AP Photo/John Locher
Donald Trump, left, watches as Ted Cruz speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Venetian Hotel & Casino on Tuesday, December 15, 2015, in Las Vegas.

GOP Debate V: Gorillas Pounding Chests

Steve Russell

Some people claim that we are seeing another realignment of the two-party system right now, as the Republicans draw more blood from each other than from the Democrats. Once more, economic issues are masked by the culture wars, as the Republicans become the party of resentful and frightened white people.

To be nominated, a Republican must run against Hispanics, African-Americans, gays, Muslims. Indian policy is no longer front and center, but we have dogs in the fight. One of those dogs barked loudly when three Republicans engineered the gifting of an Apache sacred site in Arizona to an Australian mining corporation. Then there is the leading GOP candidate, Donald Trump, who does not “believe in” Indian sovereignty.

Reality TV star Trump remains stage center, having just cracked 40 percent in one national poll of likely Republican voters, flanked by eight others: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Dr. Ben Carson, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb! Bush, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. The eighth candidate did not make the main event by his poll numbers, but CNN apparently thought Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul should be included to make good television.

Paul was expected to be the libertarian contender who could expand the base created by his father, Ron Paul. Rand Paul has been unable to attract his father’s base, much less expand it.

The only candidates polling consistently in double digits are Trump, Carson, and Cruz—none of them liked by the GOP establishment. Jeb! Bush was originally favored by the establishment, but $35 million later, he can’t break into double digits, and Rubio seems likely to inherit his anti-crazy money. Rubio continues to nip at the heels of the leaders and show enough moderation to attract those Republicans who do not want to go the way of the Whigs.

The Undercard

The undercard in GOP V was former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former New York Gov. George Pataki, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. Santorum and Huckabee have showed strength in previous Iowa caucuses.

Admitting that someone could defeat the polls and surprise the world in Iowa, it’s still hard to justify covering the undercard.

We know Sen. Graham wants to be POTUS because he believes the U.S. needs ground troops in several countries where we currently field drones and a few Special Forces.

We know Gov. Pataki is D.O.A. because he is pro-choice.

We know that Sen. Santorum’s attempt at economic populism from the right has fallen flat and that leaves him, with Gov. Huckabee, fighting the culture wars against gay rights, abortion, and even against birth control. The culture wars cannot make a candidate stand out this year when they are all culture warriors.

In light of the above, it is my intent to write nothing about the undercard.

I cannot imagine how they televised this “debate” without dim lights, torches, and pitchforks. All the candidates want more war, a lot more war, very quickly. Sen. Graham misses President George W. Bush.

The best line came from Sen. Graham on the issue of the military budget: “’Sequestration’ is Latin for ‘doing really dumb things.’”

There was a spirited competition for who could be more grateful to the troops, narrowly won by Gov. Pataki. Nobody, however, seemed grateful enough to quit deploying them every other year.

A shocking and new position was shared by Gov. Huckabee and Sen. Santorum, both of whom have in the past done well among evangelicals. They claim that Islam is not like other religions and therefore the First Amendment does not protect Islam the same way it protects other religions.

This is the most preposterous doctrine since Judge Robert Bork asserted that the First Amendment protects only political speech, and therefore poetry and fiction and performances and photos are all fair game for government censorship.

Bork recanted that position before his confirmation hearings for the SCOTUS, but he still was not confirmed.

So much for ignoring the undercard.

The Main Event

The simplistic themes of the undercard—fear and aggression—carried over into the main debate.

The drill is to scare people, oversimplify the problem, and pound your chest louder than the next gorilla. Every Republican candidate got the memo. The only mentions of climate change were to ridicule the idea that it relates to national security.

The sea levels will be rising, the coral reefs dying, and the crops failing long after the Middle Eastern terrorists have played out the destiny of every death cult.

Rand Paul dared to suggest that we don’t beat anti-democratic forces by forsaking our own democracy. The other candidates seemed to think that softheaded.

