The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

What We Learned from Last Night's Republican Presidential Debate

After three bouts of amateur cage-fighting, the Republican 2016 candidates are finally starting to take this shit at least semi-seriously.

by John Surico
Nov 11 2015, 8:00am

Donald Trump's 'Listening Face.' Images via Fox Business Network

At this precise moment, It's nearly impossible to say what direction the Republican presidential race is heading, or where we will find ourselves when the party finally packs it in at the end of 2016. For months, Donald Trump was yuuuggge, but now, somehow, so is Ben Carson. There are constant whispers about the promise of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, while Jeb!, Rubio's former mentor and the party's once-presumed frontrunner, stutters painfully into irrelevance. Meanwhile, Ted Cruz looks more and more like Ned Flanders with each passing day, Carly Fiorina and John Kasich keep struggling to stay relevant, and Rand Paul still hasn't figured out what to do about his hair.

And the other seven guys running for the most powerful position in the world? Who fucking knows.

Needless to say, the all-American horse race seems as predictable as the Kentucky Derby five mint juleps in. So, on Tuesday night, America strapped herself in for yet another pit stop on that track—the fourth Republican presidential debate, for those still counting. This one was held in Milwaukee, with Fox Business moderators Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto calling the shots, or at least trying to. The topic was the economy, although predictably, the candidates covered far more ground than that. Here's how they performed:

Donald Trump

What he needed to do: His objectively boring 'SNL' performance notwithstanding, Trump is still the leading Republican candidate, although just barely. So, basically, his job Tuesday was to reclaim his title to the Iron Throne, whatever that may entail.

What he did: Even though he was center stage in Milwaukee, Trump was, for the most part, anything but. He wasn't included in many of the night's key policy exchanges, his platitudes seemed to be past their sell-by date, and he faced more criticism than support for his now-notorious plan to unilaterally deport 11 million people out of the country. After giving a long-winded rant about China in response to a question about the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty, his opinion was erased in just a few seconds by Rand Paul, who correctly pointed out that China isn't included in TPP—and that that's sort of the point.

For most of the night, Trump was out of the spotlight, and, unfortunately for his sake, the spotlight seems to be the only thing that keeps him alive. And when Trump asked why Fiorina was allowed to keep interrupting people, the audience let him know he'd taken his Trumpness one step too far.

Trump contemplates his opponent.

Ben Carson
What he needed to do: Between this debate and the previous one, all eyes have been on the former pediatric neurosurgeon. Carson now finds himself within the margin of error of Trump, and even leading some some national polls, but questions about his autobiography have threatened to derail any message he may have had for his campaign. Tuesday was his best chance to address those concerns, and convince the American people that he really did try to attack his mother with a hammer when he was a teenager.

Read: Ben Carson's Fake Life Story Ruined My Real Childhood

What he did: I'm pretty sure Carson never actually answered a question on Tuesday night. All too often, his responses fell back on personal anecdotes, non sequiturs, and a whole host of zingers directed at Hillary Clinton. When he did discuss his policy ideas, they mostly had to do with making taxes more like Biblical tithing. Then again, this is how Carson has been at every debate, and, surprisingly enough, he continues to ascend the Republican ladder. So maybe this anomaly is what the American people want to see. And maybe the rest of you just don't get it.

Marco Rubio
What he needed to do: Like the last debate, this was Rubio's time to shine. He needed to convince the Republican Establishment that he is the real deal: a sharp, young senator who can replace Jeb! as the moderate candidate who would actually stand a chance against Hillary Clinton. Rubio needs to prove he could be the face of the Republican Party's future, and Tuesday night was the closest thing to a call-back audition.

What he did: Right before the debate, someone pressed the play button on Rubio the Candidate. Because for most of the night, he spoke solely in sound bytes, offering responses that were too scripted to even appear true. ("This election is about the future."). He came off as, and looked like, the career politician on stage: fluid, airy, and vague as fuck. Worse still, Rubio didn't have any real memorable moments, which is the only way anyone can win these things. On the bright side for Rubio, though, nobody asked him about his questionable use of the Florida Republican Party's credit card.

