GOP Debate Recap: Lost in the Exoatmosphere

DemDebate1Live from South Carolina last Thursday it was a whopping three and a half hours of Republican fun and frolic on the national stage (assuming the Fox Business Network which almost nobody ever watches qualifies as “national”). What, you forgot to tivo it? No problem … We watch the GOP debates so you don’t have to!

Once again the evening began at the cocktail hour with an undercard of the also-rans … a testament to pluck and grit and perseverence (if you’re Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, or Mike Huckabee), or perhaps to the enduring power of self-delusion (if you’re a sentient being able to comprehend a poll). So did we learn anything new from the kids table?

We learned that quickly and peacefully defusing that dustup with Iran in the Persian Gulf earlier this week is Fiorina’s idea of a foreign policy failure. (Seriously, she said that.) We learned that Santorum is the candidate who will protect Citadel undergraduates from the spector of Islamic jihad. We learned that Huckabee has bought guns, lots and lots of guns. We learned that Santorum has a fantasy that mass deportation will trigger a Central American economic and cultural renaissance. (Seriously, he said that.) We learned from Fiorina that it’s time to take our future, our politics, and our country back, though she didn’t say if that’s for a full refund or just store credit.

We learned it is possible to assemble an audience so hostile to moderation that they actually audibly booed background checks for gun purchases – and then applauded a Fiorina hallucination that polls showing overwhelming support for background checks are wrong. And so we learned that Rand Paul’s decision to bag the kids table entirely made him the smartest guy in the room – or he would’ve been if he were in the room. Which he wasn’t.

Okay that was all good clean warm-up fun, but on to the main event. Let’s go to the tape…

8:05 Cruz opens the festivities by indicating, if I’m processing his agitation correctly, that he’ll bomb the hell out of a country that detains a few of our soldiers who stray into their territory rather than have them release our soldiers.

8:08 Kasich talks in rational terms about his experience and how it informs his approach to the economy. Nobody pays attention.

8:10 Christie gets things back on track by talking about how crazy it is that the Obama administration thinks it’s a good thing that the Iran situation this week was quickly resolved.

8:12 Bush, playing the hyperbole card early, asserts that under Obama “every weapon system has been gutted.” Frets about advance of China and Russia. Reeks desperation. Knows better.

8:15 Rubio declares that Hillary Clinton is summarily “disqualified” from being president. Pivots into Obama as Chamberlain, segueways into uberhawk mode. Promises to kill, capture, imprison everyone. Nice Marco has left the building.

8:17 We take a break for some of Ben Carson’s unparalleled performance art. He tells us we have enemies attacking our exoatmosphere. Yes, the exoatmosphere. Pledges free brain tumor surgery for all. Or something.

8:19 Trump on migration from Syria: Where are the women? They are all strong young men. Unexpected homoerotic turn here. How will it poll?

FoxBizChannelDebate28:20 Cruz accuses the New York Times of doing a “hit piece” when it ran a story this week showing he failed to disclose big loans in his Senate campaign. Blame the messenger — works every time, even when you end up admitting (as he does) that the Times story is accurate.

8:27 Cruz, responding on the birther business, pokes Trump with fancy talk about different theories of natural born citizenship. Trump replies by bragging about poll numbers and uses the occasion to make it clear he will never pick Cruz as running mate. Doubles down on the birther question, promises not to make a legal issue of it, but predicts Democrats will.

8:32 Cruz replies that he’s spent his entire life arguing things in front of the Supreme Court. Conjuring image of toddler Cruz at the lecturn arguing an abortion case. Throws Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Tribe under the bus as a left-wing commie. Offers Trump the VP slot. (Those who think that Prof. Tribe is arguing that Cruz can’t be president are missing the point and need to read Tribe’s piece.)

8:34 Rubio gets things back on track by reminding us that the U.S. is the greatest country in the history of this or any other galaxy, and reminding us that Barack Obama hates America, the constitution, the military, capitalism, education, cute children, chicken parmesan subs, and other things that many normal people like.

8:38 Rubio: Chris Christie is a bad man who gave money to Planned Parenthood and supported Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. Christie replies: “I never wrote a check to Planned Parenthood” and “I didn’t support Sonia Sotomayor.” (He deftly elects not to mention at this juncture his 1994 statement that “I support Planned Parenthood privately with my personal contribution” and his 2009 comment about Sotomayor that “I support her appointment to the Supreme Court.”)

8:42 Carson exoatmospherically points out that if a progressive is elected and gets to appoint a few Supreme Court justices, “this nation is over as we know it.” Blinks once or twice.

8:51 The moderators realize that Bush is still on the stage for some reason so they ask him a question about guns. Bush touts his A+ NRA rating. Comes out courageously for mental health. Silently wonders if his DVR is recording Conan.

8:54 Trump joins gunfest 2016: “guns don’t pull the trigger, it’s the people that pull the trigger.” Fails to grasp that the whole point of things like background checks is to vet the people pulling the trigger.

8:56 Rubio: “If this president could confiscate every gun in America he would.” Pivots to ISIS and holds up the Second Amendment as the only thing keeping them at bay. Wow, even moderator Neil Cavuto is taken aback by this (and it takes a lot to take aback a Fox moderator). Rather than position himself as a rational or establishment alternative, Rubio has apparently decided the way to beat Cruz is to be Cruz.

