This past Monday, I was very apprehensive about what might happen in the Iowa Republican caucuses. Donald Trump had retaken the lead in the polls a few weeks ago, and there seemed to be a growing acceptance, even among established party officials and officeholders, of the idea of Trump as the Republican nominee. Especially since Trump was expected to win the second contest in New Hampshire fairly easily, it seemed that a victory for him in Iowa to start the contest might make it difficult for anyone else to overcome his lead and defeat him elsewhere. The best hope for slowing down Trump’s apparent momentum seemed to be a possible comeback win in Iowa for Ted Cruz, who had led in polls there for a while in December and January, but Cruz was facing opposition from the state’s governor and others who didn’t like his opposition to ethanol mandates and subsidies. So, I was rather hesitant to check the results Monday night and postponed doing so until quite late, after everything was sure to be over. I was very relieved to see that Senator Cruz had indeed managed to win by several points, and I was also encouraged to learn that Marco Rubio, another conservative candidate, had done very well and placed a strong third. (If only he could have gotten just a little greater percentage and taken second over Trump, I might have actually started jumping up and down with excitement, but we can’t have everything, right?) While I was happy with this outcome, which provided a welcome ray of hope in a confounding primary season, it was only the first step in a very long process.
With the focus of the race shifting to New Hampshire, the stakes for the candidates remain very high, and there is still plenty to concern a political worrywart like me. In particular, if Donald Trump, who has been comfortably leading the polls in New Hampshire for a long time, wins the primary there, he might be able to regain the momentum and the air of near-inevitability that was put into question by the results in Iowa. While it might be too difficult for someone to overtake him in the few days before Tuesday’s vote, hopefully some of his opponents will at least be able to give him some serious competition and demonstrate that the contest is far from over. Based on Iowa’s voting, as well as other factors, the most likely people to present that challenge seem to be Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, but others could have a chance as well. Saturday night’s debate on ABC was a high-profile opportunity for the candidates to try to convince voters to support them and could potentially have a big impact on both the New Hampshire primary and the overall race.
After watching the coverage of the event, I have many thoughts, but I’ll try to contain myself and discuss a more limited group of important points. To start with let’s just say that some of the conversations on the stage, along with the commentary offered on the air during and after the debate, did not put my mind more at ease about the upcoming elections. Hearing what the political experts on the network had to say actually left me once again wondering if I was completely on another planet, because my perceptions of some things were so different, and it will be interesting to see which view prevails among the public in general.
In the days before the debate, there was speculation that Marco Rubio was likely to be a frequent target on Saturday, since the chances for success of quite a few other candidates, both ahead of and (especially) behind him in the polls, are seen by many to largely depend on defeating him. These predictions proved accurate, as Senator Rubio certainly was a focus of attention, and things didn’t always go well for him. An exchange with Chris Christie fairly early in the evening seems to have gotten the most attention, and it definitely wasn’t pretty. Rubio was asked to address a line of criticism that has been raised by Christie and others, which suggests that Rubio does not have a record of accomplishments in his career to justify the voters electing another first-term senator (like Barack Obama) as President. Besides naming some things he has done as a legislator, Rubio chose to address the Obama-related portion of the charge by arguing that Obama, rather than being someone making poor decisions because of inexperience, is, in fact someone who “knows what he is doing.” Christie came after Rubio from multiple angles at the same time, attacking him both for this characterization of Obama and also for being an unaccountable member of the Senate, who can just spout memorized talking points about issues (as opposed to a governor like Christie, held responsible for making decisions.) Regrettably, Rubio’s responses to Christie involved repeating parts of what he’d already said, which played into Christie’s charge about scripted answers. Obviously, Rubio should have found different words to articulate his message the second and third time, but perhaps he thought he needed to repeat the point because Christie was too busy interrupting and misinterpreting him for the audience to understand it the first time. When Rubio said that Obama “knows what he is doing,” he clearly meant that Obama’s (very often unwise, outrageous, or disastrous) actions are intentionally taken in pursuit of his goals to “fundamentally transform” the nation, which is an important notion worth discussing, but Christie chose instead to mock Rubio more than once by interpreting the phrase to mean that Obama is competent, well-qualified, and/or doing a good job. Christie also repeatedly criticized Rubio for the immigration reform bill he sponsored a few years ago, but I’m not sure Christie’s critique was particularly logical. Rather than criticizing Rubio for supporting an amnesty-granting bill in the first place, he seemed to be suggesting that the problem was Rubio’s lack of leadership in eventually abandoning the bill rather than continuing to fight for it. Again, Rubio could probably have done a slightly better job of explaining and making his case, but I certainly don’t think that the Senator would have demonstrated more fitness for the presidency by waging a never-ending battle to pass a (bad) bill that did not have the support to pass, especially a bill that many Republicans already hold against him. In the end, the TV analysts seemed to characterize the New Hampshire debate as a huge stumble for Rubio that could practically destroy his campaign -- showing that he’s “not ready for prime time” and wouldn’t really be such a challenging candidate for Hillary Clinton to face in the general election, etc., but I seriously disagree with this interpretation. (Perhaps there’s even a little wishful thinking involved on Democrats’ part?) The exchanges with Christie will clearly not make Senator Rubio’s highlight reel (although I don’t think they put him in as bad a light as the commentators suggested,) but I don’t think they should define his whole night, as he also gave many strong answers throughout the evening on a wide range of issues including foreign policy, taxes, and social issues. (More on the last one a bit later.) I continue to believe that Marco Rubio would be a very qualified and capable nominee, and I hope that a few rough moments of debating won’t overshadow all of his good qualities in the eyes of the public.
