Election 2016: What to Expect from the Second GOP Debate
Tonight is the GOP foreign policy debate. The format will be virtually the same as the first and the line-up is nearly identical, with just a couple exceptions. The junior varsity debate, which features the low-polling candidates, will be short two people: Carly Fiorina, after a stand-out performance in the previous JV match-up, has been promoted to the big leagues and will be on the podium for the primetime debate; and Rick Perry will be at neither, as he has won the ignominious honor of being the first candidate to suspend his campaign.
Here are four things to look out for in the debates:
- It’s The Donald’s to lose
Donald Trump continues to ride high in the polls, defying the received wisdom of pundits and analysts. He made it through the last debate on bluster and recycled sound bites, but that will be much harder in a debate focused on foreign policy. When confronted with questions on specifics of dealing with Islamic State, China, Russia, Iran, and other problem spots, Trump may find it tough to bluff his way through. That said, he has managed to rise above political expectations time and again. A strong performance tonight could demonstrate that he really is a serious candidate, and not just a one-man protest movement. Watch out for conspicuous displays of knowledge; you never know, Trump may surprise.
- It’s make-or-break for the other outsiders
The other two candidates with no political experience, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, have lately enjoyed buoyant poll numbers as well. Carson now polls at number two behind Trump, and Fiorina has clawed her way into the middle of the pack of top-flight candidates. Now they have to prove they belong there. Carson in particular must show he has the chops to handle the complex foreign policy challenges the presidency demands. His previous debate performance tended toward matters of general principle rather than particulars, and he has in the past shown a worrying lack of general foreign affairs knowledge. An embarrassing display tonight could send him reeling, but a demonstration of growth could remove a lot of question marks around his suitability and lift him to new heights.
- This is Rand’s time to shine
Rand Paul began the 2016 cycle with the wind at his back. Back in April, Time magazine declared him “the most interesting man in politics”. Yet his poll numbers have continued to fade over the past several months. Now he is one of the candidates on the cusp of relegation to the early debate kiddie table. Tonight Rand will have the opportunity to display his idiosyncratic and highly original approach to foreign policy. All the other GOP candidates have sought to show how strong they are by striking menacing poses toward IS, Iran et al. Yet Rand has continued to advocate a more peaceful, less aggressive and domineering foreign policy. That sort of policy is hardly conservative red meat, but it does make him different. That means the debate moderators will likely give him plenty of time to express his positions and clash with the more uniform approach of his opponents. If he can hold his own and not come across as weak on defense, Rand could revive his flagging campaign.
- Expect no standout performances from the early debate
The early debate will certainly be an even lonelier affair for the candidates polling too low for primetime. But the stakes are also lower, mainly because we can expect little from the four candidates. Besides Lindsey Graham, none of them have much in the way of foreign policy experience or much to say about it. Graham on the other hand has nothing but foreign policy to talk about. His aggressive performance in the first debate seemed myopically obsessed. His prophecies of doom did not impress voters. It seems unlikely the same shtick will do better this time around. Don’t expect much from any of these guys.