GOP Debate Recap: Leadership vs. Truancy Edition

NHDemDebate0While the Republican presidential candidates were taking the debate stage in New Hampshire Saturday night, Nashville’s Long Players were on stage down at 3rd and Lindsley covering the Rolling Stones album “Some Girls.” It was a fitting choice by Bill Lloyd and crew for a gig alongside the GOP debate: Side one of the album opens with a eulogy for the recently departed Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee and the excluded Carly Fiorina (“Miss You”), and offers up tributes to the campaigns of Chris Christie (“When the Whip Comes Down”), Ben Carson (“Just my Imagination [Running Away with Me]”) and Ted Cruz (“Lies”). Side two celebrates Jeb Bush (“Before They Make Me Run”) and Donald Trump (“Beast of Burden” – you knew that was coming), and the album closes with a new anthem for a nation led by any of these jokers (“Shattered”). Sadly no song quite fits Marco Rubio, though he does come off at times as a respectable fellow with far away eyes.

A spirited time was in the cards on both stages, though only New Hampshire’s was charged with expectations of high drama given several floundering campaigns swerving on fumes toward a crackup in Tuesday’s primary. “Without a breakout moment” on Saturday, the Washington Post’s political writers foreshadowed, “the candidacies of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich could end.” Note the omission of Ben Carson from that sentence. Yes, he was there Saturday in all of his usual somniferous glory (having completed his offbeat brand of debate prep), but even a breakout moment won’t revive his medically induced coma of a campaign.

Odds are pretty good you were doing something more, um, exciting with your Saturday evening than debate watching (like, say, catching the Long Players). But fear not pithheads, once again we watch the candidates so you don’t have to. So here’s the blow by blow…

7:17 The candidate introductions and walkouts are weirdly confusing, especially for Ben Carson who stayed backstage even after being introduced and had to be essentially urged to come out. There is some kind of metaphor for his campaign in there, I’m sure.

7:19 Trump is asked if he has the temperament to be Commander in Chief. His answer begins with him informing us that he has “the best temperament.” It ends with him telling us that “nobody’s gonna mess with us.” A cynic might observe that the latter sort of refutes the former.

7:23 Invited to answer the same question Ted Cruz instead opts to kick his standard Obama-weak-dangerous-world-evil-Islam engine into gear. In response Trump notes that Cruz didn’t answer the question, saying “that’s what’s going to happen with our enemies.” (Is he saying that Cruz won’t answer our enemies questions?) Trump adds “We’re going to win with Trump and people back down with Trump and that’s what I like.” Yeah there’s that temperament thing again.

7:25 Carson is invited to go after Cruz for being mean to him in Iowa. Carson says he’s not going to do that, then does it anyway (“Who would do something like that?”…“Washington Ethics”…“That’s not my ethics.”). The moderator asks Cruz to defend what his campaign did to Carson. Cruz apologies to Carson, then stupidly fails to stop there; thinks we’re interested in his convoluted play-by-play of how it all went down. The man does like to hear himself talk.

7:28 Moderator David Muir (aka the anchor monster) challenges Rubio with a readiness question, quoting Chris Christie (Rubio’s not ready to be president) and Rick Santorum (can’t name an Rubio accomplishments). Rubio offers an odd contrast of himself with Joe Biden, who was in Congress for “a thousand years” and “has passed hundreds of bills” but nobody on the GOP stage would want him as president. He then goes after Obama with a strange exceptionalism argument: Obama knows exactly what he’s doing, undertaking “a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world.” When I’m president, Rubio promises, we’ll go back to being worse than the rest of the world on all those things that other countries do better than us because we are the most fabulous country ever.

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Christie lectures Rubio on what it’s like to be a real manly man who makes big manly man decisions.

7:30 Chris Christie, who has been verbally pummeling Rubio all week, is given an opportunity to pile on here, and he delivers, looking at Marco and telling him “you have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable. You just simply haven’t.” He then accuses Rubio of not showing up to vote for a terrorism measure in the Senate that Rubio had a moment earlier claimed as an accomplishment: “That’s not leadership, that’s truancy.” I believe “zing” is the word that comes next. Rubio on the split screen is gritting his teeth so hard I can spot tooth dust on his lips.