While Chris Christie may have harmed Marco Rubio during the debate, I’m not sure that his performance will actually be particularly helpful to his own electoral chances. As usual, he told us repeatedly (hmm, imagine that) that he has been a federal prosecutor and US Attorney, dismissed the importance of members of Congress (who just talk a lot) while painting himself as a governor who, by necessity, has to actually make things happen, and, as the self-designated teller of truths and debate translator, directed some of his remarks straight to the audience at home. To me, most of this is just window dressing aside from the actual content of what he has to say, and I think he’s overdone it to some extent, but other people may see things differently. As for the substance, Christie did contribute some worthwhile points (such as New Jersey’s experience with raising taxes on millionaires), but I found a couple of his statements about drugs and abortion particularly troubling. It’s fine for Christie to make the case that non-violent drug offenders should receive treatment rather than incarceration, but he also said that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing. Since people do choose to use illegal and destructive substances in the first place, I don't think it’s correct to absolve them of moral responsibility in these situations, as if random citizens just happen to come down with heroin addiction after being bitten by Brazilian mosquitoes. Christie (and others) have asserted that Rubio’s stance against abortion (not favoring exceptions other than to save the life of the mother) is too extreme, and this was brought up at the debate. Rubio explained his position and pointed out that the Democrats are the real extremists on the issue, and then Christie had a chance to have his say. The position that an anti-abortion law (which, of course, can only be hypothetical as long as Roe vs Wade remains in effect) should allow exceptions in cases of rape or incest is a common one among pro-life politicians, but it seems to me that Governor Christie justified it in a very unsatisfactory way, characterizing the termination of a pregnancy resulting from one of these situations as an act of “self-defense.” This description seems to disregard the basic purpose of the pro-life movement: protecting the lives of young, developing human beings, who are innocent even it their fathers have committed terrible crimes. I think that Senator Rubio was on much more solid, consistent ground here, and, in any case, I don’t think it is helpful for Republican candidates to criticize one another as being “too pro-life” -- I’m sure we’ll hear more than enough of that from the Democrats down the line.
While the last debate was, happily, a no-Trump zone, the national front-runner returned to the stage in New Hampshire. The on-air commentators thought that he had a good night, but I think that is only the case because people continue to hold Donald Trump to very low standards. Yes, he avoided any complete meltdowns and didn’t spend the whole evening insulting and attacking everyone, and there may have been one or two sensible things (such as the problems caused by recent condemnation of the police) buried in his rambling statements. However, he still was very self-centered and vague in many of his answers, citing his terrific companies as evidence he has the temperament to be president and saying that his health care plan would be something “much better” than Obamacare. His continued and aggressive defense of eminent domain was a low point, especially as he tried to talk over and deny the facts when Jeb Bush pointed out that Trump had tried to use the courts to take the property of an elderly woman for a private casino parking lot. Trump still did take a few cheap shots at Bush and Cruz, and the audience, for that matter, when they expressed disapproval of him, but he didn’t seem to face much tough questioning from the moderators or his opponents. It will be interesting to see if Trump really does have strong support from the voters as the primaries continue, because it still makes no sense to me for large numbers of people to believe that this man is the best choice to be President of the United States.
