Republicans: Policy & Fireworks in Las Vegas

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, GOP Debate 12/15/2015

Images courtesy of CNN

Republicans: Policy & Fireworks in
Las Vegas

| published December 16, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor


In the wake of deadly terror attacks in Paris, France and San Bernardino, California, and in the context of a world threatened by rapidly-shifting military threats, Republican candidates met for their last major debate of 2015 to discuss foreign policy issues and the fight against radical Islamic terror.

Political analysts and pundits had predicted fireworks in and around the Venetian Hotel and Casino, and they were right. Indeed, the first opportunity was one in which the ten candidates on stage could say something about themselves, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul started out by blasting candidate Donald Trump for insisting that the government shut down parts of the internet, and needling Marco Rubio for his past votes on how government agencies collect and use personal data to combat terror.

Paul’s opening salvo set the tone for defining critical distinctions between the candidates on stage in a race now closing in on the Iowa caucuses, now only five weeks away. Those differences and distinctions between the GOP candidates often came into sharp view during an intensely substantive debate—sponsored by CNN and Facebook—in which direct attacks on policy and past votes were frequently used as an indicator of foreign policy success or failure, and where all candidates sought to prove that their political and private sector track records make them uniquely suited to become commander in chief.

Though the debate was filled with deep policy discussions—more so than any previous Republican forum this year—it was also heated and at times freewheeling, with candidates talking over each other, engaging in frequent interruptions (though by our count there were fewer “barge-in” interruptions than in the two previous GOP debates), and occasional bouts of candidates talking past their time limits or talking over the moderators.

To describe the debate as combative would be, by some estimates, an understatement.

Chief moderator Wolf Blitzer was forced on many occasions to cut-off candidates who had either talked well past their allotted time limit, or insisted upon interjecting on certain points even when they had not been called upon. At once point early in the debate retired neurosurgeon and author Dr. Ben Carson voiced a “minor complaint” that some candidates on stage were in essence stealing time from others through interruptions or talking past their allotted time.

Also facilitating the debate were CNN political reporter and analyst Dana Bash, and Salem Radio Network personality and newsman Hugh Hewitt. Hewitt received a chorus of boos from the audience on at least two occasions, one for a question directed toward Carson as to whether he would be willing to bomb Syrian cities where civilians, women and children live alongside ISIS militants.

For businessman and billionaire Donald Trump, it was another night of deep policy discussion and in-the-weeds detail work for which he has, in past debates, shown little interest or enthusiasm. But Trump surprised some political observers, managing to hold his own throughout much of the debate in spite of his sometimes vague answers to specific foreign policy or military policy questions.

Conversely, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, deemed the winner in at least two previous GOP debates, fared less well during the Las Vegas forum. Rubio took substantial incoming fire, much of it intensely brutal, from his closest polling competitor, Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Though Donald Trump still leads in some polls nationally, Cruz has overtaken Trump in Iowa, surging into first place—some ten points ahead of Trump in at least two polls—and pushing Rubio, Carson and Bush deeper into third, fourth and fifth places respectively.

Thus the stage was set for a showdown, not only between the two front-runners Trump and Cruz, but also between Cruz and his closest rivals on the stage—Rubio, Carson, and Fiorina. The stage was also set for other clashes over foreign policy toughness and immigration standards in an age of terror—potential clashes between the isolationist and libertarian wings, such as Paul and Cruz, the foreign policy hawks, like Rubio and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and the moderates like Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich. Indeed, most of those confrontations occurred right on cue.

But the widely expected brawl between Trump and Cruz never materialized, and the brief escalation of words between them over the weekend appeared to have ended in another unofficial détente during the debate. In fact, the anticipated cage match between the two polling leaders ended without so much as a spark when Trump was asked to clarify his statements calling Cruz a “maniac” and Cruz was asked to explain his rhetorical challenge to voters to consider the risks of Trump’s finger on the button of nuclear decisions.

Both men asserted they had no problem with the other. “He’s just fine, don’t worry about it!” Trump said of Cruz, embracing him briefly on the stage. Cruz, likewise, walked back from statements he made in privately-recorded fundraisers and meetings last weekend in which he questioned Trump’s balance when it came to make military and foreign policy decisions as commander-in-chief. Cruz said simply that the question was for voters to decide who best among the candidates can handle the stressful, sometimes complex job of making those 3 a.m. decisions in the Oval Office.