7:31 Rubio responds by talking about what a crappy governor Christie is. But then he pivots to repeat almost verbatim his last answer about Obama, the rest of the world, and American exceptionalism. “We don’t want to be like the rest of the world.” Christie’s rejoinder is to point out exactly what Rubio just did: “the drive by shot at the beginning … and then the memorized 25 second speech that is exactly what his advisors gave him.” Christie then hectors Rubio (I’m going to rephrase a bit here): we governors are big strong manly men who clear snow and wrestle hurricanes; you senators are weak little boys who make speeches and introduce bills and play with dolls.

7:33 Rubio, having let himself be baited, digs the hole he’s in deeper by claiming that Christie had to be shamed into returning to New Jersey to handle the recent big snowstorm. As he is saying this we can hear the crowd booing and see Christie on the split screen licking his chops. Even his in-state critics will concede that if there’s one thing Christie does do well as governor it’s emergency management. It just gives Christie another chance to pummel Rubio with the inexperience charge. Rubio is off to a dreadful start.

7:35 Jeb gets to talk, finally. He is invited to pile onto Rubio, which he does mildly (compared to Christie’s onslaught dropping an anvil on Rubio’s head is mild), then says some nice things about himself and the nice people supporting him. Doesn’t mention his mom.

7:37 Moderator Martha Raddatz, noting news just in regarding a North Korean rocket launch, asks Cruz if he’d do preemptive strikes against armed missiles on the ground. He bobs and weaves, so Raddatz says to him gee Ted you seem willing to bomb the bejesus out of anything that moves in the Middle East, so why the timidity here? He says he doesn’t have the intelligence. Viewers at home collectively nod in agreement.

7:41 John Kasich gets to speak for the first time, almost 25 minutes in. Kasich! I totally spaced him off and now feel bad that I didn’t have a Rolling Stones song for him. As usual Kasich says reasonable things. Bush then worms his way in with a comment that contributes nothing — it’s apparently his strategy tonight to try to grab himself more airtime, by force if necessary. Trump is asked if he has a red line vis-à-vis North Korea, and he decides to use the occasion to disagree with Rubio on how incompetent Obama is. Ever the master of nuance and understatement, Trump tells us Obama “has no idea what he’s doing and our country is going to hell.” On North Korea Trump advances the fantasy that China will take care of it for us. Rubio then goes after Obama again with the sinister “oh he knows what he’s doing all right” bit.

7:46 Bush is asked what he’d do about the American student being detained in North Korea. Says he’d doing everything possible to get him released. Christie, reminding us that before he was a burly manly man governor he was a burly manly man prosecutor, seems to be saying he’d never negotiate with anyone over any such things. Family of detained student clearly not backing Christie.

7:49 Immigration. Kasich gets the first shot and makes a moderate case for reform. Cruz is asked how he’ll deport 11 million people; doesn’t answer the question. Is asked again, and says “we’ll enforce the law” but still doesn’t answer the question of how. Rubio is called on to defend his “gang of eight” involvement with the immigration reform bill that he now secretly wishes he’d never touched. Christie jumps in to bludgeon Rubio (because it’s been a good 15 minutes since he last bludgeoned Rubio) on his hypocrisy and his failure to answer the question. Rubio’s response to Christie is more measured and less repetitive this time, though he is still not having a good night.

7:56 Trump is asked about the wild inconsistencies of his statements on health care. Classic Trump: “We are going to replace Obamacare with something so much better.” Naturally he gives us no clue about what SomethingSoMuchBetterCare will look like. Promises he will not let anyone die in the street in any city in the country. This gets a very modest smattering of applause. Apparently the audience on hand at St. Anselm College for tonight’s debate is largely pro-street-dying. Cruz’s ensuing comments on health care are a fact checker’s wet dream: a tangle of demonstrably false claims regarding Obamacare costs, medical outcomes in countries with single payer systems, and the effects of changing how insurance is sold here.

