Update: On the social issues front, perhaps the most remarkable development of the debate didn’t happen last night, but today, when FoxNews apparently edited out Jeb Bush’s fumbling answer on whether as a member of the Bloomberg Foundation’s board of directors, he knew about the charity’s giving to Planned Parenthood. That’s a little thumbs-on-the-scale, don’t you think?
I admittedly did not watch the undercard of the Republican debates last night. I had more important things to do, namely preparing for the main event by creating a quick-paste shortcut for each of the candidates’ names and fixing a stiff gin and tonic.
Apparently, it wasn’t stiff enough. After two hours, there were still nine doughy white guys and Ben Carson on my screen, all of them spouting platitudes. Except for Donald Trump, of course, who only seemed to draw energy from the adversarial questions thrown at him by Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace.
Trump was clearly the winner, but beyond that, it gets hard to award points. Most of the candidates “won” in the sense that they didn’t flame out and/or eat a live baby on television, and most of them got off a good line or two.
Carson didn’t get a lot of speaking time, but he used a bit of humor (“I’m the only one to take out half of a brain, although you would think, if you go to Washington, that someone had beat me to it”) and thoughtfulness to distinguish himself.
John Kasich managed to come across as less-crazy-than-the-rest. He seems to be running for Vice President, and doing a pretty good job of it. Rubio surprised with his intelligence, Walker was a nothingburger, Cruz and Paul stumbled, and dear God, how many more of them are there?
The New Republic‘s Brian Beutler summed things up pretty well:
What you saw tonight—and the vastness of the field made this tension more vivid—are several candidates who want to hew to a new line of some kind, only to be pulled back, like the Godfather, into a morass they were trying to escape.
Like Beutler says, Republicans haven’t quite figured out what lessons to draw from Mitt Romney’s defeat, which leaves them stuck between the already and the not-yet in this cycle. Should we express sympathy for the plight of the middle class, or should we go full-on supply side? Should we embrace gays and lesbians or smack down Hispanics? You could hear it in the answers, which often started in one direction, only to veer off clumsily in another. The effect was to make the debate seem truly like a prize fight; less the exciting clobbering-time part than the opening rounds where the boxers jab tentatively at one another trying to figure out where their opponent will hit.
Except of course Trump, who went after everybody with a two-by-four.
Even the god talk—normally red meat for the Republican base—was strangely attenuated. Walker, as is his wont, dodged Kelly’s question about whether his opposition to abortion even in the case of rape or incest put him out of the mainstream (it does) by saying he is now and always has been pro-life. According to Walker, that’s “a position that’s in line with everyday America” (it’s not). Then everybody took the opportunity to pile on Planned Parenthood.
Kelly also asked Kasich about his “St. Peter rationale,” referring to his defense of expanding Medicare by saying “When you die St. Peter’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small.”
Kasich ignored the theological content of her question (or maybe he didn’t), responding: “First of all, Megyn, you should know that—that President Reagan expanded Medicaid three or four times.” You could be forgiven for thinking that Reagan was God, or at least a patron saint, given the number of times he was name-checked in the debate.
Mostly it went like this. The candidates did talk about hot-button social issues, but they held back from claiming religious sponsorship of their ideas. It’s not clear if they’d gotten the memo about not antagonizing religiously unaffiliated voters, or if they simply didn’t see much advantage in differentiating themselves against one another with faith messages.
The big exception to the trend was Kasich’s answer to a hypothetical question about how he would respond if one of his daughters turned out to be gay: “God gives me unconditional love. I’m going to give it to my family and my friends and the people around me.” This drew a fair number of cheers from the audience. Even most Republicans support same-sex marriage these days.
At the end of the event, Megyn Kelly directly invited the participants to discuss whether or not they’d “had a word from God” about their candidacy. Some viewers might question the appropriateness of such a question, but I thought it was okay. It is the sort of thing that Republican voters might be interested in, and to the extent that it brings out positions that might be otherwise submerged, it’s helpful.
Too bad it flopped. Ted Cruz responded with a theologically defensible position, citing his reading of scripture, as opposed to direct revelation. Then he went into a word salad about his father the preacher and “campaign conservatives” and religious liberty and eagles and the flag… America! Kasich responded that his father was a mailman.
Walker, who is possibly the most interesting of the candidates in religious terms, gave the most substantial answer:
I’m certainly an imperfect man. And it’s only by the blood of Jesus Christ that I’ve been redeemed from my sins. So I know that God doesn’t call me to do a specific thing, God hasn’t given me a list, a Ten Commandments, if you will, of things to act on the first day.
It’s not what Kelly asked, it contradicts what he’s said before, and he then proceeded to suggest that God told him to bust the teachers’ unions in Wisconsin, but other than that, it was testimony fit for a Baptist Sunday School. Rubio talked about the VA, and Carson apparently thinks the “bully pulpit” refers to something you’d see in church.
And that was pretty much it. On faith, as on every other topic of the night, it was less thesis-support-conclusion than “throw out a bunch of keywords and see what sticks.” After two hours, I’d managed to pace myself to only two gin-and-tonics. Given that we have five more of these things between now and November 2016, I suspect that was a mistake.