As for Trump’s main recent challenger, I think that Ted Cruz probably didn’t have quite as good a night as he might have hoped. The early focus on the controversy concerning his staff circulating reports before the Iowa caucuses suggesting Ben Carson might not be continuing his campaign (based on an initial news byte from CNN) cannot be helpful to Senator Cruz. We can’t know all the details about what happened in that situation, and I wouldn’t think that the results would have been greatly affected, because Carson’s supporters would be unlikely to just assume what they were being told by the camp of another candidate was true and because Carson’s percentage of the vote was actually a little higher than his recent poll numbers. Still, attention paid to this incident rather than to Cruz’ come-from-behind victory with huge voter turn-out on Monday is unfortunate for the Senator, especially if, despite his apology to Carson, people come to believe he accepts questionable campaign tactics. After Iowa, Donald Trump first seemed to take his second-place finish fairly well. He then went on a Twitter rant alleging that Cruz had “stolen” the election and insisting that the results should not stand, before claiming a couple of days later that he didn’t really care about that any more. In response to these wild changes of attitude within such a short time, Senator Cruz had, rather logically, stated that Trump does not have the temperament to be president, although he may have used a bit too much hyperbole in suggesting that Trump might “nuke Denmark” in a fit of pique. At the debate, the moderators asked Cruz, twice, about this assessment of Trump, and, for whatever reason, Cruz would not take the opportunity there to explain this aspect of Trump’s unsuitability for the highest office in the land, only saying that the voters would judge the temperament of every candidate. I’ve expressed frustration before with the unwillingness of Trump’s competitors to criticize him or take him on, particularly when they are with him at the debates. I think this particular instance was especially problematic for Cruz, because Trump called him on it, not only pointing out that Cruz had not answered the moderator’s question, but also citing this as an example of the reason the country would be able to “win again” with Trump as president: others back down when facing him. Sigh... The night was certainly not all bad for Cruz, as he gave solid responses to questions about foreign policy and defense, immigration enforcement, the ways presidents can use authority, and other issues and also shared a memorable personal story about the impact drug addiction had had on his family. While it makes perfect sense for Cruz to point out that he was able to win in Iowa while taking a principled stand against the ethanol mandates that are considered so important to that state, I thought that it was probably not the strongest choice around which to center his closing statement. All in all, I think that Senator Cruz had a fairly steady night that should not hurt him with those inclined to look favorably on him, but I’m not sure if anything happened to give him a significant boost of support heading into Tuesday’s primary and beyond.
Briefly, I thought Jeb Bush had a fairly good performance, although he seemed to have articulated things somewhat better at the previous debate. I did appreciate his willingness to engage with Trump on eminent domain, since most other candidates seem to avoid conflict with Trump at these events, and Bush’s references to returning some power and responsibility to the states were a positive addition to the discussion. The ABC commentators had lots of good things to say about John Kasich and thought he had his best night. I didn’t see much difference from the last couple of debates, although he did present one or two of his responses in a more rousing fashion this time. He seems like a nice enough guy who has a good record in government, but I’m not sure that his message of bringing people together, including across party lines, is what Republican primary voters are seeking or what would be most able to defeat the Democratic nominee in November. I felt bad for Ben Carson Saturday evening. It was terribly unfortunate that he didn’t hear his name called during the initial introductions calling the candidates to the stage, and he likely felt that he was being ignored or slighted, especially after Monday’s events. I hope that someone made sure to let him know what actually happened (and even showed him some video to prove it.) During the debate, he had some worthwhile things to contribute, and I especially liked his answer regarding the contrast he could draw in a contest against Hillary Clinton based on honesty, integrity, and character. On a more general note, I was underwhelmed, to say the least, by the answers of all three candidates (Rubio, Bush, and Christie) asked about the potential registration of women for the Selective Service. Overall, I did appreciate the fact that the questioners at this debate covered many different issues, although they may have selected a few obscure ones while still leaving out some big things. We did hear from everyone quite a bit, but I’m not sure how evenly the time or questions (in number or friendliness) were distributed among the candidates.
It has certainly been an eventful week in the world of the presidential campaign. While Donald Trump did have significant support in Iowa, thankfully, the voters there ensured that he will not have an unchallenged electoral romp to the Republican nomination. Ted Cruz’ victory on Monday and Marco Rubio’s strong showing put them both in good positions going forward, but things were not all positive for them over the last few days, as Cruz had to deal with questions about his staff’s actions and Trump’s allegations of election theft, while Rubio was the favorite target (including at the debate on Saturday) of many opponents seeking to surpass him in New Hampshire and elsewhere to gain consideration as legitimate contenders. After Iowa, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Rand Paul left the presidential race, and I wish them all well in the future. Meanwhile, Donald Trump continues to have a large polling lead in New Hampshire, and, if he has a big victory there, who knows how things will play out in future state primaries -- he may be able to reclaim his “winner” image and use it along with his national frontrunner status to dominate much of the race, especially if his competitors spend most of their time and energy bashing each other. I hope that this does not happen, but we’ll know a lot more by the time the results are in on Tuesday night Then, we can once again take stock of the way Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and the others are faring with the voters. One state down, one right around the corner, and “only” forty-eight more to go. I’m afraid it’s going to be a long, exhausting year before we even get to the general election campaign!