The best thing about finally reaching the start of Monday’s titanically anticipated debate is that we won’t have to see Gerald Ford’s stupefying 1976 debate gaffe (the Soviets-don’t-dominate-Eastern-Europe thing) replayed another hundred times. Isn’t it grand to have your reputation for all time defined by one incoherent moment amidst decades of public service and accomplishment? Would there be such a moment in battle Trump-Clinton? Isn’t that why we tune in — to see who will fall off the balance beam in a cloud of chalk dust and humiliation?
Okay, maybe some watch because they actually want to figure out their vote. A legit poll last week found that fully one-third of likely voters say the debates are important in helping them decide, but this feels overstated. Similar pre-debate questions asked in past cycles yielded similar results, but everyone knows now (as they knew then) that the share of votes genuinely in play at this point is substantially less than a third. Granted, though, persuadables are more numerous than usual at this stage, given the hefty third-party-plus-undecided number we still see in many polls (well up in the teens compared to mid-single digits in 2012).
Monday’s 90-minute debate was supposed to be divvied into six segments of 15 minutes each with cutesy segment titles. Didn’t work out that way, but there were a few discernible segments, sort of.
Segment 1 — Achieving Prosperity
Moderator Lester Holt (a church-going Republican who, by the way, plays bass guitar and got his on-air start in country radio, because there’s always a Nashville connection, even if just imagined) opens by asking why you are the better choice than your opponent to create jobs. Clinton starts by playing the granddaughter card (today is her second birthday), then rolls tape with a litany of economic policy tropes: minimum wage, equal pay for women, profit sharing, paid family leave, affordable child care, debt free college, corporate welfare. Throws in a “Donald, it’s good to be with you” mainly to remind him that she is going to annoy the self-styled “Mr. Trump” with 90 solid minutes of calling him “Donald.” He replies with his favorite hits — jobs fleeing, China screwing us, Mexico screwing us, taxes need reducing. Name-checks three big land masses: Michigan, Ohio, and Ronald Reagan. Clinton replies with the first canned zinger of the night: “Trumped up trickle down.” TV audience at home works hard to erase image of aroused old guy with urinary leakage.
Holt asks Trump “how, specifically” will you bring back millions of jobs. Trump takes the bait: “My father gave me a very small loan.” And very small hands. Says he’d build it into a big company “with some of the greatest assets in the world.” Sure, some of them are nice overpriced hotels, but greatest assets in the world? The man needs to get out more. He references Clinton for the first time as “Secretary Clinton — is that okay? I want you to be very, very happy.” Creepy uncle alert. In reply Clinton hits Trump for the first time directly, re: the financial meltdown: “Donald is one of the people who rooted for the housing crisis.” He interjects, “That’s called business, bitch.” (Granted he said “by the way,” not “bitch,” but we all know what he meant). She veers wonkward with assertions that Trump’s tax plan would blow up the debt by $5 trillion and cost 3 million jobs, hits clean energy notes and reminds viewers that Trump thinks climate change is a hoax. Trump interjects again: “I did not say that.” Did. Trump replies by dissing solar panels — apparently his first wife cheated on him with a solar panel — and gives Michigan and Ohio another shout out.
They go deep on jobs, trade agreements, NAFTA and TPP. Trump blames Bill. Clinton defends Bill: He “did a pretty good job.” Doesn’t say what kind of job. Trump pins Clinton (accurately) on her TPP flip-flop. She replies “Donald, I know you live in your own reality.” Trump: “My penis is the biggest since Ronald Reagan.” Actually he said tax cut not penis but it doesn’t read as well that way. He accuses Clinton of advocating “regulations on top of regulations and you want to increase the regulations.” Clinton says go to my website fact checker. Trump says, yeah and her website also tells you how she’ll fight ISIS and “I don’t think Gen. Douglas MacArthur would like that.” If that’s a head scratcher, his next sentence was downright perplexing: “You’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.” That bit of crazy elicits the first audible audience gasp of the night.
At this point we’re a half an hour in but still on the first 15-minute “block.” Lester Holt has apparently left the stage to play some bass guitar for the folks in the spin room.
After that ISIS thing (on the economy and jobs?) Clinton chirps that “by the end of the evening I’ll be blamed for everything that’s ever happened,” to which Trump replies, “Why not?” Clinton retorts sure, just “join the debate by saying more crazy things.” She throws in another “Trumped up trickle down” just to make sure we keep that image in our heads.
Back on topic, Trump calls the economy the “worst revival of an economy since great depression” and (channeling the macroeconomics textbook they require at Trump U) a “big fat ugly bubble” that will come crashing down. He adds that “the day Obama goes off to the golf course for the rest of his life to play golf … you are going to see some very bad things happen.” We are relieved to learn Obama will be playing golf at the golf course, though we wonder if the “very bad things” might be rising greens fees.
Lester Holt returns from gigging with the media in the spin room to bring up Trump’s tax returns: Hey Trumpface, don’t Americans have a right to know if you have conflicts of interest? Trump responds with a boast about his mega-awesome income, then tries to deflect by pivoting (more like death-defying leaping) to the fact that “We have a country that’s doing so badly, that’s being ripped off by every single country in the world.” Holt presses: You know, the IRS says you are perfectly free to release your taxes. Trump: “I will release my tax returns against my lawyers wishes when she releases her 33,000 emails.” Clinton releases 33,000 emails right then and there on the stage. Trump still doesn’t release his tax returns. Clinton laces into Trump with a prepared riff on what his taxes might show: maybe not so rich; maybe not so charitable; maybe owes millions to foreign banks; maybe pays no taxes. Trump interjects: “That makes me smart.” I do believe Trump just admitted he pays no taxes.
