The Republicans had another debate, the fifth of this cycle and the last of this year, and the fate of the nation hung in the balance – but not really. Everyone knows where each of the candidates stands on every issue, and everyone knows that the angry base of the party seems to want Donald Trump to be the nominee. Ted Cruz argues he’s just as nasty as Trump but actually knows how the government works, so he’s ready to step in should Trump go full-Nazi or something. The party establishment hates them both, so it’s Marco Rubio for them – but Rubio is a bit of a dork. The other candidates occupy space, and none of them is likely to beat Hillary Clinton in the general election, with Trump and Cruz the least likely to do that. The debate was held in the hope that this could change, but these folks are who they are. The debate only emphasized that. The dynamics were not going to shift. The debate was about emphasis on the givens here. Who could be more emphatic? Who cares?
Still, the debate had its moments, as reported in the Washington Post overview:
Republican front-runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz faced sharp attacks from their Republican rivals in Tuesday night’s fifth Republican debate, with lower-polling rivals charging that they were not ready to lead the country in an age of terrorism and turmoil in the Middle East.
The debate focused largely on the threat posed by the Islamic State, and terrorists who carried out attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. Lower-polling candidates like Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush used the moment to attack Trump and Cruz, and to turn their fierce anti-establishment message against them. How could these candidates govern, they said, if they don’t understand how Washington and the world really work?
Yes, someone should raise that question, but don’t expect an answer:
“Leadership is not about attacking people, and disparaging people. Leadership is about creating a serious strategy, to deal with the threat of our time,” Bush said to Trump.
Trump, as he had many times before, responded with a reference to Bush’s eroding poll numbers. “Let’s see: I’m at 42, and you’re at three, so I’m doing better,” Trump said.
And that’s that. Who needs a strategy? The people love me!
And there were spats no one understood:
Cruz’s main battle was with Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), another Cuban American serving his first term in the Senate. Rubio, who seems to be running behind Cruz, accused the Texas senator of being weak on terrorism, by opposing military spending bills and a measure to increase surveillance. On the question of immigration, Rubio also accused Cruz of agreeing with… Rubio, by supporting offering legal status to illegal immigrants who are in the country now. “Ted, you support legalizing people who are in this country illegally.”
Cruz scoffed, saying that he had opposed that very thing. He said that comparing him to Rubio was “like suggesting the fireman and the arsonist have the same record, because they were both at the scene of the fire.”
And there were surreal moments:
Trump, asked about America’s nuclear “triad” – the three main delivery methods for nuclear weapons – gave an answer that seemed to indicate little familiarity with the topic. “The power, and the devastation, is very important to me,” Trump said. Cruz, for his part, had an odd talking standoff with CNN moderators Wolf Blitzer and Hugh Hewitt, in which Cruz refused repeated requests to stop talking. Some in the crowd actually booed.
Focus was an issue, but there was this:
Earlier Trump stood by his call to kill the family members of Islamic terrorists, saying the kind of toughness that’s necessary in this fight.
“That will make people think. Because they do not care very much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their family’s lives,” Trump said, in the midst of a debate dominated by fears about terrorism and security in America.
That brought a rebuke from Bush, who was more aggressive in this debate than he had been in the past.
“The idea that that is a solution to this is just crazy,” Bush said. “It makes no sense to suggest this.”
Trump, as usual, turned a policy argument into a personal one. “He’s a very nice person. But we need tough people,” Trump said.
Bush interrupted. Trump interrupted him.
“Am I talking, or are you talking?
“I’m talking right now,” Bush said. “Little of your own medicine there…”
Fine, but what about killing all the family members of terrorists? Maybe tough leaders order that, with a special emphasis on killing the children, so there’s not another generation of terrorists and never will be, but that discussion ended before it began. That sort of thing might generate tens of thousands of new terrorists, angrier than even – unless they’re all dead. We need to think this thing through, but it wasn’t a night for that:
Trump also repeated a call to “close” parts of the Internet, apparently in parts of the Middle East, to keep the Islamic State from using the Internet as a recruiting tool. “I don’t want them using our Internet to take our young, impressionable youth,” Trump said.
Later, Trump was also rebuked by Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), the lowest-polling candidate on the stage. He said that Trump’s ideas for killing family members and shutting down parts of the Internet “would defy every norm that is America,” Paul said. “Whoever you are, that you’re going to support Donald Trump, think, do you believe in the Constitution? Are you going to change the Constitution?”
Trump responded: “So, they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?”