8:00 Carson gets to come in on health care a full 35 minutes after we last heard him speak. Uses precious time to express disappointment that he didn’t get to comment on North Korea, assuring us he has fantastic things to say about North Korea. Then gives an accounting of his own confusing approach to health insurance that makes you wonder how this guy was ever an actual part of the health care system.

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On eminent domain, Bush and Trump go at it while Rubio in between silently ponders the disaster that is this evening.

8:03 On eminent domain, Trump gives a rather sane little lecture on eminent domain as a necessary tool for a country that wants infrastructure. This is right in his wheelhouse, but it goes south for the Donald when Bush alleges that Trump tried to use eminent domain take an old lady’s property for private purpose (a limousine parking lot for his casino) in Atlantic City. Trump demurs. Bush insists. Trump tells Bush to zip it pal, I’m talking. Trump gets booed. Remarks that the people booing are Jeb’s “donors and special interests.” Gets booed again. Complains that he couldn’t get tickets for his own supporters to attend the debate because it’s all donors and he doesn’t have any. Gets booed again. Gets into an argument with Jeb over whether Keystone Pipeline would be a public or private project. Moderator tries to interject; Trump shushes the moderator. Gets booed again. We go to a commercial debate, giving Trump a few minutes off camera to eminent domain Jeb’s face.

ABC commentators George Stephanopoulos and Jonathan Karl pop in with a little halftime commentary which can be summed up as: (1) Rubio is sucking big time, and (2) If Jeb had been going after Trump like this months ago maybe he’d have half the poll numbers Trump has instead of just a quarter.

8:10 Following the break the debate resumes with a question about what it means to be a conservative. The answers, like the question, are lightweight and forgettable.

8:17 Trump is asked how (with emphasis on the word how) he would create millions of jobs, as he routinely promises. He replies by listing the countries we’d get jobs back from, then segues into tax inversion. Never actually answers the how question. Christie jumps in to defend his own jobs record in New Jersey and say some mostly nice things about Kasich, then pivots to (yet again!) hammer Rubio for saying that Obama knows what he’s doing. Kasich karate chops a correction and a thank you. Rubio then comes back in to say yet again that Obama knows exactly what he’s doing with his master plan to ruin the country. Interestingly this draws boos – I think the crowd is trying to tell him enough already.

8:22 Rubio is asked whether the 68% of Americans who would favor a tax increase on people who make more than $1 million/year are wrong. His reply: “I don’t know of any problem in America that’s going to be fixed with a tax increase.” Pivots to corporate taxes, which was not the question. You can tell he knows he’s not having a good night because he is starting to speak very rapidly. Thinks to himself that shot of espresso during the commercial break may not have been the best idea.

8:23 Same question for Bush about taxing very high earners draws an answer that is crowd-pleasing nonsense: “I’d like to see more millionaires.” Look, it’s fine to oppose more taxes at higher brackets if that’s your thing, but this simply isn’t a serious conversation about income tax policy or reform.

8:26 We shift back to overseas matters. Cruz is asked why he says he’d carpet bomb ISIS when everyone knows you can’t carpet bomb an enemy hiding within a civilian population. He tries to wriggle out of it by saying what his kind of carpet bombing looks like – targeting key military and strategic assets with the bombs. In other words, Ted, not carpet bombing, and pretty much what we and other countries are presently doing. But Ted’s bombs would be bombier, I suppose.

8:29 Rubio, still debating under the influence of a toxic mix of caffeine and bad debating, spews a breathless account of all the ways he’d go after ISIS with what he calls “overwhelming force,” though no matter how fast he speaks he is still basically restating current policy while hoping people will think he has some kind of plan to do something different. Rubio thinks Sunnis won’t get sufficiently involved in fighting ISIS on the ground because they don’t trust Obama. Rubio needs to get out more.

8:31 Raddatz tries to pressure Trump to say how he’d get rid of ISIS “quickly” (as he often promises on the campaign trail). His answers: oil (“you have to take the oil”) and banking (“nobody knows banking better than I do”). The answer is unmitigated drivel, everybody in the room knows it, but nobody says a word.

8:33 Bush gets to talk about Libya. His answer is well-meaning but vapid. I get the impression Bush doesn’t knows very much about foreign policy beyond the standard GOP let’s-wipe-out-bad-people talking points.

