GOP Debate Recap: Take Your Pants Off and MoonPosted: February 15, 2016
With the departures of Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, and Jim Gilmore (for those who pay attention, yes, he was still in until the other day; for the rest of you he’s a guy you never heard of who for some unknown reason was still in until the other day) and the GOP field now whittled to six, Saturday’s debate figured to crystallize a collection of subplots that are lower in number but higher in dramatic pitch.
For Trump, some think a South Carolina win might open a glide path through the South toward the nomination, but we know that others in the race are now amped to take him on. Will it be the case, as POLITICO put it, that “the brash, sometimes-profane real estate mogul will wilt once the other candidates turn their fire on him”? How does Ted Cruz peel off evangelicals who mysteriously prefer a profane real estate mogul who pretends to be religious over an actual evangelical? With what level of intensity will Jeb Bush, now assertively saying nasty things about the Donald on the stump, go after Trump with gusto and vigor on the TV debate stage, and push back when Trump calls him Jebra or whatever? How does the amiable semi-moderate John Kasich, who never attacks anyone, parlay his second place finish in New Hampshire into a better outcome than his current single-digit standing in the South Carolina polls if he’s not willing to attack anyone? Why is Ben Carson still here? And what will the attemped auto-resurrection of Marco Rubio look like? There’s been a lot of chatter this week about the debate as Rubio’s opportunity for “redemption,” but that’s a misnomer; the word redemption means deliverance from mistake or sin, not recovery from authentic ineptitude.
Oh yeah, and there was also some fairly well-known judge guy whose death became known a few hours before the debate and is apparently a big deal.
So the blow by blow…
8:06 We open, of course, with Nino. Moderator John Dickerson (on whom I have a serious man-crush, not for his erudition and square-jawed good looks but for his superb podcast series Whistlestop on presidential election history, a must-listen for political junkies) asks Trump if you were president with 11 months in your term wouldn’t it be a betrayal of conservatives to not nominate a Supreme Court justice. Trump concedes it’s reasonable for Obama to try a nomination. “It’s up to Mitch McConnell to stop it – it’s called delay delay delay.” So much for fixing our dysfunctional government. Kasich opts to open with an outlandish claim: “If I were president we wouldn’t have the divisions in the country we have today.” He frames it as an imperative for Obama to put the country first by not making a nomination. Carson controversially asserts that the Supreme Court is an important part of our system. Why is he still here? 8:10 Still on Scalia, Rubio’s up and you get the feeling the first words out of his mouth tonight are really important. He opts for canned Scalia hagiography, highlighting Scalia’s dissent in the marriage equality case. Declares “the constitution is not a living and breathing document, it is to be interpreted as originally meant.” Doesn’t elaborate on whether we should still allow slavery and deny women the vote, or do amendments also count? Bush says he rejects a litmus test for nominations but that we must have justices with a proven conservative record. (Sounds like a litmus test to me.)
8:14 Good question for Cruz: If February is too late for a final-year presidential appointment to the Court, when is not too late. Cruz missteps by saying we have 80-year precedent of no SCOTUS appointments in an election year. Dickerson points out that Justice Kennedy was confirmed in 1988 (though nominated by Reagan in 1987). Crowd boos Dickenson for stating facts. Crowd is anti-fact. Cruz delivers short sermon on how the court is one vote away from undoing our march toward turning America into a Christian nation or something. Do none of these guys see the paradox (by which I mean rank hypocrisy) of celebrating Scalia’s great devotion to the constitution while simultaneously believing that Obama and/or the Senate should shirk their constitutional responsibility to install a successor?
8:16 And we’re off Nino … dude gets just 10 minutes. RIP. Next up is national security. Dickerson to Trump: Ok, you’re president, so what three questions you will ask your national security experts to help you come up to speed. His answer: “What do we want to do, when do we want to do it, and how hard do we want to hit.” Really, those are your first questions – how soon can we bomb someone and with how much force? Goes on to call the Iran deal “a disgrace and an embarrassment.” As usual there is no follow-up asking why he’d favor Iran restarting its nuclear program, which is what tearing up the Iran deal inevitably catalyzes.
