The last Wednesday in October was a disappointment. After a wonderfully bizarre fourteen-inning first game in the World Series, the guys from Kansas City blew out the guys from Queens – the Mets were going to get swept. There was no point in watching. But it was fight-night over on CNBC – another Republican presidential debate, and this was on the nation’s default business channel. The questions would come from financial reporters, the folks who prattle all day about price-to-earnings ratios and such things. They don’t cover politics. This would be interesting. At least that was the idea.
Why wouldn’t it be interesting? New polls had shown the braggart New York real estate billionaire, Donald Trump, was no longer way ahead of everyone else. He was now trailing Ben Carson, the former neurosurgeon with a shaky grasp of all things financial – but Carson is bold, and since every Republican says entitlements are killing us, has had already revealed his grand plan for making Social Security go away forever:
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson suggested that Americans who “really don’t need” Social Security should “voluntarily opt-out” of their benefits as a way to save funding during an interview Monday with CNN’s John Berman. Carson stated that he felt a little bad about taking Social Security away from Americans who have worked hard to earn it, but added that he would “be delighted” to give his back if it made America better down the road.
If more and more true patriots would just give back their Social Security checks there’d be enough in the pot for those who have no other funds in their old age. But do those people really need those funds? If enough people searched their conscience the government would eventually get out of the whole thing – and no one would have to pass any legislation or change any rules.
That’s an interesting theory, and Margot Sanger-Katz covers Carson’s thoughts on the other big entitlement programs:
For the last few years, Ben Carson has been talking about a very disruptive but simple plan to reform the health care system in the United States: replace Obamacare, Medicare and Medicaid with an easy-to-understand universal, cradle-to-grave annual cash allowance for health spending.
But last weekend, in a series of interviews, Mr. Carson, who is now narrowly leading in some national polls for the GOP presidential nomination, said he had discarded that idea, and was now presenting a new health plan. It’s less politically toxic, but much less coherent. It is also less likely to lead to the big changes to the health care system he seeks.
Like the original plan, his new one would include health savings accounts, meant to encourage people to pay for their medical care directly. But it would also coexist with existing government health programs – and the degree to which the government would be involved is unclear. It’s very hard to determine who would benefit from the Carson plan or how much it would cost the federal government. It seems possible that it could actually cost more than the current system.
But the core of it all was a two-thousand-dollar-a-year health care allowance for every American. Give each and every man and woman and child two grand each year, tell them they can only spend it on health care, and walk away. The government would have nothing to do with health care other than that. The free market would take care of everything, and here’s a bit of understatement:
On Thursday, Kyle Cheney and Jason Millman at Politico described that plan, including critical voices from Republican health policy analysts, who worried that ending the popular Medicaid and Medicare programs would be both politically and practically problematic.
It wouldn’t work and the public would scream bloody murder, and the details of the evolving Carson plan were deadly:
Mr. Carson would do away with tax incentives that encourage employers to offer insurance to their workers, a big government expenditure that is the underpinning of the country’s current system. When asked by a reporter at an Iowa event on Saturday about the tax exclusion, he said, “I actually am going to be looking at getting rid of all tax deductions and loopholes.” The elimination of that benefit for the 151 million Americans who are covered in the employer-based system amounts to a loss of approximately $2,200 for each person, according to estimates from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Oops. And this was the guy leading the pack. The CNBC financial reporters were going to eat him alive, but of course there was the preliminary bout on the card, and Slate’s Josh Voorhees covered that:
Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, and Rick Santorum took the stage in Boulder, Colorado, in the early undercard debate on Wednesday. All four GOP hopefuls – already flailing in the polls – looked hopeless.
That was about it, but the details were amusing:
Graham, the only one of the GOP understudies who ever seems to be in on the joke, had the University of Colorado crowd laughing early when he said that he didn’t have the grades to be accepted at the school. “Looking at their academic standards, the only way I could have gotten into the university is to be invited to this debate tonight,” Graham said, devoting precious seconds of his opening statement to again joke with voters that he’s not that smart.
