GOP Debate Recap: The Beta Release of Trump 2.0

GOPMarch10Thursday night’s gathering in Miami was the final debate before next Tuesday’s key winner-take-all primaries in Florida and Ohio, otherwise known as The Day of the Death March for Marco Rubio and John Kasich. After last week’s raucous encounter in Detroit – you know, the one with Donald Trump’s phallus playing a prominent role – everyone wondered going in if cooler and more decorous heads would prevail. (You know our politics have jumped the rails when the act of writing that last sentence about a presidential debate involves contemplating whether to use the word pecker, tool, johnson, phallus, or shaft. I hope I chose wisely.) The specific venue last night was the University of Miami, where a spokesperson for the school said the debate “enhances the civic educaton of our students.” Heading into the debate I’m reserving judgment on that.

One key question going in last night was whether Ted Cruz, perhaps now the only mathematically viable alternative to Trump left standing, would go at him hard. (Are we now doomed for the rest of this race to noticing every unintended penis-related double entendre? Yes I do believe we are.) Trump takedown duty was previously Marco Rubio’s, but now L.M. has to invest every ounce of strength into sustaining the intrepid game face needed to continue long after the slaughter rule should have ushered him off the field. For Trump the challenge going in was deciding which of his branded enterprises to hawk on TV this time. My money’s on the stick deodorant. One Amazon customer writing a product review for it perfectly captured the entire Trump campaign in a single sentence: “This product left a rash on my skin.”

So here’s the blow by blow…

8:00 Opening statements. Kasich: strengthen America for “the best century we’ve ever had.” (Taking the long view there.) Rubio: again with the “at stake is our identity as a nation and a people” schtick. No matter how many times I hear him say that I still don’t understand what it means. Cruz: This election is not about insults and attacks. Yeah right. Trump: What I am doing is the greatest thing on the face of the planet ever.

8:02 We open with trade. Kasich, who has supported every trade deal that screws workers, assures us his highest priority is standing up for American workers.

8:04 CNN’s Jake Tapper asks Trump why people should trust him to run the country any differently than he runs his companies, which rely heavily on foreign workers. Though his tone tonight out of the gate is measured, the words coming out of Trump are as hollow and narcissistic as ever: nobody knows this stuff better than me, that’s why.

8:05 Rubio: There are good trade deals and bad trade deals. “If it’s a free and fair trade deal we can compete against anyone.” Lovely soundbite, entirely free of actual policy substance. Gets a good bit of applause from the substance-free crowd in the building. Rubio adds that we’re getting killed because we’re driving jobs overseas. Conveniently omits mentioning that his party has pushed policies that produce this effect for, oh, about 35 years.

8:08 Stephen Dinan of the Washington Times asks about visa programs that let companies like Disney replace Americans with foreign workers. Rubio, showing his desperation, goes negative on Disney, charging that it may well be a violation of the law to use the visa program as they have. Kasich: “I’d be running for president of Croatia if we didn’t have immigration.” (I’m as puzzled at that statement as you are. I put it in quotes so you’d believe me that he said it.) Kasich seems not to understand the specific question is about visas, so instead he makes general comments about comprehensive immigration reform, with a tired rising-tide metaphor tossed in. It’s unusual to find Kasich out of his depth and resorting to irrelevant platitudes.

8:12 Trump: The H-1B visa program is very bad for business and very bad for workers and oh by the way I use it all the time. And by the way I got a “full endorsement” from “the Disney workers” (whatever that means). Cruz, ever the unifying figure: Democrats support illegal immigration because they see immigrants as voters, and Republicans are doing the bidding of business interests that just want cheap labor. He never quite explains how he expects to get the federal government to do something that neither Democrats or Republicans want.

The first 15 minutes of the debate have been almost hypnotically civil and rational in terms of the tone of discourse. Clearly everyone came in motivated to avoid a repeat of last week’s embarrassment, and almost to a fault since we also have yet to hear a single contrast between any of them. That works to the benefit of Trump, who decided to wear his try-to-act-like-a-grownup-who-is-actually-running-for-office pants to this evening’s festivities.

GOPMarch10Tapper

Tapper nudges T.D. with inconvenient facts.