Chris Christie looked right into the camera and declaimed, “The country has been betrayed.” Those who remember the election in which Joe Biden pointed out that every Rudy Giuliani speech contained “a noun, a verb, and 9-11,” will notice that most of Christie’s remarks began “As a former federal prosecutor…”

Carly Fiorina said she, too, is angry, and the problems are too dangerous to treat with bombast and insults. The evening was young, and she would witness a lot more bombast and insults.

Jeb! Bush signalled his agreement with Sen. Graham in the undercard when Bush promised to “restore the defense cuts of Barack Obama.” Graham and Bush seem to be suffering from short term memory loss about how the sequester happened, exacted by Congress as a price for funding the government and agreed to because most of the people who voted for it thought it was so stupid it would cause Congress to pass a budget to avoid sequester. Of course, Obama thought the same, he signed it, and it went into effect on his watch.

Dr. Ben Carson began his presentation by asking for what sounded like the world’s briefest “moment of silence” for the victims in San Bernardino. More substantively, he called for Congress to “declare war on ISIS,” apparently not having been briefed on the President’s request for an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIS, a request that was sent wherever everything else this POTUS asked of this Congress was sent.

Gov. Kasich was outraged that the Climate Conference in Paris did not discuss ISIS.

Marco Rubio argued passionately for the collection of everybody’s telephone metadata, touching off another round of snarling by Rand Paul.

Wolf Blitzer went to Dr. Carson with a question and Carson prefaced his remarks with a complaint that he was not getting enough questions. Right away, Blitzer asked Carson who was right on the issue of government surveillance of everybody, Rubio or Paul?

Carson refused to answer.

Jeb! Bush then lit into Trump, who came right back suggesting to Bush he was “trying to build up (his) energy.”

“Donald, you are not going to insult your way to the presidency.”

Trump: “With Jeb’s attitude, America will never be great again.”

Bush: “I won’t get my information from ‘the shows’—I don’t know if he means Saturday morning or Sunday morning.”

Too many candidates to keep track of fed the misunderstanding that the U.S. is paying Iran not to develop a nuclear weapon. In fact, the U.S. is releasing Iranian funds impounded by the government.

Rand Paul, discussing the problem of Syrian refugees, claimed, “Nobody in the Middle East is doing anything.” I could not help but wonder how our allies in Jordan and Turkey will feel about their refugee camps, which Sen. Paul does not think account for “doing anything.”

One question that went around to all asked the would-be commanders in chief to prioritize among the legs of our nuclear triad (land-based missile silos, bombers, submarines). None would state a priority.

Sen. Rubio will be excused if he misspoke when he said, “For over 200 years, America has been special to me.”  Rubio doesn’t look a day over 150.

Several times, the proceedings degenerated into not one shouting match, but several. Aggression was the order of the occasion in this last GOP debate of 2015. Everybody was out to prove they had hair on their chest, including Fiorina.

Fiorina did herself some good if people where able to hear her over all the huffing and puffing. Rubio and Cruz argued to a draw, which probably means advantage to Cruz. Cruz has both his money and his ground game better organized than Rubio.

After the debate, flash polling appeared to say that Jeb! was reaching the top five.

Rand Paul did not make the debate by the numbers and it’s hard to say he did much to raise his numbers.

It’s more than a little strange to be so focused on poll numbers when there have been no ballots cast, but without the poll numbers the candidates do not get TV time and without TV time the candidates do not get money outside the billionaires’ primary clearly won by Jeb!  Based on poll numbers alone, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, and Bobby Jindal have fallen by the wayside.

Walker was a hot prospect going in but quickly faltered. Jim Gilmore is technically still running, but has never polled his way even to the undercard. Santorum, Huckabee, and Graham have barely made a ripple. Rand Paul and Chris Christie have teetered on the edge of relevance, but Christie has turned in one strong debate performance after another, as has Fiorina.

Even before anybody has voted, it feels like past time to shorten the candidate list, but that may be an artifact of GOP V, where the dominance of homeland security gave all the candidates an overdose of testosterone. Debate watchers can only tolerate so much chest pounding.

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