Walker falls below the fray of Fox News debate, Kasich rises above it

WiG editorial

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s analysis of the first Republican debate of the 2016 presidential campaign ran under the headline “Scott Walker sticks to script, delivers safe, quiet performance.” That was the best the newspaper, which has mostly supported Walker over the course of his career, could say with accuracy about his appearance on Aug. 6 at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena with nine other GOP hopefuls.

For the millions of viewers who were glimpsing Walker for the first time during the Fox News debate, Walker’s performance must have been baffling. Positioned by his handlers as a shoot-from-the-hip union-buster who exudes such charm that even Wisconsin Democrats support him in significant numbers, Walker failed to make good on that image. In fact, flanked by larger-than-life and more seasoned candidates, Walker was practically invisible. His supporters said he rose above the fray, but he really shrank beneath it.

Walker was genial and at ease — an “aw, shucks” kind of guy who loves his Harley. He effectively brandished his conservative bona fides and spun his biggest failures as governor — creating jobs, raising the quality of life for everyone in the state — as triumphs. He got in a couple of zingers at Hillary Clinton’s expense — red meat for the Fox crowd.

But he said very little, and nothing that Wisconsinites haven’t heard many times before. The candidates were given 60 seconds to answer questions, but Walker often took even less than that paltry amount of time to answer. The Journal Sentinel reported that Walker spoke less than 40 seconds during the first 30 minutes of the debate and only six minutes in total.

Perhaps that wise, given his prior gaffes. But his relative obscurity during the event should take a toll on his polling numbers.

The morning after the debate, one of Walker’s PACs announced a $7-million buy for advertising in Iowa, which is a must-win for him. Did his campaign realized his debate performance would not generate any momentum?

Fox News deserves a lot of credit for delivering an innovative and lively debate format. Each candidate got a TV commercial-style moment, but the commentators asked tough questions and encouraged candidates to mix it up. Chris Christie, who performed above expectations, had an entertaining and substantive give-and-take over NSA spying with Rand Paul, whose quirky libertarian ideology stuck out like a his hair.

Like Walker, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had a lot riding on his performance. He needed to live up to his standing in the polls and show why Republican leaders are behind him. Visibly nervous during the first hour, he found his stride in the second, delivering a thoughtful answer about his brother’s rush to war in Iraq and standing firm on his call for immigration reform. He was not, however, the star of the evening.

That honor goes to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, followed closely by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Kasich has the strongest qualifications for the presidency of anyone on stage, and he listed them with appealing humility. He generated the biggest cheer of the evening with a touching answer to a question about whether he would accept his daughter if she came out to him as gay.  He was as calm and authentic as neuro-surgeon Ben Carson, but far more knowledgeable and articulate. The baby-faced Rubio was all polish and poise, with an appealing personal narrative.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who appeared during a boring afternoon forum for the second-tier candidates, was the clear star of that event. Authoritative, articulate and, well, supremely business-like, she easily rose above Rick Perry at his best and Lindsey Graham at his scariest, as he all but promised another war in the Middle East if elected.

The glaring loser of the evening debate was front-runner Donald Trump, who was only effective at portraying an emperor with no clothes. Seemingly angry at life itself, his acid tongue wandered all over the nation’s issues without ever offering a plan to change all the wrongs he enumerated. He admitted to building his real estate empire in part by paying off lawmakers, as if that was beneficial experience for a president.  

It’s hard to imagine that he’ll be front and center at the next debate.