Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Ninth GOP Debate: The Local Train to "Too Far"

Here is Steve's take on the double-header GOP debate brawl in the heartland of political bloodbaths, South Carolina.

The opening shot in CBS’s coverage of the South Carolina debate revealed that the venue was called “The Peace Center,” and the first commercial was an extended paean to a product designed to ease bowel movements.  It was an early indication that the gods of irony were on active duty. 

This was the most vituperative, bitter, and personal presidential debate in memory, featuring two heavyweight bouts. Topping the bill was the deeply personal feud between Jeb Bush and Donald Trump. The undercard was the sudden explosion of the long-simmering contempt between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

The fireworks gave Governor Kasich of Ohio an opening to assert his role as the responsible grown-up, and while he scolded his rivals about the self-destructive nature of their childish outbursts, he failed to fully leverage the potential power of that role.  Sadly, Ben Carson lingers onstage, the ghost of opportunity passed.

When all was said and done, it’s possible that Marco Rubio managed to pull his candidacy out of free fall, and Governor Bush may have made real progress… just in time for his “do or die” deadline in the South Carolina primary. But in truth, for all the tumult and the shouting, nobody appeared to nobly advance his cause. South Carolina has a reputation for brutal politics; may the Hunger Games begin.

Bush v. Trump

How many times have we heard it: “This time Donald Trump may have gone too far.”

It wasn’t too far when he called Mexicans rapists, nor when he said that blood was coming out of Megyn Kelly’s “whatever;” not even when he said that John McCain was not a war hero; still not when he said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a vote, neither when he mused out loud about whether it mightn’t be a bad idea for the United States to assassinate the leader of a sovereign nation.  The train to “Too Far,” it turns out, is a local that appears to have far more stops than the number Seven train to Flushing.  

But Donald may have pulled into a close suburb of “Too Far” on Saturday evening, blatantly slandering of the first family of Republican politics.

Give Jeffrey Toobin credit for an insightful observation during the post-debate analysis. Called in by CNN to provide legal perspective on the death of Anthony Scalia, it was Toobin who pointed out that Donald Trump had accused George W. Bush of overtly lying to the American people about the need to initiate the war in Iraq.  Toobin noted that even many of the most strident Democrats castigate Bush for going to war on insufficient evidence, or going to war too quickly, or going to war without the support of allies, but very few people accuse him of overtly and intentionally lying about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in order to dupe the country to go to war. Maybe Rummy and Dick knew how to spell Machiavelli, but Dubya didn’t borrow that particular book out of the Beinecke Library.

Within the first ten minutes of the debate, Trump had set a startlingly contentious tone, jumping on Jeb Bush’s first utterance of the evening. “Jeb is sooooo wrong on this,” Trump bellowed, ostensibly making his point that the United States must defeat ISIS before attempting to take down Assad. But it was not the content of the point that mattered; Trump’s loathing and disrespect for Bush was so palpable that a wave of booing cascaded down from the audience. As in the last debate, Trump attempted to explain the booing as evidence that the Republican establishment had packed the house with cronies.

Jeb’s response was strong and showed depth, essentially pointing out that Trump is naïve to think that Putin is our ally in the battle in Syria. Bush reiterated his point that Putin is not bombing ISIS; “he is attacking the people we are supporting” – the native Syrian opposition to Assad.

But this surprisingly bitter exchange was mere prelude to the far more explosive confrontation that would shortly follow.  CBS’s John Dickerson, who showed a flinty willingness to demand specifics, substance, and follow-up throughout the evening, asked about a video clip from 2007 in which Trump had apparently commented that impeachment should have been considered given George W. Bush’s actions leading up to the war on Iraq. “You can call it what you want,” Trump said, in an apparent effort to distance himself from his prior use of the word “impeachment,” but then he proceeded to say something far worse. “They lied when they said there were weapons of mass destruction.”

Now, let’s take a moment. Most critics of George W. Bush think he was a naïve, uninformed, in-over-his-head cowboy who raced into an ill-considered war against Iraq due to his own ignorance, inexperience, arrogance, and let’s throw stupidity in, too. It’s probably a minority who think Bush was a brilliant Machiavellian genius who created a ruse about WMD to rally an unconvinced American population into a war to take out Saddam Hussein, all for the purpose of creating the sense that the administration was actually doing something to avenge 9/11.  Donald Trump has opted for the latter interpretation, accusing George W. Bush of what is essentially a “high crime or misdemeanor,” which does justify impeachment.

Jeb Bush, who is most effective as a candidate when he feels that his family legacy is under attack, proceeded to set a sharp rhetorical trap. “I am tired of you insulting my family,” he said, forcefully. By broadening the context to his “entire family” rather than merely his fifteen-watt brother, every belligerent accusation that Trump hurled thereafter was an attack on the entire clan.

Now, it is one thing to stand on a podium in New York City and call Mexicans rapists, but it is quite another thing to stand in South Carolina and call the Bushes liars; indeed, liars whose overt deceit caused the death and disfigurement of thousands of American combat troops. 