8:58 Christie calls Obama “a petulant child.” Glances at smartphone to see incoming “takes one to know one, dude” text from O.

9:02 Moderator asks Cruz what he meant recently referring to Trump’s “New York values.” (Your humble correspondent, a native New Yorker, is fascinated to learn that in Cruz’s New York we worship Stalin and eat puppies.) Trump, taking offense, aims a watergun full of 9/11 pride juice at Cruz’s face, aims, fires, hits the target square on. Cruz, smirking, shuts his piehole for now.

9:10 Back on foreign policy, Kasich (remember him?) calls on Saudi Arabia to stop doing everything that has defined their regime for the last half century. Yeah that seems realistic.

9:15 Carson, asked in the actual debate if he thinks ground troops are needed to fight ISIS, says we should ask military leaders what they want and just give it to them. Carson, asked in my fantasy debate if he has even a glimmer of an understanding of the concept of civilian control of the military, falls asleep and is never heard from again.

9:19 Trump, invited by the moderator to revisit his Muslim exclusion notion, declines. Reminds us that all of his “great Muslim friends” appreciate his anti-Muslim bigotry. Bush jumps in with a rationality break, making common sense points about the geopolitical hazards of Trump’s proposal. Rather than letting Trump respond, moderator Cavuto goes after Bush, who just can’t catch a break.

9:24 Moderator Maria Bartiromo polls the field on Trump’s exclude-all-entering-Muslims idea. Kasich, no. Christie, no. Bush, no. Rubio, no (I think he said no but he also said as President he’ll stop anyone from entering the U.S. if he doesn’t know why they are entering, which will probably take up a lot of his time.) Cruz, no (but whose got the time because I’ll be busy bombing the shit out of everyone). Carson, not sure he understood the question. Not sure he knows where he is or why.

9:31 We’re onto trade. Trump on China: “I hate those fuckers.” Ok he didn’t actually say that, not in so many words anyway. Calling himself a “free trader” Trump lays out an aggressively protectionist agenda, fails to see the paradox. Would undoubtedly declare it the best paradox ever if he did see it.

10:34 Kasich says sensible, moderate things about trade and manufacturing. Nobody listens.

10:36 Rubio, suddenly remembering that he hasn’t been out-Cruzing Cruz for a good 15 or 20 minutes, jumps in to say that ditching Obamacare is a way to deal with China. Seriously, he said that.

9:38 Trump pivots to Japan: “I hate those fuckers too.” Fortunately he’s friends with Carl Icahn, who can whip them into shape in trade negotiations. And that’s pretty much his trade policy: Carl. Note to file: call Carl after the debate and see if he’s on board with this.

9:39 Trump calls Jeb weak; Jeb calls Trump wrong; Trump lectures Jeb; Jeb looks visibly aggrieved but lets it go; wonders who Conan’s guests are tonight. Jeb is not good at this.

9:45 On tax policy and infrastructure, Christie gives an answer that is concrete, substantive, coherent. Heads explode throughout the hall.

9:48 Carson is asked how he’ll stop companies doing tax inversions and moving operations out of the U.S. His answer, focused on flat taxes and government spending, reveals he has no earthly idea what he is being asked or why. He does manage to work in the phrase “evil government,” though, drawing some pity applause.

9:50 Trump jumps into the unlikely role of smart guy, mentioning inversion by name and calling it one of the biggest problems we have. What’s interesting, of course, is that most free-market Republicans aren’t particularly bothered by inversions. A reminder that Trump’s brand of populism has some progressive tinges to it.

9:51 Rubio goes after Cruz for favoring a European-style value-added tax. Invokes Reagan. Cruz responds that Rubio fails to understand his tax policy, and tries to one-up Rubio on the Ronnie-love front by invoking Reagan economist Art Laffer: “My proposal is endorsed by one of the most discredited economic thinkers of the 20th century” (or words to that effect).

9:55 Christie bullies his way in, tells Rubio to zip it, and blasts GOP Congress for “consorting with Barack Obama” to mess with Social Security.

10:03 On crime and violence, Christie reminds us he’s the only one on the stage who has killed criminals with his bare hands. Wasn’t this thing supposed to end at 10?

10:08 Finally, the Rubio-Cruz mano a mano everyone has been waiting for. Confronted with his past support of immigration reform, Rubio positions himself as an immigration hardliner who sees ISIS threats at every turn. Cruz calls Rubio a flip flopper. Rubio calls Cruz a flop-flipper (and calls Edward Snowden a traitor for good measure). Cruz cries mega-foul. Moderator calls time. Verdict: Rubio on points.

10:13 Bush on domestic security comes off as lucid, thoughtful, measured. That guy has no chance.

10:19 Closing statements. Enough already. Wasn’t this thing supposed to end at 10?

The verdict? Trump and Rubio helped themselves, mainly through effective rhubarbs with Cruz, which (to the extent those exchanges dominate next-day clips) makes it a questionable night for Cruz. Bush was measured and earnest, which of course means he probably did himself no good whatsoever. Ditto Kasich. Christie acquitted himself well enough but there just isn’t room in the field for two pushy blowhards, and Trump owns that space. And if anyone doubted that Carson is done, this was a 140-minute fork.

Remember when Scott Walker got out back in September, saying he was “being called to lead by helping to clear the race”? Time for whoever did the calling (God? Mrs. Walker?) to dial up a few more of these guys.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.

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