates, and made no sense on Iran.

#7 (up from the kids-table-debate) Carly Fiorina

Though surrounded by generally weak competition that helped her to look stronger than she actually is, Fiorina was still able to highlight her international business experience to her advantage, highlighting her personal relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and King Abdullah of Jordan and surprisingly giving herself multiple strong moments on everything from ISIS to the economy.  As the only woman candidate for a party nervous about Hillary, many Republicans are desperate to see her rise enough to at least be vice-presidential-running-mate material.  If she does end up winning either the nomination or a VP slot, this debate will be the moment where people will say it all began.  Still, it remains to be see if she can share the stage and perform well enough with the big boys.  But look for her to be in the top ten for debate #2 and, perhaps to become one of the more substantive candidates in the overall Republican race.

#8 (former) Governor Mike Huckabee (AR)       

Love it or hate it, Huckabee’s invoking of the 5th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution represent a creative, bold, and somewhat rational approach for conservatives to abortion and will certainly win approval from them.  He looked weak compared to Christie on the issue on social security reform, playing for sound bites instead of substance.  He did not speak much in depth on issues, instead appealing to a more general sense of the way America should be governed.  Definitely not one of the more substantive candidates.

#9 Donald Trump

Christie accused Paul of blowing a lot of hot air, but without question the most hot air was blown by Donald Trump.  His perhaps his most substantive point was making it clear that he opposed the Iraq War back in 2004 because he said it would destabilize the region.  He also made intelligent comments about single-payer healthcare working in Canada and Scotland and with getting rid of restricting the healthcare choices available that exist because of a person’s location.  At the same time, theatrically is what characterized the rest of his extensive airtime, no substance.  Lots of tough talk and generalities, but little specific for policy analysts to consider.

#10 Senator Ted Cruz (TX)

Senator Cruz resembled not so much a living, breathing human being but a doll where you pull the string and the doll spews out a number of canned, recorded, unoriginal lines.  All Cruz managed to do was rile up the base and impress no one else.  With position after position, he advocates for extremist position only supported by the right-wing base of the Republican Party that have no chance of passing Congress of being supported by the American people as a whole.  With such a lack of substance, it is not surprising that he goes all out with demagoguery.  His focus and solution for ISIS is a semantic one about focusing on Islam and emphasizing the Islamic nature of ISIS, which would likely be counterproductive by giving ISIS more legitimacy by constantly emphasizing their Islamic aspects as opposed to other aspects, regardless of that fact that ISIS clearly draws inspiration from extremist interpretations of Islam, as many religious extremists from many religionstoday draw and in the past have drawn inspiration from extremist interpretations.

#11 Dr. Ben Carson

While not tripping over his words like Jeb Bush, Carson had almost nothing (and perhaps nothing) substantive to say.  He got his mention of the “Saul Alinsky” model which will mean nothing to anyone outside the Republican base during a general election.  He either just did not answer the questions he was asked or spoke in such vague generalities that no one could have a clue what he would specifically do as president.  Using Christianity and the Bible as the basis for his tax plan showed why this man is not one that anyone should take seriously (unless they are discussing neuroscience).  Just being smart—the man is a neurosurgeon—does not qualify someone for being president.  Being a neurosurgeon in this race (the man said Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to America since slavery) seems to be Dr. Carson’s version of staying at a Holiday Inn Express…

Style Rankings:

#1-#2-#3-#4 Tie: Trump, Rubio, Christie, Kasich

Trump was able to throw everything the moderators threw at him and threw it right back at them.  He remained unbowed and unapologetic and arguably didn’t come off the worse for any of his kerfuffles with candidates or moderators and rhetorically got the better of anyone who crossed him.  The hostile questioning played right into his narrative of being a victim of the media and the Establishment, and he dominated the debate overall, getting the most time and the most coverage/buzz.  It may have been a lot of political hot air, but it was hot air at its best, wildly entertaining and engrossing.

Rubio badly needed his good performance from tonight.  From his nervous, infamous State Of the Union response speech’s water bottle antics to his numerous appearances in Senate committee hearings in which he came off as a vapid lightweight who was out of his depth, there was considerable and very legitimate concern about whether this man could hold himself together under the spotlight, retain composure, and be a man of substance.  Well, for the first time on the national stage, he did just that.  He must have spent a lot of time working on his flaws, prepping, and practicing because the Marco Rubio I saw that night was a different man: poised, confident, funny, and ready for primetime, with some of the most memorable moments from the debate, particularly with his jabs at Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.  It was his finest public performance since becoming a U.S. senator and he since seems to have climbed to the top tier of candidates as a result, with strong boosts in multiple national and state polls.