In South Carolina – a state heavily connected with the military – these are very serious accusations.   And for better or for worse, the Bushes are the First Family of Republican politics for this generation, especially in South Carolina. The elder George Bush is a beloved icon, and George Dubya has enjoyed a startling rapid revisionist rise. Taking the position that George Dubya should have been impeached for lying to the American people about the war on Iraq is a simply astonishing position for a Republican candidate to take.

Donald Trump has proudly run his campaign on his “tell it like it is” bluntness and his “gut feel” for articulating what most Americans really believe but feel frightened to say out loud. Out of the gate, his gut served him well.  But after unsteady performances over the past few weeks, it may be time for a gut-check.

Repeatedly during the evening, Jeb Bush got under Donald Trump’s skin. Whether the subject was immigration, bankruptcy, or eminent domain, Bush appeared to have figured out how to press Trump’s buttons. Trump has used an intimidating style, bombast, and the power of his personality to great effect over the campaign, but tonight was different… he was angry. He appeared to lose his temper.

Jeb Bush has used the word “unhinged” to describe Donald Trump; on Saturday night, he actually appeared to earn the title. His unrelenting vitriol at Bush was actually exceeded in intensity if not duration in a separate collision with Ted Cruz.

In a discussion about the implication of Judge Scalia’s death, Cruz ticked off the liberal positions Trump has held and the campaign donations that the Donald has directed to New York’s liberal political class. Cruz’s conclusion: that Trump was not a true conservative, and could easily pick a liberal judge to replace the not-yet-cold Scalia. 

Trump went ballistic at Cruz: “You are the single biggest liar… you are a bigger liar than Bush!  Cruz is a nasty guy!”

Chris Matthews of MSNBC has taken the interesting position over the course of this already-long campaign that he can tell which campaign is doing well based on how much they appearing to be enjoying themselves. Matthews has always given Trump high marks by this measure; that Trump is relaxed, confident, and often funny.

Trump was neither having fun nor funny last night. He was mean, angry; he was not simply interrupting, he was shouting in an effort to drown out and suffocate those who enraged him.

Perhaps that will be the tell-tale sign that the train has arrived at “Too Far…” when the pressure on the self-professed “winner” to actually win is so intense that Trump actually begins to crack.

See that wall that the Mexicans are going to pay for? I think I see Trumpty Dumpty on it, and he’s looking a bit wobbly. Where are all the king’s horses and all the king’s men?

Rubio v. Cruz

You know the world is somehow tilted into an alternate reality when the only two Hispanic candidates on the stage get into a screaming match about which one is doing the most to persecute the 11,000,000 undocumented immigrants in the United States; so many of whom are Hispanic.

The added irony is that both are trying to prove that the other one used to be kind, compassionate, and searching for legal mechanisms to assist the illegal immigrants without creating inequity for those who immigrated legally. “I have proof!” Cruz seems to be screaming, “that despite what Marco Rubio says now, he actually was once a thoughtful, humane, and empathetic person!!”

But this is no alternative universe; this discrete telenova-within-the- play was a blood battle between the two first term senators.  Cruz tried to paste “Rubio-Schumer amnesty plan” on Marco, only to be greeted by a wave of boos. Rubio retaliated by labeling Cruz a flip-flopper (“he either changed his position then or now!”), causing Cruz to trot out some apparently devastating thing Marco said in Spanish on Univision. Rubio landed on “for weeks now Ted Cruz has just been telling lies,” resulting in Cruz’s equal but rhetorically elevated “what Rubio says is knowingly false.” The audience was booing, and everyone appeared to wish Chris Christie would magically appear, because the only way to stop Cruz and Rubio would be if the fat guy sings.

Kasich Instinct

As is often the case, the key debate moment is the one that did not happen, the thought that was not articulated, the opportunity that was not seized.

What was most striking about last night was the booing.  Trump can rationalize it; Cruz even piggybacked on Donald’s theory when the tomatoes landed on him. But in the early debates, the red state crazies that packed in to see the full gang of 17 were applauding wildly for everybody and everything.

Now, we’ve seen two consecutive debates in which the candidates appear to be losing the crowd. The internecine artillery volleys, the personal vendettas, the rage… is it possible that it is starting to be too much?

It’s a pity, really, because in the thick of the incoming last night, John Kasich had his chance and blew it.

At one point, he did try to weigh in; he tried to talk about how the candidates needed to stop the bickering or “we’ll hand the election to Hillary.” But the moment called for a much stronger, much more muscular response; he needed to rise above and dismiss the other candidates as self-involved egotists who don’t have the country’s best interests at heart. It’s too bad, because Kasich has demonstrated a good instinct for finding a distinct, positive message within a campaign run amok with fear, hate, and intolerance.

It’s too bad Kasich did not make his move Saturday night. The train is getting dangerously close to “Too Far.”


Leave a comment