Did you ever go to a baseball game where everyone’s having a blast, drinking a few brewskis, and enjoying the antics of that one exuberant fan who’s shouting at the Jumbotron and telling funny jokes about the umpires? And they’re really good jokes because the umpires aren’t having their best game?
And then that fan just keeps going and won’t stop? And he starts making inappropriate jokes about the women seated a few rows back from him? And then he vomits all over the people in front of him? And then he starts yelling racist insults at the cops who remove him from the stands? Well if you haven’t, you need to go an Oakland A’s game some time! (I kid, I kid. Not really. They’re crazy.)
Anyway, last night’s GOP debate in Detroit was like the tail-end of the above scenario, with Donald Trump playing the part of “Drunk Oakland A’s fan who is at first funny before he vomits cheese fries on your kids.”)
Let’s look at some of the takeaways of one of the worst debates in the history of democracy.
1. The End of the Republic?
The debate was a low-point not just in the history of American democracy, but democracy itself. We’re talking end-of-Rome-levels of bad. Actual debates, where intelligent men come together to argue a position of importance, are important for free people. Televised debates of the type we’ve seen for the last half-century began as somewhat substantive pseudo-events and have deteriorated into the spectacle they are today.
In some sense, last night’s debate was the natural end of that Kennedy-Nixon debate where radio listeners said Nixon won while TV listeners said JFK won. It was the natural end of judging candidates based on their entertainment value and ability to sell ad revenue instead of on their ability to lead the executive branch of a constitutional republic.
It wasn’t the questions, which were mostly quite good and pointed to all of the candidates. It wasn’t any problem with the moderators, who were on their A-game and had clearly done a ton of preparation.
Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio calmly and consistently made the case that Trump had tons of bluster, but not the policies, temperament, consistency, or trustworthiness needed in a president. They showed how he regularly contradicted himself and that he personally engaged in business practices at odds with his proposals on immigration. They discussed, the few times it came up, their own policy proposals and records on taxes, immigration, religious liberty, and other important issues.
Trump, for his part, protested that his penis wasn’t as small as had been alleged. When asked to provide substance to policy questions, he gratuitously insulted the nearest person. When pressed to give an answer, he acted out and called everyone else liars.
It was the distilled Trump petulance we’ve seen served with not an ounce of the humor it typically comes with, humor that makes it go down easier. We’ll look at the substance of Trump’s performance in a second here, including an ominous claim about what he’d force the military to do, but the bottom line is that he made the debate nearly unwatchable. He was the drunk fan vomiting on your children, leaving you to clean up the mess.
An email from a friend concluded, “Good lord, sometimes I really hate Republicans. I suppose I’m a rube for being naive enough to think they might actually hold a substantive debate tonight. But it’s an absolute s*** show. A circus. And this time it’s not just because of the candidates. It’s for the embarrassment of an ‘audience’ that they let in the joint. The joke’s on me. And the rest of America who still actually cares about this stuff.”
Gen. George Washington said, “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people. The general government … can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, or any despotic or oppressive form so long as there is any virtue in the body of the people.”
“A republic, if you can keep it,” said Dr. Benjamin Franklin.
There has never been a debate more at odds with a campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again.” It was a depressing debacle. I fear the republic is lost. We are an uneducated people that praise ignorance, celebrity, and entertainment over statesmanship. We are degenerates, immoral, and lost. We the people have not acted as those concerned about preserving the gift of self-government. The fraying fabric of society is putting the republic at risk.
2. Well Hello Ted Cruz
Rubio had a fine night, but it was clear that he was a bit under the weather. Cruz had a very strong debate. Los Hermanos Cubanos combined to hit Trump from many angles. And they didn’t hit anyone else. It was focused, and it was devastating. One good example was how they talked about Trump University, the business course company that is at the center of a fraud lawsuit that Trump’s been battling for years. Rubio brought it up, focusing on the victims who got nothing in return for spending a ton of money. He said the reason it mattered was because Trump was trying to con Americans the same way he’d conned these students.
Cruz brought it back around to what would happen to the Republican Party and Trump’s candidacy if he were to face Hillary Clinton in the general, a theme he revisited later in the debate.
“The stakes in this election are too high. For seven years, millions of Americans, we’ve been struggling, wages have been stagnating, people are hurting, our constitutional rights are under assault. And if we nominate Donald, we’re going to spend the spring, the fall, and the summer with the Republican nominee facing a fraud trial.”
Trump kept interrupting everyone non-stop. A few times, Cruz treated him like a child. At one point he said, “Donald, I know it’s hard not to interrupt but try. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.” Many have noted the Stepford wife-like deference shown by Gov. Chris Christie, who endorsed Trump last week. He always calls him Mr. Trump. It’s kind of weird. That Cruz kept calling him “Donald” only emphasized the power play. For instance, he noted that “Donald has a tenuous relationship with the truth.”
So it turns out that if you attack Trump, he kind of melts down. Imagine if GOPers had done it in the fall. Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) March 4, 2016
Trump, unable to answer substantive policy questions, kept repeating his argument that he should become president because he’s in the lead in the polls. His favorite poll to talk about, among many, was a CNN poll showing him with a crazy 49 percent. The next day he fell far short of that percentage in every state he competed in other than Massachusetts. He lost four states, and he won three by only 2-3 percent. But he likes the poll in any case and asked Cruz what he thought about the poll.
Cruz replied that Trump is obsessed with polls. Trump said he was not. Cruz said that in any case, the CNN poll he loves shows Trump with dominant support over the other candidates, but it also shows him losing to Clinton. And it shows Cruz beating Clinton.