8:18 Rubio has different questions for his advisors: about Asia/Pacific, about the Middle East, about rebuilding NATO in Europe. He is talking fast and showing off knowledge of details. It’s clear that as part of his debate rehab program he has allocated his allotment of seats in the hall to people who have been instructed to cheer like it’s the Beatles at Shea Stadium every time he says something. Zeroing in on the experience sword that our old friend Chris Christie plunged with glee into Rubio’s gut last weekend, the winsome Dickerson asks what experience in Rubio’s past shows that he’s been tested in a crisis. He somewhat lamely replies with his vote on authorizing military force in Syria. “It was a difficult decision to make … and I voted against [it].” (Zombie Chris Christie jumps in: “You were asked when you’ve been tested in a crisis and your answer is a fucking vote on a fucking Senate resolution? Are you fucking kidding me?”)
8:21 Dr. Carson, as president, the 2 a.m. phone calls won’t allow you to operate on the foundation of your medical expertise … so doesn’t that make you thoroughly unqualified for the job? Carson goes back to Scalia to correct something he said that he thought might get him into trouble with the “left wing media,” failing to realize that the press mostly goes out for a smoke when it’s his turn to talk. He then says something vague about what great judgment he has. Why is he still here?
8:23 The appealingly charming Dickerson asks Kasich what he meant when he has said he wants to “punch Russia in the nose.” Since that’s one of those tempestuous red-meat things you feed the base on the campaign trail that you are never equipped to actually define or explain, Kasich responds with some platitudes about “leadership” and wanting to “make sure this century is the best we’ve ever seen.” Bold promise from a guy whose presidential tenure would end before the century is a quarter over and is almost certain to be dead well before the century is half over.
8:25 Bush on Syria. Says the current Obama/Clinton policy is a “complete and unmitigated disaster.” So what would I do? Three things: Beef up U.S. military, contain Iran’s ambitions, make clear we won’t allow Iran to have nukes. Astute viewers will notice that he said nothing whatsoever that he would do about Syria that is different from the “complete and unmitigated disaster” that is Obama’s Syrian approach. In prior debate recappage I have observed that Jeb appears to be a lightweight on foreign policy. It appears that he has not bulked up in the interim.
8:26 Asked about his fondness for Russia’s Putin, Trump says, “I like him so far” and then turns to hammering Bush: “Jeb is so wrong.” Boos from the house. Pointing at Bush Trump says, “we’ve spent $5 trillion in the Middle East because of thinking like that.” Bush kind of misses the point by saying Putin is no friend. Trump shouts down Jeb, who tries to retain the floor but fails when Trump shouts him down again. Moderator Dickerson falls down on the job, allowing Trump’s volume to carry the conversation rather than giving Bush space to finish his thought without interruption.
8:28 Cruz is asked about ground troops to fight ISIS. Cruz says greatest threat is a nuclear Iran which is why he’ll tear up the Iran deal on Day One. So let me see if I have this right: to prevent a nuclear Iran you’ll tear up the deal that by all accounts is slowing down a nuclear Iran. Have I got that right Teddy? Cruz goes on to repeat his familiar “we’ll beat ISIS with overwhelming force” though he has stopped using the term “carpet bombing.”
8:31 Dickerson, who by the way looks fabulous in that suit, asks Trump if he stands by a statement he made in 2008 that Congress should impeach Jeb’s brother George W. for lying his way into the Iraq War. Trump opens his answer with, “as a businessman I get along with everybody,” which draws some jeers in the crowd. Responds to jeers by pointing out that as a self-funder he has only his wife and son here. Calls the Iraq war a “big fat mistake” (and takes a quick swipe at Jeb for taking so long to reach that conclusion). “They lied, they said there were weapons of mass destruction and there were none and the knew there were none.” Holy cow, someone has implanted Noam Chomsky’s brain in Donald Trump’s body! Cool.
