Tuesday, November 10, 2015 – the fourth Republican presidential debate – hosted by the Fox Business Channel, a subset of Fox News. Of course Fox News is run by Roger Ailes – Richard Nixon’s former media consultant – the job was to humanize Nixon – and the man who worked with Lee Atwater to get George H. W. Bush elected with the nastiest ads they could pull off – so this would be a debate where none of the candidates would be made to feel uncomfortable. This was a Republican debate. No one would be challenged. America’s culture of dependency, our crushing federal debt, and our out of control taxes – those were the premises. Those would not be questioned. Tell us how awful those are, why don’t you?
The Republican National committee was happy. Note the pre-debate Fox News headline – RNC: Fox Business debate format a ‘huge win’ for candidates – so it was almost as if Ailes was writing those Willie Horton ads again. There are those very bad guys out there, and then there are the Republicans. That was what this debate was about, and Josh Marshall didn’t like it much:
This debate is the logical outcome of the blow up after the CNBC debate. CNBC is a generally right leaning network on economic issues. But simply pressing the candidates to answer questions or noting when they’re making demonstrably untrue claims made them liberal. So now we have a debate structured around letting candidates say absolutely anything – because scrutinizing candidates is liberal. This leads to having half the debate framed around how strong financial regulation leads the biggest banks to get bigger and bigger and how we need to put in place new policies to prevent banks from getting this big. And the best place to start is to repeal Dodd-Frank. … It’s impossible to find any way into this conversation because it’s all theology and self-referencing assertions.
It was frustrating:
Whatever you can say about the CNBC debate, it was tight, with sharp exchanges and memorable moments. There was very little of that tonight. Trump lacks energy and punch when he’s not the center of attention. Jeb Bush was better than he was in the last debate but not nearly enough to shift the balance in what seems like a dying campaign. Carson seemed fine by Carson standards but mainly because it’s not permitted to ask him any real questions or press him for an answer.
In the post-game Ben Carson just told moderator Neil Cavuto he and the rest of the candidates were very happy with the moderators. That pretty much tells the whole story.
Marshall thinks the whole thing was boring – like watching serial infomercials – but that’s getting ahead of things. There was the undercard, the pre-debate debate for the hopeless, and Chris Christie won that one:
At the risk of seeing his campaign slipping away, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey used an appearance in the second-tier Republican debate on Tuesday to seize center stage and project himself as above intraparty conflict while inviting the Republican Party to view him as its warrior against Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Mr. Christie was demoted to the early evening forum because of poor polling numbers, but he came to life on the less crowded stage in Milwaukee and had many moments in the hour-long four-candidate debate that seemed likely to leave a lasting impression.
He repeatedly hijacked efforts by his three rivals to criticize him or one another, steering the debate into who would be the strongest opponent against Mrs. Clinton if she is the Democratic nominee.
He was focused:
When Mr. Jindal criticized Mr. Christie for “liberal” policies in New Jersey, he simply said he had no interest in contrasting himself with the Louisiana governor.
“I want to talk about what’s going to happen to this country if we have another four years of Barack Obama’s policies,” Mr. Christie said, adding that his success in a blue state qualified him to run strongly nationally.
“Wait a minute, records matter,” Mr. Jindal interjected. He criticized Mr. Christie for expanding food stamps and Medicaid in his state.
Again, Mr. Christie refused to engage.
“Who’s going to be able to beat Hillary Clinton and keep their eye on the ball,” he said.
It went on like that:
At another point, Mr. Christie interrupted an internecine spat between Mr. Jindal and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas over who had cut government more as a governor to attack Mrs. Clinton.
“The bottom line is Hillary Clinton is coming for your wallet, everyone,” Mr. Christie said. “Don’t worry about Huckabee and Jindal. Worry about her.”
