After what already seems like a long campaign, the first actual primary and caucus votes are now drawing near. As a result, any new developments and events in the race at this point seem to take on added importance, so the high-profile debates from now on will likely get even more attention. After watching last Thursday’s FOX Business Republican debate from South Carolina, I have a lot of thoughts related to the candidates and the contest for the nomination -- too many for one post, I think. Therefore, I will try to limit this piece to some fairly specific comments and observations about the happenings of the evening. My intention is to follow up soon with some more general thoughts and impressions about a couple of the candidates and the state of the primary race.
During the early part of the debate, most of the candidates were basically on the same page and getting along, as they focussed on disagreements with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other Democrats. I appreciated that portion of the event, which reminded me of the first Republican debate last year. I rather like being able to hear multiple capable conservatives discussing ideas and acting like they are all on the same overall team, and it makes me rather wish that there were some way to select a nominee that didn’t lead to these good candidates eventually attacking each other to try to secure a victory. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of conflict and criticism among the candidates during this campaign, and this was reflected in some notable clashes in Thursday’s debate. I’ll comment further on some of those, and I do continue to think it is problematic that Republican presidential primary contests tend to inflict damage on the images and reputations of the candidates.
As I’ve made quite clear since last summer, I think that Donald Trump is a completely unsuitable choice for the Republican presidential nomination. I’ve kept hoping that something might change in the race or the treatment he’s received in conservative media that could dislodge him from his frontrunner status. Very recently, some campaign hostility broke out between Trump and Ted Cruz, and I was anxious to see if Cruz might (finally) criticize Trump during this debate and if that might possibly have a negative effect on Trump’s poll numbers. The end of the apparent Trump/Cruz non-aggression pact was largely precipitated by Trump raising questions about Cruz’ eligibility to serve as president, and this topic was raised near the beginning of the debate. I thought that Senator Cruz handled the issue of his status as a “natural-born” citizen just fine, explaining that, when he was born in Canada, he was an American citizen because of his mother's American citizenship. He pointed out that Trump had said a few months ago that his lawyers had looked at the issue and found no problem with Cruz’ eligibility, and he also suggested that Trump was only bringing up the question now because Cruz’ standings in the polls, particularly in Iowa, have improved. Trump in the end basically acknowledged that this was the case, and I don’t think his contention that new opinions from well-known lawyers, such as liberal Lawrence Tribe of Bush vs. Gore fame, have now made him revisit the issue was very convincing. Therefore, I would say that Cruz probably benefitted from this exchange during the debate, although I don’t see how it could be the case that it would have put the issue to rest, as some have suggested. It seems that some people (notably, some of Donald Trump’s supporters) now do believe, or at least think it is possible, that Ted Cruz does not meet the Constitution’s qualifications to serve as President of the United States, and I don’t think their opinions will change just because Cruz assured everyone that he does.
Later in the evening, Senator Cruz did (at long last) attempt to point out that, although he’s saying (some) different things now, Donald Trump has a considerable history of expressing liberal views. Cruz referred to an interview Trump gave some time ago in which Trump explained having these positions and opinions by saying that he was from New York and that those were “New York” values. Proceeding from this basic equating of “New York values” with liberal values, Cruz suggested that those values are not in line with those of Republican voters. Donald Trump responded, at a lower level of volume and brashness than usual, by recalling the way New Yorkers handled the horror and extreme challenges of the September 11 attacks and also said that he found Cruz’ remarks about New York to be offensive. While I don’t think bringing up the devastating terrorist attacks really addressed the points Cruz was trying to make, I do think that Trump’s response would probably be effective to many viewers, especially those who weren’t aware that Cruz’ remark that “not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan” was actually a response to the line Trump has been using for some time to question Cruz' religion and claim that “not a lot of Evangelicals come out of Cuba.” Unfortunately for him, in the end, this exchange did not turn out well for Senator Cruz. (It has also apparently been turned into a big issue since the debate, which is one of the topics I would like to revisit later.)
Donald Trump actually seemed to have toned things down during some other portions of the debate as well. As a cynical anti-Trumper (if that is a word), I’m not sure to what extent that might have been a planned strategy and an acting performance, but it may well have made him come across as more reasonable and more plausible as a presidential candidate to some people. Of course, there were also times when he bragged about his poll numbers, his great business success, and his confidence that he’ll win, and he did still give some incoherent answers, most notably about potential tariffs on goods from China. Still, much as I hate to say it, I think there’s little doubt that this was Trump’s best debate performance by far. (That does not, of course, mean that he’s any more qualified to be president than he was before.)