That was a bad sign, but this was a bit pathetic:
Bobby Jindal, meanwhile, had one of the most awkward exchanges of the night with CNBC moderator John Harwood when he seemed to acknowledge that his Louisiana budgets were “nonsense on a stick”:
Harwood: “When you came into office with a budget surplus in the state of Louisiana, now years later the state legislature faced a $1.6 billion budget gap and the Republican state treasurer called one of your approaches to that problem, ‘nonsense on a stick.’ … Are you going to do for the federal budget what you did for the Louisiana budget?”
Jindal: “Absolutely, John. What we did is cut state spending.”
He’ll ruin the nation just like he ruined Louisiana. Elect him, or something, but Jordan Weissmann saw something else:
During the Republican undercard debate Wednesday night, the moderators decided to pin down Sen. Lindsey Graham by pointing out that, unlike many in his party, he is willing to accept mainstream climate science (and willing to accept tax increases as part of a budget deal with Democrats, and offer undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship).
Graham, who had spent most of the economics-focused debate trying to change the subject to national security – at one point literally shaking his fist at China – decided to take the question head on. The result: he somewhat unusual scene of a Republican presidential candidate trying to deliver some real talk to his party.
Graham said this:
I think I’m trying to solve problems that somebody better solve. Now, you don’t have to believe that climate change is real. I have been to the Antarctic, I’ve been to Alaska. I’m not a scientist, and I’ve got the grades to prove it. But I’ve talked to the climatologists and they tell me that greenhouse gas effect is real, that we’re heating up the planet. I just want a solution that would be good for the economy that doesn’t destroy it.
And then there was former New York Governor George Pataki:
One of the things that troubles me about the Republican Party is too often we question science that everyone accepts. I mean, it’s ridiculous that in the 21st century we’re questioning whether or not vaccines are the appropriate way to go. Of course they are. And it’s also not appropriate to think that human activity, putting CO2 into the atmosphere, doesn’t make the Earth warmer all things being equal. It does. It’s incontrovertible.
I think part of the problem is Republicans think about climate change and say, oh, my God, we’ll have higher taxes, more Obama, more big government, the EPA shutting down factories. That’s not the collusion that I see. I want Republicans to embrace innovation and technology. You know, there’s one country in the world that has fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the rest of the world. You know what that is? The United States. Our emissions are lower than they were 1995. Not because of a government program but because of fracking, private sector creation.
The idea that we can actually combat climate change without concerted government action might be a bit flimsy. But by GOP standards, this was all fairly progressive – which is of course why these two weren’t invited to the main debate.
And then there was the main debate:
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida coolly rebuffed attacks from his onetime mentor, Jeb Bush, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas emerged as a champion of social conservatives at Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate, as both men found their voices after months of lower-key performances.
Testiness and sharpened jabs infused the night as struggling candidates like Mr. Bush, the former governor of Florida, and Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio ripped into their less experienced rivals and tried to portray them as unqualified for the White House.
The free-for-all of verbal assaults reflected the new volatility in a race that Donald J. Trump dominated for months. It appears to be shifting in favor of candidates like Mr. Rubio and Ben Carson as the first nominating contests near and voters start paying closer attention to the field.
It was a free-for-all of verbal assaults – better than the Mets-Royals game – and Noah Bierman identifies a few themes, like the usual blame-the-media stuff:
Attacking the questioner is a long-standing get-out-of jail device in debates – particularly on the Republican side, where resentment of what voters see as the liberal media is a perennial grievance. But it may have reached a pinnacle Wednesday. Whenever the candidates got a tough question about their records, or even when they didn’t, they attacked the media. The crowd rewarded them with enthusiastic applause.
Nearly every candidate accused the questioners of getting their facts wrong, without answering the questions.