And no one worried about Rick Santorum. Yes, he was there, but nobody noticed, and Slate’s Josh Voorhees notes this:
Carly Fiorina dominated the first undercard debate in August, a showing that helped push her into the GOP’s top tier and secure her a spot on the main stage at the following debate. With the novelty of the format gone, though, neither of the two debates that followed offered a second golden ticket. Lindsey Graham was generally considered to have been the strongest performer in the second undercard – though not nearly as strong as Fiorina had been in the first – but never saw the same post-debate bump. The senator from South Carolina had reached 1 percent in two of the 10 major polls that preceded that debate; he managed to hit that mark in three of the 10 that followed. Graham was again the closest thing there was to a winner on CNBC’s undercard stage. His reward for another strong showing: Failing to qualify for the Fox Business debates altogether. (Fellow debate understudy George Pataki, the former governor of New York, was also shut out.)
There’s no reason to suspect Christie will be more Carly than Graham. The New Jersey governor was also one of the stronger performers in the three primetime debates – although that didn’t seem to impress the conservative constituency he needed to woo. He has continued to slip in the national polls ever since the first GOP debate, and has likewise failed to make any headway in New Hampshire, which was always going to be his best chance at a win in an early nominating state. Things aren’t much better in his home state: A new poll out Tuesday shows him running a distant fourth in the Garden State. A full 40 percent of New Jersey Republicans – and a majority of all voters in the state – meanwhile want him to throw in the towel. His performance in Tuesday’s debate should do absolutely nothing to change that.
Voorhees suggests dropping the whole thing – these folks aren’t going anywhere – but then we’d miss things like this:
Republican presidential candidate Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal pulled out a bit of bathroom humor Tuesday to make a point during the Fox Business debate. …
“We’ve got four senators running, they’ve never cut anything in D.C.,” Jindal said. “They give the long speeches called filibusters, they pat themselves on the back, nothing changes when they go to relieve themselves, their cause and the toilets get flushed at the same time and the American people lose.”
Jindal’s line was met with murmurs from the audience.
Bobby Jindal has turned into a bit of an embarrassment, but then no one was watching this debate. They were waiting for the main event, and that went like this:
“Wages are too high,” Trump said, while explaining why he did not support hiking the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour.
“We are a country that is being beaten on every front: economically, militarily. There is nothing that we do now to win. We don’t win anymore,” Trump said.
The real estate mogul added that the country should dramatically lower its taxes but keep wages as they are to be more competitive economically with the rest of the world. The crowd applauded. Ben Carson quickly agreed when the question was tossed to him.
“Every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases,” Carson asserted, and said he was glad he was able to work low-paying jobs as a young man to gain experience. “I would not raise it,’ Carson said, to applause.
Sen. Marco Rubio joined his two rivals, saying tax reform would be more effective than raising wages.
The billionaire started it – wages are too high – people should accept low wages, to make America great again. Businesses would thrive – they could compete around the world again and so on. This made sense to everyone else. Millions more would be employed if all Americans would just suck it up and work for far less – but one assumes that excludes senior management and corporate officers and professional athletes. And the audience cheered – the angry white blue-collar folks who feel they’re getting nowhere and being screwed by the system, who hate the government paying out welfare to the wrong people and so forth, seem to love being told they should actually work for far less. No one knows why.
There were, however, disagreements on other matters:
A lengthy discussion of immigration stood out as a proxy for a debate over how Republicans can win back the White House after eight years in the wilderness: under the banner of pure and principled conservatism, or with a moderated platform designed to broaden the GOP’s appeal to Latinos and other minorities.
Trump forcefully defended the controversial proposal that has fueled his candidacy since summer, in which he would deport all undocumented immigrants and construct a wall along the border with Mexico to keep them out.
“We are a country of laws, we need borders, we will have a wall, the wall will be built, the wall will be successful, and if you think walls don’t work, all you have to do is ask Israel,” said the former reality-television star. “The wall will work, properly done. Believe me.”
That drew a quick retort from Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who had been spoiling for a fight and repeatedly interrupted the questioning of other candidates to give his opinions.
“For the 11 million people, come on, folks, we all know we can’t pick them up and ship them across the border,” Kasich said. “It’s a silly argument. It’s not an adult argument.”