Liveblog: Key Moments from the Fourth Republican Presidential Debate

John Kasich
What he needed to do: Use his fourth showing on the national stage to make a name for himself, and force the American electorate to remember him as something other than the white guy that isn't Jeb Bush.

What he did: Early on in the night, the Ohio governor's performance seemed promising: he quickly attacked Trump over his immigration plan, and held his own in defense, at least for a little while. But Kasich's passionate dismissal of Trump's mass deportation designs were quickly forgotten when the former Lehman Brothers executive started getting into his positions on banking and foreign policy. By the end of the debate, it was clear that the Kasich campaign is like a Dan Brown novel: at first glance, it seems substantive and thrilling, but a close read reveals that it's really just one long formulaic stream of nothingness.

John Kasich gets a little heated over Trump's border wall.

Rand Paul
What he needed to do: According to the Washington press corps, Rand is in dire straits. His campaign is struggling to stay afloat, and he barely even met the polling threshold to be on stage Tuesday. These debates have become something of a life-vest for him, something he needs to survive.

What he did: That said, Paul seemed far from drowning on Tuesday night. He came out of the gate strong, hitting Rubio hard on defense spending — a real criticism that received a generous amount of applause from the crowd. His diminishment of Trump's rant on China and the TPP was one of the more coherent statements made all night, and he came off as well-versed in banking and economic policy, unlike some of the more popular candidates on stage. Whether that will be enough to save his campaign for another round, though, is anyone's guess.

Carly Fiorina
What she needed to do: At some point between the first and second debates, Fiorina had a moment, when voters and the media decided they might give her campaign a little more attention than conventional wisdom suggested they should. That moment has come and gone, though—Fiorina is in desperate need of another bump, and a debate is the only place she is going to get it.

Related: A Look at the Human Suit Malfunctions of the 2016 Election

What she did: Aside from saying "crony capitalism" enough times to get anyone playing debate drinking games black-out drunk, the ex-Hewlett-Packard CEO wasn't particularly impressive Tuesday night. She evaded direct questions, made a series of oddly emphasized statements about "taking the government back," and unleashing the free market on Obamacare, and repeatedly referred to herself in the third person. Fiorina's best strength thus far has been her resistance to capitulate to Trump, and without an exchange like that, it feels like she has no weapons left in her arsenal.

Ted Cruz applauds someone, presumably Ronald Reagan.

Ted Cruz
What he needed to do: With Mike Huckabee demoted to the kid's table debate, Ted Cruz was pushed into the role of talk-radio wingnut Tuesday night, a role that theoretically would allow him to reestablish himself as the original right-wing insurgent in the GOP's endless presidential primary race.

What he did: Cruz's desperate need to be the Christian Right's Tea Party darling was so transparent and needy Tuesday, it almost hurt to watch. He called repeatedly for abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, compared the "armies of regulators" in the federal government to one of a Biblical plague, and peppered most of his answers with references to crony capitalism and the Almighty. On certain issues, though, including taxes and foreign policy, Cruz tried to leap to the right, but fell down the cliff, like Wile E. Coyote. But like Wile E. Coyote, he seems to emerge from these debates mostly unscathed.

What he needed to do: It's hard to understate just how much Jeb needs these debates. His campaign is hemorrhaging money and staff, trying desperately to rebrand away the candidate's abundant flaws as both campaigner and politician. It's also hard to overstate just how poorly Jeb has performed at these things, and anyone who thought Jeb! could make a comeback Tuesday night was lying to you or to themselves.

What he did: Jeb's campaign team is understandably worried about the candidate, which is why, before Tuesday night, they called in a Fox News media trainer to give their man some pointers. In retrospect, that sorta seemed like a waste of time. He delivered his answers like he was talking to a New Hampshire town hall for senior citizens, awkwardly weaving in personal anecdotes and stale references from CPACs of yore. He picked fights, but they were more like halfhearted shoves. In short, Jeb just seemed like... Jeb. And unfortunately, that continues to be his biggest problem.

Follow John Surico on Twitter.