Invited by Holt to respond on the matter of emails, Clinton delivers a prepared, crisp 42-word rendition of “I fucked up, no excuses.” It didn’t come up again, so this was by definition effective, beyond a quick reply by Trump trying to shame Clinton with the fact that others involved have taken the Fifth — a reply he himself undermines by going back to his own taxes. In the process he makes one of the oddest biographical claims in presidential debate history: “I am very underleveraged.” He adds that he has “a great company” and “tremendous income” though he says this “not in a braggadocio way.” Nobody thought that, DT! Nothing but humility baby! You’re the best! (Now spell braggadocio.) Clinton counterpunches with the second oddest claim in presidential debate history: “I’ve met marble installers.” She is trying to make the point that Trump, in his business, stiffs contractors; adds she’s glad her late father didn’t do business with him. Trump replies no biggie, I don’t do business with dead people. Adds: “It’s all words, it’s all soundbites, I built an unbelievable company,” and as for bankruptcies, “I take advantage of the laws of the nation,” and by the way have I mentioned my fabulous new hotel in DC? Democracy collectively weeps.
We are now half-way through and Lester signals it’s time for a new segment, so let’s break up the text with a nice boldfaced header…
Segment 2 — America’s Direction
I have no idea what that segment title (announced by Lester Holt) is intended to mean, but it turns out to mean mainly matters of race. “How do you heal the divide?,” Holt inquires. Here, a well-meaning Clinton lets herself get trapped in the weeds. Opening with “We’ve got to do several things at the same time,” she comes off technocratic when some genuine pathos might have worked better. So we hear about police training and techniques, criminal justice reform, gun control and such. All lovely policy notions, but she misses an opportunity to show that she gets these issues on a deeper and more visceral level than her opponent.
But not to worry because Trump helps her out by going strident on law and order and boasting of police endorsements, sprinkled with a big dose of stop-and-friskthusiasm. Holt politely interjects that S&F was ruled unconstitutional in a New York court; Trump says oh well that was just a police-hating judge coupled with a pissant New York mayor who wouldn’t appeal, and we just have to take guns away from bad people and let’s face it there are bad people everygoddamnwhere. Or words to that effect. Clinton jumps in with more stats and wonk — background checks, terror watch lists, gun reform. Again, good stuff in the abstract, but it lets policy substitute for connection. Interestingly, Trump goes out of his way to agree with Clinton on the watch list and no-fly-list prohibitions (even as he slips in a boast that he has the support of those “very, very good people” at the NRA). Team Trump has apparently figured out that the actual audience for tonight’s debate — white female college grads in the Philly suburbs — are not down with people on terror watch lists buying weapons.
In a strange coda to this discussion, Trump boasts that he’s been all over the place visiting inner cities to see how crappy they are while you, Hillary, “decided to stay home, and that’s ok.” Tracy Flick Clinton, deploying another canned semi-zinger (not sure this one rises to full blown zinger status), points out that Trump just criticized her for doing debate prep, adding, “And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president.” As zingers go I give it maybe a 6. On a scale of 1 to 50.
Lester Holt pivots to birtherism because we all want to hear more about that. So Donald, “What took you so long?” Trump goes on a rant here about Clinton aides who, he insists, started the birther thing (and you know it’s not really a debate until Sidney Blumenthal gets name-checked). In one of the more jaw-dropping segments of the evening, Trump congratulates himself for getting Obama to release the birth certificate, “Because I want to get on to defeating ISIS.” Trump adds that he did “a great service not only for the country but even for the president in getting him to produce his birth certificate.” Clinton hits back hard, pointing out that Trump basically built his political career (if you can call it that) on “his racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen,” that he began his real estate career as the target of a federal racial discrimination lawsuit and that “he has a long record of engaging in racist behavior.” Trump responds by bragging that he settled that federal lawsuit “with no admission of guilt.” Oh yeah — just like every other company caught breaking the law! Closes the segment with an advertisement for the “tremendously successful” club he opened in Palm Beach that features “no discrimination against African- Americans, against Muslims, against anybody.” Well props to you, big fella.
Half an hour left to go and I think Lester is trying to muscle us into a new segment so we shift to…
Segment 3 — Securing America
Holt: What up with cyberattacks? Clinton gets into details on this — hacking, Russians, Putin and such — an issue she knows well, and you can see Trump on the split screen licking his lips for Round 2 of attacking Clinton for her vulnerable home server. But surprisingly he passes on that opening, electing instead to brag about being endorsed by over 200 admirals and generals, adding “I was just endorsed by ICE.” I don’t think you can actually be endorsed by a government agency, but what do I know. As for all these hacks, Trump muses that we don’t really know if it was Russia — could be China, “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” Doesn’t say if it’s the hacker or the bed that weighs 400 pounds. Trump adds that “we came up with the Internet” (Al Gore tweets: not so fast, buckaroo), and throws in that he has a 10-year-old son who “has computers” and “is so good with these computers.” And yes, if you are wondering, this is a person running for president.
