Wednesday, November 11, 2015
The Fourth GOP Debate: The Elephant in the Room
Here is my choice for the most curious development to emerge from the fourth Republican debate. I invite fact-checkers (if any still exist in this post-reality debate process) to confirm or deny it, but I’d wager a Romney-size bet that the majority of times that the word “Republican” was mentioned last night, it was actually in a negative context.
Carly Fiorina’s constant mantra is that the mess we call today’s Federal government was created by “Republicans and Democrats.” Ted Cruz vilifies his own party leaders. Even down in the play-pen debate, Bobby Jindal exclaimed that the “last thing we need is another big government Republican.” I do recall Rand Paul tossing a brief positive shout-out to Republican governors and mayors, thereby carefully excluding those who work for the Federal government.
So, on a night when even the word “Republican” was spat out with disdain formerly reserved for entitlements, low T foreign policy, and Mexican rapists, who won?
Marco Rubio didn’t even break a sweat last night and yet I predict that he will emerge as the evening’s big winner… perhaps more over the long term than the near term polls. In this debate, Rubio emerged as the true elephant in the room, the anointed centrist who will soon be assigned the role of saving the party from trumped up blow-hards and dangerous carcinogens. Let me explain.
It was not that Rubio himself was so magnificent, so much as his absolutely critical role in this election cycle became crystal clear.
Jeb Bush has now proven with a dogged consistency that has no instinct for this game; he has a flair for actually falling to the occasion. Even when coached; even when he is at his best – which he may well have been – he is the can of beer you left out overnight; warmed over, lacking fizz, and now simply a stale and unwelcome reminder of a bad party that you’d like to forget. Jeb won’t leave until the first votes are cast, but Iowa and New Hampshire are going to give him a short, cold, lonely winter.
· John Kasich outperformed Bush last night, but he repeatedly tripped himself up by too aggressively advocating for a thing that I’ll just call “reality.” He went right up Trump’s nose by declaring it folly to contemplate the physical removal of eleven million people from the United States, which frankly would be a fair point even if we were talking about people who were actually willing to leave. Later, Kasich’s eyes virtually popped with amazement at Ted Cruz’s uncompromising assertion that he would happily let Bank of America fail with the life savings of millions of Americans. And yet, the overall impression one had is that Kasich’s determination to introduce the soiled and messy fabric of real life into Fantasy Island was just one more example of Low T; as if Kasich was just another appeaser, another weak-kneed republican afraid to take a stand. I mean, this guy is so weak that he compromises with reality.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump seems to be realizing that it’s good to eliminate Bush and Kasich, but he might actually need a happy, healthy Marco Rubio. Trump is shrewd enough to realize that his biggest strength – his “take all prisoners” approach to immigration – is indeed growing into his greatest liability. His determination to execute an “eleven million man march” back over the border caused Jeb Bush to note that “they are all high-fiving over at Clinton headquarters.” How to solve this dilemma? Easy: name Rubio his VP; the great white but mostly Hispanic hope. Has anyone noticed that Trump treats Rubio with kid gloves?
Who else needs a healthy Rubio?
Let’s start with the centrist money. With Bush and Kasich unable to get traction, the big donors who believe that extremists of any flavor cannot beat Clinton have been waiting to see which of Kasich, Bush, Christie, or Rubio emerges to take up the centrist banner. And the answer by the end of Tuesday night was becoming emphatically clear. Christie ironically had a terrific night in the romper room debate, but it is time to tell the truth: once you’ve been sent down to the playpen, you never come back. Bush and Kasich failed to get the traction they desperately need. So the centrist Republican money is going to start to flow to Rubio, and the other three will begin to look like George Clooney in Gravity, oxygen cut off and floating out into deep space.
Not to be ignored: Rubio seemed to enjoy simple good fortune. While Kasich and Trump ripped each other to shreds over immigration, Rubio wisely kept his powder dry, and the moderators did not chose to drag him in. In a debate whose theme was fiscal policy and expertise, not one question came to Rubio about his shabby personal financial management. Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good.
