If there were anything to be learned from Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate, it was that three hours is far too long for such a program—especially when the questions asked of the 11 candidates are as uninspired as those asked by CNN host Jake Tapper.
While Tapper, with an occasional assist from his colleague Dana Bash and radio host Hugh Hewitt, did hit the hot buttons—Planned Parenthood funding, immigration, Iran, same-sex marriage, Donald Trump’s remarks about Carly Fiorina’s face—the questions read more like a greatest hits list of GOP bloviation points than prompts for serious discussions of issues.
For instance, despite the widening gulf in income inequality, it was never mentioned. Neither was the public disinvestment in education, nor the very topic of college affordability. No candidate was asked what he or she thought about a recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board to allow employees of corporate franchises to hold parent companies accountable, or to address surges in housing costs in cities that are at the center of the nation’s economic growth.
And the Black Lives Matter movement? What’s that? Never mentioned.
Many of the questions were simply invitations for one candidate or another to take issue with Donald Trump, the front-running reality show star, apparently because this was some producer’s idea of how good television gets made. It didn’t work. As a piece of political theater, the CNN debate was often quite boring, in addition to failing as a public service.
Dana Bash was all but sidelined, and the first question she was permitted to ask was on the current Republican cause célèbre of defunding Planned Parenthood—not, say, a foreign policy or economic issues.
And as is too often the case in such debates, blatant lies uttered by candidates were left unchallenged, whether on the details of one’s own résumé (New Jersey Governor Chris Christie reiterated his disproven claim to have been appointed as a U.S. attorney the day before the 9/11 terrorist attacks) or a description of video footage from an anti-Planned Parenthood propaganda piece, which former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina claimed showed a squirming fetus being killed on a table for the use of its brain in medical research.
Winners and Losers
Without question, though, Fiorina emerged as the night’s big winner, having handily bested Trump, who had a pretty bad night overall. Asked to defend his remarks, reported by Rolling Stone, about Fiorina’s appearance, Trump contended that he was criticizing her persona, not her actual visage. (“Look at that face!” Trump said to RS writer Paul Solotaroff when an image of Fiorina appeared on a video screen. “Who would vote for that?”)
Expressionless but for the fire in her eyes, Fiorina replied, “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” The room erupted in applause.
The evil genius of Fiorina, as I’ve written here before, is her uncanny ability to play the gender warrior within the GOP while promoting the party’s misogyny. She made it onto the main debate stage by shaming, with the help of the women of the anti-choice movement, CNN executives and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus into bending the rules for admission for the field’s only female candidate. But her feminism seems to begin and end with the fortunes of Fiorina herself, and seeing as she probably doesn’t rely on Planned Parenthood for her health care, she’s happy to deprive millions of women of that care by promoting outright lies about the organization, as in her false description of the video she referenced.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush did better than expected, even after his laughable comment stating that his brother, the 43rd president had “kept us safe.” As if 9/11 had never happened. But his demand to Trump that the mogul apologize to Bush’s immigrant wife (as opposed to Trump’s own immigrant wives) for disparaging remarks appeared to make Trump uneasy.
Keeping his intelligence hidden, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson allowed for loosening the schedule of childhood vaccinations in order to accommodate suspicious parents. Rand Paul, the U.S. senator from Kentucky, entered the debate swinging at Trump, and then all but disappeared from the debate, except to suggest that his Secret Service code name as president should be Justice Never Sleeps.
One of the debate’s better moments, though, occurred when Paul countered Bush’s opposition to marijuana decriminalization by noting that “kids of privilege” like the scion of the political dynasty are not those who wind up incarcerated for the drug’s use.
Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, continued his fall from his long-ago front-runner status, demonstrating a lack of charisma or swiftness of mind, while former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, once viewed as kind of a nice guy, came across as charmless, and actually accused the current Supreme Court of liberal judicial tyranny.
Ohio Governor John Kasich kept trying to talk about actual issues, such as foreign policy, which made him seem frantic and out of touch, as if he had no understanding of what these debate things are really about. He nominated Mother Teresa as his choice for a new face on the $20 bill, a question asked of each of the candidates.
Failing to make much of an impression was Ted Cruz, the U.S. senator from Texas, who is usually weirdly compelling to watch.
And as much as Donald Trump hates losers, he may be avoiding the mirror today. When asked, following the debate, what he had learned from the evening’s joust, Trump replied: “I learned I can stand for three hours.”
But the night’s biggest loser seemed to be John Roberts, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, whom nearly everybody said they would never have nominated, apparently for not being conservative enough. The problem with Roberts, it seems, is that he allowed same-sex marriage to become the law of the land, and he failed to declare Obamacare unconstitutional.
One imagines the chief justice watching the debate, thinking, “This is the thanks I get for Citizens United?”