Author: Steven Rosenfeld
The Republican Party’s first official debate of the 2016 presidential election showed the GOP’s leading candidates as not just all hard right-wingers, but different shades of crazy.
There was Donald Trump, who will doubtless draw the most press attention by declaring right off the bat that if he is not the nominee, he would seriously considering running as an independent—which, as Fox News’ debate moderator Bret Baier said, “would almost certainly hand over the race to Democrats and likely another Clinton.”
That brought boos from the crowd and a spontaneous attack by Sen. Rand Paul, who blared, “This is what’s wrong. He buys and sells politicans.” To which, Trump replied, “ Well, I’ve given him [Paul] plenty of money.”
That feisty spree set the tone for much of the next two hours. Trump would go on to explain that, of course, he spends money to buy politicans’ attention, and failed to see anything at all wrong with that. When asked what he got in return from Hillary Clinton, he said that she came to his latest wedding. But beyond political gossip like that—or saying he was tired of being criticized for being politically incorrect after crude and sexist statements about women—the Fox News debate made it clear that most of the GOP’s leading candidates roughly fell into two right-wing camps: truly crazed extremists (Donald Trump, Rand Paul, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee) or blandly presentable right-wingers, whose agenda is still remarkably out-of-synch with mainstream America (Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie).
The blander crazies are probably the more dangerous crew, because even though their policies are very far to the right—anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, anti-tax, anti-immigrant, anti-government, anti-science—they will be portrayed by mainstream media as moderates. Take reproductive rights, just an example.
Bush answered a question about being on the board of ex-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s foundation, which has supported Planned Parenthood, by saying that his record as governor was to lead the country in restricting abortions, passing parental notification laws, outlawing late-term abortions, and being first in the nation to have pro-life license places. That was the quote-unquote, moderate response, when compared to Mike Huckabee, who said that the next president must declare that the Constitution’s 5th and 14th amendments protects the rights of the unborn “from the moment of conception.” Speaking of the Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion rights, he said, “It’s time that we recognize that the Supreme Court is not the supreme being.”
Other social issues followed the same arc. Early in the debate, one Fox moderator pressed Ohio Gov. John Kasich for being a litte too much like St. Peter because he expanded his state’s Medicaid program under Obamacare, which Kasich defended. But when asked about same-sex marriage, he replied, “If one of my daughters happened to be that…” Kasich quickly followed up by saying, he’d love his daughters unconditionally, but such exchanges showed just how immoderate the GOP’s supposed moderates are.
The more serious exchanges were interrupted by moments that were astounding political theatre, such as Trump sparring with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly who said, “You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals…’ Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?” Trump began his reply, saying, “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct… I frankly don’t have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble.”
Exchanges like that quickly ended and were followed by other zany questions, such as asking Ted Cruz why he recently called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar? To which, Cruz replied, because he was one—and the country needed politicians who spoke the truth. “As Republicans, we keep winning elections. We have a Republican House. We have a Republican Senate, and we don’t have leaders who honor their commitments. I will always tell the truth and do what I said I would do.”
When it came to specifics of what the candidates would do, the template was roughly the same. The plan is to cut taxes and regulations to promote economic growth, build up the military—including sending troops overseas fight a new ground war with ISIS, and saying that this strategy worked for Ronald Reagan and would surely work again. Of course, there were small differences. On immigration, everyone objected to amensty for the undocumented already in America, but some—such as Jeb Bush—said a pathway to legalized status was needed, especially to ensure economic growth. Others were less charitable. Trump, of course, said a new border wall needed to be built—but with a large door in it for those following a legal process to enter.
The debate did showcase the candidates’ political skills and that might shake up their ranking in the polls. Chris Christie had a good night, feistily dismissing questions about New Jersey’s lagging economy under his watch—it was worse before he got there, he said—and eagerly attacking Rand Paul for his opposition to NSA spying on Americans. Marco Rubio, who has the best smile of anyone on the stage, didn’t say anything that was truly cringe-worthy, even though he was fervently pro-life and almost libertarian on federal oversight—on the environment and education. John Kasich appeared almost grandfatherly on stage, projecting himself as a seasoned hand on budget and national security issues. And Jeb Bush, when pressed on being the heir to a political dynasty, replied he had a higher bar to prove himself with voters, which came across as both insecure and honest. In contrast, Scott Walker, who didn’t make any mistakes, came across with answers that seemed a bit too canned—practiced and unengaging.
The crazies, however, may have won the night’s battle but set themselves back in the longer war. Trump clearly distinghished himself as someone who really doesn’t care what people think about him—he’s a businessman who will do whatever it takes. The other outlying ideologues—Cruz, Huckabee, Carson, Paul—all seem to be in narrower silos where their followers will love what they said, and how they said it, but they’re less likely to break through to a larger base.
You can be sure that the Republican Party will declare their first debate a great success. Millions of people watched. They saw candidates up close and personal. Their remarks will surely shake up the race. And, to be sure, the night will also be seen by Democrats as pure political manna from heaven—because the modern GOP was on display in vivid color, and because it is not a party of mere establishment right-wingers, but also out-and-out crazies running for the presidency.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of “Count My Vote: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting” (AlterNet Books, 2008).