8:37 Cruz says waterboarding doesn’t meet “the generally recognized definition of torture.” He conveniently neglects to mention that he is alluding to a definition written by lawyers whose job it was to write a definition of torture that would exclude waterboarding. And Mr. Trump, you have said you would bring back waterboarding? “I would bring back waterboarding, and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Should this come up In a general election debate I hope his Democratic opponent will respond, “So Mr. Trump, you’re pledging to the American people that you will violate U.S. law and commit war crimes?” This being a GOP debate, however, nobody says a word. (Though enjoying the show at home with a cocktail in hand Dick Cheney eyes Trump and thinks to himself “I like the cut of his jib.”)

8:39 Jeb: Closing Gitmo would be “a complete disaster.” Offers no substance behind it. He really doesn’t know much, or perhaps has just lost the motivation to bother sharing what he knows. Rubio, still speaking very rapidly, agrees on Gitmo. Wants us to send more people to Gitmo. Prudently refrains from sharing his intention to imprison Christie at Gitmo.

8:42 Asked about executive authority, Cruz restates the “on day one” pledge he has made in the past – that he will “rescind every single illegal and unconstitutional executive action Barack Obama has done.” It’s an interesting phrasing because it is quite plausibly the case that there is not a single Obama executive order that actually qualifies as “illegal and unconstitutional,” and an order doesn’t become such just because you don’t like it on the merits. So Cruz arguably is promising to repeal nothing, and President Cruz (just typing those words gives me the creeps) will have broken no pledge when he chooses to spend day one hanging the drapes instead of rescinding executive orders that most people are fine with.

8:43 Asked about deal making, Trump calls the Iran deal “amateurish.” It’s interesting that these GOP candidates all take pleasure in trashing the Iran deal as the most horrific foreign policy outcome in this or any century, but they never actually say how or why. It’s just accepted gospel on this stage that the pact blows and should be torn up (which in theory then makes them in favor of Iran restarting its nuclear program but nobody ever seems to ask them about that).

8:46 Sensing that too many minutes have passed without some good old fashioned Tea Party pandering, Bush conjures up props for the 10th Amendment, arguing that regulation and investment dollars go back to state control on everything from education to transportation to health care to the environment. Federal vs. state control on many issues may be public policy debates worth having, but to paint with such a massively broad states rights brush is crazy talk that just sucks up to a base that doesn’t like him anyway. Jeb fails to say if he’s also cool with all-white universities and miscegenation laws.

8:48 It occurs to me we haven’t heard from Chris Christie in what seems like forever. Is he still on the stage? Did he go backstage to get some water balloons to throw at Rubio? Did he decide to pull out of the race mid-debate?

8:50 The requisite New Hampshire heroin addiction question, which gives the candidates who answer (one of them Christie – he’s still here!) an opportunity to look concerned and compassionate on a social issue.

8:54 Though kind of a horserace question, it’s sort of an interesting one: how do you run against the historic nature of a Hillary Clinton nomination, first woman and all that? Trump, hallucinating in real time, assures us that “I’m the last person that she wants to run against.” Assures us he will win “handily.” Right. Like Iowa.

8:55 Rubio, apparently enjoying some of the same windowpane as Trump, asserts that 2016 is not just an election; it’s “a referendum on our identity as a nation and a people.” Oh for crying out loud … “our identity as a people” … what the hell does that even mean? Get over yourself. It’s an election.

8:56 They give Carson a chance to talk about how he’d run against Hillary Clinton. We are now beyond hallucination and into the realm of pure form fantasy. Carson gamely goes along, pretending there’s a universe in which he runs against her in the general, and on a positive note he does throw in the word “Benghazi” so we get to drink.

9:05 After another commercial break we’re onto criminal justice and policing. Trump gives a full-throated defense of “our really fantastic police.” He seems to regard actions taken when abuses are alleged to occur as nuisance litigation because police in this country are “absolutely amazing people.” Not a lot of nuance there (or grasp of why this is a question that would even be asked at a candidate debate).

9:07 Kasich starts his answer on policing by saying it can be a “win-win.” I hate that phrase so much I tune out the rest of his answer.

