At Wednesday’s Republican debate, the candidates seemed on the verge of breaking into “La Marseillaise,” echoing the famous scene in the film “Casablanca” when members of the underground resistance taunt the Nazis at Rick’s Café.* This time the enemy was what Marco Rubio called “the mainstream media,” supposedly in the tank for the Democratic Party, and in particular the questioners at the CNBC-hosted debate.** Several candidates voiced offense at questions that seemed designed to get the candidates to snipe at each other rather than show a united front against the Democrats—an obvious divide-and-conquer strategy! “They want us to kill each other,” Chris Christie said of the CNBC moderators the next morning, before adding that it’s no more than the plucky, ragtag Republican Party can expect: “We’re not going to get a fair shake from [Russian President] Vladimir Putin either.”
Earlier this week, I wrote that the Republicans have become more of a resistance movement than a political party, and the debate (see a summary here) reinforced that idea, with candidates frequently depicting the federal government as an evil force that must be contained and shrunk, chiefly through starving it of tax revenue. All the candidates, to some degree, worked from the premise that lower taxes will stimulate economic growth, somehow making the questions of stagnant wages, student-loan debt and high housing costs become irrelevant. In their closing statements, almost all the candidates likened the federal government to a fire-breathing dragon, with Carly Fiorina promising, “[I will] cut this government to size and hold it accountable” and Rand Paul saying he wants “a government so small I can barely see it.” Mrs. Fiorina was scandalized by the idea that the government should provide incentives for employers to offer 401(k) plans to workers, saying, “There is no constitutional role for the federal government in setting up retirement plans” (which raised the question of whether she wants to kill Social Security).
Mike Huckabee, after comparing government to a runaway blimp, called for a war on cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. At any other forum, the implication would be that Mr. Huckabee favors more federal research on these health problems; by the logic of the debate, one has to wonder whether Mr. Huckabee thinks the FDA and CDC are somehow holding back the private sector from finding a cure for cancer.
Though Donald Trump and Ben Carson have been leading in the polls for months now, the biggest clash of the debate was between Mr. Rubio and Jeb Bush, whose status as Establishment Favorite is whirling down the drain. Mr. Rubio had several effective moments, saying “For the first time in 35 years, we have more businesses closing than starting” (which Politifact rated as “true” the next day) and jumping ahead to the general campaign by saying last week’s Benghazi hearings “exposed” Hillary Clinton as “a liar.” (Though Chris Christie seemed to be auditioning for a vice-presidential nomination by being the biggest attack dog against the Democrats.)
When Mr. Rubio got a question about his low attendance record in the U.S. Senate this year, he said he was the victim of a “double standard” because past Democratic presidential candidates also had low attendance records, a response that got big applause. Inexplicably, Mr. Bush then attacked Mr. Rubio for his low attendance record, missing the mood of the audience in the same way that Lincoln Chafee did when he criticized Hillary Clinton for her email habits in the Democratic presidential debate. Mr. Rubio pounced—“we’re running for the same position and someone has convinced you that attacking me will help you”—in a manner reminiscent of Bugs Bunny saying, “Of course you know, this means war!” None of Bugs Bunny’s opponents ever fared too well after that declaration.
Mr. Bush lamented, “It troubles me that people are rewarded for tearing down our country,” which only reinforced the idea that he didn’t understand the debate, since his opponents would surely argue that tearing down the government is not the same as tearing down the country. In fact, they would probably say, real patriotism demands the former.
*I know, it’s odd to associate the Republicans with anything French, but Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” wouldn’t have the same effect, and the GOP seems to have moved on from peak Francophobia. Jeb Bush’s attempt to put a beret on Marco Rubio—accusing the Florida senator of adopting a lackdaisical “French work week” approach to his job—was yet another of his moments that felt a decade out of date.
**This was probably a surprise to the financial-news network, which unceasingly cheerleads the free-market system. It titled the debate “Your Money * Your Vote,” as if it would be insanely subversive to suggest that voters weigh the national interest as heavily as they do their tax bills. But the network’s blue-chip audience may not line up exactly with the Republican base in 2016. As the Washington Post’s Janelle Ross writes about one of CNBC’s “gotcha” questions, “Rubio seemed aware that the 401k cash-out that reporters keep describing as unadvisable and the foreclosure that’s been depicted as odd, if not indicative of profligacy, won't seem that way at all to a lot of cash-strapped and savings-disabled Americans who have faced the same.”