The second GOP presidential debates (held September 16, 2015) were grueling affairs: four candidates for nearly two hours and eleven others nattering on for over three hours more.
The TV audience was torn between coffee to stay awake through it all or gin to ease the pain. But here are some highlights that deserve attention.
CNN opted for a food-fight format. Ask candidates what they thought about what other candidates said about them and let the reality TV begin. Unfortunately, this approach made it tough for candidates to highlight their priorities based on a unified vision and underlying principles. Of course, most don’t have priorities based on a unified vision and underlying principles.
This format meant lots of mini-debates. It also meant that some candidates in the main event were sidelined for long periods of time; after the intros, Huckabee didn’t get a word in for 45 minutes. But the back and forth did bring out some real differences that might have been lost in the normal, press-conference “everybody repeat your one-minute talking point on X” approach.
Donald Trump again was the debate’s big draw. The first question was to Carly Fiorina concerning Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s remark that because of The Donald’s temperament he is a loose cannon and that it’s dangerous for him to control our atomic cannons. (Are you following all this?) Fiorina said that’s for the voters to decide. Trump bizarrely responded first by saying he didn’t know why Kentucky Senator Rand Paul was even included in the debate. What? Paul responded that Trump’s tendency to attack people because they’re short, tall, fat, or ugly indicates a problem. Trump responded that he had not attacked Paul’s appearance (he had attacked Fiorina’s) but said there was plenty of subject material there, presumably worthy of attack.
A source of Trump’s support is he’s perceived as a no-nonsense guy who doesn’t mince words. That’s fine for describing ISIS killers—a refreshing change from President Obama, who saves his vicious attacks for Republicans. But the problem is not just that Trump comes off as a buffoon. When former Florida Governor Jeb Bush criticized Trump for giving money to Hillary Clinton, Trump responded that as a businessman he had to get along with all politicians. And Trump trumpets his alleged ability to get along with world leaders. But if how he gets along with other Republicans is any indication, he will neither be effective in working with members of Congress nor be able to charm other heads of state.
None of the other candidates picked up explicitly on the “elephant in the room” implications of Trump’s remark that businessmen have to get along with all politicians. That is exactly the fundamental problem with the current system: crony politicians run a mafia-like “wealth redistribution” and protection racket.
Is Trump really a political outsider or part of this corrupt political system? Or is this the only way someone like Trump can do business?
The popularity of Trump, Ben Carson, and Fiorina is attributed to their outsider status; and one of Fiorina’s central themes has been “challenging the status quo.” Thus the candidates who do or have held office had to resort to one of two strategies. Governor Chris Christie had to argue that as a Republican in New Jersey he’s always an outsider. Or they had to argue, has Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker did to Trump, “We don't need an apprentice in the White House.” With Walker, Ohio Governor John Kasich and Jeb Bush made virtues of their “We did it in our state” creds. We have yet to see whether this will work with GOP voters angry that Republicans continue to get rolled-over by Obama.
On same-sex marriage and the refusal of Kentucky state official Kim Davis to issue wedding licenses to gays as mandated by the Supreme Court, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum at the pre-debate embarrassed themselves by arguing that she had a right to do so because of her religious beliefs.
Worse, Huckabee said, “The courts can't make a law. They can interpret one. They can review one. They can't implement it. They can't force it.” Court rulings might be bad—the ones concerning Obamacare in particular—but Court rulings are the law until the Constitution is amended. In the pre-debate, former New York Governor George Pataki was right about the matter, declaring that he would have fired Davis.
Foreign policy and especially how to deal with ISIS and Iran were important topics. Three approaches emerged among the candidates. First was the “proceed with caution” approach championed by Rand Paul. Second was the “peace through strength” approach. The argument goes that Obama is a weakling clown who sucks up to enemies and gets no respect. That’s why the Russians moved into Ukraine and why Iran stuck us with a terrible treaty that will allow them to get nukes. Show some steel and we might not have to use force. Fiorina gave a detailed account of how to build up the military. This was the safe position because it meant not having to take up the third approach, the almost single issue of South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham: send in lots of troops.
Immigration was also a hot topic, and pretty much everyone wanted to build a wall to keep out Mexicans. But Trump came under justified criticism, especially from Christie, that his plan to pick up and deport 12 million illegal immigrants was just not doable and not a serious suggestion.
Paul stood out especially by coming out in support of Colorado’s decriminalization of marijuana. He pointed out that while middle-class voters who take a toke—Jeb Bush confessed that he had!—can usually avoid prison time, poor minorities find themselves more often jailed. This makes their hard lives even harder. Paul was responding to Christie’s declaration that he would ignore Colorado’s law the first day he was in office as President because federal law should trump state law.
Fiorina offered a moving and sensible comment when she said, “My husband Frank and I buried a child to drug addiction. So, we must invest more in the treatment of drugs. I agree with Senator Paul. I agree with states' rights. But we are misleading young people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer. It's not.”
Most of the candidates did offer the usual rhetoric about economic liberty, and some even let shine through some deeper truths. Concerning whether to eliminate tax breaks for hedge fund managers, Huckabee actually responded, “I think we ought to get rid of all the taxes on people who produce. Why should we penalize productivity?”
When asked what woman she would place on a $10 bill, Fiorina sounded a universalist note. She said she’d keep the bill as it is because “we ought to recognize that women are not a special-interest group. Women are the majority of this nation. We are half the potential of this nation, and this nation will be better off when every woman has the opportunity to live the life she chooses.”
And in sharp contrast to the sloppy or stupid words of some, like Trump, who asserted that as President “they” would create jobs, Fiorina said, “The highest calling of leadership is to unlock potential in others. Problems have festered in Washington for too long. And the potential of this nation is being crushed.” Hear-hear!
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Why should this factional warfare on the political right matter to any of us?
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.