GOP presidential debate gets messy — but with lots of good moments

REUTERS/Mike Blake
Donald Trump reaching out to Sen. Ted Cruz as they talk during a commercial break during Tuesday night's Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas.

The nine leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination met Tuesday night in Las Vegas and on CNN in the 35th (just kidding) debate of the campaign.

It struck me as a mess, but with a lot of good moments. Since people always ask who won, I’m going to say there were no big winners or losers (but the next round of polling will prove me wrong). I’ll just mention a few of what struck me as highlights and lowlights, separated by candidate:

Donald Trump

Trump didn’t seem to help or hurt himself much. He played the same old role. He talked about  how great his poll numbers continue to be. (He didn’t mention the recent one that showed him falling behind Ted Cruz in Iowa, but he did, in the interviews after the debate, mention a new one from Public Policy Polling that shows him back in the lead.)

Trump did make a little news, pledging more firmly than before to abide by the Republican nominating process and removing his previous not-so-veiled threat to launch an independent candidacy if he didn’t believe the party had treated him fairly.

He continues to rely heavily on the words “strong” and “tough.” Also “strength,” “strongly” and “toughness.” He was asked by a questioner in the audience about his previous statement that it was important to go after the wives and children of terrorists and, well, kill them. (This would violate the Geneva Conventions, as was pointed out during the debate by Sen. Rand Paul.) He confirmed that this was his intent and that it was important, thus:

“We have to be much tougher. We have to be much stronger than we’ve been. We have people that know what is going on. You take a look at just the attack in California the other day. There were numerous people, including the mother, that knew what was going on.

“They saw a pipe bomb sitting all over the floor. They saw ammunition all over the place. They knew exactly what was going on.

“When you had the World Trade Center go, people were put into planes that were friends, family, girlfriends, and they were put into planes and they were sent back, for the most part, to Saudi Arabia.

“They knew what was going on. They went home and they wanted to watch their boyfriends on television. I would be very, very firm with families. Frankly, that will make people think because they may not care much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their families’ lives.”

Here is Trump’s closing statement:

“Our country doesn’t win anymore. We don’t win on trade. We don’t win on the military. We can’t defeat ISIS. We’re not taking care of our great people, the veterans. We’re not taking care of them.

“We have to change our whole way, our health-care system is a disaster. It’s going to implode in 2017, just like you’re sitting there. It doesn’t work. Nothing works in our country. If I’m elected president, we will win again. We will win a lot. And we’re going to have a great, great country, greater than ever before.

“Thank you.”

Jeb Bush

As you probably know, Bush, who has a large campaign war chest, a famous name and was once considered a frontrunner, has bombed and been mocked by Trump for his low-key style. His past efforts to fight back have been disastrous, but he did better last night. Moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Bush about a recent word choice he used to describe Trump. The word was “unhinged.” Replied Bush:

“Donald, you know, is great at — at the one-liners, but he’s a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president. He would not be the commander in chief we need to keep our country safe.”

Under the rules of the debate, that called for an opportunity for Trump to reply, which he did:

“Jeb doesn’t really believe I’m unhinged. He said that very simply because he has failed in this campaign. It’s been a total disaster. Nobody cares. And frankly, I’m the most solid person up here. I built a tremendous company and all I want to do is make America great again.

“I don’t want our country to be taken away from us, and that’s what’s happening. The policies that we’ve suffered under other presidents have been a disaster for our country. We want to make America great again. And Jeb, in all fairness, he doesn’t believe that.”

Bush has such good manners that, unlike the other candidates, he doesn’t talk without being recognized by the moderator, so he replied by first asking for permission. Thus:

“Look, he mentioned me. I can bring — I can talk?

“This is — this is the problem. Banning all Muslims will make it harder for us to do exactly what we need to do, which is to destroy ISIS. We need a strategy. We need to get the lawyers off the back of the warfighters. Right now under President Obama, we’ve created this — this standard that is so high that it’s impossible to be successful in fighting ISIS.

“We need to engage with the Arab world to make this happen. It is not a serious proposal to say that — to the people that you’re asking for their support that they can’t even come to the country to even engage in a dialogue with us. That’s not a serious proposal. We need a serious leader to deal with this. And I believe I’m that guy.”

