About two and a half hours into Wednesday night’s marathon three-hour GOP presidential debate, I hit my breaking point.
I’d sat through the repeated fear-mongering, inflation threats, and hand-wringing on Iran, capped by Mike Huckabee declaring Tehran an actual threat to the survival of Western civilization. I sat dumbstruck as Carly Fiorina — who as CEO of Hewlett-Packard almost single-handedly destroyed the company, and who has never held elected office — complained that Hillary Clinton hasn’t accomplished anything. I heard Jeb Bush, to raucous applause, say that his brother George kept America safe . . . and then, not more than 10 seconds later, refer to his brother standing on a rubble pile in lower Manhattan in which nearly 3,000 Americans had been killed.
I watched Donald Trump criticize Rand Paul’s physical appearance as if he’s not wearing a dead sea gull on his head. I seethed as one candidate after another offered more heartless and uncompassionate plans for how to treat illegal immigrants. I even listened to Ben Carson try to one-up Trump by saying that we don’t need just a wall on the US-Mexico border . . . we need a double fence. I became slack-jawed as Chris Christie suggested that Hillary Clinton supports mass murder. I stewed as every presidential candidate for one of two political parties in the most powerful country in the world fell over themselves to deny the basic science of climate change or downplay the urgent need to do anything about it.
I put up with all of it. But then Jake Tapper directed a question to Carson about the connection between vaccines and autism — and it was on.
This isn’t a complicated issue. There is no link between vaccines and autism. None. That should have been the answer when the question was posed to an actual medical doctor such as Carson. But Carson demurred. Instead of answering, he pivoted to a bizarre complaint about big government and the size of the federal workforce.
And when Trump, who has for years trumpeted the autism/vaccine link, claimed that he wasn’t opposed to vaccines but that they should be spread out (which actually increases the risks of spreading deadly diseases), Carson went along with him. While he noted that there is no known connection between vaccines and autism, Carson also said, “We’re probably giving way too many.” Rand Paul, another medical professional, didn’t point out that this was wrong. No one on stage did. Instead Paul said, “I’m all for vaccines. But I’m also for freedom” — just not the freedom that prevents other children from getting sick, because Paul thinks “freedom” is more important than public health.
It’s one thing to marvel at the unprecedented and stupefying levels of GOP know-nothingness on display this election season — the misstatements, the untruths, the exaggerations, the falsehoods, and the straight-up lies. But these vaccine comments represent a legitimate public health menace. And it’s indicative of the allergy to facts, data, and evidence that is the real story of the GOP debate, and indeed of the Republican nominating contest — and we need to be talking more about it.
From other pundits you’re going to hear about how Fiorina showed verve, even though pretty much everything she said was either platitudinous nonsense or untrue. You’ll read about Bush’s lackluster debate performance, rather than his proposed tax plan that gives almost all of its benefits to the top 1 percent. You’ll see the clips of Trump childishly hitting his opponents, rather than hearing more about his cruel plan to deport several million undocumented immigrants if elected.
You’re going to hear about how Marco Rubio sounds substantive and serious on foreign policy, even though his views on America’s role in the world are basically unhinged from reality. During the debate, Rubio actually suggested that US allies, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, will soon look to Russia for help and that Putin is “trying to replace us as the single most important power broker in the Middle East.” That’s right, diplomatically isolated Russia, which has a negative economic growth rate, is supplying material support to Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and whose single economic resource competes with that of the Gulf states.
Carly Fiorina went further into crazy land than Rubio by calling for “aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states” and no dialogue at all with Russia. She also said that Iran has “talked Vladimir Putin into aligning themselves with Iran and Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad” — as if Russian support for Assad doesn’t go back decades. These are minor points that few nonwonks noticed, but it’s indicative of how ill-informed so many of the comments were during the debate; and how reluctant (or too ill-informed) debate moderators are to point out these statements are wrong.
We joke about this stuff, but after a while it’s no longer funny. The Republican Party is dominated by candidates who are proudly, even boastfully ignorant. Rejecting the clear science on vaccines or climate change is practically the price of admission even to be considered a legitimate presidential candidate. Playing on xenophobic fears of immigrants by lying about the economic costs and threats to American workers — pro forma. It reached a point Wednesday night when a candidate actually saying something true was an event worthy of note.
But make no mistake, the descent of the Republican Party into dishonesty, lies, and cravenness is no joke. It’s a national crisis.
After all, one of these 15 candidates might actually get elected president.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.