“It’s not a very nicely asked question the way you say that,” Donald Trump told John Harwood when the moderator asked Trump if he was running “a comic book version of a presidential campaign?”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, when confronted with questions about some of his personal financial struggles, accused Becky Quick, another member of the CNBC panel, of reciting a litany of his opponents’ false attacks. At another point, he took an additional shot, condemning the media for going soft on Hillary Rodham Clinton after last week’s Benghazi committee hearing.
“The Democrats have the ultimate super PAC,” Rubio said. “They’re called the mainstream media.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz forfeited an easy question about his opposition to the latest federal budget deal – one of his favorite topics – just to get in his shot, a full catalog of the unfair questions lodged at him and his opponents.
“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” he said.
“This is not a cage match,” he chided the moderators. “And, you look at the questions: Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?”
“How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?” he said. GOP pollster Frank Luntz said on Twitter that the hit scored off the charts with his focus group.
Of course it did. These guys know how to play this game – but Trump does seem to be running a substance-free campaign, and Carson has a math problem, and Kasich is fed up with what his party has become, and Rubio was torched by an editorial in a Florida newspaper that pointed out he hardly showed up in the Senate anymore and maybe he should let someone else do this job if he’s too busy elsewhere, and Bush’s numbers have fallen off a cliff. These weren’t bad questions.
Oh well, at least it was fun to watch Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio go at it:
Bush had once been talked about as a mentor to Rubio, the former Florida House Speaker. If they were ever that close, they are certainly not now.
Bush’s campaign is struggling as insiders begin to see Rubio as the stronger mainstream candidate. And that tension became very public Wednesday when Bush criticized Rubio’s poor attendance record in the Senate.
“I’m a constituent of the senator, and I helped him, and I expected that he would do constituent service, which means that he shows up to work,” Bush said. “Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work. I mean, literally, the Senate – what is it, like a French work week? You get, like, three days where you have to show up?”
Rubio noted that prior presidential candidates had also missed Senate votes and accused Bush of employing a double standard. “The only reason why you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you,” Rubio said.
The audience cheered. The line about the useless French didn’t work like it was supposed to and always had before, but it was not Jeb’s night:
Bush was once again under pressure to show up big and he didn’t. He failed to speak often or memorably or give worried donors and celebrating rivals any reason to believe he was reclaiming his status as the leading mainstream candidate.
Still, the big issue was entitlements:
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor, essentially agreed as Christie said that “the government has lied to you, and they have stolen from you” by spending the surplus in the Social Security trust fund.
But they disagreed sharply on what to do about that. Christie believes the only way to keep Social Security solvent without tax hikes is to means-test benefits.
Huckabee said that doing so would be unfair to those who’ve already paid in, comparing it to a Ponzi scheme.
“The government has no business stealing even more,” he said. “Tell me, what’s the difference between the government and Bernie Madoff?”
It was an evening for rants, but Frank Bruni has a slightly different take on this:
What a curious, fascinating spectacle: The two men in the lead got lost in the pack.
Coming into Wednesday night, much of the talk about the third Republican debate focused on Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who were trading places at the top of the polls, two outsiders with no business running for president and significantly more support from Republican voters than any of the conventional candidates could muster.
Which of the two would stand out?
Would either of the two seal the deal?
For the first hour of the debate, which was staged by CNBC, Trump largely disappeared. His rivals and the moderators demonstrated less interest in him than they had in the past, and a Trump without attention is like a petunia without water and light. It fades. It droops.
And while that presented a window of opportunity for Carson, he lacked the pep to get through a window or, for that matter, an extremely wide set of sliding doors. His eyelids sometimes went to half-mast as he swayed through an answer, making a sluggish voyage to an uncertain destination.
What is it that his supporters see in him?
That was the question, and it also applies to Donald Trump, and that’s what set off John Kasich:
He made specific references to Trump’s promises to deport millions of immigrants and to Carson’s musings about eviscerating entitlement programs. He lambasted various opponents’ proposals for huge tax cuts.
