At war with themselves, with Barak Obama, with Hillary Clinton and with Planned Parenthood. And, if elected, with much of the rest of the world. Yes, as a political blogger I felt obligated to endure watching the 3-hour Republican debate last night, even though I have maintained that Republican internecine feuding has little interest for me. Every one of the Republican candidates would be a disaster as president, so who cares?
True, there were some policy differences—Trump and Bush, unlike Huckabee, Carson and Paul, wouldn’t completely abolish progressive taxation. Ohio’s Kasich made the best show of playing the grown-up in the room, suggesting that maybe it wasn’t smart to shut down the government to defund Planned Parenthood, or to pledge now to tear up the Iran deal on Jan 20, 2017. Rand Paul even tried to remind his colleagues that military interventions abroad don’t always work out so well. But I agree with the Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore, who heard a lot of sound and fury signifying little. Still, there was something of an irresistible dramatic interest in just one question: would any of the others manage to put a dent in Trump? Trump didn’t dominate the debate as he’s dominated the headlines, and he took some well-aimed pointed barbs, but I don’t think anyone really hurt him.
If you’re curious, the online magazine Politico has rounded up commentary from a field of pundits. There is wide agreement that the biggest gainer from last night was Carly Fiorina, and I concur. Carly seemed strong, knowledgeable and razor-sharp. She yielded to none of her male competitors in the bellicosity of her foreign policy positions or in the fury of her denunciations of Planned Parenthood. Of course, in a debate like this, facts don’t matter much. So, Carly solemnly declared that we Americans need “the strongest military on the face of the planet and everyone needs to know it.” Maybe Carly doesn’t know that we have a stronger military than the next 10 countries combined. More likely she does know and just doesn’t care: the point is to sound tough, not to make sense. And Carly’s indignant peroration on the baby-killers at Planned Parenthood, cruelly mangling “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain” was simply a fabrication. Like that Republican icon Ronald Reagan, Carly evidently has no compunctions about making things up. (Ted Cruz’s lie that Planned Parenthood was selling body parts to the highest bidder just couldn’t compete with Carly’s graphic fantasy.) She’s still a long shot, but I would love for Fiorina to be the nominee: Hillary would bury her.
Several commentators think that Ben Carson lost some of his luster last night. This is all very subjective, of course, but I didn’t get that sense: he maintained the affable, common-sensical persona that has put him in second place as the kindest and gentlest of the alleged non-politicians in the race. Never mind that the guy’s a loon. He was generally restrained during the debate, but he couldn’t help himself from letting out at least one doozy, telling us that he had been against the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001: all the US had to do was prove its determination to become energy-independent, and the moderate Arab states would have turned over Bin Laden. Huh???
I didn’t think the commentators generally gave Marco Rubio his due: I thought he turned in a very strong performance (from a right-wing standpoint, of course). He is young, attractive, articulate, and utterly earnest-sounding. I think he is the Republicans’ best chance for 2016.
As things stand now, I am happy to reiterate my earlier prediction that Jeb Bush’s candidacy is doomed to sputter out. On the other hand, I do have to modify my assertion that Trump has practically no chance of winning the nomination. Clearly, he is not going to be toppled any time soon, and it’s by no means certain that the field will be sufficiently winnowed out in time to prevent him from winning lots of delegates in winner-take- all primaries with just 25-30% support. So, I still think he won’t get the nomination, but at this point, it looks like he has a better chance than anybody else. And I continue to believe that his nomination, though a disgrace and an embarrassment to this country, would be a gift to the Democrats.
By some measures, a candidate who gets caught making so many bogus claims over the course of just one debate should wake up to brutal headlines about a disqualifying performance. But by contemporary rules, presidential hopefuls are judged less like candidates for the White House and more like performers – did they seem “crisp”? Did they memorize their lines well?