8:33 Jeb gets to respond. Says he’s tired of Obama blaming his brother for stuff, and tired of Trump going after his family. Cue prepared zinger: “While Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe.” Trump retort: “World Trade Center came down on his brother’s reign.” More jeers in the house, likely jeers of astonishment that Trump would go there. Bush: “My mom is the strongest woman I know.” Trump: “She should be running.” Snap! (I am suddenly feeling not so deprived of entertainment having stayed home on a Saturday night to watch this. Half-expecting Phantom Chris Christie to pop in and mention Jeb’s mother’s secret affair with Scalia.)
8:34 Kasich offhands: “This is just nuts.” Dickerson, every hair in place, gives Kasich the opening to explain what’s nuts. He defends Colin Powell’s honor and goes on to articulate a thoroughly vapid doctrine of when we should go to war (“when it is in our direct interest … and when we go we’ll mean business”).
8:36 Weirdly, Rubio jumps in sort of to Bush’s defense offering that he thanks God that it was George W. Bush in the White House on 9/11 and not Al Gore. Massive applause. Trump looks almost chastened. Where’s a cutaway to Al Gore when you really need one? Rubio defends W.’s actions as having kept us safe. Trump: How did he keep us safe when the World Trade Center came down? “That is not safe.” Trump is being seriously booed. Rubio: WTC came down because Bill Clinton didn’t kill Osama. Jeb quips: I’m not going to invite Trump to the rally in Charleston next week when my brother comes to speak. I think that’s kind of funny, but nobody else does.
8:38 Carson is asked why, having previously called for looser rules of military engagement, he is fine with civilian casualties in the fight against ISIS. Carson, indulging his now familiar penchant for instead answering a question asked of someone else a while ago, says he opposed the war in Iraq. Never answers the question asked. Why is he still here?
8:43 After a commercial break, Dickerson for this segment yields to a couple of substantially less awesome panelists for questions on economics. First, entitlements: Trump is asked how he can deliver on promises that would cost trillions. Trump goes into an irrelevant free association riff about all the jobs he’s going to bring back. “I’m the only one who’s going to save social security, believe me.” How would you actually do that? “Waste, fraud and abuse.” Says we have on Social Security thousands and thousands of people who are more than 106 years old and “you know they don’t exist.” “We’re going to make our economy great again.” Say what? That was just odd.
8:45 Cruz is asked about his proposed value-added tax. How will this not be an ever-escalating tax to fund more government? Alluding, one presumes, to Trump, Cruz rejects “magic pixie dust” as the answer to our economic problems. Pushes his 10% pay-on-a-postcard income tax. Insists his business tax isn’t a VAT. Throws out some statistics purporting to show the fabulousness of his tax plans. To judge by the audience reaction, few believe him.
8:49 Rubio defends his own tax policy as oriented toward struggling families “because the family is the most important institution in society.” Maybe so, but to paraphrase Groucho Marx, who wants to live in an institution?
8:51 Kasich is asked to defend his advocacy in Ohio of Medicaid expansion, which most Republicans regard as just this side of selling fetus body parts. Kasich does a good job explaining why Medicaid expansion at the state level is eminently sensible and hasn’t busted his state fiscally. Bush jumps in to take a shot at Kasich, reminding us that what Kasich is doing is “expanding Obamacare” and “we should be fighting Obamacare.” I think what Bush is trying to say, if you’ll allow me to summarize in technical terms, is this: “Obamacare Obamacare Obamacare Obamacare Obamacare Obamacare.” Kasich in reply wants us to know, “I’m not for Obamacare, never have been.” Hopes we don’t notice that the Medicaid expansion in his state is, sshhhh don’t tell anyone, Obamacare. Bush and Kasich go back on forth on the specifics. Trump thinks to himself: if these two mooks polling at less than half my numbers want to kill time in a wonky exchange over state fiscal matters, I’m down with that.
8:54 Bush is asked to defend his plan for taxing capital gains by hedge funds as ordinary income. He does so. It’s pretty much a liberal idea and hard to argue with. Nobody does.
8:55 Carson is invited to weigh in. Does. “My main goal is to get rid of Obamacare.” Hey, who isn’t? Why is he still here?
