Think of the first Republican primary debate of 2016, held in early August 2015, as a sports event, a night of boxing. There was the undercard, the preliminary bout – the seven candidates Fox News decided no one really cared about – on stage in an empty hall, hammering each other. They were the light-middleweights. Then there was the main event – the ten candidates Fox News had determined were the heavyweights. They got to hammer each other for the title, such as it was – the party’s frontrunner, at the moment – the party’s best hope for winning back the White House. Bush won in 2000 – but Al Gore had more votes and Florida was a mess and Electoral Votes matter more than the popular vote and the Supreme Court had to settle that matter. That was too close, and but for some odd votes in Ohio in 2004, Bush would have lost to John Kerry – and then 2008 wasn’t even close. McCain lost – by that time no one in his own party liked him very much. Adding Sarah Palin to the ticket helped with that, but everyone else, those who weren’t very angry old white conservative guys, was appalled. Romney did no better four years later – the clueless rich guy with the forced smile, who during his business career had destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs and had gotten richer by the minute, just wasn’t going to do. The Republicans could do better than this. They had to do better than this.
Okay, they now have seventeen candidates who all say that they could do better than this. Fine – put them in the ring and see who is left standing, and who’s knocked out cold on the mat. This wasn’t a debate. Sixty-second responses to questions and thirty-second rebuttals when challenged… those were punches and counterpunches, not discussion of any kind. This was boxing. That’s how it should be reported, and Carly Fiorina won the undercard:
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina stood out Thursday in the first GOP primary debate, taking shots at Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton while showing off her foreign policy acumen. Fiorina, the only woman among the 17 Republican candidates taking part in Thursday’s two debates, shined as the seven candidates who didn’t make the Republican top 10 squared off in a 5 p.m. undercard. Minutes into what’s being called the happy-hour debate, she took a shot at GOP front-runner Donald Trump for his connections to Bill and Hillary Clinton.
“I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race. Did any of you get a phone call from Bill Clinton? I didn’t,” Fiorina said, referencing reports that Trump spoke with Bill Clinton ahead of his presidential launch.
“Maybe it’s because I haven’t given money to the foundation or donated to his wife’s Senate campaign,” she added.
Fiorina further highlighted Trump’s policy inconsistencies… “I would also just say this. Since he has changed his mind on amnesty, on healthcare and on abortion, I would just ask, what are the principles by which he will govern?” Fiorina asked.
Fiorina outlined an ambitious agenda for her first days in office if she were to become president. She would call Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Iranian supreme leader to express displeasure with the agreement, she said, and then on the second day, she’d convene a summit at Camp David with Arab allies.
Fiorina, who has often been discussed as a possible vice presidential candidate for her party, closed her performance by taking a shot at Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner for that party’s presidential nomination. She criticized Clinton for dodging questions on topics including the 2012 attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.
“We need a nominee who is going to throw every punch, not pull punches,” Fiorina said.
Pundits gave her good reviews, with Washington Post columnist George Will saying she “stood out with precision and fluency,” and Fox News host Chris Wallace also praising her. Fox News pundit Charles Krauthammer said she won the debate “going away.”
As for the others, at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum saw this:
Rick Perry continued to be a gaffe machine. Asked about the Iran deal, he said, “$150 billion is fixin’ to go to a country that killed our Marines in Lebanon… that, uh, used their weapons to kill our young men in Iran.” I suppose he meant Iraq, right? Later he talked about his economic record in Texas over “the past eight years.” But ol’ Rick was governor for 14 years. And in his closing statement, he said, “As someone who’s worn the uniform of this country, that’s how we build our military back up.” Huh?
Earlier, I was struck by his answer on immigration: “Americans are tired of hearing ‘What are you going to do about illegal immigration?'” That’s not a gaffe, really, but it’s certainly a strange way to avoid answering a question. He basically went on to say that he had lots of border experience, and that’s what counts.
However, Perry also had the best line of the night – though the bar was pretty low for that. Asked for two words to describe Hillary Clinton, he answered, “Let’s go with three: Good at email.”
Lindsey Graham, as noted, was the most hawkish. Asked about ISIS, he hauled out the oldest chestnut of them all: “If we don’t stop them over there, they’re coming here just as sure as I stand here in front of you.” Asked about Planned Parenthood, he said, “You want to see a war on women, just go to Iraq and Afghanistan.” Asked about the economy, he talked about sending troops back to the Middle East and just generally kicking some major ass over there. He ended a rant against Hillary Clinton with, “If I have to monitor a mosque, I’ll monitor a mosque. She won’t.”
