GOP Debate Shows a Party Where Crazy Is the New Normal

Despite the large number of candidates on the stage at the Ronald Reagan Library, the second debate of Republican presidential candidates was an astounding display of how intellectually bankrupt the Republican Party has become in 2015.

Beyond the many subplots—such as a red-faced Donald Trump eating crow for his nasty remarks about ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s looks (then he told a nationwide audience she was beautiful) or Jeb Bush telling Trump that he failed to bribe Florida politicans into allowing a casino to be built when he was governor (Trump replied that wasn’t true—because he would have gotten it if he wanted it), the debaters, as a group, sought to highlight what Republican leadership consists of and could mean for Americans and the world.

For most, it was a contest in who could take the hardest line on cracking down on illegal immigration, building up the military, deploying ground troops against ISIS, how to handle Vladimir Putin’s imperial goals, rejecting the nuclear disarmament treaty with Iran, whether continued federal funding of Planned Parenthood was a sufficient reason to shut down the federal government after September 30, and even whether it was a mistake to appoint John Roberts as Supreme Court chief justice because his court saved Obamacare and sanctioned same-sex marriage.

As CNN’s moderator noted, the maverick candidates with no elective experience—Trump, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Fiorina—have been collectively getting more than 50 percent in polls. That anti-status quo outsider energy seemed to set the tone for much of what constituted the leadership qualities and agenda that the candidates embraced. But bluster aside, the new leadership was the same old GOP model: take extreme right-wing positions wherever possible, and implement them with as much muscle as possible, both militarily overseas or domestically. Only Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Carson differentiated between smart ways to do things and muscular ways to do things, although Sen. Rand Paul reminded people he believes in non-intervention abroad.

The debate’s major focus was supposedly foreign policy, but the comments flew all over the map. The candidates all agreed that Obama was a weak international leader, claiming the U.S. lost the respect of foreign friends and foes under his watch. The things each said they’d do differently were predictable and a bit surreal. Trump said he would make deals with Putin, getting out of Syria and the Ukraine. As for details, Trump said those would come later. Fiorina said she’d cut off contact with Putin and send troops and arms to Russia’s border to make him behave, even listing how many ships, planes and military divisions were needed. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and a like-minded chorus of other candidates said ISIS, and an enriched and terrorist-friendly Iran, are existential threats to the mainland and ground troops are needed in Syria and Iraq. Everyone rejected Obama's nuclear deal with Iran. Only Kasich kept saying it was in the U.S. national interest to act with its allies abroad.

On a stage filled with would-be Dr. Strangeloves, all eager to rev up the military and turn it loose on the world, one of the oddest moments came after Jeb Bush earnestly declared the U.S. “must lead the world” again. That prompted Trump to say that while he loved the military, he was not in favor of using it all the time—such as invading Iraq. (Like a kid in the back row of a classroom, Rand Paul protested that he too opposed George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion.) That led to a big clash between Bush and Trump over W.’s war of choice, with Jeb jumping to W.’s defense, saying, “my brother kept us safe.”

Almost all on the stage agreed with that absurd revisionist history, blaming Obama solely for the region’s ongoing civil wars as if nothing had happened before he took office. They all said with straight faces that Obama’s reluctance to use force and rely instead on diplomacy had left the U.S. isolated and without allies. Somehow, they seemed to forget that W.’s doctrine of pre-emptive war left the U.S. reviled and far more isolated in international circles.

As CNN’s pre-debate commentators said, the current GOP electorate isn’t interested in governing, or in policy details. Instead, there was plenty of political theater, such as Sen. Rand Paul calling Trump “sophomoric," or Fiorina telling the moderator that women across America heard Trump's comments about her looks and shredding Trump for his failed Atlantic City casinos. Or Bush demanding that Trump apologize to his wife for saying her Mexican heritage made him a weaker candidate (Trump refused). Or an array of candiates spending 15 minutes saying why Planned Parenthood should lose federal funding, but predicting that congressional Republican leaders would not have the nerve to shut down the government over that issue. They probably mentioned their disappointment with the GOP-led Congress as many times as Hillary Clinton’s record as Secretary of State.

The mainstream media will declare the night’s winners and losers, although it’s difficult to imagine that the followup polls will reveal shifts of more than a few percentage points in any direction. From that perspective, it seems the field of candidates is split into three tiers. In the top tier are Trump, who held his ground and whose legitimacy as a candidate was affirmed by other debate participants; Fiorina, who emerged as a forceful disciplined presence who suffers no fools; Bush, who stood his ground as he touted his right-wing record; Carson, who struck the thoughtful yet conservative tone that’s made him popular; Kasich, who showed that experience in elected office is a political virtue; and Rubio, who managed to project a shrill gravitas at the back of this pack.

In the second tier are the other candidates who shared the main stage but did not have any breakthroughs, either with their answers or stage presence: Rand Paul, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Ted Cruz, and ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The third tier were the four candidates in the first debate session, all of whom are polling at the lowest levels: South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, ex-Sen. Rick Santorum and ex-New York Gov. George Pataki.

Despite the large size of the GOP field, it is notable that Republicans aren’t offering many new ideas that have not been heard before. Just being tougher, meaner and more militant is not a new prescription for dealing with a troubled and increasingly interconnected world. That cliché doesn’t address the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe, nor does it address climate change. But those issues, like many others, are not on the GOP’s agenda and don’t fit its vision of U.S. leadership.    


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