Our weary US politics watcher J. BROOKS SPECTOR rose once again rose at 2 am, South Africa time, to watch the third Republican presidential candidates’ debate and the spin-room action afterwards. After some near-lethal doses of really strong coffee, here is his report.
Yet again your correspondent got up very early in the morning, as a public service to save readers the need to do so themselves. As a huge favour to those who needed their rest for a new day, we can tell you who “won” and “lost” this time – the third debate for Republican presidential candidates in the US – that took place in Boulder, Colorado at the University of Colorado on 28 October. The short answer is that senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz came out on top. And the biggest loser was Jeb Bush.
Meanwhile, treading water in this pool is that trio of non-politician politicians – Donald Trump, Dr Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Although there was a horde of others on the same stage that night, they pretty much faded into the woodwork on Wednesday evening in America. And, oh, yes, the sponsoring broadcaster, CNBC, was, by acclamation, the biggest loser of all. (The network was not running for office, though.)
For former Florida governor Jeb Bush, last night’s debate had been touted as a crucial moment in his increasingly floundering campaign to become the Republican Party’s choice for the presidency. In what seems a lifetime ago, he had been the early favourite to sweep up the nomination, virtually even before the fun really began. But that trio of non-politician politicians and Florida senator Marco Rubio (once a Bush acolyte) have increasingly upset those calculations. As AP reporters Julie Pace and Thomas Beaumont described it, “Marco Rubio bid forcefully for control of the Republican Party’s establishment wing in Wednesday night’s third GOP debate, deflecting jabs from Jeb Bush, who desperately sought to right his floundering campaign.”
Jeb Bush had sharply criticised Rubio for his frequent absences for votes in the Senate, saying “Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a 6-year term and you should be showing up for work. You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job.” As for his own efforts, Bush has been forced to rein in his own campaigning due to an unexpected funding crunch within his campaign organisation. In reply, Rubio insisted Bush’s charges were a ploy by an increasingly struggling candidate, responding with, “The only reason you’re doing it is that we’re running for the same position and someone has convinced you that attacking me will help you.”
Questioned about some of the more awkward moments of his personal financial history, Marco Rubio turned those questions into a chance to sell a compelling personal story. He reminded the live audience and viewers on television that he was the son of poor Cuban immigrants. He hadn’t inherited family money and – unlike some of his rivals, hint, hint – he knows exactly what it is like to struggle to pay off his loans and afford to raise his family. “I know what it’s like to owe that money. I’m not worried about my finances. I’m worried about the finances of everyday Americans.” Once again, he was trying on the GOP equivalent of a certain Democratic candidate of some seven years ago, offering that mix of hope and rootedness in the realities of the average family.
Meanwhile, Texas senator Ted Cruz appears to have pushed his way forward to position himself forcibly as the insurgent’s champion, once those non-politicians falter. He is, it seems, betting the Trump/Carson/Fiorina outsiders’ triumvirate will inevitably lose its lustre, once the total number of candidates begins to shrink and the larger population (beyond political groupies) actually starts to focus more closely on presidential politics from the beginning of 2016, when the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries come into view and proximity.
This most recent debate had been designed to focus closely on the economic plans and policies of the candidates. However, far too often, that would-have-been/should-have-been focus was superseded by angry people talking over one another, some sharp bickering and a considerable degree of juvenile “yes you are” “no, I’m not” back and forth between both the candidates – and their interrogators.
Too often, as well, Trump, Carson and Fiorina seemed stymied in coming up with the specifics of their proposed economic policies – or, alternatively, when they did, their plans simply didn’t add up. For example, in a bit of a bait and switch, while he found himself disagreeing with policies on his own website, Trump spent much of his time trying to explain his plans to deal with Mexican undocumented aliens and his giant wall along the country’s southern border. Trump was visibly angry when one of the debate’s moderators said his policy proposals, including that wall along the border and deportations of everyone who is in the US illegally, amounted to a “comic book” of a campaign. And, once again, he was pushed to defend his use of the nation’s bankruptcy laws as a standard business technique. Or, as The Donald said in his defence, “I’ve used that to my advantage as a businessman. I used the laws of the country to my benefit.” Of course, he also drew a wild card when he explained he sometimes carried a firearm, just to show how unpredictable he was, as opposed to all those lesser beings now in charge in Washington.