It was an anti-climax to what had been widely predicted: a clash of titans in which Cruz might use verbal daggers to puncture and mortally wound Trump ahead of Iowa. Post-debate analysts suggested that both candidates may have, ahead of time, concluded that a pitched confrontation might work to the disadvantage of both men.

And though most analysts—even Democrats, liberals and independents—agreed that the debate was substantive (if not rowdy and freewheeling), some made the observation that the moderators were constructing many questions in the context of comments made by Trump, or in the context of comments made about Trump. Even the billionaire real estate mogul noticed, and complained that the format was unfair—in essence a rigged Q&A crafted to turn the GOP debate into an Anybody-But-Trump tag team match. Trump went so far as to defend Jeb Bush’s right to answer a question—any question—without linking it to something Trump had said in the past.

Bush, by contrast, had no compunctions in attacking Trump directly on several fronts. On several occasions, Bush called attention to Trump’s boisterous comments or sometimes freewheeling responses, suggesting that Trump cannot be taken seriously as a candidate. Bush also attempted to draw a clear distinction between Trump’s sometimes heated rhetoric, and the sort of balanced and reasoned responses Republicans expect from a genuine candidate capable of serious policy discussion and political negotiation. Bush, at one point, characterized Trump as a candidate of “chaos.”

After one particularly heated exchange regarding immigration and the southern border of the United States, Bush responded forcefully, triggering a roar of supportive applause from the audience.

“Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the Presidency, that’s not going to happen,” Bush said, “Leadership is not about attacking people and disparaging people. Leadership is about creating a serious strategy to deal with the threat of our time.” At least three times during the debate Bush sought to knock Trump down a notch by directly challenging his ability to engage in serious policy discussion. Bush drew enthusiastic applause each time.

But experts were deeply divided as to whether Bush’s frontal assaults on Trump will have any measurable impact. Trump has so far in the campaign proven to be largely unmoved by complaints regarding his political correctness, or the lack of thereof. And Trump's sometimes controversial and unfiltered comments have had little effect on his poll numbers.

For Bush, the Las Vegas debate may have been his last clear and resonant opportunity to break out of the crowded pack. Bush, once the party’s de facto front-runner and the GOP’s fundraising leaders through the early part of this year, is now languishing in fifth place in many polls. Though Bush’s cash war chest is still substantial, he is outspending his competitors by a wide margin in Iowa, banking on a comeback in the Hawkeye State which can propel him back to the forefront. Bush’s polling in Iowa, despite the millions being spent (some $35 million in recent weeks), has made little impact among potential caucus-goers. Even as Bush ramps up spending in Iowa and in New Hampshire, Cruz continues to surge in the Hawkeye State just as Chris Christie has made surprising gains in New Hampshire. Bush will not be able to count even on his home state of Florida, with Sunshine State voters likely—in some heavily Republican counties—to split the “hometown” vote between Bush and Rubio.

Though Bush made no major mistakes, his early responses were halting and sometimes disheveled. His performance through the debate improved as time went on, however, and some observers gave him points for bravely attacking Trump directly. But it may have little impact on Bush’s poll numbers in Iowa or New Hampshire, where he still lags well behind Cruz, Trump, Carson and others. If anything, Bush’s direct broadsides against Trump could serve to channel wavering Trump supporters into columns other than his own—toward Rubio, Cruz, or Christie, to name three examples.

Indeed, the most intense exchanges of the debate did not involve Trump or Bush, but instead a long series of sharp foreign policy clashes between Rubio and Cruz—a rivalry which may soon prove to be crucial, perhaps even pivotal, to the part of the GOP’s electorate uncertain or undecided about Trump. Rubio and Cruz are now battling for every non-Trump vote available, and both candidates clearly used the Las Vegas venue to try to persuade Republicans to consider each man’s vision for America’s foreign policy future.

