The Republican presidential race is quickly becoming our favorite television show, almost to the point that we wish it were already over and we could “binge watch” the entire season to to its cliff-hanging conclusion on Netflix. Tuesday night’s installment was the best yet, with some intriguing plot twists and a refreshing focus on some fascinating but previously minor characters, and some travails of the formerly featured players, as well as much better production qualities.
Our cheapskate ways and aversion to popular culture preclude us from purchasing cable television, so we give thanks to the Fox Business Network, which is obviously the business news affiliate of the notoriously capitalistic and greedy Fox News organization, for making it available for the free on the internet, unlike the previous debate producers at CNBC, where the “C” stands for cable or capitalism and the “NBC” stands for the righteously anti-capitalist and pro-share-the-wealth National Broadcast Company, which insisted that everyone pay for its product. We further thank for them asking actual questions of the candidates, rather than spewing sneering diatribes ended with a question mark, because as much fun as it was to watch the Republicans bash the moderators in the last debate this episode was even better.
Previous episodes had somehow established two political neophytes, blustery real estate billionaire Donald Trump and soft-spoken neurosurgeon Ben Carson, as the frontrunners, but this time both seemed relegated to supporting roles. Another non-office-holder, former high-tech executive Carly Fiorina, seemed to get more air time and to make more of it. When the questions veered from economic issues to foreign affairs, Trump started talking about letting Russian President Vladimir Putin run the Middle East, Carson rambled in his efforts to reconcile his past dovishness in Afghanistan and Iraq with a more popular hawkishness, and Fiorina got the biggest applause of the three with some very tough talk about the need to project American power. Of the three candidates untainted by previous positions in government, which voters suddenly seem to find very attractive, we’d rate her performance the best.
Trump was conspicuously less prominent than in past debates, and his bully boy persona seems to be wearing thin. Much of his ire was aimed at former congressman and current Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who otherwise would have gone entirely unnoticed, and Trump’s argument that Ohio’s recent economic rebound was merely a matter of “striking oil” was easily rebutted, and his sneer that “I don’t need to listen to this man” was booed by many people who certainly never had any intention of supporting the recently mushy Kasich but feel that his long record of public service at least entitles him to have his say in a Republican debate. His complaint that Fiorina too often interjected herself into the debate was briefly cheered by his supporters with their usual pro-wrestling fan enthusiasm, but it surely gave his feminist and other female critics another reason to hate him, and there were enough old-fashioned chivalrous males and less aggrieved women in the audience at a Republican debate that he endured another round of boos. His best moment came when he criticized the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership boondoggle, emphasizing that he supports free trade but credibly claiming that he could have negotiated a better deal, but even that didn’t get much applause.
Carson’s more polite presentation fared somewhat better. He stumbled badly when the discussion ranged into foreign policy, noting how darned complicated it all seems to be, but he had good moments talking about capitalism and entrepreneurialism and risk-taking and the economic anxieties of the middle class. At not point was he booed for his boorish insults, and the phony-baloney scandals about him that the press have lately concocted went unmentioned even by Trump, and the first wave of punditry raved about his performance, so our guess is that he didn’t suffer so much as Trump.
Among the candidates who are tainted by previous public service, we’d say that Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and especially Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas seemed the likely winners. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul had a good moment talking about the Democrats’ hysteria over climate change, as befits a Senator from a coal-mining state, but his isolationist views and stubborn insistence that a hefty military budget is not conservative made him a whipping boy for the rest of the candidates. Cruz got the best of it by noting that the defense of America is expensive but not nearly expensive as not defending it, Rubio got in a couple of good lines about the necessity of America being the world’s greatest military power, Fiorina also got some licks in, and even the most weak-kneed of the candidates made clear that the Republican party and conservatism still stand for a stronger national defense than any Democratic candidate might prefer.
There was some hearteningly radical talk about abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and other sensible tax reforms from all the candidates, with Cruz going the furthest, and even Trump was forced to concede that all the plans put forth were preferable to the status quo or any adjustments the Democrats were considering. Another big topic was illegal immigration, and although Trump and the obviously irrelevant Kasich had a sharp exchange about the feasibility of deporting every illegal immigrant it was clearly that even of the mushiest of the lot would be more strident than even the stiffly-spined Democratic on the issue. All the candidates came off more stridently capitalist than any of the Democrats, as well, and still sounded more authentically populist in their opposition to crony-capitalism than even the most ardently socialist can claim to be. On most of the poll-tested push-button issues, the eventual Republican nominee will be positioned.
The latest debate gave more time than the previous ones to Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and they made less of it. Bush’s closing statements had something to do with the Veterans Administration and not much else, according to our admittedly bored notes, and we expect that Kasich’s strong stand as the least strident of the candidates in his opposition to illegal immigration was surely the death knell of his candidacy. There’s no telling how the installment will go, but for now our best guess is that that Bush and Kasich are out, Trump is trending downwards, Carson stays steady, Fiorina retains an outside chance, and that Rubio gains but Cruz does even better, whoever emerges will be better than the Democrat candidate, whose identity remains a mystery, and that there’s no telling how that might turn out.
— Bud Norman