The consensus among the post-debate handicappers was that this was Bush’s best debate performance so far, but this was tied to skepticism about whether it was enough to move him up in the polls.

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio

I’m dealing with these two senators together because they were picking on each other all night and had a few long back-and-forths. They are also deemed to be the other almost-frontrunners, behind Trump.

Rubio seemed to be on the attack, and brought up bills that Cruz has sponsored or supported that, according to Rubio, are politically inconvenient for Cruz now. Cruz, who struggles not to come across as supercilious, not only disagreed with Rubio’s characterization of the bills, but flatly accused Rubio of being not only mistaken but a knowing liar.

As in (these are direct quotes): “Well, you know, I would note that Marco knows what he’s saying isn’t true.” And: “Well, you know, Marco has continued these attacks, and he knows they’re not true.”

Chris Christie

One of those occasions, after the two senators had gone back and forth disputing the details of the bills each of them had supported and why it makes the other look like a fool, a liar or a hypocrite, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had his best moment. He was asked to weigh in on the merits of the Cruz/Rubio dispute, but took it in a different direction:

“Listen, I want to talk to the audience at home for a second. 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. … Let’s talk about how we do this [combat terrorism], not about which bill which one these guys likes more. The American people don’t care about that.”

Ben Carson

Ben Carson has fallen in the polls and, despite his inspiring rags-to-riches personal story, had often come across in previous debates as not exactly in command of facts and arguments. He came back recently from a foreign tour and was showing off some of what he had learned on his travels. For example, on the subject of what to do about the refugees pouring out of Syria:

Carson: “Well, it was very interesting having an opportunity to talk to the Syrians themselves. And I asked them: ‘What do you want? What is your supreme desire?’ Their supreme desire was to be settled back in their own country. I said, ‘What can Americans and other countries do?’ They said, ‘Support the efforts of those who are trying to provide safety for us, including the Jordanians.’

“Of course, they had a brand new hospital, for instance, that was unstaffed because there wasn’t enough money to do it. But here’s what’s really neat. If you go into Hasakah province in northeast Syria, that’s an area that’s as big as Lebanon. It’s controlled by the Kurds, the Christians and the moderate Sunnis. And there are airstrips and hotels. You could settle a lot of people there.

“All we would have to do is be willing to provide them with some weaponry, some defensive weaponry. And we seem to be afraid to give the Kurds weaponry. We like to send it for some strange reason through Baghdad, and then they only get a tenth of it.

“And if we would support them, we’d have a perfect ideal there. We don’t need to set this up as we either take a bunch of refugees who will be infiltrated with terrorists, I guarantee you. For them not to be would be terrorist malpractice. And we need to — to choose the right choice, not these false choices.”

Carly Fiorina

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who seems to have disappeared from the race since her previous debate appearance, had trouble getting her fair share of on-camera time last night and complained about it. But judging by two of her statements, she seemed focused on the idea that the politicians need to have connections in the business world and need to know how to take advantage of the wisdom of business leaders. One version of it went like this:

“Let me tell you a story. Soon after 9/11, I got a phone call from the NSA. They needed help. I gave them help. I stopped a truckload of equipment. I had it turned around. It was escorted by the NSA into headquarters. We need the private sector’s help, because government is not innovating. Technology is running ahead by leaps and bound. The private sector will help, just as I helped after 9/11. But they must be engaged, and they must be asked. I will ask them. I know them.”

Rand Paul

I saved Sen. Rand Paul for last, and definitely not because he was my least favorite of the night’s debaters. Paul made, more than once, one of my favorite points. His version of it was called “regime change is [mostly] a mistake.”

Paul is not an isolationist (although some would unfairly call him that). But he is skeptical of the huge military budget and skeptical of the longstanding U.S. habit of assuming that the world needs the United States to periodically overthrow dictators, even though it often makes the situation worse and even though there are many dictatorships with which the United States is on friendly terms.

Paul made the argument that the United States’ determination to overthrow Hafez Assad in Syria is doing more harm than good:

“I think that by arming the allies of ISIS, the Islamic rebels against Assad, that we created a safe space or made that space bigger for ISIS to grow. I think those who have wanted regime change have made a mistake. When we toppled Gadhafi in Libya, I think that was a mistake. I think ISIS grew stronger, we had a failed state, and we were more at risk.”

“Regime change” is really just a two-word euphemism for the U.S. assumption about its mysterious authority to overthrow governments, including governments that have not attacked the United States and including many that could not really be called dictatorships (although Assad’s certainly could).

But once he identified the topic, Paul returned to it several times, saying:

“The biggest debate we should be having tonight is: Is regime change a good idea? Has it been a good idea? There are still people — the majority on the stage — they want to topple Assad. And then there will be chaos, and I think ISIS will then be in charge of Syria.”

Moderator Blitzer gave Paul another crack, at the expense of Bush, by noting that Bush called the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein (under his brother’s leadership) “a pretty good deal.” He asked Paul whether he agreed that the bombing, invasion, occupation and subsequent chaos in Iraq have been a “pretty good deal” for the United States. Replied Paul:

“These are the fundamental questions of our time, these foreign policy questions, whether or not regime change is a good idea or a bad idea. I don’t think because I think the regime change was a bad idea it means that Hussein was necessarily a good idea.

“There [are] often variations of evil on both sides of the war. What we have to decide is whether or not regime change is a good idea. It’s what the neoconservatives have wanted. It’s what the vast majority of those on the stage want.

“They still want regime change. They want it in Syria. They wanted it in Iraq. They want it in Libya. It has not worked.

“Out of regime change you get chaos. From the chaos you have seen repeatedly the rise of radical Islam. So we get this profession of, ‘Oh, my goodness, they want to do something about terrorism,’ and yet they’re the problem because they allow terrorism to arise out of that chaos. …

“We have to have a more realistic foreign policy and not a utopian one where we say, ‘Oh, we’re going to spread freedom and democracy, and everybody in the Middle East is going to love us.’ They are not going to love us.”

And now that I check the transcript, I find that Paul worked this argument into his opening statement, saying: “Regime change hasn’t won. Toppling secular dictators in the Middle East has only led to chaos and the rise of radical Islam.”

(Here is an instant Washington Post fact-check of the debate and here is an annotated transcript, also by the Washington Post.)

On a totally gratuitous sartorial note, I couldn’t help noticing the same-same-sameness of the outfits: the eight male candidates all wore navy-blue sport jackets or suit coats, and six of them sported red ties. The one woman, Fiorina, was in red.

Because this piece has already grown so long (forgive me), I won’t say anything about the earlier debate last night between the four lower-polling candidates still in the contest (Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Sen. Rick Santorum and former Govs. George Pataki and Mike Huckabee) except to say that it was dominated by Graham, who really, really, really believes that the United States needs to do more than it is doing, needs to do everything it can, to kill ISIS over there or they will most assuredly kill us over here. In fact, he said several times that as we debate, they are planning how to kill us over here.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/16/2015 - 10:51 am.

    Rubio’s nose bloodied

    I’ve always admired Marco Rubio’s grasp of the facts and his ability to think on his feet and deliver an articulate, well-thought-out answer, as he did for example when Trump had no clue about the nuclear triad question and he responded with a detailed lesson in U.S. military capabilities.

    But last night was the first time I ever saw him get his nose bloodied … and it was done by both Cruz and Rand Paul. He was definitely rattled by the experience and it knocked him off his game somewhat. Cruz is a master of recalling facts with his photographic memory and Rand Paul’s position is unassailable.

  2. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 12/16/2015 - 04:22 pm.

    Let’s not get to ecstatic re: Rubio’s “detailed lesson in US military capabilities.”

    He was better than Trump. Wow.

    Anyone who has read or seen Hunt for Red October or read anything about the Cold War can articulate the nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, sub-launched misses, and bombers. Trump is the exception.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/17/2015 - 07:20 am.

    If word becomes deed, there will be a full docket at the Hague and the Supreme Court.

    Wanna-be war criminals with Constitutional conflicts aplenty.

    In the “war of civilizations”, civilization loses big-time.

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