Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Walker Flubs First GOP Debate

His tepid style hurt him. Who won and where does this leave Walker?

By - Aug 7th, 2015 11:24 am
Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio

It was not a good night for Scott Walker. I have argued consistently that Walker was well-positioned in the Republican presidential primary and could win the nomination. Well, last night he hit a major bump in the road. He played it safe while other GOP presidential candidates engaged with each other, and Walker all but disappeared for large stretches of the debate. When he did speak, he lacked gravitas, raising questions whether he has the stature of the top candidates.

Say what you will about Fox TV, but the network really scored big with this debate. Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace did a terrific job of asking tough questions and teasing out differences between the candidates. There’s something troll-like and icky about Baier, but he did a solid job. Because Fox doesn’t worry about criticism and styles itself more as an entertainment medium, the anchors didn’t worry — to the viewers delight and education — about giving every candidate equal time or equal treatment.

That was obvious in their handling of Donald Trump. From the first it was clear that Fox’s agenda was to smoke Trump out as a false Republican and the hosts did a very good job of it. They asked any candidate who won’t pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee to raise their hand and only Trump did so. They grilled him about his years of supporting Democratic candidates and positions, about his ugly comments about women, about his bankruptcies and what they said about him as a businessman. They raised tons of doubts about Trump, and his standing may drop in the polls as a result.

So who won? Taking the 10 candidates in order, from worst to first, here’s my ranking:

Tenth: Ben Carson: Not ready for prime time. Carson was so light on specifics he barely seemed there. Indeed, after the debate was over, when all the candidates were shaking hands, Carson stood by himself, wandered the stage and looked as untethered as he did during the debate. Carson had a fun summation speech, but said little to convince anyone he could be president. His popularity, one suspects, comes from the fact that a black candidate assures white conservatives that race doesn’t matter in America. Thanks Ben.

Ninth: John Kasich: Zzzzzz. Kasich is the height of political hackery and never seemed to depart from his stump speech, other than a mangled and maladroit response to the issue of gay marriage. He had zilch charisma, spoke in a flurry of talking points and kept selling his credentials as a former congressman to a crowd that loves to hate Washington insiders. Hard to see much staying power here.

Eighth: Donald Trump: It’s tough to pick the yuckier of his ugly comments but I’ll vote for his complete indifference to investors who lost millions while he gained from his bankruptcies. His body language — the slumping shoulders, Mafia gangster hand gestures and protruding lips — made him look more like the Don than the Donald. Yes he got a few laughs, but he looked completely out of place and markedly un-presidential on a stage he didn’t run.

Seventh: Scott Walker: Not unlike in his first debate against Mary Burke, Walker again decided to largely ignore the opponent, but in this case he wasn’t facing a weak, political neophyte, but a crew of skilled speakers, and Walker quickly faded into the woodwork. His answers were too perfunctory, too short, too lacking in passion, and he often finished with a sour look on this face. His calm-in-the-eye-of-a-storm style, which helped him in the face of Madison protesters or debates with Tom Barrett, here made him look disengaged and almost bored. He did improve toward the debate’s second half, but this night was a big setback for him.

Sixth: Jeb Bush: Bush has to play the role of the adult, explaining why the issues are more nuanced and that’s never very fun. He tries to sell himself as a Reagan-esque optimist about America, but his personal bearing suggests an introverted accountant. Bush neither hurt nor helped himself. He looked solid and smart enough to continue attracting gobs of cash from fat cats, but it wasn’t the kind of performance that inflames conservative voters.

Fifth: Mike Huckabee: Huckabee is good on TV and was consistently folksy, engaging and often surprising. He held his own in a mini-debate with Chris Christie and his defense of Social Security was powerful and managed to make government entitlements seem like a conservative value. He has gained weight and age and could use a cosmetic makeover, but his strong performance made him look relevant rather than old news, and that’s what he needed to accomplish.

Fourth: Rand Paul: Paul doesn’t really have to win, he just has to prove he’s not out of the GOP mainstream and he does that far more adroitly than his dad did. Paul handled his mini-debate with Christie well, was comfortable and substantive on stage, and skillfully made his pitch as a “different kind of Republican,” a message tailored to keep him relevant throughout the primary.

Third: Ted Cruz: Cruz is a trained debater and uses pauses to dramatic effect, never looked hurried, always seemed specific and detailed in his responses, yet had an overarching theme to everything he said. He projected an anti-Washington fervor without seeming out of the Republican mainstream. He didn’t come off as a bomb thrower, but as a truth teller, and that’s clearly the message he seeks to convey. Mission accomplished.

Second: Chris Christie. This was a big night for a big man. Christie barely made the cut for the debate, but showed he truly belonged. He consistently projected power, humanity and intelligence, he handled — with gusto — the two mini-debates set up by the anchors, and he did a good job packaging himself as a conservative to an audience that probably has its suspicions. Every once in a while a little of his arrogance peaked out, but mostly he excelled. He is going to make every GOP debate entertaining.

First: Marco Rubio. He’s a rock star. His back story as the son of poor Cuban immigrants is captivating. He is good looking, youthful and projects a unique warmth and passion. He comes off as polished yet down-to-earth, powerful but never pugnacious. He had no flubs, had a strong message (if a bit generic at times) and his style (unlike the bumptious Christie) is likely to wear well. If he wins the nomination he could be a nightmare opponent for Hillary Clinton.