Immigration proved to be the flashpoint which exposed sharp differences—now and in the past—between the two Trump challengers. One Republican friend called it a “backdraft,” wherein the door has been closed, the heat contained, but the source of ignition has not been fully snuffed out. The debate opened that door, and unleashed a furious debate over the terms and specifics of the immigration policy and philosophy of a pair Cuban-American Senators each defending the fidelity of their conservative credentials. The original spark came in a question posed by CNN’s Dana Bash, who wanted Rubio to offer a defense for his authorship and support of a bipartisan bill crafted in 2012 and 2013 which offered a path to citizenship. Rubio’s famous support of that legislation put him at odds with many conservatives within the party. Some have said it pushed him off the short list of potential Mitt Romney running mates in late 2012, and may have cost him dearly among the GOP faithful opposed to “amnesty” of any kind.

The question gave Cruz his opportunity to strike. And strike he did, hitting Rubio hard on the issue, and linking the Florida Senator to the so-called Gang of Eight, which included four Democratics and four Republicans, among them Democrats Chuck Schumer (New York), Dick Durbin (Illinois), and Michael Bennet (Colorado). Cruz used Rubio’s association with the Gang of Eight as a blunt weapon, attempting to bludgeon Rubio even as Rubio attempted gamely to explain his position.

“Here’s what we learned in 2013,” Rubio said, “the American people don’t trust the federal government to enforce our immigration laws, and we will not be able to do anything on immigration until we first prove to the American people that illegal immigration is under control. We can do that, we know what it takes to do that.”

Cruz suggested that Rubio’s support of more liberalized immigration laws and a path to citizenship would have had an immediate and demonstrable effect on national security, especially in the age of ISIS and other terror threats. “Border security is national security,” Cruz intoned.

Rubio countered that one of the San Bernardino shooters, Syed Farook, was an American citizen, born in the U.S. Cruz and Rubio each accused the other of distorting or misrepresenting the other’s positions on immigration and on homeland security issues.

All the candidates weighed-in with sharp comments regarding how the multi-front threats of jihadist terror and a Middle East in crisis have been mishandled by the administration of President Barack Obama, and all offered the opinion that Hillary Clinton's foreign policy would be basically four more years of the same.
Chris Christie and Rand Paul, GOP Debate 12/15/2015
Christie cited the fact the on the same day as the debate in Law Vegas, the second largest school district in the nation—Los Angeles—was forced to close because of a terrorist threat came via an unidentified email. Throughout the debate Christie stressed that as a prosecutor and later a governor in New Jersey, he was already on the front lines of fighting terror, and in the shadow of the World Trade Center.

John Kasich blasted world leaders for meeting in Paris to talk climate and global warming when in fact global terror and radical jihad represent the more serious danger for humanity and peace. Kasich also cited the fact that Saudi Arabia earlier in the day on Tuesday announced a 34-nation coalition of predominantly Islamic countries, and stressed that the United States should take a more proactive role in crafting policy against terrorism.

Carly Fiorina said that the federal government should create a working partnership with Silicon Valley companies and technology centers to better understand the digital data, and in order to author more useful algorithms as a way to extract the data that truly matters. Fiorina pointed out that although the data existed which would have warned U.S. law enforcement officials of the attacks in Boston and in San Bernardino, police and FBI were woefully underprepared when it came to managing and interpreting that data.

For every candidate save Trump, the debate was perhaps the last open-field opportunity to break out of the crowded field. No candidate emerged the clear “winner,” in that sense; but then again, none lost, even on points (though clearly Rubio faced his toughest night yet).

For Bush, Kasich and Paul, there may be no other wide open venues to claim higher ground, and the crowded field makes it difficult for any one candidate to claim the limelight—thus the aggressive attempts to muscle-in on other’s time on stage, and thus the general rule that it is okay to interrupt others. Carson, who maintains the old school comportment of not interrupting others, lost air time for that reason alone, though it is not clear that it will impact his poll numbers.

The question now becomes: will we see any major shift in the polls between now and New Year’s? And will Iowans face the same crowded and boisterous field when they journey to their caucus locations in a matter of weeks?

Related Thursday Review articles:

Cruz Surges to First Place in Iowa; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; December 20, 2015.

Republicans Consider Possibility of Convention Battle; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; December 11, 2015.