Former Florida governor Jeb Bush proudly proclaimed during Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate that he’s undefeated in his fantasy football league.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie blew up: “Wait a second, we have $19 trillion in debt. We have people out of work. We have ISIS and Al Qaeda attacking us. And we’re talking about fantasy football? Can we stop?”
Apparently not. With all due respect to Christie, there was so much fantasy in this debate that Peter Jackson could make another “Lord of the Rings” trilogy out of it.
It started from the very first question, when the candidates were asked to name their greatest weakness. Ohio Governor John Kasich demonstrated that his weakness is answering the question he was asked. Instead, he dove into a critique of other candidates’ fantasies, such as dismantling Medicaid and Medicare and deporting 11 million illegal immigrants. “I’ve heard about tax schemes that don’t add up, that put our kids in — in a deeper hole than they are today,” he said.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee first pretended he needed his wife to tell him about his weaknesses. Then, he imagined that playing by the rules was a weakness. US Senator Marco Rubio at least admitted he was not really answering the question when he said he was optimistic about the country’s future. US Senator Ted Cruz joked that he was too agreeable and easygoing, then claimed that his so-called weakness was being a fighter.
Donald Trump backed down CNBC moderator Betsy Quick’s claim that he had attacked Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. “I was not at all critical of him. I was not at all,” he said. She eventually apologized. A few minutes later, she told Trump the source of that information was his own website.
Ben Carson, who is now leading polls in Iowa, was only partially successful at fending off criticism that his flat tax plan would add to the national debt. First, although he compared the concept to a 10 percent tithe, he said it would be closer to 15 percent. Then, he said he’d close loopholes and cut government spending to make it balance. When Quick said he’d have to cut 40 percent of government spending to fill a $1.1 trillion budget hole, Carson said it wasn’t true.
“When we put all the facts down, you’ll be able to see that it’s not true, it works out very well,” he said.
Carson had some solid moments later in the debate, but his vague and somewhat halting responses on the fiscal questions reinforced the perception that he’s much stronger on rhetoric than policy.
There were more attacks on the moderators and the media in general in this debate than there were among the candidates. Cruz — Mr. Agreeable — used his time to berate the questioners rather than answer a question about the new budget deal in Congress. “This is not a cage match,” he said. “. . . Why not talk about substantive issues that people care about?”
Then Cruz objected when moderators wouldn’t give him extra time to actually answer the budget question.
It’s a fair point that some of the questions were undisguised attacks on the candidates. John Harwood asked Trump if he’s running a “comic book version of a presidential campaign.” That’s not the kind of question to ask if one really wants a civil debate.
Attacking the media is also, however, a way to avoid answering tough questions and some candidates played it for cheap applause. Christie told one of the questioners who was trying to interrupt him: “Even in New Jersey, what you’re doing is called rude.” Now, that’s a fantasy.
Debate winners: Rubio was on the rise in Iowa polls before the debate and his performance should keep that momentum going. He easily shut down Bush’s half-hearted jab at his Senate absenteeism, saying the only reason he was doing it “is because we’re running for the same position and somebody has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.” Cruz, a likely beneficiary in Iowa if Trump and Carson both stumble, had a solid night that will keep him in the conservative top tier. Other candidates had decent debates, but Cruz and Rubio are the ones who stand to capitalize the most in Iowa.
Debate losers: Neither Trump nor Carson had a stellar debate. Trump seemed slightly deflated and had little new to offer. This debate won’t put him back on top in Iowa. Carson showed some spirit later in the debate but started off surprisingly flat. Bush didn’t have a bad night, but he needed a great one and that didn’t happen.
The undercard debate: Senator Lindsey Graham provided much-needed comic relief in a debate marked by questions about monetary and fiscal policy. He joked a couple of times about his own academic prowess, saying the only way he could get into the University of Colorado was to be invited to the debate. Talking about strengthening America’s position in the world, he had what will probably be the most-quoted one-liner of the consolation debate: “Make me commander-in-chief and this crap stops.”
Kathie Obradovich is The Des Moines Register’s political columnist. A version of this column was first published in The Des Moines Register and is part of an exchange with The Boston Globe intended to give readers an expanded view of the early presidential nomination process. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KObradovich.