9:01 Dickerson, back from a break and now sporting a halo, asks Trump what for him is a human solution to immigration? It’s apparent that Trump doesn’t actually bother to listen to questions; he just picks out the key words and hits the play button. On immigration it’s a familiar tape: brown people flooding into the country, build a wall, paid by Mexico, flooding, wall, Mexico, wall, nation, Mexico, flooding.
9:02 Time for Rubio and Cruz to go mano a mano. Asked about immigration amnesty, Rubio says he’s never supported it, and gives a tight, concise answer on border security. He is having a much better night than last time. Asked about his plans to deport people, Cruz ignores the question completely and uses the opportunity to take a swipe at Rubio on immigration reform (“the Rubio-Schumer amnesty plan”). Rubio pushes back at Cruz as a flip flopper on amnesty: “He either wasn’t telling the truth then or he isn’t telling the truth now.” Cruz responds by ticking off a series of immigrant-friendly moves by Rubio over the years. Rubio accuses Cruz of not being able to speak Spanish (trust me there was context for this) and of just “telling lies” about everything from immigration to Planned Parenthood to Ben Carson in Iowa. Cruz says that’s “knowingly false.”
9:08 Bush scores a point (channeling Chris Christie) by observing that Cruz and Rubio are two senators engaged in an argument about bills that didn’t pass. He tries to define a balance between compassion and border control, and in some kind of sane universe he did that pretty well. But to paraphrase Rumsfeld, you go to war with the universe you have. And in this one Trump gets to respond, calling Bush “the weakest person on this stage … so weak on illegal immigration it’s laughable.” Tells Jeb snidely he should “spend a little more money on the commercials.” (I hate myself for admiring that last little jab.) Jeb here revs up for his full-on frontal assault on Trump: “You want to talk about weakness? It’s weak to disparage women. It’s weak to disparage Hispanics. It’s weak to denigrate the disabled. And it’s really weak to call John McCain a loser because he was a POW.” Trump responds with umbrage — something about Bush saying he’d take his pants off and moon everybody but nobody reports that but tells me my language is a little bit rough. If you find that last sentence odd and confusing: yes.
9:13 A question for Carson about whether corporate executives should be held liable for the financial crisis. True to form he first mentions immigration, then on the question asked says the problem is government regulators running around looking for people to fine, so we should trim regulatory agencies. Why on earth is he still here?
9:15 Dickerson, the questions oozing off his silver tongue like crème fraîche off a warm apple crumble, asks Cruz about poverty. Cruz makes the usual sort of move one expects when poverty comes up at a Republican debate: spin an anecdote about a poor person you know, blame it on overregulation, and mention Obamacare. Ding! Time’s up.
9:16 Trump is asked about intentions to levy a stiff tax on companies that try to move overseas. Where do you get that power and do you need Congress to go along? “I would build consensus with Congress.” Talks about building relationships in order to forge consensus. Almost makes sense. This is very not-Republican stuff. My head explodes.
9:23 Trump cites eminent domain as an example of a conservative principle that his opponents throw around wrongly. Chides Bush for his family’s use of eminent domain for private purposes — to build a stadium in Texas. Given a chance to respond, Bush surprisingly agrees, throwing his brother W. under the bus on this one. (So Jeb is cool with W’s resort to war on false pretenses, but not with his stadium project.)
9:26 It’s been a good 25 minutes since serious hostilities; relief from all that pretend civility comes now in the form of a Cruz-Trump entanglement. Cruz calls Trump an amazing entertainer who just so happens to be a closet liberal who lacks core conservative principles. Trump interrupts: “You are the single biggest liar, you probably are worse than Jeb Bush.” Yet again Trump has taken over the stage hectoring his opponents through sheer force of loud vocal volume. Pointing to Cruz, “He’s a nasty guy.” Cruz, deftly: You’ll notice Donald didn’t agree with the substance, like his support for Planned Parenthood. They argue over this. Trump says Planned Parenthood “is involved in wonderful things having to do with womens health.” Of course, though the point is lost on Cruz, saying that doesn’t make Trump a liberal; it just makes him (just for this moment) a member of the reality-based community.