Christie had a great night, though it may not help him much as he is disliked by the Republican base.  Still, he was very passionate and could weave effective and emotional storytelling into statistics and policy details with ease.  He came back from a very cheap shot about hugging Obama from Paul and got the better of him in that exchange on both (arguably) substance and style.  He was able to handle very tough questions and turn them into positive laundry lists of his accomplishments.  He came off as strong, intelligent, articulate, passionate, and able to handle anything anyone throws at him.

Kasich stayed direct, positive and hopeful throughout.  He declined to attack Trump when the moderator pitched him a big fastball down-the-middle for him to be able to do so.  His overall message was inclusive and not divisive, even included reaching out to minorities that are less successful, and even though he is against gay marriage, he showed that he would show and has shown respect and tolerance for homosexual Americans in a way few if any of the other candidates have.  In fact, his whole style advocates a conservatism that leaves a big place for love and caring for people and a big heart.  In a party that often seem heartless towards the poor, minorities, and illegal immigrants, this is a message that will resound on the national stage.  Unfortunately for him, it is unlikely to resound among the Republican base.  He played his home crowd (the debate was held in Ohio) to his advantage, and presented a good balance between wonkish statistical policy accomplishments and a tender, caring heart.  His overall strong performance seems to have helped him in New Hampshire and Michigan, but not anywhere else so far or nationally.  This is not to the credit of the Republican Party and their voters.

#5 (guest-from-the-kids-table) Fiorina

There is no question that Carly Fiorina was the standout performance of the kids-table-debate of the bottom seven (out of seventeen!) candidates.  On one level, this is a big deal: barring some awful implosion, she unquestionably will be part of the adult-dinner-party next debate.  She was very articulate and good at delivering her talking points and stood far above almost everyone else on that stage, save for Santorum (see the note at the end).  And she was able to weave her experience into her answers in a way that was (rhetorically) impressive, and even managed a few decent jokes.  But at the same time, we have to remember 1.) that she was standing out when surrounded by six bottom-feeders and 2.) that no one at either debate saw her as a threat or felt the need to attack her; it was a pretty smooth ride for her without adversity.  It very much remains to be seen if she can come off as poised and polished when she is under attack from rivals and surrounded by far more accomplished and theatrically-savvy candidates.  The evidence suggests she cannot; she was crushed in her U.S. Senate campaign against California Senator Barbara Boxer in 2010 and on numerous appearances on Real Time with Bill Maher during extended discussions, she has been unable to go past surface-level talking points or discuss anything with a degree of depth and detail that shows an accurate understanding of what she is talking about, even if she sounds better than most Republican candidates.  She is also quite vulnerable on her business record, having been fired as CEO of Hewlett-Packard.  Still, Fiorina may have gained as much as anybody from the debates, maybe even more than any other candidates.  Especially being the sole woman and, thus, a weapons against Democratic charges that Republicans are anti-women, do not expect the party or voters to cast her off the island anytime soon.

#6 Carson

Like Mr. Cruz below, Carson utterly lacked substance.  Yet he was a crowd favorite, delivering heartfelt religious sentiment and amusing applause lines.  He came off as sincere and was able to stay above the sniping occurring between other candidates.  He seemed very much the non-politician (a strong asset to the Republican base) and seemed very natural and at ease on stage as well as very genuine and authentic.  He gave a particularly eloquent message about a person’s brain—not his skin color-defining him or her (though this type of answer does risk downplaying the very real racial problems that exist in America).  Though he seemed unable or unwilling to answer multiple questions, he still let his charm, ease, and message come out clearly.  If we were grading only with style points that the Republican base cares about, Carson would be ranked even higher, and this is beyond doubt as he has surged in most post-debate polls, even as high as second-place in Iowa!  To non-Republicans, he is not someone to be taken seriously; yet it is likely that the Republican base’s love of him means he could have staying-power long into this race.  Frankly, I was ready to write him off as a candidate after his debate performance, but (full disclosure) I am a liberal Democrat and I clearly underestimated his popularity with the base and how his answers would play with that base.  And as an African-American, his simply being in the race is ammunition against Democrats’ charges of the Republican Party being racist and only a party for whites.