8:16 A shift to education. Tapper asks Trump, who on the stump calls Common Core a disaster, what his specific objections are. Trump: the problem is it’s education through Washington DC; wants local control. Tapper nudges him with the inconvenient fact that Common Core is implemented in the states. Trump, continuing to experiment with his newly discovered calm professional demeanor but unable to resist his chronic impulse to just make shit up, insists “it’s all been taken over now by the bureaucrats in Washington.” He really has no knowledge of how any of this actually works. And he doesn’t inspire confidence by adding that oh by the way Ben Carson will endorse me tomorrow and I’ll be tapping his expertise on education. Color me not reassured that Trump imagines a loopy spaced out ex-neurosurgeon in the role of education advisor.

8:18 Kasich gives a smart answer about the importance of high standards and about the role states like his play. Never the one to attack, he misses an opportunity to point out that Trump has no clue what he’s talking about. Cruz: Common Core is a “disaster” and in the first days of my presidency I will direct the Department of Education that “Common Core ends that day.” Based on the tepid applause that greets this pompous declaration, I sense that even the partisan Republican audience in the hall understands how insane it is to think you can halt curricular standards around the country on a dime in a single day by executive order. Adds that he’ll abolish the Department of Education and go all in for “charter schools and home schools and private schools and vouchers.” Ted Cruz, we come to discover, is basically against the concept of public education.

8:21 Tapper, observing that Florida has lots of old people (no kidding! who knew?), hands it off to CNN’s Dana Bash for some Social Security mojo. She asks Rubio to explain his plans to raise the retirement age and means-test benefits. Rubio, after namechecking his mommy as a beneficiary of the program, justifies his approach by claiming, falsely, that it is not possible to stabilize the system for the long run by adjusting payroll taxes; of course you can and that’s not a hard thing to prove.

8:24 Trump, after falsely charging that the Democrats want to do nothing about Social Security, takes the position that the retirement age and benefits should remain as they are. He will fix its fiscal issues by making America great again (yes he really did say this) and throws in his familiar and trivial waste-fraud-abuse canard. Bash, trying her best to maintain a canard-free zone, informs Trump that eliminating improper payments would make up a whopping two percent of the money needed to make the system solvent. Confronted with inconvenient facts, Trump can keep his inner Trump contained no longer. He launches a bizarro rant about how we are the policemen of the world … we are going to have a stronger military … Germany … Japan … South Korea … this maniac from North Korea … Saudi Arabia … we are going to be in a different world and negotiate real deals and bring wealth back to our country. Yes, that is his answer to the question of where he gets the other 98% needed to stabilize Social Security.

8:27 Rubio, alluding to Trump but not naming him (Marco is really on his best behavior tonight): “The numbers don’t add up.” So Bash does it for him, asking Trump to respond to Rubio’s assertion that his numbers don’t add up. Trump says, weirdly, “Well, I don’t know if he’s saying that.” (He is, and it wasn’t ambiguous.) Cue another Trump ramble: we don’t bid out pharmaceuticals because of pharma lobbyists, Trump says, and we don’t properly bid military contracts. He thinks we’ll save tons of money. While I have no doubt the federal government can save some dollars with better management, Trump is making demonstrably absurd claims about the magnitude of effects of management reform, and nobody on the stage is calling him out on it. Though his verbal tone remains measured, his big you-know-what is swinging wildly around the room, and all anyone else is doing is ducking out of the way.

8:30 Cruz spins Social Security reform into a broadside against government in all its forms. He apparently already has in his head a list of all the people in Washington he’s going to fire when he’s elected. Humblebrags about his own political courage for opposing ethanol subsidies in Iowa, then takes an indirect swipe at Trump (finally) by implying that Trump shares the awful evil horrible Hillary Clinton’s view of savings achievable by cutting waste, fraud, and abuse. Invited to respond, Trump ignores the Hillary bait and offhandedly tags Cruz as a flip-flopper on ethanol. Cruz, clearly annoyed, goes after Trump’s conservative apostasy: “If you have a candidate who has been funding liberal Democrats and funding the Washington establishment, it’s very hard to imagine how suddenly this candidate is going to take on Washington.” Trump replies by tagging Cruz as a flip-flopper at immigration amnesty. Then says what everyone is thinking: “I cannot believe how civil it’s been up here.”

