David Goldman/AP

GOP Debate VIII: Cuban Revolution Fails

Steve Russell

It’s a little arrogant to write about the debate before it happens in the same piece as after and it makes the byline confusing.  How could I be describing something in the future in an article published the day after it happened? I’ve done that throughout this silly season and created a need to explain what reads as an anachronism. I call my shots as if I’m sitting in the auditorium waiting for curtain time to help readers dope out whether my comments show confirmation bias.

I hope I don’t show confirmation bias and I would point to how I hammered Bernie Sanders when he deserved it in Democratic debate coverage. I like Bernie Sanders, but every candidate has weak spots and bad nights. Reporting debates is very like my first career as a judge. Nobody can be without bias but everybody can account for his bias and that’s the point of stating what I expect going in.

Who is going to make news and why?

The Donald Trump will have to work hard to make himself the center of attention, and how he handles that is one way GOP VIII could make news. This is not how The Donald normally rolls. He is usually the center of attention but his reality TV experience has meant he did not have to work at it. Trump is used to the lion’s share of speaking time as his due, but on this night he will have to reach out and take it.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is in the spotlight because he just won the Iowa caucuses and he’s gotten caught cheating to make the win happen. His “apology” to Dr. Ben Carson for the failure of his campaign to follow up the bogus story that Carson was quitting with the true story came just before Breitbart.com came out with a recording that made it clear the Cruz campaign was poaching on purpose.

To those who would point out that Breitbart is as credible as Sarah Palin is well read, I reply that both Cruz and Carson work the side of the street where the right wing echo chamber cannot be questioned unless your name is Donald Trump.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is in the spotlight because his third place finish in Iowa makes him the leader for the establishment lane of the road to the GOP nomination. The only establishment candidate who could move forward without beating up Rubio would be former Florida Gov. Jeb! Bush and that is only because Bush started with so much money he can float for some time after the money spigot closes.

Rubio also leads in the race to be the recipient of the teeming hordes of supporters each GOP loser may bestow with an endorsement. Rubio has the endorsements of Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, and Rick Santorum. Rick Perry has endorsed Cruz and Lindsey Graham endorsed Bush.

The supporters of Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, and Rand Paul are still up for grabs. Politico reported back in November that Rubio had made a “hard ask” for a Scott Walker endorsement to no avail.

Colliding in the establishment lane and therefore needing to beat up Rubio are New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Jeb! Bush. Politico reports that as Bush has opened up on Rubio—his former protégé—the attacks have caused several rats, uh, supporters to leave Bush’s sinking ship to board Rubio’s.

Christie’s campaign is on life support and he pegs his survival to pulling “the boy in the bubble” (as he dubbed Rubio) out in public and making him think on his feet.

Rand Paul has gone back to Kentucky to work on his reelection. If that leaves his father Ron back in the position of Libertarian bellwether, Ron Paul’s remarks on Fox Business make it clear that Ted Cruz will be getting no love from that side of the GOP.

With Rand Paul out, his status as zombie candidate—dead but still walking—has been adopted by former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore and former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina, neither of whom sat at the kiddie table because sponsor ABC announced there wouldn’t be a kiddie table.

Mike Huckabee has not blessed another candidate yet. Before the Iowa caucuses, he responded to a rumor he would endorse Trump, “That’s nonsense!” Of course it is, but that begs the question.

Why does Huck’s nod matter? Because his departure from the race leaves the coveted endorsement of Chuck Norris up for grabs, and Norris might follow the lead of his man Huckabee.

While Rubio is in the center of the establishment lane waiting to be run over by traffic, Cruz claims to have pushed Trump out of the center of the outsider lane. In last night’s debate, Trump and Carson had the most reason to want to see Cruz’s carcass left between the yellow stripes and the dead armadillos.

When the Democrats narrowed it down to two, the entertainment value went way up. The Republicans are still running in two lanes, establishment and outsider, but the number of tickets out of New Hampshire is limited and elbows will fly.