What? Screw the Constitution? Is that what he just said? No one followed up. The evening was devoted to other matters:
The gloom in the debate was thorough, and dark. At one point, Trump – the Republican front-runner – looked back at America’s last 12 years of military interventions overseas, and declared them worthless.
“We’ve spent 4 trillion dollars trying to topple various people,” Trump said, talking about interventions that began with a fellow Republican’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. “We have done a tremendous disservice to humanity. The people that have been killed. The people that have been wiped away. And for what? It’s not like we had a victory.”
“That is exactly what President Obama has said. I’m amazed to hear that from a Republican presidential candidate,” former tech executive Carly Fiorina said.
Trump replied with more gloom. “What do we have now? We have nothing.”
We’re screwed, either way:
Trump stood by his previous call to block foreign Muslims from entering the United States, but Bush attacked that idea: “He’s a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president.”
Bring it on, and Karen Tumulty and Philip Rucker, watching Paul and Rubio and Cruz have it out, noted this:
As the three senators argued over the details of immigration, federal surveillance and counterterrorism laws, Christie and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina stressed instead the importance of executive decision-making experience.
“Listen, I want to talk to the audience at home for a second,” Christie said. “If your eyes are glazing over like mine, this is what it’s like to be on the floor of the United States Senate. I mean endless debates about how many angels on the head of a pin from people who’ve never had to make a consequential decision in an executive position.”
At another point, Fiorina chimed in to say voters are “looking for solutions, not lawyers arguing over laws or entertainers throwing out sound bites that draw media attention. We need to solve the problem.”
Okay, getting the policies right is crap, but facts do matter:
During a third exchange, Bush wondered whether Trump, who has said he gets his foreign policy advice from watching television shows, might watch cartoons on Saturday instead of public affairs programs on Sunday. They bickered for so long that other candidates chimed in.
“All the fighting and arguing is not advancing us,” said Ohio Gov. John Kasich. “It is not the way we’re going to strengthen our country. It will strengthen our country when we come together.”
The message was clear – we’re acting like fools up here and people are beginning to notice – and this didn’t help:
Recent weeks have seen a slump in the prospects of retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, in part because of a seeming lack of knowledge and assuredness on foreign policy. His mild manner stands as a contrast with the growing bellicosity of the rhetoric around him.
That became even more evident when he was asked to weigh in on the spirited argument that Rubio and Paul were having on the scope and scale of the role of government in fighting terrorism.
“I think you have to ask them about that,” Carson said. “I don’t want to get in between them. Let them fight.”
Carson was frightened, he might have to say something and it would all be over for him, and Kevin Drum notes the danger in saying stuff:
What would Fiorina do about North Korea? Answer: we have to beat up on China. This will convince them to help us get rid of Kim Jong-un. What?
Um, no, Carly, Petraeus wasn’t “retired early” because he told Obama something he didn’t want to hear. You remember the real reason, don’t you?
Christie just flat-out said that policy is boring. We just need a guy who’s tough on terrorism. All this legislation mumbo jumbo is for wimps.
Drum was not impressed:
This debate was a mess. I seriously wonder whether ordinary viewers were able to follow much of it at all. It left me with the impression of a bunch of super macho monks angrily arguing about angels on the head of a pin. The candidates went down a rabbit hole early on and never really came up for air.
And to break it down:
My strongest impression is that Ben Carson was terrible. He really needed to show that he wasn’t a complete nitwit on national security, and he failed spectacularly. He was obviously out of his depth and had no clue how to answer even the simplest questions. He literally froze when Wolf Blitzer asked him his view of the USA Freedom Act. It was almost painful to watch. Later he burbled about not being able to fix the Middle East, sending Syrian refugees back to Syria with a few defensive weapons, and then became completely incoherent when asked about North Korea. Carson did so badly that I think his campaign is over.
Donald Trump took a step backward to his persona from the first debate: lots of mugging for the camera and no apparent policy knowledge at all. He doubled down on killing the families of terrorists; he answered three or four different questions by saying he opposed the invasion of Iraq; and then produced one of the night’s most fatuous lines: “I think for me, nuclear, the power, the devastation, is very important to me.” That’s his position on the nuclear triad? It’s hard to believe this isn’t going to hurt him in the polls, but this is not a normal world we live in these days. I’d say he’s going to lose a few points, but I won’t pretend to be confident about that.
Then there were the others:
Jeb Bush tried manfully to needle Trump, but the poor guy just can’t pull it off. All Trump had to do was make a face at him. As for substance, he was one of the most reasonable guys on the stage, but he seems incapable of stating his views in any kind of memorable way. He did nothing to help himself tonight.
