The news media is understandably trying to parse the words, tone, and body language of the Republican candidates’ debate performances Thursday night to decide who “won” and “lost,” who is on the rise and who is on the descent, and how they differ from each other.
But the most significant revelation from the debate is that all of them — including the so-called “moderate” candidates (Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie) — are right-wingers. On a scale of 1 to 10 — with 10 being the most reactionary — every candidate rated an 8 or above.
Although they sought to distinguish themselves from each other — such as the exchange between Rand Paul and Christie on balancing government surveillance and civil liberties in the fight against terrorism — what was striking were their ideological similarities on the major issues facing the country. They differ in height, weight, charisma, personality, and bombasticity (if that’s a word), but there’s hardly any distance between them when it comes to what they believe about government and public policy.
On every topic — foreign policy, taxes, militarism (which nobody mentioned; they all want to increase the military budget), immigration (which divided the candidates between those who want a “wall” and those who prefer a “fence”), the economy, widening inequality, unemployment, poverty, the social safety net (which Republicans disparagingly call “entitlements” for the unworthy), health care (predictably about bashing Obamacare, not offering an alternative), racism (which got little attention last night), sexism (which they didn’t discuss, but which Donald Trump proudly displayed), women’s health care and abortion, Planned Parenthood (they’re all against it), gay rights and marriage equality, education (barely mentioned except to promote privatization and attack teachers unions) — they all used similar right-wing buzz words and talking points. One could hardly call them “ideas”.
The only major difference between the candidates was Trump’s refusal to pledge that he would not run as a third party candidate if he lost the GOP nomination. This was in response to the moderators’ first question of the evening, designed to embarrass Trump for not being a loyal Republican, although he received both boos and applause for his answer. As I predicted two weeks ago in the Huffington Post, if Trump runs as an independent, he’ll take votes from the GOP nominee and help put a Democrat in the White House.
Several candidates made sure we learned about their modest backgrounds. Kasich’s dad was a mailman. Christie’s father worked in an ice cream factory and his mother was a secretary. Cruz’s dad was an alcoholic until he found Jesus, at which point he returned to his wife and family and became an evangelist. Rubio’s parents are immigrants from Cuba, his dad worked as a bartender, and until a few years ago, Rubio owed $100,000 in student debt. Bush claimed that because his dad and brother were both presidents, “the bar’s even higher for me.” (That reminds me of Jim Hightower’s 1988 quip about Bush’s dad: “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple”).
There were no major bombshell disclosures but there were a few surprises. Trump admitted that he once supported a Canadian-style single-paying health care system, but that he now opposes it, although he couldn’t explain what he actually thinks we should do about health care. He also reported that Hillary Clinton came to his 2005 wedding because he’d made a big donation to the Clinton Foundation.
Kasich tried to appear compassionate by telling the audience that he had attended the wedding of a gay friend, but also made sure he let folks know that he was an “old-fashioned person” who believes in “traditional marriage.” Moderator Megan Kelly asked Scott Walker: “Many in the Black Lives Matter movement, and beyond, believe that overly-aggressive police officers targeting young African Americans is the civil rights issue of our time. Do you agree?” Walker ducked the question by calling for more training for cops. Kelly didn’t follow up with Walker or ask any other candidate about racial profiling and the growing attention to police misconduct. The Fox News hosts only asked one other question about race relations and directed it to Ben Carson, the only black candidate, who refused to acknowledge that racism is even a problem in the country.
Hardly surprising: Walker, Bush, Kasich, and Christie lied about their track records as governors on improving their states’ economies in terms of job growth and other measures.
Trump claimed that his net worth is $10 billion, but Forbes and other sources say it is $4.1 billion. Marco Rubio said that “over 40 percent of small and mid-size banks … have been wiped out” since the Dodd-Frank law was passed, but the total number of commercial banks has gone down only 16 percent, continuing a longtime trend that started long before Congress adopted the 2010 law. Kasich claimed that Ohio’s Medicaid program “is growing at one of the lowest rates in the country,” but it actually ranks in the middle. Bush, who claims to be an expert on education, said that the U.S. spends more per student than any other country, but Luxembourg, Switzerland and Norway all spend more for primary and secondary education; and if you eliminate school meal programs, transportation, and other non-classroom costs, the U.S. ranks much lower on the per-student spending scale.
The hosts made little effort to correct candidates’ lies (except Trump’s misstatements about his business bankruptcies) and obvious errors. For example, according to the debate transcript, Bush said, “There’s six million people living in poverty today, more than when Barack Obama got elected.” In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 45.3 million people living in poverty in 2013, the most recent figures. Since 2010 — after Obama was in office for a year — the number of Americans in poverty declined by over one million, but the more telling figure, the poverty rate, declined from 15.1% to 14.5%. But it hardly mattered, because the Fox News hosts didn’t ask a single question about poverty and only Bush mentioned it.
The predictable attacks on President Obama and Hillary Clinton were all about symbols, not substance. But the best dog-whistle moment in the debate was when Carson answered a question about Hillary Clinton by referring to her allegiance to “the Alinsky model.” He was referring to the late community organizer Saul Alinsky, whom conservatives like to demonizeas a Democratic devil for advocating protest tactics. No doubt Carson’s comment went over the heads of the audience in the Cleveland arena and most TV views, but I guarantee that Fox News, the conservative blogosphere, and whomever becomes the GOP’s presidential candidate will try to pillory Hillary with the Alinsky brand, just as they attacked Obama for once having been a community organizer.
The unspoken controversy in the debate was how Ohio Gov. John Kasich wound up on the stage at all. As MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow reported on Wednesday, Fox News rigged the outcome to guarantee that Kasich got into the prime time event in his home state. Fox News had said that it would use the five most recent national polls to determine which 10 candidates would compete in the main debate, but it did not use the fifth most recent national poll (an NBC/Wall Street Journal) poll conducted through July 30 but instead used a Quinnipiac University poll conducted through July 28. The difference between those two polls meant that Kasich made it into the debate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry was pushed into the second-tier debate earlier yesterday that received much less media attention.
The Fox News hosts also dissed Perry when they asked Mike Huckabee, “Will you abolish or take away the powers and cut the size of the EPA, the IRS [and] the Department of Education?” This was a not-too-subtle reminder of a moment during a 2011 GOP debate when Perry was unable to recall the third of three federal agencies he’d promised to eliminate, finally muttering “oops” to acknowledge his gaffe. (Perry mentioned the Departments of Commerce and Education but forgot the Department of Energy. After that incident, his campaign nosedived).
Last night’s debate (fueled by the questions from the three Fox News hosts) was about throwing red meat to the Tea Party, the Koch brothers, and loyal Fox News watchers. It shows how far the GOP has moved to the right since the 1980s and especially since the rise of the Tea Party (funded by right-wing billionaires and enabled by Fox News and the Limbaugh lunatic fringe) in 2009.
Although many of the candidates described themselves as Ronald Reagan Republicans, even Reagan — much less Dwight Eisenhower — would have felt uncomfortable on that stage last night. And how sad that Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show just as the GOP’s circus is coming to town.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His latest book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books).
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