Meanwhile, Ben Carson tried to explain how his flat tax of 10% (or 15%, if one accepted his semi-clarifying, semi-fudge) would actually help the country by improving growth, even as it took much more (as a percentage) from working and middle class families than from the rich. And Carson was pushed onto the back foot yet again when he had to deny charges he was entangled with the nutritional supplement maker, Mannatech. He acknowledged using the company’s products and giving paid speeches for the company, even though it has been pursued by legal challenges over health claims for those products, but denied he had given them the right to put his picture on their website.
Along the way, Chris Christie (and the others) thundered on about how the federal government has raided the Social Security (American old age pensions) cookie jar for its other stealthy, nefarious schemes – and pretty much everyone piled on with the charge that the monster of the government’s national debt has spiralled out of control. For some, the fault was those dastardly Democrats, while for others, like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul (remember him?), insisted the whole thing was actually the fault of a broken political system more generally. Regardless, the key for Republicans was to pare back government spending on social welfare entitlements and undefined waste, fraud and mismanagement as the only way forward.
Inevitably, too, yet another old bugbear of the political right, the so-called bias of the so-called mainstream media was excoriated by several candidates – to sustained applause by the live audience. And inevitably, too, that enemy was identified as a fifth column of a cheering section for the now-increasingly likely nomination of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate. Cruz in particular gained loud applause when he charged the debate’s moderators were deliberately trying to stir fights among the candidates, arguing this was proof of media bias against Republicans — a popular line with GOP voters. (That charge is a bit of a head scratcher. One would have thought that was precisely the role of debate moderators, identifying, clarifying and bringing to the fore those annoying differences between candidates in something labelled as a debate. Otherwise, there really isn’t much of a point to having one, now is there? And the question that so inflamed Cruz, was about the debt ceiling, which Cruz chose to ignore.)
The field of GOP candidates has now evolved into a sharp contrast to the one over in the Democratic camp where frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to be strengthening her position vis-a-vis Bernie Sanders, even as she increasingly adopts some of the rhetoric he has been using. Campaigning in New Hampshire ahead of the GOP debate, Clinton had scoffed that the Republican contest is like a “reality TV show but the cast of characters are out of touch with actual reality.” Now was that a dig at sometime reality television star Donald Trump, or what?
Summing up the rest of the field, the Bush image took a hit when his answers failed to ignite much of a spark. Meanwhile, Ohio governor John Kasich had been particularly vigorous from the start of the debate as he bewailed the unexpected strength of those three non-politician politician candidates. As he said, “We are on the verge of perhaps picking someone who cannot do this job.” But he faded as the debate moved on. Christie, meanwhile, in his pugnacious way tried to pick his fight with Hillary Clinton, saying, “You put me on the stage with her next September and she won’t get within 10 miles of the White House.”
But the race now seems to be, increasingly, a struggle between a younger politician with an optimistic perspective and an inspiring personal story line, a la Marco Rubio, versus another younger politician, in the person of Ted Cruz, with a similarly inspiring personal saga, but with a sharply more pugnacious political perspective. Their joint challenge, of course, is how to out-manoeuvre the trio of Trump, Carson and Fiorina without thoroughly splitting their party or destroying themselves in the process. DM
Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) Governor John Kasich, former Governor Mike Huckabee, former Governor Jeb Bush, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, businessman Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Chris Christie and U.S. Rep. Rand Paul pose before the start of the 2016 U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate held by CNBC in Boulder, Colorado, October 28, 2015. REUTERS/Evan Semon.