Trump then interjected with a taunt at Bush: “You should let Jeb speak.”
And the former Florida governor did just that, arguing that deporting illegal immigrants is in conflict with American values and would tear families and communities apart. Bush warned of the electoral consequences should the GOP nominee campaign with Trump’s position.
“They’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this,” Bush said. “That’s the problem with this. We have to win the presidency, and the way you win the presidency is to have practical plans.”
Soon after, Brian Fallon, a Clinton campaign spokesman, tweeted, “We actually are doing high-fives right now.”
Cruz, however, sided with Trump. “If Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose,” the senator from Texas said.
Yeah, but when Mitt Romney went down in flames in 2012, when maybe only thirty-seven Hispanics, in Utah, voted for him, you guys were worried about losing again, because Hispanics had come to see you as nasty bastards who thought they were scum. You’re still trying to work out a solution to that problem, are you? Do we have to watch while you argue about it, again, three long years later? Why don’t you let us know when you work something out? It’ll be easier for everyone.
And this argument sounds familiar too:
Later in the evening, an extended series of questions about the candidates’ tax plans sparked a fight between Rubio and Paul over the size of the military and defense budget.
“I know Rand is a committed isolationist. I’m not,” Rubio said, earning loud cheers from the crowd. “I know that the world is a safer and better place when America is the strongest military power in the world.”
Paul persisted, warning that the country could ill afford to spend more money on the military: “I want a strong national defense. But I don’t want us to be bankrupt.”
Cruz interjected, siding with Rubio: “You think defending this nation is expensive? Try not defending it. That’s a lot more expensive.”
Former business executive Carly Fiorina also delivered tough lines about the military and the United States’ role in Syria, but she also accused Trump of bluster when he talked about his past associations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At one point, Trump snapped: “Why does she keep interrupting everybody?”
The crowd booed loudly, but unlike in previous debates, Fiorina did not respond to Trump.
This was a bit embarrassing to watch, but at least one thing was cleared up:
Meanwhile, Ben Carson – who has built a powerful following among grass-roots conservatives with his soft-spoken approach – faced virtually no scrutiny from the moderators or fellow candidates over the veracity of his personal narrative, which has been the subject of recent media investigations.
When Cavuto asked Carson whether the scrutiny was engulfing his campaign, Carson seemed pleased to have the chance to clear the air.
“Thank you for not asking me what I said in the 10th grade,” Carson said. “We should vet all candidates. I have no problem with being vetted. What I do have a problem with is being lied about and then putting that out there as truth.”
He added: “People who know me know that I’m an honest person.”
And that settles that. Case closed. Roger Ailes did well. No one came off looking like a complete fool, at least in the main debate, although, in the Los Angeles Times, Noah Bierman notes this:
Donald Trump has played 2016 titan for months, and most attacks from fellow candidates ended up hurting the attacker. But as Trump fights to maintain his lead, he has appeared more defensive.
And on Tuesday, fellow candidates seemed to get the better of him a few times, winning over the crowd by mocking him.
When Trump started complaining that President Obama’s Pacific trade pact is a trap laid by the Chinese, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul drew laughs when he pointed out that China was not a party to the deal.
When Trump said Russian President Vladimir Putin could do America the favor of knocking off the Islamic State extremist group, Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, lectured him as naive: “That’s like playing Monopoly,” he said. “That’s not how the world works.”
And when Trump bragged that he formed a friendship with Putin in the green room when they both appeared on “60 Minutes,” Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard chief executive, drew laughs when she said she had also met Putin, “not in a green room for a show, but in a private meeting.”
That had to hurt, but the debate is probably best appreciated in small snippets, like these from Kevin Drum:
10:46 – Question to Carson about big banks. This ought to be good. Answer: shouldn’t allow banks to “just enlarge themselves at the expense of smaller entities.” Low interest rates are bad. We need less regulation. That hurts the poor and middle class because it raises the cost of a bar of soap by ten cents. Follow-up: OK, but would you break up the big banks? Carson: I wouldn’t allow them to get big in the first place. But, no, I wouldn’t tear down banks that already exist.