“This stuff is fantasy,” he said, striving so hard for urgency that he practically yelped. “Folks, we gotta wake up. We cannot elect somebody that doesn’t know how to do the job.”
Trump knew full well that Kasich had him in mind, and noted that Kasich hadn’t talked this way months ago.
“Then his poll numbers tanked,” Trump said, “and he got nasty. So you know what? You can have him.”
That answers nothing, but Kasich was ignored and everyone talked about flat taxes and tax policies and “miniaturized” tax returns:
Carly Fiorina said that she’d collapse the whole tax code to three pages. Ted Cruz said that he’d enable Americans to file their tax returns on postcards. I half expected Rand Paul to one-up them both by pledging to present all of his tax ideas in a single haiku. But he was too busy using his minimal speaking time to complain about his minimal speaking time.
And then there was Ted Cruz:
Attempting to dismiss the distaste that most of his Congressional colleagues feel for him, he spoke of cars and carbohydrates.
“If you want someone to grab a beer with, I may not be that guy,” he said. “But if you want someone to drive you home, I will get the job done and I will get you home.” He left out the part where you bolt out of the passenger seat and away from him the minute your front door is in sight.
Do you get points for being unpleasant? Gail Collins adds this:
Hard to believe the race is still barely beginning – one week until one year until presidential Election Day! But you can’t say things have been boring. “What the hell are you people doing to me?” Trump demanded in Iowa, where he’s no longer in the lead. Perhaps we will look back on this as the moment when the former star of “The Apprentice” fired a state.
But about Wednesday night’s debate – the topic was economics, and the big takeaway was probably that when there are ten people onstage, nobody is going to have to explain how that flat tax plan adds up. When in doubt, complain about government regulations.
Carson appears to have a particular genius on this front. Asked what to do about the pharmaceutical industry’s outrageous pricing policies, he mildly said: “No question that some people go overboard when it comes to trying to make profits,” and then he careened off to the cost of government rules on “the average small manufacturer.”
Every seasoned politician is good at answering a difficult question with the answer to something entirely different. But Carson – who isn’t supposed to be a politician at all – was possibly the champ. Where do you think he picked that up? It’s a little unnerving to think this kind of talent is useful in the operating room.
Because Carson’s voice always sounds so moderate, responses that make no sense whatsoever can sound sort of thoughtful until you replay them in your head. Asked why, as an opponent of gay marriage, he serves on the board of a company that offers domestic partner benefits, Carson said that he believed “marriage is between one man and one woman and there is no reason that you can’t be perfectly fair to the gay community.” He then proposed, in his measured tones, that “the P.C. culture … it’s destroying this nation.”
Yeah, well, whatever, Ben. The man does drift a bit, but this was a sorry business:
Jeb Bush is not going to be the Republican presidential nominee. Neither is, let’s see – Christie, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina or any of the other supporting cast members. Ted Cruz did have a big moment when he answered a question about raising the debt limit by attacking the questioner. That went over so well that by the end of the two-hour session, the left-wing media had overtaken government regulators as the greatest threat to the future of American democracy.
Or do you think it could actually be Carson? The guy who seems to blame gun control for the Holocaust?
The man who leads the pack now isn’t going to be the nominee:
One of the theories on why Carson can’t win – besides the fact that he’s utterly loopy – is that even a lot of Republican voters will be unnerved by his plans to undermine Social Security and Medicare. But his ideas aren’t actually all that different from those of most of the other candidates, who want to raise retirement rates or cut out everybody under, say, 45. “It’s not too much to ask of our generation after everything our parents and our grandparents did for us,” said Rubio.
Hard to imagine this going over well in middle-aged America, but the whole party is on the same page. Except for Mike Huckabee who – yes! – is still in the race, out there somewhere. And Trump, who says that everything will be fine after he makes “a really dynamic economy from what we have right now” and builds that wall at the border.
But somebody has got to be nominated, right? And someone has to win the World Series. That doesn’t mean you have to watch the games. There are better things to do in late October. Carve a pumpkin.