Ben Carson set his spacecraft into an orbit slightly closer to planet earth than previous debates; his naps were generally shorter and he stuck toothpicks under his eyelids. My own personal favorite debate moment: when Neil Cavuto came after him about the recent spate of errors, exaggerations, and outright falsehoods in his campaign bio, Carson found a way to lay down the Benghazi card! Carson’s political version of a rope-a-dope strategy is wearing thin; it’s telling that Ali knew to only use it once.
Ted Cruz always turns in a charismatic performance, although for a seasoned and brilliant debater, he allowed the headline for his evening to be his nearly precise replication of Rick Perry’s candidacy-ending failure to remember the names of the government agencies he would shut down. Call it “Cruz-out-of-control,” and baffling just about everyone, he followed Perry’s exact script towards a climax that only missed the Texan’s utterly sublime “Oops!” With only one sound bite per candidate per news cycle, Cruz will rue this error as it makes the rounds of the comedy shows. He shot his foot off; one hopes it might cause him to reconsider his position on gun control.
Carly Fiorina is not growing on anyone. She has somehow failed to grasp that her electric performance in the first two debates was based on her razor sharp spontaneous responses, each one tighter and crisper and more emphatic than the last. Now, she seems to simply repeat her core riff ad nauseum, talking sternly over the moderators, and sounding mean-spirited and petulant instead of clear-headed and defiant. George W. Bush allegedly carried the day over wonkish Al Gore and stiff patrician John Kerry because people felt that he was much more the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with. The electorate’s need to feel this type of comfort with a candidate will ultimately push the very chilly Carly to the sidelines.
How I will miss Rand Paul! I hope otherwise but I do fear that he punched his ticket on the Jindal Jitney to Santorumville on Tuesday. It’s too bad, because he may have had his best, most articulate night of his campaign. Paul desperately tried to point out that you cannot be a “fiscal conservative” and advocate for radically increasing military spending. Rubio showed just how quick he is on his feet, leaping at the opportunity to play military muscle-man and champion of the vital importance of American military might to the safety of the planet. Later, Paul tried to point out that trying to implement a “no-fly zone” over Syria at this point is effectively signing up for shooting down Russian warplanes. But in each instance, he allowed his isolationist instincts to come off as weakness on defense. Even Atlas shrugged.
In the end, however, Rand Paul has served the process well. No one else is pointing out the essential contradiction of the emerging Republican platform. On the one hand, the party seems unified about the belief that the Federal government is terrible at everything it does except in its role as operator of the world’s pre-eminent military force, which is absolutely essential to trying to keep the peace in the fractious and volatile Middle East. Unfortunately, such a platform could serve to remind voters about the last time the republicans held the White House and used the world’s pre-eminent military force to try to keep peace in the fractious and volatile Middle East. Thank you, Rand Paul; and yes, now they really are high-fiving over at Hillary’s headquarters.
As always, I must insert a word on the moderators, no matter how incredibly painful this exercise has become. But, yes, Fox Business News blew away CNBC so completely that John Harwood was last spotted orbiting Uranus. The Wall Street Journal representative, Gerard Baker, was particularly tough but fair; gutsy enough to ask the Repubs to address the hard reality that statistics prove that Democratic administrations have vastly out-performed Republicans in job creation. However, I must admit that it blows my mind that in all four hours of CNBC and Fox Business Network debate, focused solely on economic issues, not one journalist asked the Republicans what they will say when the Gipper’s own question is turned on them: “What are you going to say when Hillary Clinton asks America whether or not they think better off now than they were eight years ago?”
Which all brings me back to the elephant in the room.
Extremists care about being right, and centrists care about winning.
Sooner or later, the Grand Old Party is going to be heard from. They meet for quiet lunches in Manhattan clubs and they grouse that having a Super PAC isn’t as much fun as it sounds if your candidate gets disemboweled in prime time by a cable network’s money honey.
The party elders are patient men; they know that it can literally take months to make billions in private equity. But they know they are running out of time. They have been waiting for the process to reveal the real elephant in the room: the centrist who can avert the disaster and self-destruction of allowing the party to be hijacked by pretenders who are intent on renting the party apparatus to advance own personal brand.
Tuesday night, it became just a bit more apparent that Marco Rubio is that guy.