Marco Rubio did his usual thing: he produced tight little canned responses to every question. I don’t like this approach, but I suppose it sounds coherent and forceful to some people…
Ted Cruz probably did well, though he struggled with several questions. Does he really think we can carpet bomb only “the bad guys” and no one else? Does he really think arming the Kurds is the key to defeating ISIS? They aren’t going to fight ISIS anywhere outside Kurdistan. But I doubt this kind of stuff does him much harm. His endless fight with Wolf Blitzer over being allowed to speak when it wasn’t his turn didn’t make him look especially presidential, but maybe that doesn’t matter either. My sense is that he came out about even tonight.
Chris Christie said nothing except that he’s tough. Carly Fiorina just spouted her usual one-liners. John Kasich desperately wants people to pay attention to him and just can’t pull it off. And Rand Paul, bless his heart, didn’t try to out-macho everyone. But he also probably didn’t appeal to anyone either.
So we got nonsense:
Kasich apparently wants a full-on re-invasion of Iraq. Trump wants to kill terrorist families. Cruz wants to carpet bomb ISIS but has no idea what that actually means. Rubio thinks our Middle Eastern allies will all magically provide lots of ground troops just as soon as the lily-livered Obama is out of office. Carson is just plain scary in his lack of knowledge of anything. The only thing they all agree on is that America needs a testosterone injection. It’s pretty depressing to watch.
Josh Marshall felt the same way:
This was a good debate, in as much as a number of the candidates were either on their game or more on their game than they’ve been in previous debates. Jeb Bush was more spirited and didn’t let Donald Trump slap him around quite as badly as he did in previous debates. In their own ways, Trump and Cruz did well too. Rubio was roughly how he’s been in earlier debates but several opponents landed real punches on him on issues like immigration.
But all of that pales in comparison to the global picture of a country, at least a major fraction of a country, totally unhinged by ISIS and the gruesome massacre in San Bernardino, California. Certainly the first half of the debate was roiled by repeated invocations of fear, the celebration of fear, the demand that people feel and react to their fear. This was logically joined to hyperbolic and ridiculous claims about ISIS as a group that might not simply attack America or kill Americans but might actually destroy the United States or even our entire civilization.
That’s nonsense, but expected nonsense:
A substantial number of people in this country also clearly need this fantasy vision of a great clash between good and evil which is in its own way only slightly less apocalyptic and unhinged than the philosophy of ISIS itself. We hear these slogans again and again about World War III and the rest. So we become acclimated to them. But they are really quite nuts. We’ve somehow been transported back a decade, zeroed in on the small magazine and blog right wing fever swamp of ‘Islamofascism’ and World War III. But now that’s the mainstream GOP.
So be it:
Each of Donald Trump’s opponents conspicuously declined to really attack Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States. They didn’t agree precisely, they had a more focused approach, Obama made him do it. But all seemed to proceed on the knowledge that the great majority of Republicans like the idea and frontally criticizing it would be a bad idea. As much as Trump seemed to lose his temper a few times in this debate, my read was more a calm but fierce confidence that he is defining and controlling the entire shape of the primary debate. And he’s right. He is.
And everyone else is just occupying space:
Rubio is polished, but you can see in the split screens, a guy who’s studied up but basically insecure and unsure of himself in debate. That’s not Trump or Cruz, to put it mildly. Bush definitely did better, showed more life in him. But even when he does better, there’s just no rationale for his campaign, none that makes sense or resonates in this political moment. His platform seems to be: I hear what you guys think is messed up; I’ll fix it; and I won’t get weird. That argument just goes nowhere. Bush did much better but his campaign has no argument in its favor. …
Christie did well. But Bridgegate. He’s been dead politically for going on two years. Fiorina seems increasingly pissed that her campaign is going nowhere. …
Trump’s closing brought the whole thing full circle. It’s clear, direct; it resonates. We don’t win any more. We’re losers. I’ll make us win again.
The rest was petty details:
Jeb Bush continued his offensive against Donald Trump Tuesday night saying that if Trump couldn’t handle the rules of a GOP debate, he definitely wouldn’t be able to take on the job at the White House.
As Trump was accusing CNN of being unfair by forcing candidates to react to his positions, Bush chimed in: “The simple fact is that if you think this is tough and you are not being treated fairly, imagine what is going to be like dealing with Putin or dealing with President Xi or dealing with the Islamic terrorism that exists,” Bush said. “This is a tough business to run for president.”
Trump shrugged. Bush is at two percent, and then there was the early debate, the bizarre undercard:
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee defended surveillance of American mosques during the Republican debate Tuesday night, saying mosques are “public places” that Muslims should be begging the FBI and others to enter in hopes of converting them.