This reinforced Cruz’s theme that Trump would not be a strong candidate in the general election. Cruz also seemed above the fray. He seemed to express an almost “in sadness, not anger” approach to Trump. Like Trump couldn’t help himself, but that this was just sad.
Which reminds me of what my mom wrote me mid-way through the debate, as Trump was flailing. She texted me the following. “Trump. So sad!” That this was the takeaway is completely the result of of Cruz and Rubio pummeling him. They learned from the previous debate and kept at it.
Here’s a quote from Cruz that shows his case against Trump:
CRUZ: Let me ask the voters at home, is this the debate you want playing out in the general election? The stakes in this election are too high. For seven years, millions of Americans, we’ve been struggling, wages have been stagnating, people are hurting, our constitutional rights are under assault. And if we nominate Donald, we’re going to spend the spring, the fall, and the summer with the Republican nominee facing a fraud trial with Hillary Clinton saying why did you give my campaign and my foundation $100,000?
3. Kasich Is Not Good
John Kasich’s answers were a nice countermatch to the big boys, but he speaks in jargon and liberal platitudes. He was given a chance to improve his answer on religious liberty from a previous debate, and he waffled it. See “John Kasich’s Narrow View of Religious Liberty.”
As background, each of the four dissenting justices in the Obergefell sounded huge alarms about how this decision would lead to increased religious liberty conflicts throughout the country. Small business owners in states across the country are being targeted by activists, the media, and the state, to sniff out dissenters on the redefinition of marriage. Kasich had previously said he didn’t support their religious liberty. Last night, he reiterated that he believed people lost their conscience and religion rights when they are at work but that people should try to be nicer to them.
Cruz took the opportunity to remind Republican voters of his work on three important religious liberty cases, and how he won in front of the Supreme Court on the issue.
At one point, one of the moderators showed a Kasich-developed older ad saying that Trump was naive about the danger of Vladimir Putin. In recent days, critics have accused Kasich of helping Trump out and seeking a vice presidential nod. The moderators asked Kasich if he believed Trump was naive about Putin and Kasich said, “I’m not taking the bait.” He talked about something else instead. When the moderators asked a kind of stupid question — in part because it didn’t lead to actual conversations about the underlying issues at play — about whether the non-Trump candidates would support Trump if he won the nomination, I half expected Kasich to say, “I already am!”
4. Moderators Good
The Fox News moderators covered a wide range of topics, asked difficult questions with pointed follow-ups, and allowed the candidates to tussle a bit. When Chris Wallace asked Trump about how he’d cut $10 trillion from the federal budget, Trump said he’d cut the Department of Education, Common Core, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Wallace immediately put up a slide showing that would only save $78 billion. Trump said he’d get the rest by saving hundreds of billions in pharmaceutical sales. Wallace immediately put up a slide showing “Medicare total only spends $78 billion a year on drugs.” Prior to the debate, word went around that Fox News’ leadership was moving to support Trump more. Many expected them to pull punches against him. It ended up being almost exactly like Rubio’s similar claim before the last debate. The moderators were actually asking questions that were difficult for Trump to avoid.
Viewers were somewhat interested in seeing whether Megyn Kelly would be tough or easy on Trump. Spoiler: She was tough. The two exchanged pleasantries and then Kelly calmly did her job — and did it well.
She asked him to clarify how flexible he was about this proposed wall with Mexico (very, he said). She asked him whether he’d release tapes of an off-the-record session with The New York Times supposedly about his real views on immigration that aren’t what he has been saying to win the GOP primary. He didn’t answer at first. She pressed. He said he wouldn’t release the tapes because of how much he respects the media’s processes. She knew her facts about Trump University and so when Trump tried his word salad avoidance method, she responded with more specifics.
She asked him to clarify his stance on H1B visas, which allow for short-term labor from other countries. He claimed he’d evolved on his position from against them to for them. After the debate ended, his staff rushed out a statement bringing him back to his original position.
Bret Baier was also good, pointing out Trump’s inconstancy on the 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms. He’d once called for weapons bans. For his part, Trump said he’s currently in support of gun rights.
Less enjoyable was the post-debate, where my husband and I couldn’t handle even two minutes of Bill O’Reilly’s puffball interview with Trump. Twitter reported that it got worse, and that the Fox News twitter account seems to be running only pro-Trump messages.
5. Trump’s Ominous Promise Regarding the Military
Horrified parents took to social media to complain that their children were watching the debate out of civic virtue or as homework, only to hear Trump deal with his insecurities about his manhood live on television. Others were simply upset that they or their children had to hear Trump’s gratuitous and constant insults when asked to answer a question. The first question to Trump was about whether he could respond to Mitt Romney’s criticism of him without insults. (He couldn’t. He launched right into them and didn’t care.)
He was a tangled mess of word salad and gratuitous insult after gratuitous insult after gratuitous insult. But the worst part of the debate was when Trump was asked by Bret Baier about General Michael Hayden, former CIA director, NSA director, who said that when Trump asked the U.S. military to carry out some of his “campaign promises, specifically targeting terrorists’ families, and also the use of interrogation methods more extreme than waterboarding, the military will refuse because they’ve been trained to turn down and refuse illegal orders.” Trump repeatedly insisted he would force them to do it.
An order to kill children — on purpose — would break the relationship between the military and its civilian commander-in-chief. David French (@DavidAFrench) March 4, 2016