Ted Cruz’ conflicts on Thursday were not limited to those with Donald Trump, as he was also involved in heated exchanges with Senator Marco Rubio. Rubio raised some substantive issues about Cruz’ tax proposals, such as its inclusion of what has been characterized by many people as a European-style “Value Added Tax.” Cruz stated that his “business tax” is not actually a VAT and defended his plan. This subject, along with intelligence gathering and others, is one where voters will need to examine the specifics of the candidates’ positions to determine which they agree with the most. Later in the course of the debate, Senator Cruz criticized Senator Rubio’s involvement with the proposed comprehensive immigration reform bill from a few years ago, which since that time has been perceived as his greatest area of vulnerability in terms of disagreement with many Republican voters. Rubio responded with a long list of instances and topics on which he said that Cruz had changed his positions, and he concluded by saying that this showed political calculation rather than consistent conservatism on Cruz’ part. Cruz denied the truth of many of the accusations and once again pointed out that Rubio’s position on immigration remains one that is very unpopular among many on the Right. Now, there are usually omissions, selective references to past records, and even somewhat stretched interpretations, along with genuine differences of opinion, when one politician criticizes another, and I believe that those factors played a part in the various conflicts in Thursday’s debate as well. Yet, it seems to me that there is also some truth in the criticisms that, for example, Rubio and Cruz leveled at each other, but there are also plenty of reasons to defend the merits of each of these men as good candidates and solid conservatives. I’m not sure what viewers with no particular attachment to either senator will make of their exchanges, but I wouldn’t expect the debate to change the views of those who already have formed positive or negative opinions about either or both of them. Again, I think that it is unfortunate that Republican candidates and their supporters often wind up helping the other side (liberals/Democrats) by highlighting each others’ weaknesses. Sigh...
Marco Rubio did not limit his criticisms on Thursday to Ted Cruz. He also had plenty to say in opposition to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, gun control proposals, and our current interactions with Iran, among other things. Some have said that Rubio was “angrier” than usual, perhaps in response to the polling success of candidates like Trump, who are mainly known for harsh rhetoric. I’m not completely sure what to make of that assessment. I do think that Rubio focussed more on disagreements with the way things are going than on the positive vision of the future that his campaign has touted at other times, but I’m not sure that this was entirely new at the most recent debate. I seem to recall thinking that this has been the case in earlier events as well. I believe that Senator Rubio’s statements about the problems he sees and the things he would intend to do differently are usually quite strong and eloquent, so they are often welcome and necessary, but I also think that he should take care not to omit the more optimistic aspects of his message that distinguish his candidacy from those of some others.
One other specific recipient of criticism from Marco Rubio during the debate was Chris Christie. Rubio charged that there were several issues and instances where Christie had, to one degree or another, been on the same side as Obama, Clinton, et al. Christie essentially flatly denied all of Rubio’s assertions. While I would note that a couple of the things Rubio said might have been worded a little more carefully, and Governor Christie might well have been able to give somewhat mitigating explanations for some of them, it seems to me that the actual record does not support his outright denials at all. Citing a previous complimentary comment from Rubio, Christie also suggested that Rubio was only attacking him now because he thought it would help him in the polls. The New Jersey Governor then said that he wasn’t going to change his tune in a similar fashion before adding a few positive comments about Rubio. This is all well and good, but it rather ignores the recent spate of negative things that Christie has been saying about Rubio on the campaign trail, including labeling him as weak and stating that he is not doing his job due to missed votes in the Senate. As he has before, Christie seemed to do pretty well in the debate itself, portraying himself as someone who takes successful action rather than just talking about things and who will give straight talk to the people at home, even about tough issues. I don’t know to what extent viewers will be swayed by his forensic skill, even if it perhaps relies more on creative license than honesty at times.
Ben Carson contributed some humor to the proceedings and made a few good points, remaining a likable man on the stage, but perhaps not seeming very likely to be the successful nominee. To me, this was John Kasich’s best debate. He seemed less angry and not completely at odds with everyone else this time. I still don’t think he has much chance of doing well in this election, but I think it was easier to understand why he’s been a popular Republican Congressman and Governor in Ohio for many years, and he might have some worthwhile things to contribute to the conversation about various issues.
As for Jeb Bush, I think that he has continued to improve in his debate responses, but it does not seem that this type of event shows him at his best. He did make some good points, among them identifying some of the problems with the positions Donald Trump has taken regarding Muslims entering the United States and tariffs on imports. Interestingly, at times it almost seemed to me that Governor Bush sounded a little like a Republican party consultant rather than one of the candidates, hoping that Trump would reconsider some of his positions and cautioning people to take the negative charges being leveled among the candidates with a grain of salt, as they are just a common part of the primary process. Perhaps, despite his continued hope to be the nominee himself, he’s also feeling (possibly way in the back of his mind) that it’s not particularly likely? If so, I may be one of a small minority, but I continue to feel considerable sympathy for Governor Bush, as I think he was rather unfairly characterized and dismissed before the campaign even began.
(Well, so much for keeping this post to any sort of manageable length!)
In conclusion, I thought that the debate was pretty well run and contained some valuable material for the continuing evaluation of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, although there do seem to be many topics that never seem to get much discussion at any of these events. Overall, I don’t know if anything that took place in South Carolina last Thursday will drastically change the state of the primary race, and that concerns me in itself, because maintenance of the status quo means that Donald J. Trump continues to be the national frontrunner as the election draws ever closer. More specifically, I worry that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, perhaps the opponents with the best chances of presenting a challenge to Trump, may have been damaged, at least somewhat, by last Thursday’s verbal battles with each other, as well as with Trump and Christie, respectively. Also, since Trump had been sailing along so successfully even with completely horrible debate performances and while being left alone by his chief rival, how high might his poll numbers go with a much improved presentation on the debate stage and after being able to withstand (and possibly even triumph over) new criticism from Senator Cruz, the champion debater and experienced litigator? I shudder to think about it, but I am very afraid that a Trump nomination is becoming more likely all the time....