The best thing about Thursday night’s Republican presidential primary debate, the sixth of twelve currently on the schedule for 2016, is that it means we are halfway to having no more Republican primary debates.
Viewers who suffered through the entire two and a half hours of the event last night were presented with a smorgasbord of soaring demagoguery, sneering ad hominem attacks, and occasional – seemingly accidental – detours into discussion of public policy.
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With a field narrowed to seven participants, after host Fox Business News tightened the standards for allowing candidates to appear in the prime time debate, some sort of clash between the two frontrunners, Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, seemed inevitable. But the moderators took no chances, assuring that the two were forced to lock horns directly, albeit over fairly trivial issues.
Trump, for the past week, has consistently harped on the fact that Cruz was born in Canada, raising questions about whether he meets the Constitution’s requirement that U.S. presidents be “natural born citizens.”
Asked to respond, Cruz first noted that Trump had previously said that Cruz’s birth in Canada was a non-issue. “The constitution hasn’t changed, but the poll numbers have,” Cruz said, adding that he recognizes that “Donald is dismayed” that his poll numbers have fallen in recent weeks.
Cruz then claimed that there might be some question about Trump’s eligibility for president because his mother was born in Scotland.
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“On the issue of citizenship Donald, I’m not going to use your mother’s birth against you,” Cruz said. (One of many Ronald Reagan references in the debate, for those keeping score at home.)
Trump responded by sticking to his claim that Cruz has a potential problem that needs to be addressed in order to avoid what Trump predicts are inevitable lawsuits should he become the nominee or actually win a presidential election.
“There’s a big question mark on your head…you can’t do that to the party,” Trump said.
Shortly afterward, Cruz was asked to defend one of his comments about Trump – a seeming throwaway line about the billionaire real estate mogul’s “New York values.”
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Asked what he meant, Cruz waffled a bit, comparing New York to South Carolina, the state where the debate was being held. Finally, he said, “Everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal, are pro-abortion are pro-gay marriage, focused around money and the media.”
Cruz ended with what he seemed to think was a bit of a zinger – saying that not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan, in a reference to Trump’s frequent observation that Cruz’s Cuban born father, an evangelical Christian minister, is a bit of an oddity, because “not a lot of evangelicals come out of Cuba.”
But Trump, to his credit, treated Cruz’s comments about New York the way Alex Rodriguez treats a hanging curveball in Yankee Stadium.
Invoking the 9/11 attacks, he said, “When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely, than New York.”
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He said, “The people of New York fought, and fought, and fought, and we saw more death, and even the smell of death…and it was with us for months, the smell, the air. And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched and everybody in the world loved New York, and loved New Yorkers, and I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made.”
It was, possibly, only Trump’s second best line of the night – probably his strongest rhetorical performance in any of the debates so far.
At another point in the evening, he was asked to respond to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s State of the Union response, in which she advised her fellow Republicans against listening to the “siren song of the angriest voices” in the race. She later confirmed that she was referring to Trump.
“I will gladly accept the mantle of anger,” he said, rattling off a litany of his complaints about how the country is being run. “Yes, I am angry,” he said to considerable applause.
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Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has struggled to gain traction in the election, had a reasonably good night by playing the role of adult in the room when the other candidates went off the rails.
He hammered Trump on his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States, saying that it undermines the ability of the U.S. to form coalitions around the world – particularly against the terror group ISIS.
“Sending that signal makes it impossible for us to be serious about destroying ISIS,” he said.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio spent much of the night attacking not his primary opponents, but rather President Obama. Among other things, he accuse the president of actively seeking to diminish the country’s standing in the world, trying to weaken the military, plotting to take away all Americans’ firearms, and pretty much everything short of rolling back history to 1783 and giving the country back to the British.
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Rubio did get into a tense exchange with Cruz near the end of the debate, attacking the Texas senator for changing his position on various issues for political reasons and for voting against funding the military. Cruz parried the attacks, accusing Rubio of misrepresenting his record.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie continued with what has become his standard posture – bellicosity on foreign policy and disdain for Washington. He attacked President Obama, calling him a “petulant child” and attacking him for always giving accused criminals “the benefit of the doubt” over law enforcement officials. Some, who like the idea of people being innocent until proven guilty, might see that as a good thing, but it didn’t come up in the discussion.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Ohio Gov. John Kasich were also present on the stage, but they mainly distinguished themselves by delivering rambling, sometimes incoherent, answers to the moderators’ questions. Their answers, in fact, raised one very specific question of their own: “Why are these guys still here?”