9:08 Rubio insists it’s an exaggeration to say there is a lot of discrimination aimed at Muslims in the country. Doesn’t say what country he has in mind.

9:10 Christie says he’d potentially quarantine travelers from another country (like Brazil) to stop the spread of Zika virus. Also says he’d quarantine Marco Rubio just, well, because.

9:12 Should young women be required to register for a potential military draft as young men are? Rubio says yes, pivots to a screed on how inadequate our massively bloated overfunded military is. Bush says yes also and adds we should not impose any kind of “political agenda” on the military. Sounds like Republican code for “let’s let them kick out the gay people,” the sort of thing I thought Jeb was above and beyond.

9:18 A question about veterans, and the answers are largely about VA health care. It’s interesting (and by “interesting” I really mean appallingly hypocritical) how all of these guys are perfectly keen on a single-payer approach to health insurance when it comes to veterans, but for everyone else it would be a first step down the road to Stalinism.

9:23 Should families of people taken hostage overseas be allowed to raise money to pay ransoms? It’s a yes or no question. Cruz gets to the time’s-up ding without actually answering the question though he implies his answer is no. Trump says no. Pivots to brag about the money he raised for vets last week in Iowa. Tries to then pivot to discuss the prodigious girth of his sexual organ but runs out of time.

9:25 Social issues: abortion and same-sex marriage. Rubio: “I don’t believing that believing in traditional marriage the way I do makes you a bigot or a hater.” Debatable, but believing that it’s okay to use the force of law to impose that belief and deny marriage equality under the law does kind of make you a bigot, Senator. His declaration that he thinks marriage should be between one man and one woman gets a refreshingly tiny bit of applause in the hall. This New Hampshire Republican crowd may be a bit too comfortable with people dying in the street for my taste, but at least it’s heartening to know they don’t object if people at risk of dying in the street have same-sex marriages.

9:27 Bush declares he’s the most pro-life person on the stage, but allows exceptions for rape and incest; thinks that puts him in the “sweet spot” on the issue. Christie bags about the fact that he defunded Planned Parenthood in New Jersey, then takes one last shot at Rubio for his opposition to rape and incest exceptions. It’s a reminder that despite how recent events have led conventional wisdom to frame Rubio as some kind of establishment moderate alongside the crazies in the race, he is in fact (to borrow Mitt Romney’s famous turn of phrase) severely conservative.

9:40 During closing statements Bush mentions that it’s Ronald Reagan’s birthday. I am amazed that it took two and a half hours for that to come up. Trump’s close: Cruz stole Iowa by screwing Carson. Carson’s close: “Guess what: I’m still here.” Oy vey yes you are.

Verdict: The headlines will be about Rubio, who has seen his New Hampshire numbers edge upward in the past week since his strong third place showing in Iowa. That upward movement may well halt in the wake of his shaky (a polite euphemism for devastating) outing here. Christie was energetic, baiting and dissecting Rubio at will. He hurt Rubio but did he help himself in the process? I suspect not enough, given how far back he is — too much ground to cover in too little time. Same probably goes for the Jebster. The talking heads will say that Bush did well, but lackluster is how it struke me, with the energy mostly in that one heated exchange with Trump over eminent domain. Trump was Trump, which a few weeks ago might have rendered a favorable verdict, but his act is starting to look a little tired, as audience jeering in a few spots revealed. In Iowa Trump did very poorly with late deciders, which may have resulted in part from his skipping the final-week debate there. Here at least he showed up, but a so-so performance doesn’t give late deciders much reason to move his way. And Cruz I suspect will continue to slide. He may have an effective campaign organization and be a polished (if overly verbose) public speaker, but he’s just not a very appealing candidate who fires up anyone but true believers, and these debates don’t do him any favors.

There’s that old nostrum that Iowa picks corn while New Hampshire picks presidents. It’s not very likely that New Hampshire Republicans on Tuesday will choose a president, but they will be helping us pick some ex-candidates. So to Ben, John, maybe Jeb, probably Chris, and certainly Carly: I want you to know I’ve been haunted in my sleep; you’ve been staring in my dreams. Lord I [will] miss you.

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

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