UPDATE! Here's some of that interview I did with Bill Bennett mentioned below, along with Bill Kristol on the CNBC debate. Click to listen:
On my weekly date with Hugh Hewitt, as earlier with Bill Bennett, the host and I discussed CNBC's obnoxious "hosting" of the Republican "debate", which Hugh called the Howard the Duck/Heaven's Gate of debates. He began with a soundbite from Ted Cruz, objecting to the halfwitted preoccupations:
TED CRUZ: You look at the questions â€“ Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don't you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen? How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?
HUGH HEWITT: Now Mark Steyn, on two levels, and we'll talk about the substance, but there is art in that response. There is a man who's litigated successfully nine times before the Supreme Court, who managed without taking notes to retain every personal attack, reframe them, repackage them, repurpose them into a counterattack on the panel expertly. It was actually art.
MARK STEYN: Yeah, and that's the Ted Cruz I like, Hugh. The criticism of Ted Cruz this election cycle has been that he's been too canned and too rehearsed, and he uses his talking points. And when he does that, he can come over as a bit unctuous and oleaginous. But when you just let him rip impromptu like this, as you say, what gave it force was that he remembered with absolute specificity all the stupid questions that these boneheads had wasted America's time with. And that's the Ted Cruz that is absolutely great, and he transformed that debate - because then what happened is that Marco Rubio went and did his line [about the media being the Democrats' SuperPac], and Chris Christie did his line about how even in New Jersey what you're doing would be considered rude ...and then Donald Trump in his windup said that as an example of his great negotiating skills, he'd managed to talk CNBC down to two hours so they could all get the hell out of there. And every single candidate on that panel smiled and cheered at that line. And so the ones who won, I think, picked up on the Cruz dynamic, and the ones who lost were the ones who didn't participate in that ...Jeb Bush and Kasich and Rand Paul.
That's why the Fantasy Football moment was as devastating to Jeb as his clumsy ineffectual attack on Rubio. Jeb answered the Fantasy Football question as if it was a light moment and he was the rich boy trying to show the CNBC moderators that he's just a regular guy, and then he kind of petered out in a shrug about maybe we need regulation...
And then Chris Christie took one of the most bone-crushingly irrelevant subjects ever to be raised in a political debate and returned the ball, thwacking it back down the gullet of whichever CNBC non-entity asked it. Christie showed Bush how you do it, and that was surely as humiliating for Jeb as his feeble Rubio attack.
MS: He was particularly good when he shoved that stupid fantasy football question down the throats of those guys. I mean, for a start, when you come out sneering, you can't then do the cute questions, because nobody likes you. You know, you've come out as an unfair, biased, petty, sneering moderator, so I'm not going to play cute, little games about fantasy football as if I was a guy sitting at a bar sharing a beer with you, because I just want to break the glass over your head and ram it up into your face. And they're quite right, Christie was quite right to hurl that question back at him. And again, by comparison with Jeb Bush playing along with the stupid question, it illustrated the strengths of those candidates who could think on their feet, and the weakness of those who can't think on their feet.
So at the end of this third debate there seem to be four factions within the Republican primary electorate:
1) The Trump/immigration faction;
2) The Carson faction;
3) The "moderate" faction;
4) The small-government faction.
The first two are self-explanatory. The third wants a candidate who won't frighten the horses and has sufficient crossover appeal to win enough independents in purple states to get to 50.00000000001 per cent.
The fourth faction reckons that, with a divided hyper-partisan electorate, what matters is motivating the base and getting a candidate who so enthuses them they'll crawl over broken glass to get to the voting booth. In other words: not another 2012.
With Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum in the race, one might have expected a fifth faction - the social conservatives. But this time Huckabee's running on protecting your entitlements, and Santorum's running on economic dignity, and evangelicals, at least in Iowa, seem to be drifting Carsonwards.
So of the four factions Trump has sewn up the Trump faction, Carson the Carson faction, and Cruz the small-government faction. A seeming rival for the last, Rand Paul, has faded away, and made little impact on Wednesday. Carly Fiorina seems to fit best into this category, but, by her own standards, did not have a breakout performance, and, debate fillips aside, appears to be stalled.
That leaves the moderate, establishment, donor-class faction as the one for which there's the most competition: Bush, Rubio, Christie, Kasich... Bush was supposed to be the runaway favorite, but he's a total disaster on the debate stage. Christie is an effective debater, but audiences don't seem to see him as a president. Kasich is cranky and unhappy and looks like he spent the night in a dumpster. Rubio seems able to think on his feet, come up with cute telly-friendly lines ("I'm against anything that's bad for my mother"), and yet be surprisingly merciless on the lying Hillary.
HH: Marco Rubio out and out called Hillary Clinton a liar, and took on the narrative of last week, and I agree with him. She did not have a great week. She had a terrible week, and it ended worse at the VA when she said that scandal was not as widespread as people had thought. And he called her a liar. Do you know, no one followed up on that? You have a presidential candidate calling the contender a liar on national security matters. And they never said boo about it.
MS: No... As you say, everybody has just pretended as if he did not say it. Apart from Charlie Rose getting on his high horse about it with Rubio this morning, people just want that to go away as if it never happened.
In fact, Charlie Rose, who apparently co-hosts the CBS morning show, seemed mystified as to why anyone would say such a thing about someone with the renowned personal integrity of Mrs Clinton. That's why beating down the media in these debates and not accepting the framing is so important.
I'm happy to leave it to Iowa and New Hampshire to winnow the field, but realistically it's narrowing already: Trump, Carson, Cruz, Rubio lead the four factions, Fiorina and Christie are still in there punching, Bush, Kasich and Paul have the hangdog air of the beaten...