He also brought out some nostalgic, old-time Clinton bashing, straight from the 90s: “I’m fluent in Clinton-speak. I’ve been dealing with this crowd for 20 years… When Hillary Clinton tells you ‘I’ve given you all the emails you need,’ that means she hasn’t.”
Rick Santorum told everyone about his new 20-20 economic plan, which features a 20 percent flat-rate tax. “It will create a manufacturing juggernaut.” Sure it will, Rick. And what does the other 20 stand for? He never told us.
He also insisted that we need work requirements and time limits not just for welfare, but for food stamps, Medicaid, and housing programs. I’m not sure if this is news or not. Has anyone else called for work requirements for Medicaid?
Bobby Jindal was reliably apocalyptic, that being his latest persona. (He ditched the “boy wonk” thing years ago.) About Obama and Hillary Clinton: “They’re working hard to change the American dream into the European nightmare. They do celebrate more dependence on the government.” He also promised not just to investigate Planned Parenthood if he wins, but to sic the IRS on them. I’m pretty sure he’s crossing a line there. He might want to check with his shadow Attorney General before saying that again.
On the Middle East, he had nothing to offer except the tired refrain that Obama can’t possibly defeat our enemies because he’s afraid to even call them by their right name. Jindal, by contrast, would have the stones to call them radical Islamist terrorists. How all this naming business would make even the tiniest difference on the ground remains a mystery.
Jim Gilmore and George Pataki apparently said nothing memorable enough for me to write down. Sorry guys! Pataki repeatedly mentioned that he was governor during 9/11, and Gilmore repeatedly checked off his resume for us. I don’t remember much else.
Five and six down:
Carly Fiorina was the first to take a shot at Donald Trump: “I didn’t get a call from Bill Clinton.” And speaking of telephone calls, she later said her first phone call from the Oval Office would be to “my good friend Bibi Netanyahu.” Booyah!
These were typical. Fiorina was very good at spouting standard GOP crowd pleasers, but I can’t remember her saying anything memorable. She delivered her lines well, but in the end, they mostly just seemed like lines.
That’s seven, with this caveat about Fiorina:
Of course, delivering GOP applause lines well and not making any mistakes might be enough to make her the winner of the debate. It’s a GOP debate, after all. The fact that I wasn’t super impressed doesn’t mean that a conservative audience won’t be.
But the Fox News hosts, Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum, reminded us all that these were the palookas:
1.) Hemmer to Rick Perry: “You recently said four years ago you weren’t ready for this job, why should someone vote for you now?”
2.) MacCallum to Carly Fiorina: “This week you said that Margaret Thatcher was not content to manage a great nation in decline and ‘neither am I.’ Given your current standing in the polls, is the Iron Lady comparison a stretch?”
3.) Hemmer to Rick Santorum: “You won the Iowa caucus four years ago and 10 other states, but you failed to beat Mitt Romney for the nomination. … Has your moment passed, senator?
4.) MacCallum to Bobby Jindal: “Your approval numbers at home are in the mid-30s at this point. In a recent poll that showed you in a head-to-head with Hillary Clinton in Louisiana, she beat you by several points. So if the people of Louisiana are not satisfied, what makes you think the people of this nation would be?”
5.) Hemmer to Lindsey Graham: “You worked with Democrats and President Obama when it came to climate change, something you know is extremely unpopular with conservative Republicans. How can they trust you based on that record?”
6.) MacCallum to George Pataki: “Four years ago this month you called it quits in a race for the presidency but now you’re back. Mitt Romney declined to run this time because the party needed new blood. Does he have a point?”
7.) Hemmer to Jim Gilmore: You were the last person on stage to declare your candidacy. You ran for the White House once and lost, you ran for the Senate one time and lost, you haven’t held office in 13 years. Similar question: Is it time for new blood?”
That was brutal. Maybe that was necessary. Carly Fiorina took that punch and came back swinging. The others had nothing. They swung but they couldn’t land a punch. Boxing, when you’re bad at, can cause brain damage. It’s all those blows to the head, even if they’re metaphoric.
It doesn’t matter, it was time for the main event, and that didn’t disappoint:
Shedding any pretense of civility and party unity, Donald J. Trump overwhelmed the first Republican presidential debate on Thursday night by ripping into his rivals and the moderators alike, but also drew fire from Jeb Bush and others who are seeking to stop his breathtaking surge.
Mr. Trump displayed his trademark pugnacity from the start with a bravura moment: refusing to rule out a third-party run for the presidency if he does not win the party’s nomination. Facing loud boos from audience members in a Cleveland sports arena he held his hand up in defiance as several other Republicans looked flabbergasted.