10:48 – Kasich: too much greed on Wall Street.
10:50 – Cavuto: Would you go after Wall Street crooks like Bernie Sanders? Freudian slip, I guess. Cruz would “absolutely” go after them. We need less cronyism.
10:51 – Cavuto: Just to be clear, if Bank of America were on the brink, would you let it fail? Cruz: Yes. Also: we need fewer philosopher kings at the Fed. And the gold standard would be great for working men and women!
10:54 – Kasich: Put a sock in it, Cruz. Real executives need to make decisions, not philosophize. Kasich says he wouldn’t bail out banks, but would help the hardworking folks who put money in the bank. Big boos!
10:58 – Fiorina: Dodd-Frank is socialism. Freddie Mac was responsible for housing bust. Etc.
That’s how it went on all issues:
10:14 – Paul thinks Congress should have the ability to amend treaties. This would, of course, make it impossible to negotiate treaties.
10:18 – Carson: we have to oppose Putin in Middle East. But it’s very complicated. Carson’s plan for ISIS: We have to make them look like losers. We do that by taking their oil fields and then destroying them. “We could do this, I believe, fairly easily.” Carson says he learned that from “several generals.” Names, please!
10:22 – Bush says America needs to lead in the Middle East. But his plan is distinctly small-bore: no-fly zone, support the rebels, think about the refugees.
10:24 – Trump is now in full ADD mode on foreign policy. Syria! China! Putin! Ukraine! Germany! But we can’t be policeman of the world.
10:26 – Bush says Trump is full of shit. Trump says we have no idea who the rebels are. Look at Libya. Look at Iraq. He almost sounds like a Democrat. Almost.
None of this was terribly inspiring, and Amanda Marcotte adds this:
Rand Paul had a momentary and clearly unwelcome brush with reality. After hours of hearing one candidate after another indulge the childish fantasy that we can cut taxes and balance the budget, apparently only by cutting food stamps, Paul broke every rule in the Republican playbook and pointed out that military spending is a huge sinkhole for taxpayer money.
“How is it conservative to add a trillion dollars in military expenditures?” Paul sniped at Marco Rubio during one particularly heated moment in the debate. “You cannot be a conservative if you’re going to keep promoting new programs that you can’t pay for.”
Rubio, facing a clearly unexpected challenge to the widespread Republican notion that you can cut taxes and eliminate the debt without cutting a dime on Republican-cherished budget items like the military, got flustered and tried to deflect with fifth grade debating tactics. “We can’t even have an economy if we’re not safe,” he whined. “There are radical jihadists in the Middle East beheading people and crucifying Christians.” Luckily, we were all spared him whipping out an American flag and a cross and asking us to pray for him, but you could feel it was probably coming if Paul kept pressing his point.
That’s cool, but there were few other brushes with reality:
Republicans haven’t changed their economic views over the decades. They continue to be the party that wants to enrich the wealthy at the expense of everyone else, economic or social consequences be damned… so the theme of the night was pretending that Republicans are here to protect the working Joe against the decadent elite as well as the vampiric poor.
Rubio … made it sound like opposing higher wages for working class people will somehow stick it to the educated elite: “For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less [sic] philosophers.”
He meant “fewer” philosophers, not that it mattered:
The audience, stoked by years of right wing media telling them to hate pointy-headed intellectuals, ate it up. But this clearly practiced talking point really crystallized the strategy that nearly every candidate employed on stage, implying that the poor and the wealthy are somehow in cahoots to screw over the middle class. And so the next two and a half hours were spent listening to a bunch of rich Republicans who want to cut taxes for even richer Republicans all pretend that they are fighting for the little guy against those rich bad guys.
Did anyone expect anything else? This was a debate run by conservatives for conservatives, and the premises were not to be questioned. It was a closed loop. The candidates finally got what they wanted. No one else was allowed in – but in the general election everyone is allowed in. These folks haven’t changed all the voter-ID laws yet. Be careful what you wish for.