Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the fourth GOP debate.
After the last GOP debate, when Marco Rubio outshone his former mentor in a key exchange, Jeb Bush and his allies talked a good game about mounting new attacks on him. But the widely predicted scenario of Bush taking down Rubio never materialized at the debate. Since that didn’t happen, what did?
Heaven knows Bush didn’t happen — yet again. He began the evening by complaining that he “got about four minutes” last time and then went on to be his usual earnest, wonky, inarticulate self. This time he did get more than four minutes — but more Bush, he doesn’t seem to realize, is less. And rather than go after Rubio, as promised, he again insisted on talking about Iraq, still unaware that Americans regard the war and his brother’s instigation and management of it as a calamity. To his credit, he did challenge Trump on the absurdity of deporting all of America’s undocumented immigrants — but he’ll get no credit from a GOP primary electorate that agrees with Trump and is appalled by Bush’s embrace of “amnesty.” Whatever. For all the postdebate talk that a modest improvement from his last debate performance stopped the Bush candidacy’s slide, the bottom line is that Bush remains an artificial construct who has no more chance of winning the 2016 presidential nomination than Bobby Jindal. His inevitable but incredibly attenuated exit from the presidential field reminds me of nothing so much as that running gag on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s mocking the lengthy deathwatch over the Spanish dictator Franco. “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead!” Chevy Chase would say in “Weekend Update.” Jeb Bush’s campaign: Still dead.
As for what did happen last night: The debate has been widely cheered as more “substantive” than its notorious immediate predecessor on CNBC. Perhaps the most substantive moments were provided by Rand Paul, who rather eloquently challenged the neocon foreign-policy orthodoxy of his party and pointed out that unchecked military spending is inconsistent with fiscal conservatism. But he isn’t going anywhere, and neither is John Kasich, whose knowledge of policy is deep but whose alternately angry and boorish effusions almost make Carly Fiorina seem personable by comparison.
The least substantive candidates were the two leading the polls: Trump and Ben Carson, both of whom are running on sheer ego. Dealing with questions about national security and financial regulation, Carson spoke in generalities and non sequiturs that suggest he has no intention of learning the most rudimentary information he needs to execute the job he seeks. Asked, with kid gloves, to address the controversies attending his own biography, the good doctor said, “People who know me know that I’m an honest person.” Well, that settles that! Trump also had little to offer beyond braggadocio and his usual self-congratulation on his ability to vanquish any adversary through sheer lung power and his Art of the Deal. Nonetheless, I’d bet that both Trump and Carson will remain at the top of GOP polls. Their ignorance is cherished by the many Republican primary voters who loathe all of those horrible incumbents in Washington in part for their elitist “expertise.”
The other news of the night was that the last debate’s boogeyman, the news media, was replaced by a new one, Hillary Clinton. When one questioner dared to suggest that Clinton’s résumé was more impressive in terms of government service than that of her potential GOP adversaries, the audience booed. Rubio gave a smirk of endorsement to that booing, a smarmy taste of how misogynistically the Republicans will overplay their hand against her next year.
Many have said that both Rubio and Ted Cruz did well last night, if only by process of elimination given the rest of the field. Maybe they are the guys to beat, but they aren’t there yet (including in the polls). Rubio was pitched soft balls by the Murdoch trio of moderators, who seemed to be protecting him now that Bush’s and Christie’s mishaps have left him the last GOP Establishment candidate standing. Though the debate was about economic matters, Rubio was never asked about his own inability to manage his personal finances. He was also never asked to take a stand in the spirited Bush-Kasich vs. Trump-Cruz debate on immigration — perhaps the No. 1 issue to the party’s base, and the issue on which he has famously flip-flopped. As for the equally slick Cruz, he also showed an Achilles heel. After declaring that he would kill the five most egregious federal agencies, he could only name four — and so named the Department of Commerce twice. He was also given a pass by the moderators, who didn’t call him on it. (Somewhere Rick Perry is sobbing.)
The Fox Business Network went into last night trying to avoid the mistakes made last month by CNBC, which was universally panned by conservatives and even some mainstream press critics for its sometimes trivial and seemingly partisan baiting of the GOP candidates. Did Fox follow through on its promise to elevate the debate’s tone?
I thought the CNBC debate was a train wreck, but last night’s often tedious affair made me nostalgic for its fisticuffs and relative spontaneity. At Fox, the tone was “elevated” by sober questions that, while deemed “substantive,” mainly allowed the candidates to deliver chunks of their stump speeches without challenge or interruption. Follow-up questions were rare. (No wonder the GOP chairman, Reince Priebus, praised the debate as “tough.”) It was embarrassing to watch the editor of The Wall Street Journal, who served as one of the moderators, sit idly by as Carson espoused a faith-based tax policy that wouldn’t pass muster with a debate club at one of America’s better high schools. The only times the debate even became a debate was when candidates picked their own fights with each other. At the end Neil Cavuto twice pronounced the show “riveting” — I doubt even Roger Ailes thought that. I watched the debate as streamed on the web because the hotel where I’m staying in Los Angeles — an outpost of a major international chain — does not carry Fox Business Channel even though it does carry Fox News, Fox Soccer, and Fox Sports. This debate explained why.
As the campaign drags on, more and more details from the candidates’ biographies appear to be not as advertised. Do the embellishments of Ted Cruz or Ben Carson pose a real danger to their campaigns?
Every politician is guilty of this to some extent, including Hillary Clinton, with her false tale of derring-do under sniper fire in Bosnia and her claim that all four of her grandparents were immigrants (only one was). Nonetheless, Carson has been caught peddling so many mythical biographical tales (all of which cast him as a hero) you begin to wonder if even his medical résumé is real. (Has anyone ever spoken to the conjoined twins he claims to have separated?) For their part, Rubio and Cruz have concocted false heroic narratives of what their parents did or didn’t do in Cuba. And at the debate itself, Fiorina, who has already been caught inventing a nonexistent video showing a fetus tap-dancing on a table, shamelessly declared herself “a chief executive who’s had to make tough calls to save jobs” even though she laid off some 30,000 Hewlett-Packard employees. (The Journal’s editor and the other moderators, of course, failed to call her on it.) But none of this fictionalizing poses a real danger to their campaigns for the Republican nomination because they are campaigning for the favor of a party that has severed itself from reality, from its denial of climate-change science to its conviction that Mitt Romney was going to whip Obama right up until Karl Rove had his meltdown on-camera on Election Night. Once the GOP nominee has to run in the real world of a general election, rather than in the confines of the conservative bubble, however, there is likely to be a rude awakening. Meanwhile, let the best fabricator win!