As the Republican presidential debate crept toward its cacophonous third hour, as I began to overdose on the sheer volume of fact-free fulminations, I suddenly flashed on what Tommy Lee Jones once said, in his role as a federal marshal in The Fugitive, when he arrived at the scene of a catastrophic train wreck:
“My my my. What. A. Mess.”
There were too many people on stage, colliding and blustering and spewing smoke. And there was ratings-starved CNN, desperate to drive the discourse to its lowest common demoninator, stoking petty conflict with questions that sounded like, “Hey Jeb, Donald hocked a loogie into your ear – you gonna do something about that?”
Every time I’m tempted to believe that Hillary Clinton’s email server is a big deal, a Republican spectacle comes along to provide some perspective. What a mess indeed. There was so much verbal hooey last night that I can’t even begin to parse it all. Highlights will have to suffice.
I have no idea who “won.” The next wave of polls will tell us what Republican primary voters are thinking (although I use the word think advisely). I suppose Carly Fiorna “won” because she gives good TV. She speaks with crisp precision, and that makes her look smart and in command. Tilda Swinton could play her in the movie, although she has a whiff of Tracy Flick, the hyper-prepared high-school striver in Election.
Fiorina stood up to fatuous Donald Trump – with a withering one-sentence response to his recent dissing of her face – and she lectured him nicely about how difficult it would be to remove birthright citizenship from the U.S. Constitution (he thinks he can snap his fingers with the help of some “great legal scholars,” but she pointed out that it would require “an extremely arduous vote in Congress, followed by two-thirds of the states”).
But when she started talking about Planned Parenthood….let’s just say that she was suddenly orbiting in an alternative universe.
Fiorina said, “I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully-formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” Problem is, she made that up out of whole cloth. The anti-abortion group’s videos don’t show any such thing. There is no footage of a “fully-formed fetus” on any such table. She was trying to imply that PP is illegally selling fetus body parts for profit – Ted Cruz said the same thing – but not a single state probe has turned up any evidence of sales for profit.
At another point in the debate, she insisted that President Obama didn’t really want to enact path-to-citizenship immigration reform. She said that he “could have chosen to do anything to solve this problem, but instead he chose to do nothing. Why? Because the Democrats don’t want this issue solved. They want it to be an issue that they can use” against the Republicans.
Um. If memory serves – and it serves me well – the House Republicans blocked immigration reform in 2013, even though Obama was pleading, “Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away.” Fiorina’s made-up talking point is fascinating, because, as I tweeted last night, the typical Republican talking point is that the Democrats want path-to-citizenship reform, pronto, so that they can garner millions of new Hispanic voters.
But if we’re talking about slinging the bull, we have to get back to Trump. (Only Trump could play Trump in the movie of this movie.) For all I know, last night’s whoppers will merely endear him further to his credulous fans. But maybe, just maybe, enough Republicans are sane enough to realize that this guy has no business being in this race, that it disgraces the party to have a frontrunner who opines in total ignorance about a medical link between vaccines and autism:
“Autism has become an epidemic. Twenty-five years ago, 35 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close. It has gotten totally out of control….You take this little beautiful baby, and you pump – I mean, it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child, and we’ve had so many instances, people that work for me. Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”
Ben Carson, an actual doctor, gently rebuked Trump. But nine studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – all concluding that vaccines don’t cause autism – give us definitive proof, as if we needed more, that when Trump tries to talk substance, he’s over his orange head.
Such was the case when he was asked about Vladimir Putin. Don’t bother parsing this for substance: “I would talk to him. I would get along with him. I believe – and I may be wrong, in which case I’d probably have to take a different path, but I would get along with a lot of the world leaders that this country is not getting along with….I will get along – I think – with Putin, and I will get along with others, and we will have a much more stable – stable world….I believe that I will get along – we will do – between that, Ukraine, all of the other problems, we won’t have the kind of problems that our country has right now with Russia and many other nations.” And when asked to name his foreign policy advisers, he simply said, “I’m meeting with people who are terrific people.”
(At one point in the debate, Jeb Bush confessed that he had smoked pot as a kid. I was disappointed that Trump didn’t get a chance to weigh in. Something like, “I get my stash from terrific people.”)
Speaking of Jeb: He had been coached to confront the bully, and he did so effectively. Trump keeps boasting that he’s not beholden to special interests, but Jeb reminded us that Trump by definition is his own special interest – as evidenced by Trump’s long failed campaign to bring casino gambling to Florida. When Jeb rightly pounted out that Trump “asked Florida to have casino gambling, and we said no,” Trump bellowed, “WRONG!”
Another Trump lie. According to reports by CNN, the St. Petersburg Times, and the Miami Herald, Trump started pushing for Florida casinos in 1998 (when he donated $50,000 to gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush), and was still pushing as recently as 2013 (when he said, “If Miami doesn’t do casinos, that would be a terrible mistake”).
But Jeb mouthed some doozies of his own. Compelled by Trump to defend his failed brother, he declared: “There’s one thing I know for sure. He kept us safe.” The memory-impaired audience duly yelled YAY. Yeah, W “kept us safe” – if you ignore the fact that W shrugged off a string of intelligence warnings (my favorite was when he reportedly told a CIA briefer, “OK, you’ve covered your ass now”); and if you ignore the fact that, post-9/11, he marched us into the wrong country and wound up destabilizing the Middle East, strengthening Iran in the process.
I could go on, but this piece seems nearly as long as last night’s Bataan death march. I could parse Ted Cruz’s promise that “on the very first day in office, I will rip to shreds this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal.” (I was waiting for someone to out-macho him, by vowing to decimate the document with an AK-47.) Or I could focus on Marco Rubio’s climate change denial: “We are not going to make America a harder place to create jobs in order to pursue policies that will do absolutely nothing, nothing to change our climate, to change our weather, because America is a lot of things, the greatest country in the world, absolutely….I am not in favor of any policies that make America a harder place for people to live, or to work, or to raise their families.” (Yo, fool: Salt water is already bubbling up from the sewers in South Beach.) John Kasich and Chris Christie surfaced occasionally to admonish their rivals for childishly fighting, Scott Walker and Rand Paul remained footnotes, Mike Huckabee vanished for so long that I assumed he was ascending heavenward with Kim Davis…
If you want factual reality, forget these debates. For instance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nine million previously uninsured people gained health coverage last year thanks to Obamacare, but you’d never hear that kind of fact at a Republican spectacle. What you did hear was Trump spewing his simpletudes: “We get rid of Obamacare, and we’ll have a great life altogether.”
That says it all. HIllary Clinton’s woes notwithstanding, last night surely made her smile.