“I have to respect the person that, if it’s not me, the person that wins,” said Mr. Trump, the billionaire businessman and reality television star who has attracted fans in part by showing a lack of respect for politicians like Mr. Bush, who Mr. Trump has said should not be president. He then quipped, “If I’m the nominee, I will pledge I will not run as an independent.”
The message was clear – nominate him or he will run as an independent, and then they’ll be screwed. It was a Cleveland thing. Like LeBron James, he might announce he’s taking his talents to South Beach, to win a few titles there. No one in Cleveland was happy with that. The Cavaliers won nothing without James – and now that he’s returned things are looking up. Trump knows his audience.
Of course there were the others:
The much-anticipated meeting was something of a showcase for several candidates who had yet to generate much heat in the Republican primary field. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio fluidly described his fiscal leadership in the state and spoke bigheartedly about the mentally ill and the poor. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida showed a command of policy and an eagerness for the fight with Democrats. And Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin deftly defended an absolutist position against abortion while boasting of his three statewide victories in his own swing state.
Others struggled to grab the attention they needed to shore up their fund-raising or broaden their appeal beyond niche constituencies. The retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas both effectively delivered well-honed talking points and one-liners, but did not leave dramatically new impressions.
How could they? This was Trump’s night:
In addition to refusing to rule out a third-party bid and sparring with the Fox News moderators, he boasted that the Clintons attended his third wedding because he demanded it and said, “Our politicians are stupid” while dismissing President George W. Bush’s tenure as “a catastrophe.”
In the first of the debate’s many freewheeling moments, Mr. Trump’s statement drew an instant, contemptuous retort from Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who nodded to Mr. Trump’s past donations to Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“He buys and sells politicians of all stripes,” Mr. Paul said. “So if he doesn’t run as a Republican, maybe he supports Clinton, or maybe he runs as an independent?”
Mr. Trump – whose withering put-downs have become legendary, his favorite pejorative being “loser” – was true to form in dismissing Mr. Paul.
“Well, I’ve given him plenty of money,” he said.
Even as some of the other Republicans showed moments of strength, with Mr. Paul frequently going on the attack, it was little match for the bombast of Mr. Trump.
But he let Jeb Bush off easy:
Mr. Trump and Mr. Bush, who have been lashing out at each other for weeks, mostly over tone and fitness to be president, barely tangled at all. But near the end of the debate, in a moment that encapsulated the race, Mr. Bush said that Mr. Trump, who has portrayed some Mexican immigrants as rapists, was a “divisive” figure who would ensure that Republicans continued to lose.
“I want to win,” Mr. Bush said, participating in his first debate in 13 years. “We’re not going to win by doing what Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton do each and every day – dividing the country, saying, creating a grievance kind of environment. We’re going to win when we unite people with a hopeful, optimistic message.”
Mr. Trump shot back that the threats against the United States were too urgent for such concerns about “tone.”
“When you have people that are cutting Christians’ heads off, when you have a world at the border and at so many places that it’s medieval times,” Mr. Trump said, “we don’t have time for tone – we have to go out and get the job done.”
But they only talked about tone. Jeb can take that punch, but Trump had to face the Fox News folks:
A trio of Fox News moderators, delving deep into the records of the ten candidates, posed a series of difficult questions, while also trying, with occasional success, to provoke arguments among them over areas of disagreement. In the first question directly to Mr. Trump, for instance, Megyn Kelly cited his negative comments about some women, whom he has called “fat pigs” and “slobs,” before Mr. Trump cut her off.
“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” he said, clearly looking for a laugh.
“For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O’Donnell,” Ms. Kelly said.
“Yes, I’m sure it was,” Mr. Trump replied, before offering an explanation that reflected his tell-it-like-it-is sensibilities.
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he said. “I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble.” He went on to complain about rough treatment by Ms. Kelly.
Yeah, the blond slut from Fox News has been picking on him, or something. He said she hadn’t been “nice” to him. He implied that she’d pay for that, but then it was on to substance:
In the sharpest exchange of the night between candidates, Mr. Paul and Mr. Christie, who have traded shots from afar over national security for more than two years, exchanged personal insults in a back-and-forth over surveillance and civil liberties.
After Mr. Paul said he only wanted to seek the phone records of terrorists, not average citizens, Mr. Christie called that “a completely ridiculous answer” – and then went further.
“When you’re sitting in a subcommittee, just blowing hot air about this, you can say things like that,” Mr. Christie said.
Mr. Paul, his voice rising, said Mr. Christie misunderstood the Bill of Rights and then offered his own stinging rejoinder.
“I don’t trust President Obama with our records,” he said, before lowering the boom with a reference to the embrace between Mr. Obama and Mr. Christie after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, a moment that still haunts Mr. Christie with conservatives: “I know you gave him a big hug.”
