In terms of the format and the moderators, this was easily the worst political debate I’ve ever seen. Too many questions, too little time, too much focus on silly Internet questioners, and Chris Matthews was simply a buffoon. Why shouldn’t a Republican host a Republican primary debate?
Given that inherent (but equally distributed) burden, the field as a whole did reasonably well. There is a striking contrast between the leading Republicans and the leading Democrats in terms of experience (especially executive experience) and stature. If you had to choose a party based on the two sets of candidates, as they came off in the two recent debates, it’s easy to believe most Americans would choose the GOP.
But individually, who really stood out? If you knew nothing about this race except what you saw tonight, I suspect you would guess the three leading candidates were Romney, McCain, and Huckabee — probably in that order. All three were poised, sharp, and reasonably presidential. It was hard to see why Giuliani is a frontrunner (indeed, probably the frontrunner) and why Huckabee is so far behind. Giuliani was tired and off balance. He is capable of doing much better than this, but just didn’t show up tonight.
In the end, though, I have to return to the horrendous format, which made this a useless event even for those few of us who watched. I’m not sure we learned anything about who should be the Republican candidate. But I am sure we learned much about who shouldn’t host any more Republican debates.
— Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of The New Atlantis magazine.