If success is measured in ignorance and arrogance, then the winner of the fourth Republican debate was Donald Trump.
Granted, it’s old news to bemoan the bloviating mogul, to marvel at how his persistent presence is disgracing the GOP, but he’s impossible to ignore, like the car wreck on the side of a road. He was booed twice last night by the Republican audience (more on that shortly – not merely because he’s obnoxious, but because the booers know darn well that a Trump nomination would spell doom next November. Indeed, a new national poll shows Hillary Clinton burying the boor by 15 points.
And granted, there was much else to marvel at last night. Credential-free Ben Carson opined on foreign policy (we can “fairly easily” seize Iraq oil fields!), which was like watching a toddler try to cross a city street without adult supervision. Ted Cruz extolled the “incredible economic growth” under Calvin Coolidge, somehow forgetting that Coolidge’s laissez faire ‘tude paved the way for the Great Depression. Carly Fiorina lied yet again, insisting that “Obamacare isn’t helping anyone” (except for the 16 million people it has helped, according to the U.S. Census and the Centers for Disease Control). Marco Rubio was characteristically slick, and thanks to the friendly Fox Business moderators, he never had to defend a tax plan that tilts toward the rich, deepens the budget deficit, and does nothing to alleviate the income inequality that Republicans claim to care about. Meanwhile, John Kasich bellowed at every turn, saying centrist stuff that might work in a general election, but is deadly in a Republican primary. He’s like the baggage-laden guy in line behind you at the airline counter, demanding to know why his flight was canceled.
But Donald Trump? Oh man. I can’t tell the difference between his real-life shtick and his Saturday Night Live act. Probably because the two are intertwined. He’s the apotheosis of politicotainment, and he’s doing great damage to the party he purports to lead. Let us count the ways:
Three years ago, Mitt Romney lost decisively in part because he argued for “self-deportation.” (Hispanic voters were pivotal in at least four key states.) Last night, Trump again argued for the need to go further, to forcibly eject as many as 11 million people. (“They are going to have to go out.”) He sought to buttress his stance by citing a modest removal program that President Eisenhower OK’d in the 1950s. He neglected to mention that the program was called Operation Wetback, and that it was infamous for its human rights abuses. (Some deportees, shipped back in cargo boats, drowned. At least 88 more, abandoned without food in the Mexican desert, died of heat stroke.)
Kasich, the Ohio governor, tried to point out that Trump’s magic solution was unworkable in the real world: “If people think that we are going to ship 11 million people who are law-abiding, who are in this country, and somehow pick them up at their house and ship them out of Mexico — to Mexico, think about the families. Think about the children …. Children would be terrified.”
They sparred for a bit until Trump summarily decreed, “You should let Jeb speak.” (As if it was his province to decide.) They sparred a bit more until Trump decided that he shouldn’t have to listen to somebody with a lower poll rating: “I don’t have to hear from this man, believe me. I don’t have to hear from him.” Cue the boos — not for his bad policy, but for his bad manners.
Enter Jeb: “Thank you, Donald, for allowing me to speak at the debate. That’s really nice of you. Really appreciate that. What a generous man you are.” (Jeb is so vanilla that you could barely detect the sarcasm.) He then stated the obvious, that when the Republicans talk about forced deportation as a magical bromide, “they’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this.” True that. Clinton strategists immediately tweeted that they were doing high-fives. Even if Trump fails to win the nomination, his racism may well stain the party anyway.
(Quick digression: Couldn’t help noticing that Rubio silenced his golden tongue during the immigration exchange. Earlier in his non-achieving Senate career, Rubio championed path-to-citizenship reform. That’s a no-no with The Base, so last night he stayed mute. He didn’t want his rivals to bring that up.)
In an earlier debate, Trump said he’d tame the Russian despot by “getting along” with him. That remark has proved a tad inconvenient. Which is why, when Trump was asked last night what he would do to confront Putin’s aggression, he cooked up an inedible word salad:
“Well, first of all, it’s not only Russia. We have problems with North Korea, where they actually have nuclear weapons. You know, nobody talks about it. We talk about Iran, and that’s one of the worst deals ever made. One of the worst contracts ever signed, ever, in anything, and it’s a disgrace. But, we have somebody over there, a madman, who already has nuclear weapons. We don’t talk about that. That’s a problem. China is a problem, both economically in what they’re doing in the South China Sea, I mean, they are becoming a very, very major force. So, we have more than just Russia.”
Finally, he got back to Putin. The gist was that if Putin wants to fight ISIS in Syria, great, and then America will somehow benefit from the damage: “He’s going in, and we can go in, and everybody should go in …. Why are we always doing the work? …. We can’t continue to be the policeman of the world. We are $19 trillion, we have a country that’s going to hell, we have an infrastructure that’s falling apart. Our roads, our bridges, our schools, our airports, and we have to start investing money in our country.”
That’s basically the Rand Paul position, the notion that America should hang back from the world’s hot spots. Within the GOP, that’s the minority position, and I can’t see how Trump sells it next year. Which is why Jeb got cheered when he stepped in (for once!) and said, “Donald’s wrong on this. He is absolutely wrong on this. We’re not going to be the world’s policeman, but we sure as heck better be the world’s leader …. The idea that it’s a good idea for Putin to be in Syria, let ISIS take out [Syria leader] Assad, and then Putin will take out ISIS? I mean, that’s like a board game, that’s like playing Monopoly or something. That’s not how the real world works.”
Trump’s ‘d’oh!’ moment
Trump predictably railed against the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement: “The TPP is a horrible deal. It is a deal that is going to lead to nothing but trouble. It’s a deal that was designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone.” In other words, according to Trump, this international trade deal is bad because we negotiated badly with China.
Whereupon Rand Paul jumped in: “We might want to point out China is not part of this deal.”
Just a little fact that Trump should’ve known. Indeed, said Paul, “There is an argument that China doesn’t like the deal, because in us doing the deal, we’ll be trading with their competitors.”
You’ve really screwed up when you get yourself punked by a cipher like Rand Paul.
Sexism, yet again
The GOP has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections primarily because they decisively lose woman voters. Trump is not helping the party recoup lost ground. Last night, the men on the margins — notably Kasich and Paul — repeatedly interrupted their rivals, to compensate for their fringe positions on stage. But late in the debate, when Fiorina sought to do the same, Trump audibly muttered, “Why does she keep interrupting everybody? Terrible.”
Whereupon he was booed, again. For the sake of the party’s long-term health, they should keep it up.