#7 Huckabee

Huckabee was humorous and charming in his usual way, smiling throughout and getting plenty of folksy and faith-related comments out there in ways that are sure to continue to endear him to the base.  He certainly did not hurt himself even if he did not stand out.  The crowd consistently warmed to him and he did end the debate with one of the best lines of the night, seeming to hit Trump powerfully and harshly but, actually, in the end, revealing his attack was on Clinton, not Trump.  Yet that was also his only real standout moment besides the abortion answer (see above), as his other answers were predictable and unmemorable if decent.  He didn’t do badly at all, but will have to do much better if he is to rise above the pack.  Still, as a popular Fox News TV personality and as the man who came in second in the Republican primaries of 2008 to John McCain, it will be interesting to see where he is in a few months if other candidates drop out.

#8 Cruz

If Cruz’s lines didn’t come off as so rehearsed, forced, and canned, I might have tied him with Carson or Huckabee.  Both he and Carson utterly lacked substance, but Cruz really came off as a demagogic manipulator.  His lines went over well with the audience, but will only serve to alienate him more with the general public.  Still, he, like Carson, has seen something of a bounce post-debate, though not as big or consistent as Carson’s.  Love him or hate him, he the Republican base loves him and Cruz knows how to retain at least some significant support among it.

#9 Paul

Paul had a very uneven night.  Yes, he got his applause and moments defending civil liberties and smaller government, as was expected, but he didn’t necessarily come off better with his attacks on Trump and Christie.  He had less speaking time than anyone else, but also had moments where he could have given longer answers used more time and declined to do so.  Direct and simple—like his approach to government—but also leaving him a bit on the sidelines.  He showed he could pick a fight, but chose the two brawler candidates best able to respond harshly back—Trump and Christie—to get into fights with and thus, in the end, it’s hard to say he had a good night.

#10-11 Tie: Bush-Walker

Though their performances differed, they ended about equalizing each other; where Walker may have been more articulate, his performance often fell flat and to muted applause with a few exceptions, which were mostly him making jokes about Hillary; where Bush maybe got a better response from the crowd, he stumbled over his words consistently (perhaps the bar is low because of his association with his brother?)  Neither did any serious damage to themselves or anyone else with their performances, but neither really gained anything either, and others’ gains (e.g., Carson, Fiorina, Rubio) already seem to be coming at their expense (their support has dropped in multiple post-debate polls) more than any other candidates. Both ran like they were the frontrunner, trying to not do badly/lose as opposed to trying to win.  Yet, since neither are the frontrunner, this didn’t make sense and it did not help.  Even if they didn’t do badly per se, not standing out has meant they have already begun losing support to other candidates.

Honorable Mention: (former) Senator Rick Santorum (PA)

Don’t completely give up on Rick Santorum.  He is very intelligent, articulate, passionate, genuine, competent, and has a level of charisma.  He came in second behind Romney in 2012 in the Republican primaries.  He has a fairly uniquely moderate economic message among Republicans even if he is socially extremely conservative.  If anyone makes it out of the kids-table-debate-level besides Fiorina, my money would be on him.


Thus, we see a war here with substance versus style in the two very different rankings one would have to give the winners of substance vs. style in these debates even if one disagrees with my specific rankings.  Kasich, Christie, and Rubio would be the best combination of both, though it would seem that only Rubio has a shot among those three candidates.  Part of me would love to be proven wrong.  Two things are for certain: 1.) already, this race is full of surprises and we are still about half a year away from the first contest in Iowa, and 2.) as we watch all this unfold, there will be more surprises yet to come.  Part of me is rooting for substance to win for the sake of the quality of America’s politics, and part of me for entertaining, substance-less style, since my personal preference is for a Democrat to win in 2016.  We’ll have to stay tuned to see what Trumps what and who Trumps who for the Republican nomination and for the presidency.

More Election 2016 coverage from this author:

Don’t Dismiss The Donald: 4 Reasons Why Trump Could Win GOP Nomination

All Hail Hillary! Her Political Nature Is Just What Washington Needs

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