What We Learned from a Contentious, Messy GOP Debate
In a night that saw the candidates take more shots at the moderators than each other, there were no winners but a few clear losers.
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
On Wednesday night, America was treated to the latest episode of the worst show on television, the GOP primary debates. There are too many characters, the plot veers suddenly from subject to subject, and often, it's not clear who we're supposed to be rooting for. After two hours of watching the candidates argue against each other—and the CNBC moderators—in Boulder, Colorado, the party wasn't any closer to crowning a winner, but at least inched marginally closer to a finale.
In the past couple weeks, Donald Trump and Ben Carson have emerged as the two frontrunners both nationwide and in Iowa, momentarily turning a campaign that was supposed to have at least the seriousness of Veep into a particularly disjointed episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Every day brings a new non sequitur: Trump says he'll close mosques if elected and jokes about how burqa-wearing women don't have to wear makeup; Carson wouldn't trust a Muslim as president and recently seemed to float the very non-Republican-sounding plan to redistribute federal funds for public schools.
That these two are popular because of—not in spite of—their lack of experience and off-the-cuff style is clearly grating on the GOP's Establishment contenders. Jeb! Bush complained about Trump on Saturday, and on Tuesday, John "Hey, I'm still running!" Kasich was openly asking, "What happened to our party?" The only one seemingly relaxed about all this is also-ran superhawk Lindsey Graham, who spent Tuesday night getting on-the-record tipsy with reporters in New Hampshire and dishing about Hillary Clinton's alcohol tolerance.
Hiding out in a cozy bar and looking for the bottom of a glass of brown liquor would have been a reasonable response to Wednesday's boring, yet incredibly contentious debate, which was supposed to be about the economy or whatever but was mostly about how much the candidates hated the moderators and the media in general.
Here's how each of the candidates performed:
Carson was sleepy, as usual, and barely got off the bench, even when Becky Quick, one of CNBC's moderators, said that his flat tax plan wouldn't produce enough revenue. Carson was largely absent from arguments about the tax code, Social Security, and Medicare that got fairly wonky. He did manage to suggest some radical ideas about letting people opt out of federal health insurance, demand fewer regulations and absolutely no subsidies, and argue that being against gay marriage does not make one a homophobe.
He expanded on that last point, saying that marriage equality opponents were being smeared by a PC culture that is "destroying this country." Economics aren't Carson's home court, and he looked unsettled throughout; his closing statement included the phrase, "It was made for we the people, we are the ones who will decide who we are."
While Carson could afford a muted night given his poll numbers, Jeb! needed some sort of boost. But he sounded tired as he recited a litany of accomplishments and planned tax reforms that blended together with the other candidates' proposals.
How bad of a night was it for Jeb!? He was asked a question about fantasy sports and stumbled through an answer about how to regulate the nascent gaming industry—then Chris Christie swooped in and denounced the question itself. "Fantasy football?" Christie shouted. "We have ISIS and Al Qaeda attacking us and we're talking about fantasy football!" That, of course, was the correct response.
Before the debate, an editorial from Florida's Sun Sentinel criticized Rubio for "ripping off" his constituents by missing votes in Congress. Naturally, he was asked about it Wednesday, and pulled off the slickest political move of the night, turning the question around by asking why the media didn't similarly denounce Democratic presidential candidates for missing votes. This was bloody red meat for the crowd, who gave him a cheer.
Later, Rubio managed to get in a Benghazi non sequitur that let him call Hillary Clinton a liar, another applause line, naturally. In a night when no candidate was fiery, he was at least competent.
After Rubio's response to the question about his voting record, it became apparent that the way to the crowd's heart was through a trail of dead moderators. So of course, the other candidates joined in, with Cruz at one point saying, "This is not a cage match.... How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?" That devolved into crosstalk between him and moderator John Harwood.
Though the Texas Senator didn't talk too much the rest of the night, he was maybe the most substantive of the candidates, saying that his tax plan was so simple it would eliminate the IRS entirely, and getting into a fairly granular discussion about the Federal Reserve that ended with him calling for a return to the gold standard—which while low-key, was also the strangest moment of the night.
Huckabee's candidacy is pretty much based around the idea that he will not be president, which is wonderfully freeing. He spent most of the night sticking up for senior citizens who might see benefit reductions in any sort of Social Security reform, and demanding that the government fund more research into defeating cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and heart disease. Huckabee's biggest applause line came when he praised Trump, which he followed up by saying, "I'm the only guy who's consistently fought the Clinton machine."
Maybe he's trying to position himself as a politically savvy veteran who appeals to the elderly—which, incidentally, is exactly the kind of guy who would be a good VP candidate. Or maybe Huck's just saying whatever the fuck is on his mind: In his closing statement, he said, "I do not want to walk my five grandkids through the charred remains of a once-great nation called America."
Paul's raison d'etre in this race is to criticize the GOP's hawkish foreign policy; in a debate focused primarily on domestic policy, he blended into the background.
Fiorina talks. Very. Clearly. And Decisively. That goes a long way, even when she's just one of 10 candidates saying she would cut taxes and simplify the tax code. She made an interesting point, though, when she said that regulations lead to an economic environment where businesses are increasingly consolidated, and the smaller ones are forced out.
But that's not the kind of thing you can run on, so Fiorina threw in a bit about how Democratic policies were "bad for women," and later said that she knows everyone wants to see her debate Hillary Clinton, which is pretty much true.
For the first quarter of the debate, Christie mostly leaned heavily on his lectern. When he came alive it was to denounce "Hillary Clinton's price controls" and promise that he would be a pro-cop president. In fact, he was one of the few people to utter the phrase "when I am president...," which is odd because the only thing more distant than a Huckabee presidency is a Christie one.
Kasich was the tragic hero of the debate, in the old Greek sense—you could imagine that he realized his fatal flaw by the end of the proceedings, that fatal flaw being that Kasich is dull, and not at all likeable. The Ohio governor opened the proceedings by deriding the other Republican candidates, decrying "empty promises" and "fantasies" peddled by the likes of Carson and Trump. He was fired up, but being disgusted with what has become of your party is no way to inspire voters.
But while Kasich dismissed the "outsiders" leading the Republican field, he didn't disagree with his opponents on anything substantive. That makes sense, as he's a Republican and they're all Republicans, but general agreement coupled with bile is not going to help his candidacy.
It's unfair to judge a serious debate between people seeking the nation's highest office by its entertainment value, but it was a mark of just how dull this debate was that even The Donald seemed muted. He emphasized that he wanted immigrants to come into the US legally, waved aside a question about his bankruptcy filings with a rather good answer about how every businessperson does it, and only busted out the insults for poor Kasich.
Trump's biggest applause line came when he took credit for forcing CNBC to shorten the debate—which pretty much sums up what kind of night this was.
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