So where does that leave Walker? His entire appeal has been as the anti-Jeb but he’s in danger of being overshadowed by Rubio, Cruz, Christie and maybe even Huckabee. He had better start mixing it up with candidates in future debates and better start projecting passion or he could quickly plummet in the polls.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

19 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Walker Flubs First GOP Debate”

  1. PMD says:

    I was really surprised to hear Mordecai Lee on WUWM this morning say that Walker did a solid job. The consensus seems to be that he fell into the background and did nothing to counter the criticism that he’s not very charismatic or ready for prime time. I have read many comparisons to Tim Pawlenty (and not just from Democrats). Lee says Walker accomplished his goals and didn’t suffer any fatal errors. That may be true, but it’s going to take a lot more than that for him to stand out and put some distance between himself and other candidates.

    The biggest winner last night? Hillary Clinton. Trump was hardly the only buffoon on that stage.

  2. Dave says:

    It’s hard to teach an idiot how to debate.

  3. Will says:

    The debate last night just made me sad that these Repubs as well as Cliinton are the candidates we have to choose from. Obama ’16

  4. Observer says:

    I pretty much disagree with your placements but two things. I watched it all. None seemed like our next President. In fact, I’d like to start a “Draft WCD For President” campaign. A debate between him and Sir Donald would be golden.

  5. TF says:

    I agree that Rubio came off the best but I doubt he’d be a major threat to Clinton in a general election. To use a quote from the last Republican nominee, the guy is “severely conservative” and would likely fare worse than Bush or Kasich with moderate Republicans.

  6. Michael says:

    Strongly disagree about Christie. Thought he really struggled, especially in those mini-debates.

  7. Marie says:

    They all seemed intent on throwing out the same red meat, with only minor distinctions.

    Christie stood out by saying millionaires should not collect Social Security, Kasich for not having slashed education and social services (though Walker did not have to account for doing that). Rand Paul is supposedly libertarian but they all want to defund Planned Parenthood. So now birth control is evil as well as abortion.

  8. TF says:

    @Marie: Absolutely. How many times did someone say “I took on the teachers’ union” or “we fought the teacher’s union and won” without providing any context? Public sector workers have been so demonized that the right doesn’t even need to justify their hatred. They just say “We crushed the union” and everyone cheers.

  9. Rich says:

    I sure hope “we fought the xyz union” doesn’t go far….How is it not the same as Romney’s 47% stuff (except for the fact that USA is only ~11% unionized).

    Regardless of anyone’s specific feelings on unions, why would we want a President who openly boasts about pitting America against itself? Shouldn’t we compete with the rest of the world? And if our economy is based on making and consuming, then we’d better have people who can do both.

  10. Barbara Cooley says:

    Walker is never going to look engaged if he can’t get his eyes open. He looks half drugged and doesn’t sound much better. And the smirks at the end! Yuck.

  11. mike drew says:

    Another strong colm, following the gerrymandering winner. But you’re wrong on Kasich. He’s got by far their strongest resume and is the only candidate unafraid to sound somewhat progressive. Walker? A smirking Wizard of Ooze with zero substance, an embarrassment to the state..

  12. Bruce Thompson says:

    I thought Trump’s big strength was authenticity. His weakness is that the authentic Trump is pretty awful.
    The only other candidate with flashes of authenticity was Kasich. His compassion seemed genuine.

  13. Observer says:

    I’m not going to tell anyone my link here is “fair and balanced” but I do remember his name in connection with unions so I Googled it and found this. I did not know he helped found ALEC. I do give him props on his compassionate summation of the SCOTUS gay marriage ruling but remember he still said first that marriage was between a man and a woman. in his mind. He sounds like a older version of our own Governor.

  14. A busdriver says:

    Walker is not ready for prime time so there where no surprises except maybe to Walker. He can kiss all that Koch money goodbye. But, then again they have money to burn so they can have a tax write-off. You just can’t fix stupid.

  15. Bruce Thompson says:

    In running a self-financed campaign, Trump echoes Herb Kohl. Remember “Nobody’s senator but yours”? In terms of behavior, however, Kohl was the anti-Trump. I can’t imagine him saying any of the things that Trump says about women, immigrants, etc.

  16. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Humm, He did not flub anything, but was organized, stated his case and came across. He did not do any harm or any lot of god but to jump from Wisconsin to the big stage and not screw up was good. i do not like Trump but thought that Fox screwed him, looking for ratings and on one point Megyn lied. I like Rubio, Kasich, Fiorina and Perry. All strong people. Bush was blah. Christie is a buffoon but came across fairly well. The people that like Trump hate the GOP lackluster leaders.

  17. TJP says:

    Completely agree with Murphy – Anyone see his forced smile as he was listening to the question. Seems to me that was a que that he had his robotic response all set and it showed. He didn’t use his entire time. All of the so called ” debaters” except Walker got the gong that their time was up. All except Walker showed passion.

  18. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Bruce Murphy and the other Walker haters are so transparent. If he got up, walked on the water across Lake Michigan the Journal and Murphy would say: “Walker cannot swim”. You are all so silly. Must be really frustrating to have lots to him three times but at some time you should quit whining.

  19. Observer says:

    Hillary speaks out on Scott Walker’s plan to ignore racial problems in order to solve them.

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