9:28 Cruz sticks with the theme: “If Donald Trump is president, he will appoint liberals” to the Supreme Court. “Your Second Amendment will go away.” Trump says Cruz supported John Roberts on the court, and that guy twice upheld Obamacare, so there. Bush, refusing to let John Dickerson retake control, insists on a chance to speak because Trump has “denigrated one of my heroes Ronald Reagan.” Defends the gipper’s conservative honor. Dickerson did not say at the outset in his eloquently compelling introduction that the format includes a chance to respond when someone insults your dead heroes, so I’m crying foul.
9:30 Dickerson invites Rubio to weigh in. Rubio: “On anything I want?” Best line of the night. Rubio circles back to poverty, which was a subject of discussion 15 minutes earlier. Wasted opportunity. In a follow-up on immigration, Rubio essentially repeats a speech on this he delivered a half hour ago. The robot redux.
9:32 Carson: “What happened tonight with Justice Scalia tells you that we cannot afford to lose this election.” Did something happen tonight with Justice Scalia? Did he come back to life and join Hillary Clinton’s campaign team? Why is this guy still here?
9:33 Offbeat question time. For Carson: Tell voters something they need to hear that might be politically incorrect. Weird answer: Free college a la Bernie Sanders is a bad idea and rich people are not the source of your problems. Why is this … well you know.
9:35 For Trump: Tell us a time someone told you you were wrong and you listened. He says a bunch of things but it isn’t apparent that this has ever happened. Dickerson follows it up with a question about his use of profanity. Trump tells Dickerson to fuck off.
9:38 For Bush: Do you still believe (as you have said in the past) that Reagan and Bush 41 would have trouble with today’s political climate. His answer includes a statement that we don’t need a president who brags about going bankrupt … which sets Trump off again. “I never went bankrupt, it’s another lie.” Accuses Bush of having crashed Florida as governor. Bush comes back with a spirited defense of his state’s economic record. He is having a pretty good night.
9:41 A question for Rubio about presidents that I don’t quite understand. Whatever it was, it gives Rubio a chance to suck up to – who else? And a giant sucking sound it truly is. He really said this: “If our next president is even half the president that Ronald Reagan was, America is going to be greater than it’s ever been.” So let me see if I have this straight: Ronald Reagan was so impossibly fabulous that under his leadership American achieved twice the greatness than at any other point in the nation’s history. Makes me wish I’d been paying more attention during the 1980s.
9:47 Closing statements. Kasich: the Lord made all of us special. Carson: Our country is heading off the cliff. Bush: Something bad is going to happen. Rubio: These are difficult times. Cruz: Our country literally hangs in the balance. (No, Senator, not literally.) Trump: We don’t win. Wow these guys are downers.
Verdict: Bush and Cruz came to rumble with Trump and so they did. On the merits they did pretty well with that, but Trump fought back mostly by yelling back at them and commanding the floor. The moderator let Trump do this (not clear how he’d stop it). Bush did a better job than he has on past occasions fighting through the bluster and seemed mostly on his game. A person coming at this with no priors would likely see Bush as the adult in the room. Kasich qualifies also, but since nobody is attacking him or for that matter paying much attention to him, he isn’t particularly memorable. Rubio did better than last time, but then again when last time = major disaster it’s not hard to improve upon it. He returned to what he was earlier in the race: a congenial fellow who seems knowledgeable and articulate, but who is just a bit too young and too earnest, and who talks too fast. Cruz as usual was articulate but at times overly strident, and almost never charming. He comes off as a textbook example of someone smart and glib who talks at you, not with you.
My guess is Trump holds serve but once again doesn’t grow his support beyond what he has; there is little here in his substantively vacant bluster to attract late-breaking undecideds. He may have prevailed in verbal jousts with Cruz and Bush on volume and anger, but for those who aren’t true believers Trump is anything but presidential. I look for Bush to gain, Rubio to stop the bleeding, and Cruz to hold or even fade a bit. Kasich has seen signs of upward movement in South Carolina polls but I doubt that will sustain. Carson needs to go home, but of course he won’t.
We now return you to nonstop coverage of all the ways Republicans will make sure Scalia is never ever replaced on the Court.
A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.