Tuesday night was the fourth of what feels like 4,000 GOP presidential debates — and like the previous get-togethers of GOP candidates, this one was also an insult to knowledge and common sense. Here’s my roundup:
Ben Carson . . . I just can’t
I dare you to go back and read his answers from the debate and find any semblance of coherence or a keen grasp of major public policy issues. Carson might be a brilliant doctor, but he doesn’t have the basic skills, intelligence, or qualifications needed to be president. What’s worse is that he is completely unaware of it. That about a quarter of Republicans are currently supporting him for president is pretty much everything you need to know about the state of intellectual discourse in the modern Republican Party.
Republicans do not care about the working class
There was a stunning exchange when Fox Business anchor Neil Cavuto asked several candidates if they supported increasing the minimum wage to $15. Donald Trump responded (and I’m not making this up) that wages in the United States are “too high.” The idea that workers are paid too much money — and should be paid less — is not something you normally hear from a politician. Yet, amazingly, Carson followed up by agreeing with Trump and Marco Rubio chimed in and called the minimum wage a “disaster.”
To a remarkable degree Republicans simply don’t care about the plight of the working class — they want to see them paid less money, they want to take away access to health care, and they want to cut regulations to benefit business and balance the budget (two ideas that are usually not a winning proposition for workers). The way GOP candidates do talk about delivering a “helping hand” is through cutting taxes, a policy prescription that overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy and provides meager benefit to those at the bottom of the economic ladder. If you get past the platitudes and hosannas to the American dream what you have is an economic ideology that would be a complete disaster for American workers. We should really be talking more about this.
Donald Trump is mean . . . but probably won
Trump was his usual blustery self, but one exchange was particularly remarkable. In explaining his plans to deport millions of undocumented immigrants he praised a program initiated by Dwight Eisenhower to deal with illegal Mexican immigrants. According to Trump, Ike “moved a million and a half illegal immigrants out of this country, moved them just beyond the border. They came back. Moved them again, beyond the border, they came back. Didn’t like it. Moved them way south. They never came back. Dwight Eisenhower. You don’t get nicer, you don’t get friendlier.”
You know the name of that program? Operation Wetback — and it’s generally considered one of the cruelest moments in recent American history.
In the foreign policy discussion, Trump reiterated his claims that American leaders are stupid, that foreign countries are sneaky (China is trying to get through America’s “back door” and totally take advantage of everyone) and that we should have taken Iraq’s oil and given the proceeds to American veterans.
Overall, Trump was mean, obnoxious, and rude to his fellow candidates. He’ll probably see a boost in his poll numbers.
Marco Rubio only talks in platitudes . . . it’s grating
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has become the darling of the pundit class and the man many assume will be the GOP nominee. I don’t get it. His answer to every question is to return to his campaign stump speech and deliver platitude after platitude. According to Rubio, we need an economy for the “21st century,” we need to make the “American Dream” real, “the world is changing faster than ever, and it is disruptive” being a parent is the most important job in the world . . . and the list of meaningless banalities goes on.
When pushed by Rand Paul as to how he can propose a massive tax cut while also spending billions more on defense, Rubio retreated to the hoariest of campaign trail declarations — that “the world is a safer place when America is the strongest military power in the world.” Of course, America is already extraordinarily safe – and is already, by far, the strongest military power in the world.
At some point, Rubio needs to talk in more than generalities. His fallback into formulaic and meaningless pronouncements makes him look even more like a typical politician than he already does.
Ted Cruz, who is trodding over much of the same political ground as Rubio, also talks in platitudes, but he’s better at aiming his message to conservative voters. There’s a harder edge to what he says; a better facility at hitting conservative sweet spots — like in his constant bashing of the media. Of course, Cruz also oozes insincerity, which would make a campaign in which these two emerged as frontrunners both painful and fascinating to watch.
Jeb Bush is sad
Poor Jeb, every time he tried to assert himself by interrupting one of his fellow candidates, he got shouted down — and meekly backed away. At one point, Trump “stood up” for him and told John Kasich “you should let Jeb speak,” which only served to make Bush look more ineffectual and weak. Jeb simply doesn’t have the fire in his belly or the political chops to stand out in a group of bomb-throwers. He’s got lots of money to spend and a lot of establishment support, but it increasingly feels like he’s just playing out the string.
As for the other candidates, Rand Paul had his best debate — unfortunately it came by focusing on issues where he’s out of sync with the Republican Party. Carly Fiorina has nothing of great substance to add to these debates, and John Kasich at times seems like a reasonable, informed politician. So suffice to say, in this crowd, he has no shot.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.