Littwin: Carly Fiorina won – so what happens to the Donald and the Carson?

By now everyone must know that Carly Fiorina won the marathon debate. By my unofficial pundit scorecard, it seems to be unanimous.

But picking the winner was the easy part. The harder part is in figuring out what it all means. Everyone — or at least 23 million people, which is close enough — saw it. But if there’s anything we’ve learned in this crazy political season, it’s that seeing is not necessarily believing.

Or how else do you explain the Donald? Or the Bern? Or the Ben? Nothing that has happened so far was predicted to have happened, so why not Carly?

We won’t have the answer for sure until the polls come in and until Nate Silver explains them. Sure, she’ll move up – but how much? And will the GOP establishment — scared of Trump, unimpressed by Ben Carson — accept her as the insider-outsider candidate who’s just establishment enough to be a legitimate contender?

She’s never held office. (The last non-politician to become president was Eisenhower and he had the advantage of having led the Normandy Invasion.) But she was the CEO of Hewlett-Packard and did run for the Senate. On the other hand, her tenure as CEO was a minefield, which is how she lost the run for the Senate, after which she has been compared to Mitt Romney, and not in a good way.

But as we wait for the polls, here’s a hint: The New York Times was already promoting her as a possible warrior in the Republicans’ longstanding battle against the Democratic charge of a GOP “war on women.” That might be getting slightly ahead of the game, but if she didn’t have Normandy, she did mention the Sixth Fleet during the debate.

After one JV debate and one main-eventer, she’s gotten the kinds of reviews that Jeb! and Marco Rubio and (if you haven’t already forgotten him) Scott Walker could only dream of getting. Of course, the fact-checkers are already questioning her speech slamming Planned Parenthood. And she’s lined up with the Ted Cruz team in a willingness to risk a government shutdown in order to defund the organization. I’m not sure if that helps win the war.

For me, though, there’s a bigger question than who won, which is how badly did Trump lose. After the debate, I figured he was fine. The Trumpians are presumably loyal types, who know exactly why they’re for him even if the rest of us can’t figure it out.

But what if the debate somehow knocks Trump out of the top spot in the polls? How would he survive given that his standing in the polls is basically his entire campaign message? (Trump supporters may be nervous. When he mentioned Fiorina’s name at a New Hampshire event – more on that in a bit — his fans booed.)

In any case, the Fiorina narrative is much easier to follow: She’s the woman who not only forced her way onto the stage with the Republican Men’s Club, but she also embarrassed them in the process. Her big chance came obviously when answering the softball question about Trump’s insult of her looks — and by framing it as an insult against all women.

But in some ways, it wasn’t her most important moment, since it was only about Trump and his casual misogyny, which fits neatly with his casual racism and birtherism and a few other isms. Then there was the $10 bill moment, in which candidates were asked to pick a woman whose likeness they would put on the bill. It went pretty much as you’d expect. Most of the men stumbled, although most did better than Jeb!, who tried Margaret Thatcher. And somebody went for Mother Teresa, who probably wouldn’t welcome the monetary compliment.

Fiorina, meanwhile, said she wouldn’t change the bill, calling the whole idea nothing more than “a gesture” that doesn’t help “to change our history.” She’s the one who got the hand.

It’s easy to get excited about Fiorina because she is really good on the stage, and we’ve been waiting for something other than Trump to happen, and no one seems to be excited by the Ben Carson movement, including Ben Carson. The smart money may still be on Jeb! or Rubio, but the smarter money is waiting for just the right moment to sell Trump stock.

If you didn’t see the New Hampshire fiasco, you should find a clip and ask yourself if the time is now. The clip begins as Trump is set to take questions from the crowd. He points to a man who says, “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims.”


“We know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American.”

Trump gives a Trumpian smile. He doesn’t do what John McCain did and set the questioner straight. Instead, he says, “We need this question — this is the first question.”

The man then goes on to talk about so-called training camps in the United States for radical Muslims who, he says, “want to kill us.” He wants to know when Trump is going to get rid of them — “them” presumably being the camps. Or maybe he meant all Muslims. Who knows?

Trump is nodding and finally answers, “We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things. You know, a lot of people are saying that and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening. We’re going to be looking at that and many other things.”

I don’t know who won the-day-after-the-debate contest. But I think we can get at least a near-unanimous vote this time about who lost.

Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey, Creative Commons, Flickr.