8:37 Tapper asks Trump about his differences with GOP orthodoxy and what it indicates about his view of the party and its future. Trump rejects the premise; says there is only one major difference: trade policy, and Trump’s inclination to aggressively use tariffs and spark contentious trade relations. Interesting direct exchange here between Trump and Cruz. Cruz argues that Trump’s trade-war bent would just raise prices for U.S. consumers. Trump insists “it’s just the opposite” because the result will be new manufacturing plants and jobs that will make it possible to build our products here. It’s quite remarkable how Trump has managed to hijack the GOP mindset on trade and advance a rousingly protectionist agenda that runs counter to most everything they’ve been pushing for a half century. Can a Trump-Sanders unity ticket be far off?

8:46
Tapper confronts Trump with his comment this week that “Islam hates us.” Did you mean all 1.6 billion Muslims? “I mean a lot of ‘em,” Trump replies, adding “there is tremendous hatred.” Will any of Trump’s opponents on the stage take on this rather astounding display of out and out prejudice? Rubio gives it a decent shot: “Presidents can’t just say anything they want; it has consequences, here and around the world.” Trump doubles down, saying he refuses to be politically correct, and “we’d better solve the problem before it’s too late.” Rubio with a snappy comeback: I don’t want to be politically correct; I just want to be correct. Cruz is marginalized in this exchange though I’m sure he’ll be popping in any minute with plans to bomb the shit out of someone.

8:52 Trump is asked how he will order the military to go after family members of terrorists when it’s illegal to do so. He replies that we have to change our laws to we can fight on an equal footing against people who cut people’s heads off. Doesn’t say if he will be tapping Ben Carson’s neurosurgical expertise on the matter of headectomies. Rubio, who by the way is having a very good night, comes in with a hawkish response that seems downright reasonable compared to the absurdity of what Trump has in mind. Then finally we get Cruz, who hopes we don’t remember his penchant earlier in the campaign for carpet bombing that would kill lots of civilians when he says “we’ve never targeted innocent civilians and we’re not going to start now.”

It’s lovely that Rubio and Cruz and Kasich are all rejecting Trump’s outrageous ideas on fighting terrorism, but that’s all they are doing – rejecting it. They aren’t saying why. They aren’t explaining the extent to which one should be alarmed by a presidential candidate who actively supports war crimes, and plans to change U.S. law to make international war crimes legal under U.S. law. Maybe it’s fruitless to even try to talk people out of admiring Trump for these positions, but I kind of wish they’d try anyway.

8:56 The tragic death of a Vanderbilt graduate student in Israel this week enters the political fray here, mentioned in the context of questions about Trump’s prior statements that he intends to be neutral in negotiations between Israel and Palestinians. Trump’s go-to narcissism move – “There’s nobody on this stage who’s more pro-Israel than I am” – draws a smattering of boos. Brags that he was grand marshall of an Israel day parade, gives money to pro-Israel causes, and (yessireebob) has a couple of Jewish grandchildren. We are collectively relieved he doesn’t use the phrase “some of my best friends are…” Cruz sees an opening to talk about how fabulous Israel is. Rubio sees an opening to suggest there’s nothing to negotiate with anyone, not for the next 30 years anyway. With Trump and Cruz on the stage it’s easy to forget that Rubio can be as hawkish as they come.

9:02 ISIS. Cruz: Defeat by all means necessary. Kasich: Shock and awe. Trump: Knock the hell out of them. Rubio: Ditto. Everyone’s cool with tens of thousands of U.S. ground troops.

9:08 Cuba. Why are Obama, Trump, and most Americans wrong in supporting renewed ties? Rubio says until the Cuban government changes he’s not in for that. His rejectionist view is quite popular with the Miami audience in the room. Trump says he doesn’t agree with Obama (though his past statements indicate he does) and says like on everything else he wants to make a “good deal.” Cruz says the crappy deals we have with Cuba and Iran were negotiated by Hillary Clinton and John Kerry – two people who have been supported in the past by Trump. Trump calls the Iran deal one of the worst deals ever in the history of the country. As usual, he doesn’t say (and isn’t pressed to say) what it is he doesn’t like about it. Cruz charges that Trump doesn’t understand our enemies. Trump doesn’t disagree.