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The GOP candidates were lined up in their respective lanes toward the nomination, pawing the ground and snorting in the cases of Trump, Cruz and Christie and big political howdy smiles on everybody else, when the opening bell sounded.

Coming right out of the chute, Trump was offered the opportunity to answer Cruz’s contention that he so much lacks the proper temperament that we might get up some morning and find that he has “nuked Denmark.”

Trump calmly removed the stinger by sounding very levelheaded, at which point Cruz turned down not one but two chances to reinsert the knife and twist.

Trump’s response was to grab a couple more seconds to point out that Cruz had backed down “like our enemies will” when Trump is president.

Cruz was immediately given another opportunity to back down when the moderators raised his poaching of Ben Carson delegates in Iowa with the misrepresentation that Carson was dropping out.

Carson derived maximum advantage by refusing to press Cruz on the ethics issue. Cruz responded like a bully, with a self-serving rendition of the facts on the ground in Iowa. Carson quietly, calmly corrected him. And Cruz had nothing to say. Having been caught cheating and then lying about it, what could he say?

Rubio, who had every reason to believe he had a bullseye on his butt, came loaded for kindergarten kittens rather than adult bears. He had memorized a spiel about how President Obama “knows exactly what he’s doing” and it is “a systematic effort to change America.”

I’m not sure how this is a great insight against the candidate who ran on “hope and change.”

Rubio accused Obama of wanting to make us like Europe. Forcing us to get health insurance. Refusing to get out in front of every military adventure. Yes, he got Obama’s number, but Obama’s not on the ballot and he repeated the spiel in response to questions completely unrelated.

In response to the question about his accomplishments, he listed a bill that Christie pointed out he had not even showed up to vote for, and Christie added a dig at Rubio’s age: “That’s not leadership—that’s truancy.”

Rubio responded to that clever dig by repeating his Obama spiel.

Christie made fun of it.

Rubio did it again, arguing desperately that this election (in New Hampshire) “is a referendum on our identity as a people.”

Rafael “Ted” “Carpet Bombing” Cruz was asked if he, as POTUS, would have destroyed the ICBM North Korea just tested on the launch pad?

He did not answer.

Kasich caught the same question and after a couple of laps around it finally did say he would approve a preemptive strike “if necessary.” Without knowing what the hedge words meant, it’s not possible to know exactly what he intended.

Social media watchers claimed that New Hampshire was most interested in the immigration issue. Rubio was asked if he had cut and run from his “Gang of Eight” immigration bill.

He did not answer.

He was asked again.

He still did not answer.

So Chris Christie broke in and beat him up for not answering.

The moderators made an effort to get the candidates to say what they would do after repealing Obamacare. The ideas that came out fit in Ted Cruz’s summary:

1.  Allow purchase of health insurance across state lines. So, I presume, people in California can get those Mississippi policies that the California legislature thinks are not adequate.

2.  Health Savings Accounts. Because, I guess, the problem is people managing health care money rather than not having health care money.

3.  Delink health care from employment. You know, like Europe did right after WWII? Do they understand you’ve had the right to keep your employer’s group policy since the Clinton administration? And that nobody does because they can’t afford it?

The only candidate who made any sense was the doctor, Ben Carson. He proposed that everybody gets a Health Empowerment Account at birth and that the cash in the account be fungible among family members. He would fund the account with the sums the U.S. currently spends on health care, which would be more than enough. The problem is, he does not say how to get the money into the accounts.

Having practiced medicine, he understands that there has to be something like Medicaid for the indigent. Carson came across as somebody who can hold his own and, more important, cares to participate.

For those who understood, Carson owned the health care issue.

Trump and Bush clashed over eminent domain and wound up arguing over the heads of most voters.

Trump was accused of “liking” eminent domain and he replied correctly that it’s not about like or not like. If you want to have roads, schools, bridges, pipelines, or most public projects then eminent domain is necessary.

