Comment | The GOP Debate

Last week’s CNBC broadcast of the third Republican Presidential debate has sparked a significant media shit-storm stateside, leading the Republican National Committee to pull out of its planned 26th February debate-date with CNBC’s parent company NBC, citing a lack of confidence in the station’s impartiality. The somewhat falsified fall-out from Wednesday’s debate, which saw the fresh-faced senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, punch well above his weight, seems to have been co-ordinated by a cabal of party grandees in a desperate attempt to disguise just how far from the political mainstream the Grand Old Party has ultimately strayed (think Harry Dean Stanton milling about the desert in Paris, Texas for a ball park idea). In the immediate aftermath of the debate Republicans took to the airways to launch their well-rehearsed complaints of left-wing bias, culminating with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus formally accusing CNBC’s moderators, and particularly Washington correspondent John Harwood, of engaging in ‘petty and mean-spirited questioning designed to embarrass our candidates’. Given some of the outlandish comments made by Republican frontrunners Donald Trump and Ben Carson in recent weeks, NBC must have been hard pressed not to point out that the candidates were doing a damn fine job of that all by themselves!

The pre-debate discussion in the CNBC studio had centred around the discouraging fact that ‘policy hadn’t impacted anybody’s poll numbers so far’, a worrying sign that Trump’s xenophobic diatribe on immigration (he plans to build a thousand mile long wall on the Mexican border to keep drug dealers and rapists out) and Carson’s deranged views on America’s gun laws (in response to the school shootings at Umpqua Community College, the retired Neurosurgeon went on the record to state that gun control was partly to blame for the Holocaust), continue to play well with the party’s “Teabagger” base. There was a consensus amongst the pundits that the five-strong moderating panel needed to zero in on the candidates’ policy positions, however, as soon as any of the moderators attempted to shine a light on some of the leading contenders’ more far-fetched promises, particularly those on taxation, the big-hitters suddenly began to cry foul.

The first question of the evening, put by Carl Quintanilla, was straightforward enough, inviting the participants to name their biggest weakness. Even such a gentle loosener, served up more to entertain than inform, proved to be instructive as to the contenders’ suitability for public office. Some of the would-be-nominees, like Governor John Kasich (Ohio) who was first up to bat, side-stepped the question entirely, and launched into a tirade against his rivals’ plans to abolish Medicare, while veteran Governor Mike Huckabee unburdened himself by confessing that his great failure was to ‘always play by the rules’. This started a trend amongst the more knowing candidates, who’d cottoned on to the fact that they were going to be given a free pass on the question, of admitting to weaknesses which weren’t, in fact, weaknesses at all .

Governor Jeb Bush (Florida) was the first to wriggle off the hook, declaring inanely ‘I can’t fake anger’, with Senator Marco Rubio following suit with another bizarre contribution, ‘I don’t know whether it’s a weakness, but I share a sense of optimism about America’s future’. Carson, who, it turned out, could fake modesty, murmured ‘in terms of applying for the job of President, not really seeing myself in that position until hundreds of thousands of people told me I needed to’. Senator Ted Cruz (Texas) kept up the standard of risible platitudes with ‘I’m a fighter, I’ve been passionate my whole life about the constitution. If you want someone to grab a beer with I may not be that guy. But, if you want someone to drive you home, I will get the job done!’

Not to be overshadowed in the surreal answers sweepstake, Governor Chris Christie decided on the none-too-subtle tactic of deflection, ‘I don’t see a lot of weakness on the stage, where I see the weakness is in the three people left on the Democratic stage. I see a socialist, an isolationist and a pessimist and for the sake of me I can’t figure out which one is which. I know who the pessimist is, it’s Hilary Clinton. You put me on that stage against her next September she won’t get within ten miles of the White House. Take it to the bank!’ Cue a stunned silence and tumbleweed blowing slowly across the studio floor.

Donald Trump, it must be said, at least answered the question asked of him. It wasn’t a particularly reassuring answer for those of us hoping that a future Corbyn Government might cancel our special nuclear relationship with America, ‘Maybe my greatest weakness is that I’m too trusting, and when people let me down I never forgive. I find it very, very hard to forgive people that deceived me’. It’s a toss-up as to whether The Donald’s coming after Putin or Corbyn first!

Whilst a question designed to encourage a career politician, or a faux-political outsider in the case of Trump, to acknowledge a genuine fault in their make-up live on national T.V., before millions of prospective voters busily weighing up whether they are Presidential material or not, was hardly likely to illicit an answer of any real substance, the range of ludicrous responses on offer was surely enough to make any sane Republican voter despair.

The debate soon turned to familiar Republican territory, though, – bashing the Liberal media, baiting Hilary Clinton and balancing the Federal budget whilst at the same time massively cutting taxes. As Sinatra famously sang, ‘Nice work if you can get it and if you can get it won’t you tell me how’. We waited with bated breath for the all important detail! Trump and Carson have both published tax plans recently that have met with jaw-dropping ridicule, even from fellow candidates (Kasich calls it ‘fantasy economics’). When it’s put to Carson, by nonplussed CNBC anchor Becky Quick, that his regressive flat tax (he vacillates between setting the rate at either 10 or 15 percent) would blow a two trillion dollar hole in his deficit reduction plans, he shrugs it off with a mumbled soundbite about closing loopholes, ending entitlements and cutting out waste! Quick, who in the build up to the debate had clearly flagged up her intentions to grill the candidates on the debt ceiling, was left bewildered by Carson’s outright refusal to engage with the specifics of the question, even here, on a niche financial news channel!

