Most well-adjusted Americans who don’t cover politics for a living probably came to an important conclusion last night: there was simply no way to endure more than five hours of continuous Republican debating on CNN. And that means many news consumers woke up this morning wondering who “won” the night.
The political media has an answer. Carly Fiorina “crushed it.” She won “hands down.” She had a “breakout performance.” She “stepped up to the big stage on Wednesday night and won this debate.”
MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin highlighted the exchange that generated the most attention of the night.
In one of several skirmishes, businesswoman Carly Fiorina – who did not qualify for the first debate – responded to recent remarks by Trump deriding her physical appearance.“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina said.The audience burst into massive applause in response, easily the loudest of the night. Trump, who seemed caught off guard by the explosive reaction to the field’s only female candidate, said that Fiorina “has a beautiful face” and is a “beautiful woman.”
In case it wasn’t obvious, Trump’s response was nearly as insulting as the comments that got him into trouble in the first place. Adding condescending misogyny to mean-spirited misogyny does not make a problem go away.
It was arguably the first time since the start of the campaign that Trump, the current GOP frontrunner, was caught off-balance and flat-footed. Time will tell whether, and to what degree, Republican primary voters cared, but many observers saw this debate as the event that may finally help burst the Trump bubble.
But while much of the political establishment seemed eager to applaud Fiorina’s debate “victory,” there was just one problem that’s been largely overlooked: much of what she said last night wasn’t true. Indeed, as a substantive matter, Fiorina, who’s running for president despite never having held public office, spoke with great confidence and poise, but generally seemed clueless.
Her rhetoric about Planned Parenthood was plainly at odds with reality. She said it takes “two-thirds of the states” to ratify a constitutional amendment, but it actually takes three-fourths. Her comments about the criminal justice system were simply untrue. She insisted that Democrats, who’ve been pleading with Republicans for years to pass immigration reform, “don’t want” to pass immigration reform. Her defense of her failed tenure at HP was hard to take seriously. Her rhetoric about foreign policy was “bizarre.”
By some measures, a candidate who gets caught making so many bogus claims over the course of just one debate should wake up to brutal headlines about a disqualifying performance. But by contemporary rules, presidential hopefuls are judged less like candidates for the White House and more like performers – did they seem “crisp”? Did they memorize their lines well?
And by these metrics, Fiorina excelled, even if these metrics have practically nothing to do with her qualifications for the nation’s highest office.
Someday, we may want to rethink how we evaluate candidates’ debate performances. When style is everything, and substance is relegated to fact-checking pieces that much of the public won’t see, the process is badly flawed.
Disclosure: My wife works for Planned Parenthood, but she played no role in this piece.