Nobody except Trump pointed out that eminent domain in the U.S. differs in that it requires the government pay for property taken for a public use, which is not the case in much of the world.

Bush drew a correct distinction between public use and crony capitalism and accused Trump of “taking an elderly lady’s house to park limos from his casino.”  Trump made the mistake of getting down in the weeds to deny that, but he did point out correctly that the Keystone XL pipeline is proposed not by government but by a private company.

The bottom line is that both Bush and Trump were standing on correct principles but neither could explain the distinctions in a way that made sense. I predict that most voters will import their knee jerk reaction to eminent domain and not worry over the details. Unfortunately.

The tax question passed around among the candidates keyed on the fact that 68 percent of voters want to raise taxes on millionaires. Everybody ducked, but a couple of the answers were particularly egregious.

Rubio riffed at length on the fraudulent Republican talking point about the high corporate income tax that nobody has to pay.

Christie claimed that they tried that in New Jersey and all the millionaires got up and left. Assuming that’s so (which seems unlikely when you look at California and Massachusetts, to name two), nobody—not even Bernie Sanders—is talking about a top marginal rate greater than Eisenhower’s top marginal rate. Compare the UK, if you fear running off millionaires.

The questions veered off into the Commander in Chief role.

Trump wants to both “bomb” and “take” the oil. In that order, I presume?

There was much dispute about whether the current rules of engagement are well thought out and much of it came down to “my military sources can beat up your military sources.” My own reaction—based on interaction with recent veterans—was to doubt that any of them knew much about the rules of engagement they were trying to criticize.

Once more, Ben Carson brought a load of common sense when he said, “None of us is a military expert.”  Expert? None of them even served a hitch. The POTUS candidates who did were few and they are all out—Graham, Jim Webb, and Perry.

A really shocking question on the military front was whether they would approve “cross-border drug enforcement” without the permission of Mexico.

We found out that even if Donald Trump will not nuke Denmark, Chris Christie might send troops into Mexico.

Memorable lines of the night:

Carson: This election is about “honesty and integrity v. deceit and the Washington way.”

Christie: Speaking of deceit, Christie spread the lie that Planned Parenthood exists to harvest fetal body parts for profit. It worked so well for Carly Fiorina.

Trump: The way to bridge the divide between the police and the communities they are supposed to serve is to recognize the heroism of the police.

Rubio: Muslims are not discriminated against in the U.S. Christians are.

Bush: I can’t remember much except that he wished Ronald Reagan a happy birthday.

Kasich: “You (New Hampshire) changed me.”

Cruz’s most effective moment was an excellent close, when he gave his position against the ethanol mandate in Iowa as an example of fearlessly standing up for conservatism. He listed off the Iowa politicians who came out against him as a result of the ethanol issue and then delivered the punch line, “I won.”

Which sounded like a line hard to follow until Trump followed it with “because you got Ben Carson’s votes.”

It was that kind of night for Cuban-American and Cuban-Canadian first term senators, and for Trump.

If Trump was correct about the studio audience—which he attacked for being made up of Republican contributors who did not like him because he does not want their money—then he started the evening ahead and ended it the same way. He certainly won on points.

Rubio and Cruz were road kill.

While Christie had a big role in taking Rubio down, it’s not clear that he will be the main beneficiary. The bully and the blowhard were too much in evidence.

Bush had an excellent outing, as he has the last several debates. The better he sounds and the more money he spends, the less the voters seem to want another Bush. He even trotted out his elderly mother to take back her “too many Bushes” remark and put up an endorsement ad featuring his brother. That last might explain it, but he was tanking before the ad went up.

If last night’s performance mattered, Kasich has the inside of the establishment lane. He had reasonableness coming out of his ears and no Bush baggage. For contrast with Christie, he appeared to not have a mean bone in his body.

Trump retained his lead but Carson performed well in a crowd where quiet and reasonable stood out. Since Carson is competing with Trump for the outsider lane, the contrast could not be clearer. This year, I’m not sure a money bet on quiet and reasonable is safe.

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