In an interesting strategic move, Clinton uses her rebuttal here to answer a question that wasn’t asked about defeating ISIS. Makes sense — gives her a chance to go first on that rather than waiting for him to have that opportunity. She also works in the we-got-bin-Laden thing. Drink. This triggers a Trump tirade on how Clinton and Obama created conditions for ISIS and if only we had taken the oil it wouldn’t have happened. Clinton comes back with the Donald-supported-Iraq-War provocation, which Trump labels (and I’m going to quote verbatim here because you just can’t make up syntax like this) “a mainstream media nonsense put out here because the best person in her campaign was mainstream media.” He then goes off with an extended diatribe having something to do with the fact that Sean Hannity knows the truth and if only the media would check with Sean Hannity but they won’t because he’s Sean Hannity Sean Hannity Sean Hannity somebody call Sean Hannity.
Lester Holt to Trump, with a straight face (as if that last answer didn’t already answer the question): Why is your judgment any different from hers?
Trump: I have better judgment and “I have a much better temperament than she has … my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament,” (which evokes audible laughter in the hall). Clinton replies with a seemingly prepared set piece in which she schools him on a series of foreign policy issues: first NATO, then the Iran deal, the nuclear weapons. It’s one of her best sequences of the night. Trump replies by asserting that nuclear armament is the world’s single greatest problem, “Not global warming, like you think and your president thinks.” Holt asks if he supports current policy on first use of nukes. Trump says he wouldn’t do a first strike (that’s a relief, I suppose), and showing admirable restraint, declines to mention how fabulous his new Trump Nagasaki Hotel is. Adds an Iran flourish with the observation that Bibi Netanyahu is “not a happy camper.” Was he ever? Clinton, in another strong moment, assures allies that we will honor mutual defense treaties (because that guy over there 15 feet to my left is scaring the bejesus out of you). She adds her intention to “stand up to bullies whether they’re abroad or at home.” I have no idea who she is referring to.
With just a few minutes left Holt decides to close with…
Segment 4 — Let’s Get Donald to Say Something Sexist
Holt invites Trump to say what he meant when he said recently that Clinton doesn’t have “the presidential look.” Trump replies “I don’t believe Hillary has the stamina.” Clinton defends her stamina in terms of extensive air travel and marathon Congressional testimony. Trump says sure, she’s experienced, but “it’s bad experience.” Clinton throws in with a quick inventory of nasty things Trump has said about women. Trump, believing that video has yet to be invented, retorts, “I never said that.” And in another one of those strangest-things-ever-uttered-in-a-debate comments, Trump adds: “I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, ‘I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. It’s inappropriate. It’s not nice.’ ” There is seriously nothing this man will not give himself credit for.
In a final question both are asked if they will accept the election’s outcome if they lose. Clinton says yes. Trump says he’ll make American great again and by the way there’s a thing about immigration I didn’t get to mention and ok sure what the fuck I’ll accept the outcome.
Hillary Clinton had the lead going into the debate. Sure, plenty of Dems have been freaking out as her polling lead dwindled the last couple of weeks, but she entered the debate with a reduced but still non-zero edge in reliable poll aggregations. Last week Trump mouthpiece Kellyanne Conway was speaking of “undercover” Trump voters polls don’t catch and saying things like, “This thing is fluid in a way we don’t understand,” and “Americans love an underdog.” That’s all code for “we’re losing” — but let’s face it, clearly not by much.
Monday probably did little to change that. Clinton was sharper, saner, more substantive, less unhinged, though she did struggle at times with her tendency to lapse into wonk and smarm (but kept it in check most of the night). Trump passed the stay-upright-and-don’t-drool test so he wins on points, according to some of Fox’s finest commentators (though one realist among them did allow that “surely he’ll get better by the next one.”)
Even if you think Trump had a good night because he exceeded expectations (holy soft bigotry, Batman), the estimable Sam Wang (who aggregates polls at the Princeton Electoral Consortium) argues that exceeding expectations is an indication you will ultimately lose, not win. Using historical poll data, he shows that in seven of the last eight elections the candidate who was expected to do better in debates ultimately won the popular vote. Why? Wang says it’s because “people can tell who the stronger candidate is,” and being the candidate who exceeds expectations “means that he/she was the weaker candidate to begin with.”
Now we wait for new polls later this week to recalibrate the narrative. I suspect they edge up in Clinton’s favor, but quite modestly.
A version of this post appears at the Nashville Scene.
For several days a cringing nation has been trying to avert its gaze from the rank bigotry of Donald Trump’s insane “he’s a Mexican” tantrum regrading the federal judge, Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over the class action case of The People v. Donald Trump’s Real Estate Get-Rich-Quick Hotel Ballroom Scamversity. Trump’s claim that the Indiana-born judge’s Mexican heritage makes him unfit to preside over the case has been met with widespread alarm from legal experts, and it’s been a parlor game these last few days watching prominent Republicans twist themselves into knots expressing their versions of measured disapproval while refusing to admit that the thing of which they disapprove is an expression of unvarnished racism, pure and simple.
To be fair, we expect Republican pols, having committed to partisanship over better judgment, to look for ways to rationalize Trump’s latest rhetorical outrage. But what we don’t expect is someone who should know better — who for crying out loud is the dean of a university law school — to come to Trump’s racialist defense. But that’s what we have in Belmont University’s College of Law dean Alberto Gonzales, who penned a jaw-dropping Trump apologia at The Washington Post over the weekend.
