Last Night's GOP Debate

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by Michael Sean Winters

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Last night’s Fearfest in Las Vegas was the most interesting and, in its way, substantive Republican debate so far. All the candidates played on the fears of the American people, and it might work: The American people have good reason to be afraid of the violence that stalks our society, although only a sliver of that violence is tied to Islamicist extremists, and that sliver got almost all the attention last night. President Obama’s aloof coolness in the face of the threat posed by ISIS, dating back to his dismissal of the group as the “JV team” up to his more assertion that ISIS had been contained, only gives greater substance to those fears.

Like all debates, many of the most interesting exchanges were about the different personalities and experiences of the candidates, but what was really on display last night were the different ideologies that constitute today’s Republican Party.

Sen. Marco Rubio represented the neo-conservative ideology: He made clear he is less concerned about privacy rights than he is about giving law enforcement and the intelligence agencies all the tools they need to hunt down the bad guys. He made clear that he thinks that military engagement is the reflexive, first tool of American power and diplomacy. And, this militarism comes dressed, sincerely I think, in a robust internationalism that is rooted in Western values. This is important: The twentieth century witnessed increasing U.S. engagement with the world, a process led by great statesmen like Wilson and Roosevelt and Truman, eventuating in sole superpower status, and that development was not an entirely bad thing, nor an entirely good thing. In the neo-conservative vision, it was all good. They may look at history through rose-colored glasses, but at least they wrestle with the need to inject values into discussions about the use of force.

Sen. Ted Cruz, clearly aiming to try and unite all wings of the far right under his banner, gave a nod to libertarianism, but he essentially set forth a realpolitik vision. Yes, he thinks that Islamicist extremism is evil; Who doesn’t? But, Cruz’s talk was all about interests, defending those interests, dealing with dictators if they are friendly, confronting them when they are not. Cruz and Rubio had the most heated exchanges of the night, and neither man looked comfortable on the defensive. Cruz scored against Rubio on immigration, to be sure, but he did not score any knockout blows.

Sen. Rand Paul probably should no longer be on the main debate stage, but I was glad he was. He challenged Rubio strongly and named the Florida Senator’s ideology for what it is, classic neo-conservatism. Sen. Paul’s libertarian isolationism shares the selfishness of realpolitik, but it aspires to ideological inspiration with its robust defense of civil liberties, which are, after all, a part of our national tradition about which we should be proud.

Finally, Donald Trump's approach to foreign policy, like his approach to the whole of human existence, is about the power of personality. He will get the smartest people. He will come up with the bestest solutions. He will be the toughest guy. He will make America great again. He was, per usual, short on specifics and, at one point, clearly did not understand a question about the nuclear triad. You could almost hear Steve Schmidt growl in the background with memories of Sarah Palin haunting him. But, Trump's campaign is a mere extension of his addiction to superlatives and his pronounced megalomania, and it seems to be working so far.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush missed his opportunity to appear like the grown up in the room by noting these different worldviews, and pointing out that he believes the next Republican president needs to have advisors from all three wings of the GOP, hear the arguments, and make his decisions based on those arguments and his own sense of the values at stake. Instead, Bush decided to take a whack at Trump, but it misfired as Trump breezily dismissed Bush as being motivated only by a desire to jumpstart his flagging campaign. Bush then got buried in policy details, which might work in a debate next autumn with Hillary Clinton, but failed horribly on a stage with eight other people. Even his best line, “Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency,” was too canned and prepared. It is time for Bush to begin thinking about how he ends his campaign with as much dignity as possible.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and businesswoman Carly Fiorina both had some good moments during the debate, but nothing that would propel them north of the low single digits in the polls where they are today. Both also invoked their personal experiences on 9/11 in an effort to show their toughness, which was a strategy used by Rudy Giuliani eight years ago. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now. Ohio Gov. John Kasich may be the worst debater in memory. Dr. Ben Carson continued to prove he is the strangest candidate in history, employing analogies he hopes will connect but which only confuse, all the while demonstrating the very limited grasp on history and the world of ideas that we expect from a presidential candidate.

The different ideological dispositions within the GOP -- which like all ideologies can becloud judgment as well as frame it -- combined with the outrageously large personalities on the stage to produce very little in the way of solutions to the national security challenges the nation faces. The event was held at "the Venetian" hotel in Las Vegas. If you have been to Las Vegas, you know that it is a kind of fantasy land that recreates Venice and Caesar’s Palace and an Egyptian pyramid, but it is all fake. You can drive two hours to the Grand Canyon and see what God has wrought, then head back to Vegas to contemplate what man has wrought: We humans do not fare very well in that comparison. Every time the camera went wide, you could see the faux decorations of the theater. Every time the questioning got precise, you could see the faux understandings of national security held by the candidates. All night, I felt a sense of the surreal hovering over the debate. No one on that stage looked like they were ready to take on Hillary Clinton.

Was there a winner? Sure. Donald Trump is in the lead, and insofar as nothing last night changed the trajectory of the race, he won. Machiavelli said that if you strike at the prince, make sure you kill him, and no one really laid a glove on the Donald last night. As I was taking notes, I wrote “Trump appeals to low information voters.” Then, I thought to myself: What can those words “low information voter” even mean when all the candidates on the stage last night deny the reality of climate change.

There is only one more debate before the voting begins and, regrettably, there is little reason for anyone to abandon the race. The debates would be more revealing if some of those polling below five percent dropped out of the race. But, it seems clear from both the contours of the debate, and the trajectory in the polls, that Trump, Cruz and Rubio will be the last three standing in this race.

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