The latest episode in the Republican Party’s binge-worthy reality show was boringly dignified, by its recent Kardashian standards, but Thursday night’s presidential debate on the Cable News Network was nonetheless quite riveting in a Masterpiece Theater sort of way. Although the front-runner didn’t make any braggadocios remarks about the size of any of his body parts or ridicule the height or looks an opponent, and none of his rivals had the effrontery to mention any of his various failed confidence schemes or other glaring character defects, the rather substantive and soporifically sedate debate that followed was intriguingly revealing.
There was an interesting prologue by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who series fans will recognize as the Darth Vader embodiment of that Dark Side of the moment’s metaphorical Star Wars battle known as “the establishment,” and for some reason he felt obliged to assure the audience that the Republican Party would be supporting its nominee in the upcoming general election. This usually goes unsaid in presidential campaigns, but in this reality show version the front-runner is Donald J. Trump, who is loathed by a significant portion of the party and most of the country, which was of course left unsaid in Priebus’ remarks, but it set a certain tone for the evening’s proceedings. The self-described billionaire real-estate-and-gambling-and-professional-wrestling-and-reality-television-and-scam-university-mogul tried his comb-overed best to come off very presidential, his opponents struck a similar pose, and it was an interesting glimpse into what a presidential race would like if it concerned itself mostly with the important issues facing the country.
In such a dream world, Trump probably wouldn’t be the front runner in the race. After his opponents opened with statements with thumbnail sketches of their plans for the country’s future, Trump boasted about the support of people in their fifties and sixties who have never voted before and his never paid any attention to politics, as if their support is somehow persuasive to those of us who have always been involved, and explained that his plans for the future involve him winning. On his signature issue of cracking down on both illegal and legal immigrants he more or less admitted that he has hired both, and explained that he therefor knows better than any of the other candidates how awful it is, and that he did only did so because no business can make a profit except for that awful system, and he gave his latest opinion on the guest worker visas that he’s used and condemned and advocated and we’re not sure where is now, and we got the sense he didn’t really expect that anybody but his most ardent supporters would find that persuasive. His opponents were equally forceful about the very important issue of border enforcement, albeit without the histrionic talk about Mexico shipping in rapists that characterized the pre-presidential Trump, and seemed to have a better grasp of the issue without any of the hypocrisy.
The crucially important issue of of entitlement reform at long last came up in this strange campaign, and Trump made clear he’d do none of that, which of course would not be popular. He’d just cut out waste and fraud and abuse, and grow the economy enough through his great deals that there’d be plenty of money to make up the literally more-money-than-there-is-in-the-world shortfalls that are awaiting, and the moderator quite rightly noted, CNN or not, that the highest estimates of waste and fraud and abuse would only provide a fraction of that, he promised that it will be a “different world” when he’s elected, which has some unsettling truth to it. On the matter of international trade, where Trump promises that he’s going to make the kind of “great deals” that he’s always made, and not the sort of lousy deals he made in his numerous failed businesses that went politely unmentioned by the others, Trump explained that his once-promised and still ambiguously offered 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods is merely a “threat,” and that now-admitted bluff would suffice to make the Chinese “behave,” and believe him, we’re gonna get the right people and make great deals.
Moving to the arguably even more dangerous international scene, Trump was asked about his recent comment that “Islam hates us,” which is a defensible statement if explained with a certain nuance, but Trump doesn’t do nuance anymore than he does entitlement reform, so he talked about all the hatred out there, and added an ironic side note about how the Islamic world treats women, and doubled down on his previous comments about killing innocent women and children in the defense of American values, and yet was too presidential to employ the barnyard epithets he’s used when describing how he’d bomb them. On the subject of Israel, he took pains to note the Jewish parade he was grand marshall of and that no one loves the Israelis more than he does, but that he wants to be neutral only so he can get a great deal for them, although he admits that might be hard, even with the best people. He also went in for full diplomatic and trade relations with the horrible communist government of Cuba, assuring us he’d get a great deal, supposedly like the one that Michael Corleone and Hyman Roth once had there, and when reminded of his past comments that Vladimir Putin and the Chinese government that ordered the massacre at Tiananmen Square were examples of strength he could only explain that “strong” isn’t necessarily a good thing, which undermines the entire premise of the Trump candidacy.
Comparatively, all of Trump’s opponents fared well.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose winless campaign continues only in hopes that a favorite son victory in his home state’s upcoming primary will help in some neighboring states and get into the convention with a marketable bloc of delegates and perhaps even a very long-shot at a brokered nomination, had a good enough night to help him with that Ohio race. He had some arguable but realistic notions about illegal immigration and entitlement reform, annoyed us with some talk about humans contributing to climate change but didn’t advocate any crazy solutions, had some rousing anti-communist rhetoric that warmed our cold warrior hearts about the evil Castro regime and that brave Chinese man who stood in front of those strong tanks on Tiananmen Square, and he got in some verifiable bragging about how well the Ohio economy has fared during his administration and also the budget-hawk and defense credentials he’d earned as a Congressman.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio also had a good night, although it might not have been well enough to save his chances in an upcoming home state primary that is his last chance to remain in the race. He took a stand for raising the Social Security age to 68 and eventually beyond, a necessity which won’t hurt him with the sizable percentage of Floridians over that age but nonetheless counts as more courageous than anything than the tell-it-like-it-is Trump has ever said. He took a tough stand against Islamic terrorism, and got a good round of applause by saying that “I’m not interested in being politically correct, I’m interested in being correct,” and correctly noted that some Muslims will have to be involved in solving the problems of the Muslim world. He was careful to note that Trump might not intend to harm Israel, but made a good case why Trump’s policies would do just that, and the son of Cuban immigrants made a convincing and compelling case against any deals with the Commie strongmen running that unfortunate island, and it clearly played well with a south Florida audience.
Both Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz argued that the race has come down to the two of them, which seems about right, and Cruz also had a good night. He criticized the Democrat’s don’t-touch-entitlements wishfulness in terms so close to what Trump had just said that a moderator had to ask if he was implying anything, contrasted his bold stand against ethanol subsidies prior to his win over Trump in Iowa as an example of how they’d be willing to take on special interests, invoked the Depression-inducing effects of the Smoot-Hawley act in response to Trump’s protectionism and noted the inevitability of a resulting trade war, expressed his own frustration’s with Obama’s foreign policy timidity but also declined to commit any war crimes, compared the moral relativism of Trump’s stand on Israel with Obama’s, and generally came off just as angry as Trump but more familiar with all that policy stuff you’d need to know to fix it.
By now all the Trump fans are enamored of their infallible deal-maker, no matter how many bad deals he’s made, that it might not make any difference. Any late-deciding Republican primary and caucus voters who haven’t fallen for the boastful-about-body-parts self-described billionaire probably won’t be much impressed with the more presidential version of the brand, though, so the show should be getting back to its Kardashian standards soon enough.
— Bud Norman