Gonzales did allow that “Curiel’s Mexican heritage alone would not be enough to raise a question of bias.” But he then goes on to promulgate the kind of guilt-by-association nonsense that is Trump’s stock in trade. Gonzales writes:
Curiel is, reportedly, a member of a group called La Raza Lawyers of San Diego. Trump’s aides, meanwhile, have indicated that they believe Curiel is a member of the National Council of La Raza, a vocal advocacy organization that has vigorously condemned Trump and his views on immigration. The two groups are unaffiliated, and Curiel is not a member of NCLR. But Trump may be concerned that the lawyers’ association or its members represent or support the other advocacy organization.
“Unaffiliated”! Curiel “not a member”! Good lord. How deeply is Alberto Gonzales embarrassing himself (and his university) with this?
First of all, as constitutional law specialist Garrett Epps explains in The Atlantic, it is settled federal law going back decades that you can’t challenge the impartiality of a judge on the basis of ethnicity. When lawyers tried to do that in a 1998 case in which litigants were fussed about a judge’s Asian heritage, in a (failed) appeal the chief judge of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (a Reagan appointee) wrote:
Appointment by a particular administration and membership in a particular racial or ethnic group are in combination not grounds for questioning a judge’s impartiality. Zero plus zero is zero.
Gonzales’s argument is drawing rebuke not just from fuzzy-headed liberal do-gooders like me, but from serious legal types. George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin, a well known conservative legal scholar, writes:
Gonzales’ overblown insinuations of political bias are not as morally egregious as Trump’s claims that Judge Curial has a conflict of interest based on his ethnicity alone. But it is an extremely weak argument nonetheless.
Case Western law professor Cassandra Burke Robertson adds:
Taken to its logical conclusion, Gonzales’ position would allow unfounded speculation about a judge’s political leanings to give rise to a “legitimate question” about his or her “honesty, integrity, impartiality, temperament, or fitness to serve as a judge.” This is not only wrong as a matter of judicial ethics, but it undermines the very legal system Gonzales has spent his entire career serving.
Perhaps we’ve grown all too accustomed to the likes of a nasty race-baiting attack on a federal judge from an ignoramus like Trump. Surely, though, the dean of a law school, and a former U.S. attorney general, should know better than to legitimize it.
A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.
Thursday 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.
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.”
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.
Since the last debate three days ago the main thing that’s happened is Bernie Sanders’ surprise win over Hillary Clinton in the Michigan primary, which clearly signals that this isn’t going to wrap up any time soon. But at the same time, it’s just another debate, and too soon after the last one perhaps. This debate, sponsored by Univision, took place partially in Spanish with translation. For this one we go with the new experimental short-form recap concept.
8:11 … Hillary, asked why Michigan didn’t work out, says “I’ve won some and I’ve lost some.” Bernie says Michigan was “one of the major political upsets in modern political history.” … 8:14 … will you drop out of the race if you are indicted over your emails? “It’s not going to happen, I’m not going to answer that question.” … 8:17 … Is Trump a racist? Clinton, pandering not in the least to the largely Latino audience, says she said “basta” to Trump’s rhetoric …. Trump’s character? Clinton: “It’s un-American.” Sanders: He’s a birther and by the way I beat Trump by 18 points in the latest polls … 8:23 … Clinton commits to introducing comprehensive immigration reform in her first 100 days. Sanders says you opposed immigrant drivers licenses in New York, I helped make it happen in Vermont.
8:34 … Asked if she’ll be the next deporter in chief like Obama, Clinton declares “I do not have the same policy as the current administration does…I will not deport children.” Sanders tags Clinton as disingenuous because she didn’t support letting in kids coming in from Honduras fleeing violence … 8:41 … Complaining that Clinton keeps picking out pieces of legislation to launch attacks against him, Sanders asserts, “Madame Secretary I will match my record against yours any day of the week.” Huge applause … 8:44 … When Sanders natters on too long the moderator says “your time is up and we have to move on so put a sock in it Senator” (paraphrasing). Now there’s a novel debate twist – moderators who actually keep control. These Univision moderators rock!
8:46 … Trump’s wall? Clinton: hate it. But didn’t you vote for a wall? Clinton: Yeah but his is tall and beautiful and paid by Mexico, which is fantasy. Turns out she’s pro-fencing but anti-wall. Doesn’t say where she stands on the crucial wood slat vs. chain link question … 8:49 … An audience member whose family was deported asks about reuniting families. Sanders says I have a great policy that The New York Times really likes. Clinton gives a more emotional answer that connects with the questioner’s struggle. Bernie says he’ll solve the problem; Hillary conveys that she actually understands the problem … 8:52 … Clinton asked about polls showing nobody trusts her. So what up with that? She does a reasonable job saying hey I do what I can do and screw the haters (that last part implicit).
8:54 … Why should we care if Clinton releases transcripts of Wall Street speeches? Sanders gives a frivolous answer: if you are paid so much for a speech it must be great so let’s hear it. Draws laughter and applause but it misses the point … 8:58 … Hillary tries to wrap the Koch Brothers around Sanders because they like one of his economic positions. Sanders insists nobody is more unfriendly to the Koch Brothers than him. We can’t really settle this without the Koch Brothers in the room, and it’s pretty clear that the Koch Brothers are not in the room … 9:03 … Ramos asks a Benghazi question, drawing boos in the room. Confronted with a video from the parent of a Benghazi victim, Clinton gives a strong answer that says the parent in the video is just plain wrong. A good moment for her, she is speaking directly, authentically, without artifice.
