Republican Candidates Fight Over the ‘Mantle of Anger’

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GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Charleston
Who's maddest?Photo: Scott Olson/2016 Getty Images

The Fox Business Network moderators led the Republican presidential candidates exactly where they wanted to go in Thursday night’s long debate by framing it as a response to the president’s relatively upbeat assessment of America in the State of the Union address. They begged to differ, and differed from each other (with one exception, which I’ll get to in a moment) mainly in their assessment of their qualifications to deal with a country besieged by immigrant-terrorists, refugee-terrorists, and rampant criminals; teetering on the edge of economic collapse; humiliated hourly by mocking, strutting enemies; and led by virtual traitors. 

Ted Cruz, whose candidacy was already staked to the premise that conservatives can win the presidency without a single concession to anyone else, managed to ratchet up the high-pitched chattering whine of ideological extremism in his rhetoric via a closing statement that focused on Benghazi!, a pseudo-scandal that everyone other than the Faithful have written off for many months. Marco Rubio, his voice raised to a new stridency, is now routinely joining Ben Carson in blowing a Bircher dog whistle about Barack Obama aiming at a “fundamental change” in the nature of the country. He’s also now rationalizing his crabwise changes on immigration policy as a response to ISIS. Chris Christie, himself the target of attacks for being too much like Obama, suggested that massively expanded NSA surveillance could solve the problem of identifying “radical Islamists,” and sounded so much like a 1960s law-and-order candidate that you half expected him to attack the Earl Warren Court for taking the handcuffs off the criminals and putting them on the police. Even Jeb Bush, the only candidate to offer a real objection to Trump’s Islamophobia, seemed to suggest his rivals were mere paper tigers in assaulting the godless liberals.

A lot of the other exchanges — over Cruz’s qualifications to be president, and over his classic red-state demagoguery about “New York values;”
and the Rubio-Cruz fracas over tax policy that seemed to revolve around the suspicion that a VAT tax was “European” — canceled themselves out or just reinforced the impression that these men had exotic preoccupations.

John Kasich shined a light on the dark landscape of America depicted by the debaters simply by coming across as a boring, standard-brand conservative. His suggestion that protesters against police excesses might have a point stood out like a Bernie Sanders protester (though Kasich’s mockery of Sanders’s electability might draw attention to the fact that no pollster has taken Kasich seriously enough to test him against Bernie!). We’ll see if this approach gives him an angle on a crucial slice of moderate voters in New Hampshire, or simply confirms him as the Jon Huntsman of this cycle.

In the end, the domination of the endless debate time by everything other than the basic economic issues you might expect from a business network showed how far into the fever swamps the GOP contest has strayed. When Donald Trump responded to the attack from host-state Governor Nikki Haley on “the angriest voices” by saying “I will gladly welcome the mantle of anger,” he did not stand out at all. And after all the talk about the Republican field and the party Establishment conspiring to stop Trump, that’s the irony: They are increasingly the party of Trumpism With or Without Trump — plus John Kasich.