Thoughts on the first Republican debate for Election 2016
This past Thursday, the seventeen candidates for the Republican presidential nomination met for a debate. Well, more accurately, FOX News deemed 17 candidates to be too unwieldy, and using a small selection of polls, ranked the candidates by poll numbers, and put on two debates. The first was for the bottom seven, widely derided as “the kids table.” It felt kind of arbitrary, as the margin of error for the combined polls was around 3.5 percent, and the difference between the 10th and 11th candidates was much less than that. But Rick Perry didn’t quite make it, falling to number 11, and John Kasich edged him for the coveted 10th spot.
FOX shenanigans aside, the candidates each had some opportunities to demonstrate their worthiness for the highest office in the land. And it wasn’t pretty.
Different people will all have a different opinion on who “won” the debate. A lot of it depends on one’s personal preferences, ideology, and so on. Most of the candidates had at least a number of boosters claiming they did well, or even won. There was no official consensus, though Marco Rubio seemed to get more credit than most. Indeed, he came across as prepared, polished, and reasonably intelligent. Ted Cruz and Scott Walker were fairly quiet, which was a bit of a surprise considering their usual bluster. Chris Christie managed to get into a quasi-shouting match with Rand Paul, and a bit of a tiff with Mike Huckabee as well. John Kasich was the only one not bending over backwards to show just how extreme right he has veered, so in that regard, he didn’t do too badly. Ben Carson clearly doesn’t know much about politics, especially world affairs, though to be fair, he wasn’t addressed much throughout the night. Donald Trump certainly dominated the debate, in that he spoke loudest and longest, and had a few interesting moments of honesty. Oh, and he’s a also a collossal asshole, especially to women. But we’ll get to that.
The moderators and whoever wrote (and decided on) the questions deserves much of the blame for the mess that was Thursday night. Many of the questions were merely asking the candidates about themselves. There were no questions on climate change, income/wealth inequality, or campaign finance reform. Some candidates were practically ignored (Carson), while others (Trump) pretty much hogged the spotlight.
I’m going to give a few quick observations of each candidate one-by-one, in no particular order.
Was Jeb even there? It was strange that the man who answered the most questions from the moderators said the least. Some pundits applauded his composure and his professionalism. I saw a guy who didn’t seem very comfortable, and was more than willing to brag about accomplishments that he didn’t earn. He twice claimed to cut 19 billion dollars worth of taxes as governor. However, much of those numbers came from other revenue alterations (fee changes, lottery proceeds, sales tax holidays, etc), and the real number of actual tax cuts over 8 years came to around 13 billion. On top of that, much of that lower number is attributed to estate tax cuts that were implemented nationwide – thanks to his brother. Jeb also took credit for a 50% bump in graduation rates in Florida, however only about 13% was on his watch. The majority of the improvement occurred over the next 7 years after he left office.
Beyond that, Jeb was a surprising non-factor in a debate where he could have dominated.
The Wisconsin governor, currently running around third in most polls, was, like his fellow front-runner Jeb, pretty subdued. Walker did spend some time spinning job growth in his state, but in actuality, job growth for him has been average at best. Wisconsin has ranked 34th during his time in office in job growth rate, and has lagged far behind his Minnesota neighbors. Minnesota, I might add, has experienced much stronger overall economic growth, while implementing pretty much the opposite of Walker’s policies.
He did brag about defunding Planned Parenthood in his home state, apparently not understanding that 97% of their services have nothing to do with abortion. He also repeated some long-debunked myths about abortion never being necessary to save a mother’s life.
At least we know he doesn’t care much for women or their reproductive and health rights. That makes this easier.
Chris brought a little New Jersey with him to the debate. But not the good parts. Wait, are there good parts? Joking, I swear. Anyway.
He got into heated exchanges with both Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee, and didn’t particularly distinguish himself either time. He invoked the old 9/11 trope when arguing over domestic spying and data collection, though Paul mostly just jabbed at him for once hugging President Obama.
Christie was energetic, belligerent, and not very pleasant. So, par for the course. He didn’t do all that well, but at least he was memorable. It’s not like his myriad corruption issues are going away, so at least he’s keeping himself relevant until those issues finally sink him. Hopefully.
Yeah, I might as well get this over with. Trump is simply not fit to be a city councilman, much less President of the United States. His grasp of pretty much any and all policy is nil. He’s crude, mean-spirited, and reckless. Right off the bat, moderator Megyn Kelly asked him to explain some of his more misogynistic statements over the years, and he responded with contrition. No, just kidding. He got defensive, told Kelly she was being a big meanie to him, and that “political correctness” is the problem. And, sadly, the audience cheered, making me that sadder for the human race. In fact, he then doubled down, throwing out a pointless insult toward Rosie O’Donnell. Naturally.
Trump also took credit for bringing immigration to the forefront of the debate, which is ridiculous to the point of pain. My head actually hurt hearing him say that. He did, in a moment of surprising candor, pretty much admit to gaming the political system for his benefit. He happily confessed to giving money to both parties over the years for future favors, which is not exactly a secret, but was refreshing to hear him admit it. He also had no problem arguing that he gamed the system when he declared bankruptcy four times. He seemed to be drifting toward an argument that his behavior was proof of a “broken system,” but that part was barely more than an afterthought, and not subsequently touched on.