9:12 … Salinas asks Sanders a crafty question: Why should we prefer a “career politician” like you to an “establishment politician” of the sort you reject? He says what matters is the record – a record he is proud of. He gets away unscathed with the fact that it’s a record of advocacy more than a record of accomplishment … 9:14 … Jobs that will improve the living conditions of Latinos? Clinton has a plan. Namechecks a Latino congresswomen. Bernie says “yuge” … 9:18 … Ramos engages Sanders on the college tuition thing. Should Trump’s or Clinton’s grandchildren go to college free? Sanders: Sure! They can go to public school free, don’t they? … 9:21 … Audience member, a young woman in college, wants to know how she’ll be able to continue her education without excessive debt? Clinton with strong answer re student dept. Sanders condescendingly applauds Clinton for copying the very good idea that he had first.
9:25 … A heated exchange on whether universal health care through a single payer plan is reasonable. Clinton says not gonna happen. Sanders says well see, she doesn’t think the people are in favor of genuine universal care … 9:28 … On climate change a solid policy-focused answer from Clinton. Bernie brags that he has introduced sweeping legislation (the key word there being “introduced” not “passed”), and goes all in for a carbon tax and an end to fracking. It’s an issue that illustrates quite clearly the difference between a pragmatist and an optimist … 9:33 … Clinton is asked if Bill Clinton and Barack Obama relied too much on economic advisors from the big banks. The answer, of course, is yes, but she predictably chooses instead to say many words that do not answer the question, culminating in placing blame on George W. Bush. Would have been easier and more effective to just say yes.
9:40 … Cuba. Clinton says smart things. Sanders says smart things. Then the play some classic old mid-80s video of Sanders wearing a Che beret saying nice things about Latin American dictatorships. Nice background work Univision! (Though I may have made up the part about the headgear.) Gives Bernie an opportunity to go after the last 50 years of U.S. foreign policy. Interesting stuff but probably over the heads of most voters. What Sanders might have thought of or said about Daniel Ortega in 1985 is just not going to be a factor in the 2016 election.
There was more on Puerto Rico’s debt, SCOTUS, and the Demarco Murray trade before they wrapped it up. Props to the moderators for asking sharp questions, keeping it moving, and following up when questions weren’t answered. Both candidates were on their game. The thing the Democrats having going for them is that the party faithful are comfortable with both candidates, and this constructive exchange does little to change that. It is noteworthy that we have had two debates spanning four hours in the last three days, and outside of trade talk on Sunday and the limited conversation in this one about Latin America, foreign policy has been pretty much completely overlooked. Clinton always bests Sanders there, so its absence helps Bernie.
Next up Thursday, the GOP candidates and their johnsons.
A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.
With just days until the primary here in Tennessee, count me among many on the left struggling to decide how to vote. As one who has spent much of his adult voting life pulling levers for a rogues gallery of progressive underdogs, longshots and gadflies with little chance of winning election, I’m a natural target for the principled charms of Bernie Sanders. But as one who is petrified by the prospect of yielding full control of the federal government to the atrociously retrograde modern Republican party, I’m also a convenient target for the pragmatic allure of the arguably more electable Hillary Clinton.
When asked about my intentions for next Tuesday my canned response is that a battle between head and heart still rages. It was, of course, Thomas Jefferson, in his famous 1786 letter to his quasi-mistress Maria Cosway as he left Paris, who pioneered the concept of a head-heart debate and elevated it to epic romantic and literary heights. Perhaps in Jefferson’s elegant internal conversation I can locate some of the enlightenment I seek as Tuesday’s ballot approaches.
So herewith, verbatim excerpts from Jefferson’s memorable neurocardiac dialogue, decoded for the somewhat less amorous context of a contemporary presidential primary.
Head. Well, friend, you seem to be in a pretty trim.
Translation: Feeling the Bern? Have you lost your senses?
Heart. I am indeed the most wretched of all earthly beings.
Translation: Yep, his central themes are things I’ve been thinking and writing about for years (and my friends in Hillaryworld are not amused).
Head. This is one of the scrapes into which you are ever leading us. You confess your follies indeed; but still you hug and cherish them; and no reformation can be hoped, where there is no repentance.
Translation: So you didn’t learn from, oh, let’s see … John Anderson … Jerry Brown … Ralph Nader … Dennis Kucinich … John Jay Hooker? Really? Another one?
Heart. This is no moment to upbraid my foibles. I am rent into fragments by the force of my grief! If you have any balm, pour it into my wounds; if none, do not harrow them by new torments. Spare me in this awful moment! At any other I will attend with patience to your admonitions.
Translation: The past is the past so get off my case. Each election is different, and I’ve got a choice to make. Bernie is making a serious run here, with big ideas. You can rub it in after Tuesday.
Head. Harsh therefore as the medicine may be, it is my office to administer it.
Translation: Get over yourself. The doctor of realism is in. We both know Bernie will ultimately go nowhere. Perhaps a spoonful of electability sugar will help the Hillary go down.
Heart. You then, sir, and not I, have been the cause of the present distress.
Translation: Hey, I’m not the body part with the private email server.
Head. While I was occupied with these objects, you were dilating with your new acquaintances, and contriving how to prevent a separation from them.
Translation: While you’re getting all weepy watching Bernie rallies on MSNBC, adults in the room are figuring out how to take out Trump and win the damn election. You do want that, right?
Heart. Every moment was filled with something agreeable. The wheels of time moved on with a rapidity of which those of our carriage gave but a faint idea. And yet in the evening when one took a retrospect of the day, what a mass of happiness had we travelled over!
Translation: He says “billionaire class” a lot and it’s fabulous.
Head. I often told you during its course that you were imprudently engaging your affections under circumstances that must have cost you a great deal of pain … You rack our whole system when you are parted from those you love, complaining that such a separation is worse than death, inasmuch as this ends our sufferings, whereas that only begins them.
Translation: Sure, the Bern feels good in the moment, but so does that soreness you feel after a workout … until the doctor lets you know it’s a malignant bone tumor. Do you really want a malignant tumor in the White House?
Heart. Deeply practised in the school of affliction, the human heart knows no joy which I have not lost, no sorrow of which I have not drunk! Fortune can present no grief of unknown form to me! Who then can so softly bind up the wound of another as he who has felt the same wound himself?
Translation: Look, I understand the risks, but if we don’t stand on principle at the ballot box then when will we? I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again, and if nobody ever does it we’ll never change anything.
Head. When you reflect that all Europe is made to believe we are a lawless banditti, in a state of absolute anarchy, cutting one anothers throats, and plundering without distinction, how can you expect that any reasonable creature would venture among us?
Translation: Let’s be realistic: how is a guy like Bernie who has spent his political life distancing himself from party politics supposed to be effective as Democratic party standardbearer in a crucial election cycle?
Heart. There is not a country on earth where there is greater tranquillity, where the laws are milder, or better obeyed: where every one is more attentive to his own business, or meddles less with that of others: where strangers are better received, more hospitably treated, and with a more sacred respect.
Translation: The party will be fine. It’s the democracy we need to worry about. Hillary, whatever her talents may be, is not going to repair our broken system.
Head. I wished to make you sensible how imprudent it is to place your affections, without reserve, on objects you must so soon lose, and whose loss when it comes must cost you such severe pangs … The art of life is the art of avoiding pain: and he is the best pilot who steers clearest of the rocks and shoals with which he is beset.
Translation: Nominating Bernie is the surest way to fuck this democracy up big time by giving Repubs control of all three branches of government, and mark my words you will cry about it it afterwards.
Heart. And what more sublime delight than to mingle tears with one whom the hand of heaven hath smitten!
Translation: What can I say? I’m a masochist.
Head. My friend, you must mend your manners. This is not a world to live at random in as you do.
Translation: Lofty principles don’t appoint Supreme Court justices.
Heart. When nature assigned us the same habitation, she gave us over it a divided empire. To you she allotted the field of science; to me that of morals.
Translation: There is doing the sensible thing, and there is doing the right thing.
Well then, head or heart? Six shopping days left to decide…
A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.
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.
With Iowa and New Hampshire behind us, and all eyes now on Nevada and South Carolina, of course the logical place to hold a presidential candidate debate is … Wisconsin! Makes perfect sense, like everything else happening in this campaign cycle. And so it was last night: another round of Hillary v. Bernie head to head up in beautiful downtown Milwaukee. (The Repubs will give it another go Saturday in, more logically, South Carolina.)
Last night’s faceoff came at a crucial point in the Democratic race. Bernie Sanders, having just thrashed Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, is now trying to figure out how to parlay his massive win up north into any kind of win anywhere else (‘anywhere else” being a euphemism for “anywhere with fewer white people”). Thrashee Clinton, relieved to be done with that bit of unpleasantness in New England, looks forward to competing on more comfortable turf (“more comfortable turf” a euphemism for “turf with more non-white people”). For those of us who pay way too much attention, the 48 hours between New Hampshire’s outcome and Thursday evening’s debate was largely a contest between the two camps to see who could put more African-American surrogates in front of cable news cameras.
Here’s how it went down last night.
8:02 I figured that since this is the PBS-hosted debate we’d be liberated from trendy nonsense like social media types asking vapid questions. No such luck as moderators Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill inform us that there will be Facebook questions. Whatever happened to stodgy old PBS? I’m not sure I can keep giving annual donations to an outfit that asks Facebook questions.
8:05 Sanders’ opening statement is largely a compilation of his stump speech greatest hits, but one that quickly panders to black voters by emphasizing criminal justice concerns. Clinton in her opening agrees with what Sanders has to say about the “rigged economy” but quickly panders to black voters by talking about barriers and equality. Yes, Dorothy, we’re not in New Hampshire anymore.
8:10 Woodruff asks Sanders how much larger government would be under a Sanders presidency. Declining to put a number on it, Sanders offers a broad philosophical statement that “the government of a democratic society has a moral responsibility to play a vital role in making sure all of our people have a decent standard of living.” It’s a compelling big-picture principle rarely articulated by politicians, but as is typical of the Sanders campaign, he makes no attempt to quantify what it means or how it works in practice. Clinton does respond with a number: “It would probably increase the size of the federal government by about 40%.” We have no idea how she arrived at this number and Sanders doesn’t quarrel with it. It does seem like she is scoring points here with people who hate government, or as many would label them, “Republicans.”
8:16 Tussling on health care, Sanders insists his advocacy of a single-payer system doesn’t mean he’d dismantle Obamacare first. Clinton insists “based on every analysis that I can find” that Sanders numbers don’t add up and that “many people will be worse off” with single payer. Calling that “absolutely inaccurate” Sanders explains that he’s merely advocating a system that virtually every country has (which is true though that fact doesn’t actually refute Clinton’s point). Noting the post-World War II origins of our present system, Clinton observes that “we are not England, we are not France” (she doesn’t opine on whether or not we are Ecuador or Guinea-Bissau) and gives Obama props for building on the system we have to get to where we are. The Obama hug aside, it is a bit dispiriting to see Clinton resort to the kind of nativist “we’re the U.S. we’re special so to hell with those Europeans” notion that drives so much of the charmingly cosmopolitan rhetoric on the right these days.
