The 'Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World' of the GOP debate

Some initial reactions to last night's marathon Republican presidential debate on CNN:

“I don’t know many people in America who don’t think we should,” said Ohio Gov. John Kasich of defunding Planned Parenthood at last night’s Republican presidential debate (transcript at CNN). Polls indicate that the move to cut government funds to the women’s health provider, revealed to be selling parts from aborted fetuses, deeply divides Americans, but the Ronald Reagan Library in California was not the place to acknowledge the existence of a polarized nation. With the arguable exception of front-runner Donald Trump, this was not a group of candidates concerned about winning over independents, let alone a significant number of the voters who put Barack Obama in the White House.

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There were occasional nods to Reagan’s unflagging optimism about the United States, but the presence of the Republican president’s Air Force One plane behind the debaters grew rather ominous as they talked about the destruction of the country under eight years of Obama. It reminded me of the president escaping the White House with seconds to spare in the sci-fi film “Independence Day,” as (very much undocumented) aliens destroy Washington, D.C. When moderator Jake Tapper turned to “lightning” questions at the end of the debate, I expected him to ask, “Where would you move the national capital, and how would you prevent the Democrats from finding out?”

The CNN debate was also reminiscent of the film “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” in its huge cast (11 candidates) and a length exceeding three hours. This may have benefited the three candidates who have never held elected office (Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina). Trump and Carson in particular were shaky on policy details, but nothing seemed to faze the trio, who together have been polling more than 50 percent in some national polls.

Among the more experienced politicians, Kasich had some strong moments early on (coming close to saying Democratic administrations aren’t all bad when he talked about the booming economy under Bill Clinton, though Kasich gave more credit to the Republican Congress) but then seemed to disappear in the second half of the debate. With Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, it was the reverse, as he grew more forceful in the second half of the debate, when foreign policy dominated. Rubio also came the closest to reminding Republicans that they used to be concerned with “outreach” to new voters (for a few weeks after their 2012 loss to Obama), talking about his grandfather becoming a staunch conservative even though he got his news in Spanish. But Rubio was also indignant at Tapper’s question on climate change, which included the reminder that Reagan took action in response to scientific warnings that the ozone layer was shrinking. (“The scientists were right,” Tapper said. “Reagan and his approach worked.”) Rubio wasn’t having any of it, retorting, “we’re not going to destroy our economy the way the left-wing government that we are under now wants to do.”

As for Jeb Bush, he was positioned right next to his bête noire, Trump, and seemed ready to suggest that the two of them go outside to have their own mano a mano three-hour debate. Bush might very well triumph in such a match-up; Trump benefited from not having to fill a lot of time with specifics and stats, instead jumping in with insults and sweeping statements whenever he felt like it. The party leaders who are determined not to give him a presidential nomination are going to have to find some way to sweep some of the other candidates off the stage.

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