Tea Party darling Cruz, once described by fellow republican Peter King as having ‘tapped into a dark strain in the American political psyche’, wasted no time in shooting the messenger. ‘The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. The contrast with the Democratic debate, where every fawning question from the media was which of you is the most handsome and wise? That debate reflected a debate between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks’. It was theatrical, grandstanding guff, of course, but it got the loudest cheer of the evening and lit the fuse for the post-debate bombshell on institutionalised Liberal bias across the media. Cruz has, of course, a flat tax policy of his very own to peddle, which proposes the abolition of the I.R.S, and he goes a step further than his tax cutting compatriots in promising a future where average Americans will be able to ‘fill out their taxes on a postcard’. He’s fanatically opposed to the minimum wage, claiming it ‘consistently hurts the most vulnerable’ and supports the death penalty. It almost goes without saying, but Cruz is a leading climate change denier too! Suddenly, the fact that anti-politicians Trump and Carson are leading the race to the White House starts to make diabolical sense. A sobered up and clean-shaven Homer Simpson would be a shoe-in against this field, especially if he was sporting a spanking new Donald Trump hairpiece!

Occasionally, the candidates did manage to land a genuinely telling blow. Jeb Bush, whose campaign has hit the skids in recent weeks, nailed his Floridian prodigy Rubio for skipping more votes in the senate than any other Presidential candidate, shaming him with the crack that ‘you should be showing up to work’. The audience didn’t want to hear it, though, as the Bush dynasty is now thoroughly damaged goods. Perhaps, they remembered, too, Jeb’s brother “Dubya” being on permanent vacation during his own ill-fated Presidency?

For my money, Kasich, who talked passionately about income inequality and corporate welfare – ‘If we’re going to reform welfare for poor people, we ought to reform it for rich people as well’ – at least enjoyed periods of lucidity that set him apart from his low-brow, semi-comatose colleagues. couldn’t trip him up either, which is more than can be said for the slippery Trump. Much good it did him, though, with CNBC’s winners poll ranking the candidates as follows:

Trump 45.92%

Cruz     19.87%

Rubio   15.99%

Carson  4.29%

Kasich  3.52%

Christie 3.12%

Paul         2.93%

Fiorina 2.59%

Bush       1.13

Huckabee 0.63

The story being frantically spun, post debate, by the GOP’s friends in the press has been the hoary old chestnut of political bias by the baby-chomping Liberal media. The Republican grass roots, used to being spoon-fed their political grits by Fox and the shock-jocks that dominate daytime radio stateside, simply cannot stomach any independent questioning of their core beliefs. Cruz’s desperate suggestion that the next debate be moderated by the notoriously hawkish Rush Limbaugh would amount to the Republican party being allowed to talk to itself for three hours on prime time TV and testifies to the GOP’s media management meltdown in the face of CNBC’s entirely legitimate and, it must be said, fairly innocuous cross-examination of its candidates.

In treating the Republicans’ trumped up charges with the contempt they deserve it’s worth reinforcing that has listed eight seriously misleading answers given by the candidates on the night. Perhaps the most clear-cut example was Carson’s denial of involvement with Mannatech, a nutritional supplements company that claimed to be able to cure autism and cancer:

Carl Quintanilla: This is a company called Mannatech, a maker of nutritional supplements, with which you had a 10-year relationship. They offered claims that they could cure autism, cancer, they paid $7 million to settle a deceptive marketing lawsuit in Texas, and yet your involvement continued. Why?

Carson: Well, that’s easy to answer. I didn’t have an involvement with them. That is total propaganda, and this is what happens in our society. Total propaganda! I did a couple of speeches for them, I do speeches for other people. They were paid speeches. It is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of relationship with them.

Do I take the product? Yes. I think it’s a good product.

Contrary to his denial of a long-term relationship on the night has discovered a series of promotional videos featuring Carson endorsing the company’s products. In addition, the Wall Street Journal and The National Review have demonstrated further links between Carson and Mannatech that require investigation. Trump’s fudging on his campaign finances and Rubio’s slight of hand over his six trillion tax giveaway also went some way to undermining the RNC’s hastily cooked-up campaign to rubbish CNBC. Noble prize winning economist Paul Krugman put the controversy in context in an excellent op-ed piece this week for the New York Times, Springtime for Grifters, which, as well as labeling Carson a liar over Mannatech, laid bare the GOP’s closed loop strategy to negate the mainstream media.

With Bush’s campaign imploding and the political class as a whole fatally mistrusted by a Republican base that is indoctrinated from birth to hate “Big Government” the unthinkable – a Trump tilt at the Presidency – is edging closer to reality. The fact that Trump is a dog-whistle windbag who sports a hairstyle with a mind all of its own has, so far, counted for nothing; his leaden-footed opponents can’t lay a glove on the dancing bear. Carson, still benefiting from his pseudo outsider status, looks to be a vacuous stooge of George W. Bush proportions and is, if anything, an even more dangerous proposition than his celebrity counterpart. As well as his revisionist account of the Holocaust he‘s also on record as claiming that prison can turn men gay and demanding a compulsory religious test for those contemplating running for President.

In the same way that none of the establishment candidates in this summer’s Labour Leadership election were able to galvanise their electorate, leaving the field wide open for the Corbynistas, to defenestrate Blairism, the latest Republican debate served to confirm that the chance of an end around run from a rookie candidate has never been more likely to result in a Presidential touchdown. Of course, Trump, in reality, is just as much of a privileged machine politician as anyone else on the Republican ticket but voters don’t seem ready to accept that just yet. The lessons of American political history tell us that Trump’s challenge will ultimately fail (Reform Party candidate Ross Perot crashed and burned in 1992 after leading at the turn) but, as it presently stands, with less than a hundred days till the first ballots are cast, it’s all a little too close for comfort. Get ready to duck and cover!