8:19 Should Americans who fear government fear you Democrats who want government to do more? Clinton claims she’s the one with plans that are concrete and transparent regarding costs and revenue sources. Sanders goes all in with infrastructure spending and free college tuition. Clinton responds with a canned zinger (and a fairly good one) about how doing free tuition depends on the cooperation of bad boy conservative governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin (where the debate is taking place – big applause from the crowd in the room all of whom probably detest Walker with every fiber of their being). Sanders responds with an eloquent defense of the concept of higher education as essential in the modern economy, but ignores Clinton’s process concern. Clinton is hammering him on the pragmatics of implementing his lofty agenda; Sanders has now let her do that without a response on health care and again education. It’s not clear he can win over undecideds and expand his base by continuing to ignore it.
8:24 Woodruff asks Clinton why in New Hampshire women were unimpressed with her womanly candidacy. You can see on her face that it thoroughly annoys Clinton to have everyone reminded of this or of anything to do with the debacle that was New Hampshire. Even so, it’s a softball question that lets her talk about issues she is very knowledgeable about and comfortable with. Not much Bernie can say when it’s his turn on this one other than brag about his voting record and say chicks dig me too. Ifill asks Sanders an odd follow-up: does it bother you that you might obstruct the historical accomplishment of a woman president? His reply, wryly delivered: electing someone like me “would be of some historical accomplishment as well.” (Translation: what am I, chopped liver?)
8:31 Sanders throws in a tangential but effective critique of Republicans for hypocrisy for hating government and pushing for less government except when it comes to regulating reproductive choice. Of course Clinton would completely agree, but his going there affords a nice illustration of how their campaign styles differ and why Sanders is having more success than anyone anticipated. Mostly they agree on the issues (and certainly on this one), but he is much more adept at forcefully articulating off the cuff the essential qualities and moral imperatives associated with many of these issues. She can manage this fairly well in prepared speeches; he does it very well improvisationally.
8:33 A Facebook undecided-voter question on mass incarceration. Sanders goes first. This being something he talks about all the time on the stump, it’s in his wheelhouse, though it also points to one of Sanders’ ongoing shortcomings: his inability or unwillingness to bridge big ideas into actionable public policy. He calls for “radical reform of a broken criminal justice system” – well said — but what does that actually mean in actual practice? Framing the problem with full-throated eloquence, alas, doesn’t point to specific policy solutions any better than mumbling the problem incoherently. Clinton is good on this issue as well, showing her more advanced political chops by connecting the issue to statistics in Wisconsin and a recent on-the-ground violent incident there. And keeping in mind that the race having shifted to the south is now much more about race, she pivots nimbly to the presence of systematic racism in not just criminal justice but also in jobs, education, housing, employment.
8:37 Why would race relations improve under your presidency when they didn’t under a black president? Clinton rejects the premise, arguing that Obama has accomplished a lot here, but acknowledges there is more to do. Nothing she says is wrong, but it highlights her inability to relate authentically with audiences on difficult issues. She is giving us a miniseminar on race-relevant areas of public policy, but there is no emotion or connection here. Sanders goes in an interesting direction: connecting Wall Street bad behavior in the financial crisis with loss of wealth in the African American community. After this intriguing claim Sanders goes in a stale direction suggesting that race relations will be improved because under his economics black kids will stay in school and get jobs. Kind of misses the point of the question in a clumsy way and hints at why minority support for Sanders is slow in coming. I think the bottom line here is that both candidates have a good grasp in a clinical sense of the problems of race, and both have relevant policy agendas, but neither really knows how the improve race relations writ large.
8:45 In a nifty move Sanders spins the conversation about race into one about how bad trade deals yield economic effects on jobs that disadvantage minorities in our economy … which spins into pointing out that he and Clinton disagree on trade. Clinton doesn’t take the bait.
8:47 On immigration, how far will you go to protect immigrants from deportation? Sanders gives a straightforward and unapologetic defense of the whole nine yards of immigration reform. On these issues where they both pretty much completely agree, the advantage always goes to whomever goes first: it’s much more rewarding to make the grand statement than to have to kill 60 seconds finding various ways to say “me too.” That said, Clinton does call out Sanders for voting against an immigration reform bill in 2007, a vote he defends on grounds it was a flawed bill that even some immigrant groups as well as the AFL-CIO opposed. She replies it was Ted Kennedy’s bill and how dare you besmirch the late great Ted Kennedy? He replies Ted Kennedy Schmed Schmennedy.
8:54 A Facebook question on meeting basic economic needs for low-income seniors. Sanders says more and better social security. Clinton says yep. Sanders then calls her out for being cagey about specific proposals to expand social security revenue by adjusting the cap on payroll taxes. Clinton dodges by saying c’mon dude we agree and we’ll end up in the same place. It’s not clear that’s actually true but Sanders lets it go.