Basically, Trump’s performance was a lot like the man himself. Dominant, loud, bullying, kind of interesting, and forcibly center-stage. At the same time, mostly substance-free.
Carson didn’t get much time, and what he did get was spent it delivering pithy quips about removing brains, and even throwing in a Saul Alinsky crack. He also indicated that he’s pro-waterboarding, so there’s that.
The former Arkansas governor’s fire-and-brimstone act isn’t dull, but as someone who wants to be President, it’s pretty scary. Like Walker (and several others), he doesn’t particularly care for women’s rights. He stated that as President, he would invoke the 5th and 14th amendments to outlaw abortion for good and grant all fetuses at every stage of development full rights. This of course, assumes that adult women aren’t deserving of those same rights.
Huckabee also threw around the tired “Fair tax” consumption tax proposal as a replacement for income taxes. This is a fringe idea which generally only gets traction among Tea Partiers and libertarians, but Huckabee was giving it a shot.
Huckabee also outright lied, when he repeated the incredibly old and looooong demolished myth that the Affordable Care Act “stole $700 billion from Medicare.” It was one of the biggest lies of the 2012 campaign, and should have been shelved back then, but for some reason, Mike can’t help but bring it back.
Finally, he made some nasty comments equating trans individuals as “a social experiment,” while describing the military as good for only destruction (a positive point, in his eyes).
The closest thing to a consensus winner of the debate, Senator Rubio certainly sounded like he knew what he was talking about. He got in some good zingers contrasting his relatively modest economic background to that of Hillary Clinton. He was far more detailed with his responses than most of his opponents.
But… Yes, of course there’s a ‘but.’
In 2013, Rubio was cosponser of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. It was a very restrictive anti-abortion bill that attempted to limit abortions to 20 weeks or less into the pregnancy. It did, however, include an exception for rape and incest victims. So when Megyn Kelly asked about him supporting that exception, he just flatly denied it. Rubio lied (or possibly forgot) about supporting the rape and incest exception, and instead lurched even farther to the extremist right, joining the chorus of candidates who believe that a fetus deserves greater rights than adult women.
Ted didn’t say all that much that really stood out, which was odd. He has been one of the more obnoxiously pugnacious candidates since he first announced his candidacy. His policy seems to be one of “threaten and bluster first, think later.” However, the bombast largely vanished. The only really reprehensible thing that stood out to me was his pledge in his closing statement to “prosecute Planned Parenthood on his first day in office.” Yeah, all those women getting contraceptives and STD testing are really dangerous to the nation, Ted.
The cult of Paul is strong. His supporters are not legion, but they are extremely vocal and passionate. His semi-libertarian stances garner a lot of support from younger people who have a knee-jerk dislike for government, but also don’t want to get yelled at for smoking weed. Otherwise, he’s been polling mid-pack, and gradually fading. A recent corruption scandal involving his aides isn’t helping. His supporters seem to have mostly agreed that he didn’t do all that well in the debate. He got the most attention when Chris Christie went after him, and the two men had an entertaining shouting match, arguing over intelligence service overreach. Paul seemed to make better points, but didn’t help himself by invoking the name of that boogeyman of Obama as if it made for a legitimate point.
The hometown boy did pretty well for himself. There was clearly a large contingent of supporters in the crowd cheering him on, and he presented himself as maybe the only candidate not diving headfirst as far to the right as possible. He appeared to not hate gay people and women, which gives him a huge edge over his rivals in that regard. On the other hand, he’s still not particularly friendly to reproductive rights, and while he doesn’t deny climate change, he is only willing to take half-measures to resolve it. He’s also pretty strongly anti-union.
In years past, he would be considered very conservative. In this year, he’s the most moderate candidate the GOP has. He’s definitely able to compromise. It could help in the general election, but will likely keep him from the top spot in the primaries. Still, his strong performance may move him up a bit from the 10th spot.
The Republican party also put forward the “bottom seven” in the opening debate, watched live by about 11 people, half of which were apparently asleep. Nontheless, it did highlight Carly Fiorina as the only candidate of those seven apparently willing to actually push toward the top. She was clear, consistent, detailed, and a little crazy, but not insane. She had a better grasp of the issues than her other non-politician rivals (Trump and Carson), and she didn’t seem to be embarrassed at being there like Graham and Santorum clearly were.
Meanwhile, at the “grown up table,” there were few signs that the party is actually comprised of adults. Most of them apparently want to restrict women’s healthcare rights, go to war with half the Middle East, and kowtow to religious influence. FOX News appears complicit in keeping the narrative bent toward the ideology of the party. The lack of questions on major issues of the day is strong proof of that.
In addition, the candidates themselves are quite suspect. We have multiple religious extremists (Huckabee, Santorum, Jindal, Carson, Cruz), three candidates with no electoral experience (Trump, Fiorina, Carson), several that wish to dismantle large parts of the government they’re running to serve (Paul, Cruz, Carson), warmongers (Cruz, Huckabee, Graham, Rubio), and criminals (Walker, Paul, Perry, Christie, Trump).
“Clown Car” gets thrown around a lot when describing the field. Clowns usually aren’t dangerous, unless they’re in Derry, Maine, or Gotham. “Asylum” might be a better description for this group.
As always, here are some good resources on the first GOP debate, and coverage in general of the 2016 election: