After sitting through the two hours plus of the Republican debate Thursday night, I learned nothing about the shape of the race, and even less about how to address the challenges America will face in the next couple of years.
If, for some reason that surpasseth understanding, you want my guess as to how it will affect the race for the Republican presidential nomination, I would say not much, pending confirmation or negation by the next round of polling, which will then be confirmed or negated by the next round.
Frontrunner Donald Trump seemed comfortable and in control all through the evening. I’d be surprised if he took any damage with likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers, or likely Repub primary voters in New Hampshire or South Carolina (a category that captures the universe of most of the people who matter in the race for the next few weeks).
Trump was seldom the target of attack by anyone other than Ted Cruz, which surprised me. And, by the debased standards of factual accuracy and logic that the world applies to Trump, I don’t believe he committed any major new gaffes.
Sens. Cruz and Marco Rubio, who are currently deemed by the great deemers to be the second and third likeliest nominees, mostly attacked one another rather than Trump, which might be interpreted as a struggle to be the one still standing, other than Trump, when the field shakes out.
Many of the attacks involved relatively obscure provisions of bills that one or the other had voted for or against. Each of them constantly said or implied that the other was lying or exaggerating whatever vote or provision was under disagreeable discussion. Perhaps the professional fact-checkers can sort it out, but even they (whose work I generally admire and appreciate) will have a hard time making it sound interesting or explaining to Joe and Jane Citizen why they should care.
‘Natural born citizen’?
Likewise, Trump and Cruz got into a hilarious back and forth on the issue of whether Cruz (who was born in Canada, of a Cuban father and an American-citizen mother) qualifies as a “natural born citizen” as necessary to be president. Trump suggested (joked) that he might want Cruz as his running-mate, but how could he pick him unless Cruz can clear up the “natural born” issue and not leave it out there as an issue for a possible Democratic Party lawsuit during the campaign to knock Cruz off the ballot? Cruz expressed unshakeable confidence that this was not a problem. Absolutely no new light was shed on the question, nor is such light likely to be shed unless Cruz becomes president or vice president and the matter reaches the U.S. Supreme Court.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was also present at the debate, but once again unable to produce a big favorable moment. He urged Trump to reconsider his proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from coming to America, based on the argument that such a policy will alienate the Muslim world, which includes many key allies who help the United States in fighting ISIS.
When Trump was asked by the moderators whether he wanted to take back that suggestion, he answered with one word: “No.” When the audience laughed at the brevity of his reply, he said it again: “No.” This time the audience applauded, and at that point I tentatively formed my belief that this would not be the night, if there will ever be such a night, when Trump’s astonishing candidacy implodes. In fact, it led the moderators to ask all of the other candidates whether they agreed with Trump. Most of them agreed, to varying degrees, focusing mostly on such a moratorium for refugees fleeing Syria.
The moderators reminded Bush that he had referred to Trump’s suggested Muslim ban as “unhinged.” Bush said he still believed the idea was “unhinged.” Which led to this classic Trumpian “win,” as measured by polls, and also demonstrated Trump’s constant willingness to cite his poll ratings as proof of his excellence.
Moderator NEIL CAVUTO (to Bush): Well after he made them [meaning Trump’s remarks suggesting a Muslim ban], his poll numbers went up eight points in South Carolina.
TRUMP: Eleven points, to be exact.
CAVUTO (still speaking to Bush): Are you saying that all those people who agree with Mr. Trump are unhinged?
BUSH: No, not at all, absolutely not. I can see why people are angry and scared, because this president has created a condition where our national security has weakened dramatically. I totally get that. But we’re running for the presidency of the United States here. This isn’t, you know, a different kind of job. You have to lead. You cannot make rash statements and expect the rest of the world to respond as though, well, it’s just politics. Every time we send signals like this, we send a signal of weakness, not strength. And so it was [inaudible] his statement, which is why I’m asking him to consider changing his views.
TRUMP: I want security for this country. OK?
Dr. Ben Carson made little impact on the overall shape of the evening and, although he has improved, is still not very good at policy details. But he did provide (by my lights) the funniest line of the evening. There’s rule that a candidate, even when it’s not his turn to take a question, gets to respond if he is mentioned in someone else’s remarks. This led to a long exchange between Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie that included an extensive accusation by Rubio that Christie had committed heinous acts of liberalism, like once donating to Planned Parenthood. Christie denied he had ever “written a check” to Planned Parenthood (although it turns out that he did say in 1994 that he had supported “Planned Parenthood privately with my personal contribution”).
During Christie’s rambling rebuttal, he mentioned Bush, in passing and not in a critical way. But Bush (who has been working, without much success, at being more assertive and noticeable in these debates) nonetheless claimed the right to chime in on the ground that he had been mentioned. He then used his time to say that everyone on the stage would be a better president than Hillary Clinton. Then Carson chimed in to ask for time on the grounds that he had been mentioned. Moderator Cavuto said, “You were?” (Because, in fact, Carson had not been mentioned.)
Replied Carson: “Yes, he [Bush] said ‘everybody,’” meaning Bush had said that everyone on the stage was better than Clinton, which not only got a laugh but succeeded in buying Carson a few extra seconds of camera time, which he used to urge Republicans to stop attacking each other because “if we manage to damage ourselves, and we lose the next election, and a progressive gets in there and they get two or three Supreme Court picks, this nation is over as we know it.”
OK, saying the “nation is over as we know it” wasn’t all that funny. The funny part was just the way Carson — who has routinely complained about getting too little time — gamed the rule.
Now, to make you feel even better if you decided not to watch last night, here is an exchange between Cavuto and Trump, which, perhaps in some parallel universe, clarified Trump’s position on whether he favors a 45 percent tariff on trade with China. At least it gave Trump a chance to dis The New York Times, a paper that, according to Trump, is “always wrong.”
(The transcription of the exchange below is from this excellent annotated transcript of the full debate by the Washington Post.)
And, since I don’t plan to chime back in after the excerpt below, thanks for getting this far, and for not smoking and have a nice day…
CAVUTO: Mr. Trump, sometimes maybe in the heat of the campaign, you say things and you have to dial them back. Last week, the New York Times editorial board quoted [you] as saying that you would [impose], “up to 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods.”
TRUMP: That’s wrong. They were wrong. It’s The New York Times, they are always wrong.
TRUMP: They were wrong.
CAVUTO: You never said because they provided that…
TRUMP: No, I said, “I would use —” they were asking me what to do about North Korea. China, they don’t like to tell us but they have total control — just about, of North Korea. They can solve the problem of North Korea if they wanted to but they taunt us.
They say, “well, we don’t really have control.” Without China, North Korea doesn’t even eat. China is ripping us on trade. They’re devaluing their currency and they’re killing our companies. Thousands of thousands — you look at the number of companies and the number in terms of manufacturing of plans that we’ve lost — 50,000 because of China.
CAVUTO: So [you’ve] never said to put a tariff on their…
TRUMP: We’ve lost anywhere between four and seven million jobs because of China. What I said then was, “we have very unfair trade with China. We’re going to have a trade deficit of 505 billion dollars this year with China.” A lot of that is because they devalue their currency.
What I said to The New York Times, is that, “we have great power, economic power over China and if we wanted to use that and the amount — where the 45 percent comes in, that would be the amount they saw their devaluations that we should get.” That we should get.
What I’m saying is this, I’m saying that we do it but if they don’t start treating us fairly and stop devaluing and let their currency rise so that our companies can compete and we don’t lose all of these millions of jobs that we’re losing, I would certainly start taxing goods that come in from China. Who the hell has to lose 505 billion dollars a year?
CAVUTO: I’m sorry, you lost me.
TRUMP: It’s not that complicated actually.
CAVUTO: Then I apologize. Then I want to understand, if you don’t want a 45 percent tariff, say that wasn’t the figure, would you be open — are you open to slapping a higher tariff on Chinese goods of any sort to go back at them?
TRUMP: OK, just so you understand — I know so much about trading about with China. Carl Icahn today, as you know, endorsed. Many businessmen want to endorse me.
CAVUTO: I know…
TRUMP: Carl said, “no, no —” but he’s somebody — these are the kind of people that we should use to negotiate and not the China people that we have who are political hacks who don’t know what they’re doing and we have problems like this. If these are the kinds of people — we should use our best and our finest.
Now, on that tariff — here’s what I’m saying, China — they send their goods and we don’t tax it — they do whatever they want to do. They do whatever what they do, OK. When we do business with China, they tax us. You don’t know it, they tax us.
I have many friends that deal with China. They can’t — when they order the product and when they finally get the product it is taxed. If you looking at what happened with Boeing and if you look at what happened with so many companies that deal — so we don’t have an equal playing field. I’m saying, absolutely, we don’t have to continue to lose 505 billion dollars as a trade deficit for the privilege of dealing with China.
I’m a free trader. I believe in it but we have to be smart and we have to use smart people to negotiate. I have the largest bank in the world as a tenant of mine. I sell tens’ of millions of [inaudible].
I love China. I love the Chinese people but they laugh themselves, they can’t believe how stupid the American leadership is.
CAVUTO: So you’re open to a tariff?
TRUMP: I’m totally open to a tariff. If they don’t treat us fairly, hey, their whole trade is tariffed. You can’t deal in China without tariffs. They do it to us, we don’t it. It’s not fair trade.