In July, we were on vacation in Europe, actually an expedition to celebrate our 50th Wedding Anniversary, and we made little effort to absorb political insights along the way. For example, the conundrums of the Greek economy, refugees flooding the continent, and the question of whether the United Kingdom will remain in the European Union, seemed as vexing at closer range as they had from afar. We did, however, observe the presence of a large rhinoceros outside the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. We harbored no illusion that there was any political significance to that handsome statue, but one does tend to take signs and portents where one finds them.
Upon our return home, we were quickly confronted with the Republican debates (Varsity and Junior Varsity sessions) in Cleveland. Before leaving, we had suggested that the Republican field might do well to decline to appear on the same stage with Donald Trump. While we did not really expect that advice to be taken, we still think it would not have been a bad idea. Nevertheless, we have to admit that the Trump persona, as obnoxious as ever, was not as disruptive as we had feared it might be. Trump was awarded the center of the stage by reason of his standing in the polls, but as the evening wore on, it seemed increasingly clear that his was truly a sideshow, amusing at times, but a sideshow.
Readers who watched the debate will have drawn their own conclusions as to who did well and who did not do so well. In addition, the media have supplied a cornucopia of analysis and comment. Accordingly, we will not attempt any sort of comprehensive review, but offer only a few impressions and observations. Most viewers who had been following the early campaigning probably found that, in general, the debate confirmed or strengthened their pre-existing views. Even admirers of Donald Trump may have been undeterred by his clownish performance. Admittedly, we are also not immune to such a syndrome (known as confirmation bias), and we thought that Senator Rubio and Governors Bush, Christie and Kasich all did well.
Rubio spoke eloquently of his personal history and on the immigration issue. Bush appeared to handle comfortably two issues that have been sore points for many conservatives: immigration and his support for Common Core. Nevertheless, we would not argue with the assessments of several observers that Bush could, and arguably should, have done considerably better. Although his performance was error free, it seemed lacking in passion and unlikely to restore him to the status of putative front-runner that he once enjoyed. Governor Christie offered a sprightly defense of his record as New Jersey Governor and made cogent observations concerning national security and entitlements. Governor Kasich, who may have been unfamiliar to many viewers, did well in educating them as to his impressive resume: he is the only candidate in either party with experience and solid achievements as both a legislator and chief executive. He also responded gracefully to a question about same-sex marriage. Finally, he defended persuasively his decision to expand Medicaid in Ohio, citing both human and financial benefits.
The Junior Varsity debate, held earlier in the evening and lacking the excitement of an audience, featured seven candidates whose poll numbers had excluded them from the top tier. There was a broad, virtually unanimous, consensus that Carly Fiorina was the winner. It seems likely that her articulate and knowledgeable performance may well vault her into the higher tier although, in our view, her credentials make her a more plausible candidate for Vice President than for President. Governor Perry was considerably improved from his 2012 appearances on the debate stage, but the improvement may be too little, too late. Senator Graham provided his usual strong voice on national security. (For our part, we are sympathetic to Graham’s argument that it is necessary to deploy American troops to Iraq and Syria, but would not do so unless and until there is a carefully developed military strategy that is persuasive as to how many troops would be required and what they could reasonably be expected to accomplish.)
Several candidates in both debates were highly critical of Planned Parenthood, promising actions ranging from defunding it to criminal prosecution. Planned Parenthood has long been a target for Republicans but their attacks have grown far more severe following the recent release of videos concerning fetal tissue and body parts. We found the videos to be troubling and the response to the disclosure by Planned Parenthood to be inadequate. On the other hand, we believe that total defunding would be an unfortunate mistake. A better approach, we believe, was that proposed by Republican Senators Susan Collins and Mark Kirk and endorsed by Republican Majority for Choice: a bill that that would continue to provide Federal funding for the important preventive healthcare services of Planned Parenthood, including contraceptive care, cancer screenings and STI testing and treatment, while denying funds to only those Planned Parenthood clinics that participate in the donation of fetal tissue.
The candidates also appeared to be unanimous in rejecting the proposed agreement with Iran, with several suggesting that if elected president they would repudiate it immediately. The moderators, however, did not press them as to what the consequences of such a repudiation would likely be. For example, Senator Walker blithely asserted that the next president should impose “even more crippling sanctions” on Tehran and then “convince our allies to do the same.” Most analysts, however, strongly doubt that any such convincing of our “allies”—including in this context Russia and China–would be feasible. Our own view is that the proposed agreement is seriously flawed. Moreover, the opposition of Senator Schumer and other Democrats is ample proof that the flaws are not, as President Obama would like to claim, merely the product of partisan imaginations. On the other hand, we are doubtful that an effective sanctions regime could be revived and imposed following a unilateral rejection of the agreement by the United States. In short, it is possible that we have passed a point of no return in the matter. Perhaps our concerns as to the viability of renewed sanctions are misplaced, but this is at the very least an issue that deserves far more focus and attention than it has received from the opponents of the agreement.
With respect to other aspects of foreign affairs, the candidates were predictably critical of Obama’s record but, with the exception of Senator Graham, generally short on specifics as to what they would now do differently. For example, no questions were asked, (and none of the candidate offered to say) what they would do about Russia’s incursions into Ukraine or the adequacy of NATO to respond to the threat to Eastern Europe posed by Vladimir Putin’s adventurism. Less surprising, perhaps, was the lack of any reference to China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea.
The moderators of the debate were credited with having asked aggressive and probing questions, but we found some surprising omissions. Most notable was an issue that seems certain to be featured prominently in the general election: climate change, and particularly the new restrictions on carbon emissions adopted by the EPA. A question in the 5 PM debate included a glancing reference to climate change, but Senator Graham largely ignored the issue, and it did not come up at all in the later session. Thus, we were spared, at least for now, specter we raised in Blog. No. 38, “Climate Change: Will the GOP Ever Warm Up To It?” In that blog, we had imagined a scene in which the assembled candidates were asked to raise their hands if they believed climate change is a significant problem, that human activity is a major factor contributing to it and that the government should seek a solution to the problem. While that scenario was avoided for the moment, it is likely to appear sooner or later.
In summary, the aggregate of 17 candidates avoided any shipwrecks, and for that they deserve some credit, particularly given the distracting participation of Donald Trump. But there is a very long way to go and many reefs and shoals lie ahead.