9:00 Ok it’s go time. Woodruff hits Clinton with a question about the influence of corporate money, and specifically a Wall Street funded Super PAC. Cue the minefield. She tries to dance through it first by saying she can’t speak for a Super PAC, and then by saying how proud she is of herself and (condescendingly) proud of Sanders for getting so many small individual campaign donations. She then hands it off to Sanders so she can be predictably pummeled on this. He duly pummels. She replies by wrapping herself around Obama and Dodd-Frank to claim that she’ll be tough on any and every industry that needs it. Sanders caustic reply: “Let’s not insult the intelligence of the American people.” Are we supposed to think, he muses, that industries make “yuuge” campaign contributions “just for the fun of it”? They go back and forth on whether Dodd-Frank works. This again is one of those issues where there isn’t all that much daylight between what they believe in concrete policy terms, but yuuge amounts of daylight between their respective abilities to explain the problem in a compelling way. Clinton will always lose this particular argument; the task for her when it comes up is to dilute the magnitude of the loss. She did that somewhat here.
9:15 After a lengthy halftime break, and a pointless question about reducing the size of government, we shift to terrorism and foreign policy. In the last debate Clinton came off a lot better than Sanders in this area. Clinton fields a question about readiness with a wide ranging discussion of capabilities and priorities. Sanders responds with his go-to move: she voted for the war in Iraq and I voted against it. He expands it into a far-flung lecture on the unintended consequences of the country’s history of regime change around the world over the last century. Clinton, prepared for this moment (and with a smug “take that, pal” smile on her face), ticks off a few regime change oriented votes that Sanders has cast in Congress. Sanders goes back to the Iraq vote. Clinton brags about how she personally killed Bin Laden with her bare hands.
9:20 Oh Henry! Sanders, pulling a tidbit out of Clinton’s book, links her to Henry Kissinger, “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country” and (the ultimate insult) “not my kind of guy.” Clinton defends Kissinger in a way that suggests she listens to many voices including those of incredibly evil former secretaries of state. Sanders tries to persist with the Kissinger thing by relitigating the domino theory. (Talk about an oldie but goodie!) This is actually a somewhat engaging conversation about modern diplomatic and geopolitical history; one fantasizes about what the addition of a bottle of whiskey and Donald Trump could contribute to it.
The fact that the foreign policy part comes in the second hour of the debate is a double edged sword for Sanders. On one hand it’s good for Sanders because we know that fewer people always watch the second half, so fewer will see her dominance. On the other hand it’s less good for Sanders because the last debate showed that as the evening wears on Clinton does a better job of staying fresh and nimble, while Sanders is prone to descending into tired looking old guy territory.
9:31 On Russia, Sanders says reasonable things, then Clinton says reasonable things that are substantially more detailed. While she talks, we hear old-guy hacking cough from Sanders in the background. (Note to Sanders staffers: insist on a cough button on podium at next debate.)
9:35 Sanders does point out that they differ on questions of a no-fly zone in Syria and on the pace of normalizing relations with Iran. He’s right but she gets the better of him as they talk through the latter issue. It turns out that being secretary of state for four years does equip a person with quite a bit of detailed working knowledge about what’s going on in the world.
9:42 One of those “let’s see how interesting you are” questions: name two leaders, one American and one foreign, who would influence your foreign policy decisions. (My own answers: Jerry Garcia and David Bowie.) These kinds of questions tend to favor the person who goes second because that candidate gets more time to think up an answer. On the other hand, if the person who goes second thinks up the same person, then the advantage is lost. Sanders goes with FDR for the domestic choice, unsurprisingly since he talks about Roosevelt routinely on the campaign trail as one who redefined the role of government. For the foreign choice, he goes with Churchill, a classic selection. You just can’t beat someone who beats Nazis. Clinton agrees on FDR (ouch) and goes with Mandela (a cynic might call it a crafty selection under the circumstances; fortunately I’m not a cynic) for the foreign choice.
9:46 Riffing off the leadership question, Clinton comes out of nowhere with an attack on Sanders for questioning Barack Obama’s leadership, calling it the kind of criticism “I expect from Republicans” not from someone seeking the Democratic nomination. Sanders, with a “where the hell did that come from” look on his face: “Madame Secretary, that is a low blow.” He points out with no small amount of sneer that in a democratic society it’s okay for a senator to disagree with a president on some issues. “I have voiced criticisms, maybe you haven’t,” he tells her. She doubles down accusing him of making “personal assessments.” Yikes, personal assessments! He responds that “one of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.” It sounds at first like a zinger, but the more you think about it, the less it make sense.
9:48 Closing statements. Both are effective in their way, but where Sanders is a good minute of improv, Clinton’s is a tight, prepared minute of forceful oratory. She ends on an orchestrated high note.
Verdict: Both came in prepared to be aggressive toward the other when necessary, and that did yield a few spirited clashes (but since they agree on most things at a fundamental level, only a few). As in the prior Dem debates, the Sanders’ challenge is to expand his base of support. To the extent that undecided primary voters are open to a principled liberal ideologue over a pragmatic centrist-turned center-left progressive, he’ll pick up some. But to the extent that undecideds are as interested in how things get done as they are inwhat candidates favor, Clinton continues to hold sway. If the point of Bernie’s campaign is to influence the discourse and elevate progressive thinking into the Democratic party mainstream, he is wildly succeeding. But if the point of his campaign is to actually get the nomination then he can’t pretend forever that questions about governing are beside the point.
Next up: the Republicans go at it Saturday in South Carolina. It will probably be a more entertaining affair because, let’s face it, a theatrical tragicomedy is always more fun when at least some of the characters are batshit crazy. So go ahead and make those Saturday night plans, safe in the knowledge that we’ll be watching so you don’t have to.
A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.