Huckabee was responding to a question about whether preemptive surveillance of mosques violates Muslims’ First Amendment rights, to which he responded a firm “no.”
“You can go to any church in America, it’s a public place, you can listen,” the candidate said. “The point is, these are public places, and folks are invited to come.”
Huckabee went on to say someone “might just wanna listen” to the service. He also said if Islam “is as wonderful and peaceful as its adherents say, shouldn’t they be begging us to all come in and listen… and bring the FBI so we’d all want to convert to Islam?”
No one knows what that was about, or this:
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) took an unconventional approach in Tuesday’s GOP debate to winning America’s youth vote, telling them they could forget legalized marijuana and a subsidized college education under a Huckabee administration and gear up for military service instead.
You’re not getting either, ever, so grab a gun and make yourself useful, and then there was the other guy:
Lindsey Graham slammed Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim policy proposals as a boon to the Islamic State. “Donald Trump has done the one single thing you cannot do: declare war on Islam itself,” Graham said at the beginning of the debate.
“ISIL would be dancing in the streets. They just don’t believe in dancing,” he continued. “This is a coup for them, and to all of our Muslim friends throughout the world, like the king of Jordan and the president of Egypt, I am sorry. He does not represent us. If I am president, we will work together. People in the faith through all over the world destroy this radical ideology. Declaring war on their religion only helps ISIL.”
Obama has been saying that for years, as had George W. Bush before him. Now it’s shocking. Go figure, and there’s this:
Following up on his earlier comments decrying Trump, Graham offered specific thanks to Muslims serving in the military. “There are at least 3,500 American Muslims serving in the armed forces,” he said. “Thank you for your service. You are not the enemy. Your religion is not the enemy.”
Lindsey Graham is way out there, and added this:
Graham (who once again was the most active candidate in the undercard debate) started one segment by talking about Vladimir Putin: “I’m not afraid of a guy riding around on a horse without a shirt. The guy’s got a pair of twos and we’ve got a full house and he’s walking all over Obama.”
But Graham finished by wrapping his arms around the last Republican president, who just happens to be related to one of his opponents. “I miss George W. Bush,” Graham said passionately. “I wish he were president right now! We wouldn’t be in this mess! I’m tired of dictators walking all overs us! I’m tired of siding with the Iranians and the Russians!”
Lindsey Graham has gone over the edge, and Salon’s Amanda Marcotte tries to add perspective:
One thing is certain from Tuesday night’s Republican debate on CNN: Whatever polling data the Republicans are reading, it’s telling them that GOP primary voters are worried that ISIS is sneaking in through the air ducts and that the only thing that will save them now is thumping your chest really hard and repeating, “Radical Islamic terrorism, radical Islamic terrorism, radical Islamic terrorism” until the magical spell works and the baddies go away.
Oh, and bombing someone. Definitely have to bomb someone.
So who won this debate, clearly aimed at people who, like Lindsey Graham, really miss the Bush administration and those carefree days when it seemed that all the world’s problems could be solved by bombing some innocent civilians half a world away?
She suggests The Donald:
Trump came across as a sniveling bully and a consummate bullshitter who clearly just says the first thing that pops into his head and then, when confronted, just doubles down on it instead of admitting he was wrong. But that’s never hurt him in the polls before, and it’s unlikely to do so now.
And there’s Jeb Bush:
Bush’s war-mongering and simple-minded posturing would probably not hold up well in a contest with Hillary Clinton. However, he said a couple of things that were true during this debate, such as noting that all this Muslim-bashing is going to undermine our relationships with Muslim allies we need to fight ISIS. This made him look like a foreign policy genius compared to the clowns on stage pretending Syrian orphans are about to go jihad on us, and he’ll probably get a bunch of kudos for it from the political press.
That’s all he can expect, and then there’s Ted Cruz:
He was nearly as maniacal as Donald Trump when it comes to racist pandering and was by far the most convincing in the contest to see who is most eager to kill them all and let God sort them out. This is a man who knows how to fight and claw his way to the top of any trash pile you give him, and winning the Republican nomination is what he was born to do. Be afraid, be very afraid.
Or don’t be afraid, because the Democrats won this one:
The Republicans look for all the world like they’re going to nominate their candidate based on fears about a country most of them can’t find on a map. Better yet, that candidate will not be chosen based on his foreign policy qualifications, but on whether or not he said the nastiest things about Muslims. Either way, it’s going to be fun…
That depends on your definition of fun. And more debates will follow. None of it will be fun.