Boos and cheers from the audience quickly enveloped the exchange on stage. Mr. Christie, seemingly ready for the attack, shot back that the hugs he recalled were with “the families who lost their people on Sept. 11.”
At that point Paul rolled his eyes – noun, verb, 9/11 – Giuliani eighth years earlier. We’ve been there before. Christie is toast – he’s over – and there were the others. Ben Carson dialed down the crazy. He was pleasant enough. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio argued about Common Core – the nation should have educational standards, but Rubio argued those should be decided by the people, not the government, and Bush seemed to be saying we have a government of the people, so what’s the issue? No one knew. Scott Walker proudly proclaimed abortion should be banned even if it’s the only way to save the mother. She must die, perhaps even if the fetus isn’t viable or we’re talking about a zygote formed ten hours ago – he’s an absolutist. He assumes the women of America agree with him, but Mike Huckabee one-upped him, repeating his position that a person, and citizen, is fully formed, with all legal and civil rights, at conception – and he’ll send in the FBI and Army and whomever to stop all abortions, to stop the murder of United States Citizens, by their mothers. Will he try them for murder, in spite of the Roe decision so long ago? He repeated that God’s law always supersedes any law of man, and certainly supersedes Supreme Court decisions. He says that a lot. Ted Cruz was ranting and angry about everything, but he always is. No one noticed this time. Trump stole his thunder. There was a lot of wild swinging. Few punches were landed.
This was a slugfest, but Jordan Weissmann noted this:
Coming into Thursday’s Republican primary debate, John Kasich had one major strike against him among conservatives that also made him an interesting candidate. As governor of Ohio, he chose to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, a move that, obviously, was anathema to the many members of his party who are seeking to kill off the health law. Moreover, he wasn’t sheepish about his decision. “Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small,” Kasich said. “But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.'”
Unsurprisingly, moderator Megyn Kelly asked Kasich about his Medicaid move (and St. Peter argument). And, once again, he didn’t back down, instead delivering one of the most succinct and stirring defenses of the health care program for America’s poor that I’ve ever seen.
That would be this:
First of all Megyn, you should know that President Reagan expanded Medicaid three or four times. Secondly, I had an opportunity to bring resources back to Ohio. To do what? To treat the mentally ill. Ten thousand of them sit in our prisons. It costs $22,500 a year to keep them in prison. I would rather get them their medication so they can lead a decent life. Secondly, we are rehabbing the drug-addicted. Eighty percent of the people in our prisons have addiction problems. We now treat them in prisons, release them in the community, and the recidivism rate is 10 percent. And everybody across this country knows the tsunami of drugs is threatening their very families. So we are treating them and getting them on their feet. And finally, the working poor, instead of having them come into the emergency rooms where it costs more where they’re sicker and we end up paying, we brought a program in here to make sure that people could get on their feet. And you know what? Everybody has a right to their God-given purpose.
He may have not known that this was a nationally-televised boxing event, and June Thomas also noticed this:
Just before Megyn Kelly announced that the next topic at Thursday’s Republican candidate debate would be same-sex marriage, Donald Trump shared his exasperation with the climate of political correctness that has led to a world in which it is “medieval times … as bad as it ever was in terms of the violence and the horror.” He waved his hand dismissively and declared, “We don’t have time for tone.”
Trump’s speech dripped with disdain, but it was immediately followed by a response full of humanity and kindness. Hypothetical questions about candidates’ family members have been tricky since 1988, but undaunted, Kelly turned to Ohio Gov. John Kasich and asked him, “If you had a son or daughter who was gay or lesbian, how would you explain to them your opposition to same-sex marriage?”
Without hesitating, Kasich threw up his hands in a “aw shucks” gesture and managed to sound like he was speaking from the heart.
Well, look, I’m an old-fashioned person here, and I happen to believe in traditional marriage. But I’ve also said the court has ruled … and I said we’ll accept it. And guess what, I just went to the wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay. Because somebody doesn’t think the way I do doesn’t mean that I can’t care about them or I can’t love them. So, if one of my daughters happened to be that, of course I would love them, and I would accept them, because you know what, that’s what we’re taught when we have strong faith. Issues like that are planted to divide us. … We need to give everybody a chance, treat everybody with respect, and let them share in this great American dream that we have, Megyn, I’m going to love my daughters, I’m going to love them no matter what they do, because you know what? God gives me unconditional love. I’m going to give it to my family and my friends and the people around me.
John Kasich was in the wrong place. Everyone else was throwing punches. He was talking about decency and acceptance and common sense. This was neither the time nor place. This was fight night – but he might have won the fight.