Blog No. 75. Returning From Abroad to the GOP Debates

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. IMG_2677We 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.

11 thoughts on “Blog No. 75. Returning From Abroad to the GOP Debates

  • With regard to Planned Parenthood and the latest attack regarding the donation of fetal tissue, I have been given to understand that this has been done with the permission of the donor. I’m not a lawyer, as Doug knows, but my understanding is that one is innocent until proven guilty. Does this principal not also apply to Planned Parenthood or any organization that may engage in activities considered controversial by certain communities, political and/or religious? I’m also skeptical about taped conversations that skilled technicians can alter to strengthen their arguments.

    The PP debate reminds me of the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. In 2011 the book was the “common read” book that many first year students read over the summer in preparation for discussion during the first week of college. The author herself, a science writer, first learned about the HeLa cell line when she was a college freshman. In her book, Skloot traces “the history of the HeLa cell line, which was taken without permission or consent from an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951.

    In his review of Skloot’s book, Jad Abumrad, host and creator of public radio’s Radiolab, wrote: “….pieces of the tumor that killed her–taken without her knowledge or consent–live on, first in one lab, then in hundreds, then thousands, then in giant factories churning out polio vaccines, then aboard rocket ships launched into space. The cells from this one tumor would spawn a multi-billion dollar industry and become a foundation of modern science–leading to breakthroughs in gene mapping, cloning and fertility and helping to discover how viruses work and how cancer develops (among a million other things).”

    Without more solid knowledge about the PP fetal tissue conundrum, we could, as the saying goes, “throw the baby out with the bath water.”

  • Sorry, I have real trouble seeing either of these two events as a “debate”. More of a FOX media circus in my opinion.

    The so called varsity debate was preceded by extreme smug giddiness by the the three person FOX panel of questioners. Questions in both “debates” for the most part seemed designed to embarrass the hopeful candidate on an individual basis rather than to create meaningful debate.

    I would like to hear subjects that each candidate could respond to in order to expose their position on the issue.

    Now this subsequent news media obsession with trying over and over to get the candidates to respond to Trump’s comments is just too much.

  • DP…..glad that Rino did not fall over on you!!!! Glad too that you had a good trip. I was surprised by Dr Carson’s solid performance…possible VP candidate??? Your impressions????

  • Great to read the initial RINO perceptions of the debates, and some sensible, clear-sighted reactions to the opening round. Hopefully there will be a lot more of substance the candidates will talk about once the Trump sideshow subsides. Kasich was a real positive surprise, one able to deviate from conservative republican orthodoxy in an impressive, heart-felt way, without belittling those who might disagree. Perhaps he’s one who might be rising through the ranks.

    • Do hope you’re right that Kasich might rise through the ranks, as I am confident that he could attract Indies and centrist Dems (like myself)…not to mention win pivotal Ohio.

  • Oh Sage of the West,
    Glad you and your bride had a wonderful trip. The photo of the Rhino and you is priceless.
    My husband and I watched both debates, and the commentary that followed. We didn’t agree wholeheartedly with all of it, but were VERY pleased by the tough questions asked. Trump has shown himself (both during the debate and after) as having the temperament of a spoiled six year old. Talk about thin skinned. He could have turned some of the questions around, but instead chose to demean and denigrate, bloviate, rather than offer solutions or ideas. I’m horrified the conservatives are supporting him in such numbers. Hopefully, having stuck their fingers in the eyes of Washington, they will move on to one or more of the truly solid candidates that are running. I am hoping both Fiorina and Carson will get Cabinet positions that will utilize their substantial skill sets and expertise. My Dream Team is Kasich and Rubio, in that order. If Jeb would develop a little fire and passion, I believe he would make a fine President. But if not, Kasich and Rubio remain our choices.

    • I’m with you! Kasich is definitely my choice (but I confess to bias, as I’m a native Ohioan who knows what a great job he’s done in my home state). I also agree that Rubio would make a good VP choice…but my dream VP (for Kasich) is Nicki Haley.
      Hey, I know…file all of this under “fantasy.”

  • Welcome back! Your faithful followers have missed your eloquent commentary. Also relieved to know that if Trump is elected, RINOs can seek refuge outside the Musee d’Orsay. (As a DINO,however, don’t know if I would qualify for a space in your tent…I might have to flee elsewhere.)

    Interesting suggestion re: Planned Parenthood; as a supporter of same, I was appalled by the videos and the response of PP’s spokespeople. While I know that PP’s enemies would seize on any excuse to defund PP, that does not constitute a defense for everything PP does. I would like to see a full examination/explanation of “what the heck PP is doing,” and I’d like to see some some top-level personnel/policy changes. Seems to me PP has brought this crisis on itself…as though it didn’t have enough problems…and if PP is sincere in its stated mission of providing poor women with a broad range of services they can’t easily access elsewhere (PP claims that 97 pct of services rendered are not abortion-related), its leadership should have been very mindful that it is vulnerable enough to controversy over the “tiny” percentage of abortion services it provides without involving itself in fetal-tissue donation. Disturbing display of bad judgment on multiple levels.

  • Well stated west coast scribe! As one of the magnificent 10, I would have asked Fox inquisitors WHY ISNT CARLY ON STAGE WITH US?
    Yes, she was on the early group BUT all knew how well she did by the Regulars beginning. …….be bold when it counts!

    Best to you good friend

    Jimmy/ Linda

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