9:18 Tapper channels a request from the mayor of Miami that the candidates acknowledge the scientific consensus of human-caused climate change. Rubio: The climate is changing because the climate is always changing. (Translation: no, I’m not acknowledging the science.) Kasich: I do believe we contribute to climate change. (Translation: I am not oblivious to this thing called science.) We are spared hearing Cruz and Trump discuss their science denialism.

9:23 Sort of a philosophical question: Does it matter what the rest of the world thinks of the U.S.? Cruz: Of course it does, and by the way Obama has made America the laughing stock of the world. Takes one to know one, Ted. Cruz reminds us (again) that he’ll tear up the Iran deal on day one. Doesn’t say if that will happen before or after lunch.

9:26 Trump is asked about his evaluations of Chinese leaders during the Tiananmen Square massacre and Putin today as “strong leaders.” He walks it back a bit by saying strong doesn’t mean good, but then walks it forward when he throws Angela Merkel into the same set, calling Germany “a disaster right now.” Huh? Kasich, to his credit, doesn’t seem to suffer Trump’s brand of moral ambiguity; he summarizes June 1989 by observing that “the Chinese government butchered those kids.”

TrumpTP.jpg

One product he doesn’t sell.

9:32 A question about the ruckus doings at Trump campaign events. Has Trump created a tone at his events contributing to violence? “I hope not,” saith the Donald. Oh please. Tapper points out (with verbatim quotes at hand) that Trump himself has explicitly egged on violence at his rallies. QED. Point to Tapper.

9:38 Rubio: “Every institution in America has been failing us for the better part of 20 or 30 years.” This asinine sentence speaks volumes about why Rubio’s is ultimately a failed candidacy. Sure, there are plenty of things in America to be distressed about, but this kind of vapid hyperbole says more about the shallowness of the candidate than about the deficiencies of the republic.

9:40 Horserace time. If Trump gets the most delegates, even if not quite a majority, shouldn’t he be the nominee rather than have a contested convention? Kasich: Too soon to go there. Trump: I’ll have the delegates. Cruz: We need to respect the will of the voters. Cruz proceeds to wax rhapsodic about his triumphs so far in delegates and endorsements. Trump boasts that he’s won many more states and gotten many more votes. Not that much time left in the debate, but finally the penile appendages have been unsheathed.

9:44 Rubio gets to sermonize about “what this election is about for me.” Spins an anecdote about someone not giving up on him and him not giving up on himself and “God’s hand is upon this country” (another one of those pesky double entendres?) blah blah blah for crying out loud Marco give it up already.

9:46 Trump talks about the hundreds of millions of campaign contributions he hasn’t taken from his friends, “$5 million, $10 million, I’m turning down money.” Trump appears to have no understanding whatsoever of campaign finance laws. And why should he? He has no understanding of the federal government, the budget, or foreign policy, so why would he know about this?

9:48 Trump says Super PACs are “very corrupt” and will “lead to lots of disasters.” I’m still holding out for that Trump-Sanders ticket. Feelin’ the DonBern.

9:50 Noting that Rubio at the last debate criticized Trump for being too flexible, Dinan asks isn’t flexibility an asset in times of government gridlock? Rubio with a snappy reply: be flexible on ideas, but not on principles. Good one, Marco.

9:57 Closing statements. Kasich begs for Ohio votes. Rubio begs for Florida votes. Cruz orates. Trump sustains his calm new style for 30 more seconds and gets out unscathed (though he did seem to predict a rash of deaths on the Supreme Court).

Verdict: Rubio, coming into this on the ropes, was his best self (such as it is), and gave his dead-enders reason to stick with him one more round. Quite likely too little too late. Trump seems to have calculated that as long as he’s mainly just running out the clock he might as well start spooking people a little less, so he brought to the stage a more placid and measured Trump 2.0. Cruz and Kasich were their familiar selves. With everyone seemingly resolved to elevate the tone of the debate very few punches were thrown at Trump (much less landed). That works to his advantage. (Looking less rather than more crazy always works to one’s advantage.) But elevating the tone doesn’t elevate the substance; despite the calmer voices and more cordial styles of interaction, the GOP candidates spewed pretty much all of the same policy nonsense that they were hurling at each other in the last few debates. I suspect Trump holds onto his lead in Florida, though Rubio might pick up some late deciders, and give himself an opportunity to pack it in with a good bit more dignity than looked to be the case.

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

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