Coming on Tuesday and Thursday nights of last week, President Obama’s State of the Union message and the sixth Republican debate combined to make a depressing package of television viewing. For those of us in the Pacific time zone, the best that might have been said was that we did not have to stay up late to watch and that neither event interfered with regular prime time programming. Given the extensive coverage of them, we will limit our comments to a few observations.
The State of the Union Message
President Obama’s message was a predictable defense of his terms in office with a few jabs along the way at some of the Republicans hoping to succeed him. On both domestic and foreign affairs, the President painted a rosier picture than we believe most observers see, and his assessment was as notable for matters omitted or lightly skipped over as those he addressed. On the whole, it is unlikely that anyone who watched the speech came away feeling reassured or that they had gained any new insights into the problems facing the country.
The President remarked on the prevailing political atmosphere:
[D]emocracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t — it doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, it doesn’t work if we think that our political opponents are unpatriotic or trying to weaken America.
Republicans clearly bear some responsibility on that account, but the President himself has not shrunk from questioning the motives or disparaging the good faith of those who disagree with him. Indeed, he is regarded by many as the most partisan president in recent memory. Hence it is not surprising that, as he acknowledged, “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”
On domestic matters, we will not revisit the familiar litany of Democratic proposals and promises touched on by the President. We will note, however, his failure even to acknowledge the problem of the federal debt. In 2010, President Obama recognized the importance of addressing and reducing the federal debt by creating the National Commission On Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, popularly known as Simpson-Bowles after its Chairs, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. Obama, however, made no attempt to implement the Commission’s recommendations. In fairness, neither did many Republicans, but we believe that its basic message was and remains sound. The lineal descendant of Simpson-Bowles is Fix the Debt which pointed out in a report on the SOTU that addressing the debt remains an issue of vital importance:
While the president mentioned that annual budget deficits have come down in recent years, he didn’t note that they came down from sky-high levels and, thanks partly to the deficit increasing legislation that Congress passed and he signed into law last year, deficits will soon start going back up.
Meanwhile, the national debt continues to rise toward unsustainable levels. Our new brief looks at where the country’s financial situation stands….The president talked about the long term in his speech. Fixing the debt is critical to financing our future.
On matters of foreign affairs, the President’s assessment seemed particularly remote from reality. With respect to the conflict with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the President made the sanguine observation that “We’re training, arming and supporting forces who are steadily reclaiming territory in Iraq and Syria.” While some progress in Iraq appeared to be reflected in the recent recapture of Ramadi, there is still a very long way to go and the ultimate result remains very much in doubt. In Syria, not even such a sign of progress is apparent: the situation remains bleak and, with the intervention of Russia, ever more complicated. No mention was made of the situation in Iraq where the Taliban has been increasingly on the move.
With respect to Russia, the President made only a glancing and rather odd mention. General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified in July that Russia poses the greatest single security threat to the United States, adding that it would be reasonable to send Ukraine heavy weapons to defend against Russian aggression. (“If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia. If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.”) Yet Obama merely observed blandly that “Even as their economy severely contracts, Russia is pouring resources in to prop up Ukraine and Syria, client states that they saw slipping away from their orbit.” He did not pause to mention that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine had severely shaken the confidence of NATO members, particularly in Eastern Europe. Nor did he acknowledge that Russia’s military efforts in Syria had most often been directed not at ISIS but at other Syrian opponents of Assad, including forces supported by the United States.
The most heartening aspect of the SOTU evening was the response by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, realistic in its premises but optimistic in its tone. It was widely praised with many noting that, without mentioning Trump by name, Governor Haley rebuked his approach As she put it, “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.” That observation drew an immediate counterattack from Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. We can only say that any Republican attacked by that bunch must be doing something right.
The Republican Debate
The Republican debate was, if anything, even more depressing. The general consensus of observers was that the debate was “won” by Trump, Cruz and Rubio, with honorable mention to Christie. We saw it rather differently. It may be that both Trump and Cruz emerged with their standing maintained or improved, and there was a certain entertainment value in the mano a mano between them. Nevertheless, we saw nothing to change our view that both are categorically unfit to be the Republican nominee or to serve as President.
For the moment at least, Rubio may be the most viable alternative to Trump and Cruz and we agree that he performed well during the debate, particularly when he enumerated Senator Cruz’s changes of position on various issues. We were not as happy with his challenge to Governor Christie whom he criticized for having supported the confirmation of Justice Sotomayor, and having supported Common Core, Planned Parenthood and gun control. For his part, Christie denied the allegations, and his record on those matters is unclear in some respects. We will not attempt to parse his record, or debate the issues here, but will simply note in passing that we have supported, and continue to support, Common Core, Planned Parenthood and gun control. Then again, we are not running for anything. As Senator Cruz observed “Listen, in any Republican primary, everyone is going to say they support the Second Amendment. Unless you are clinically insane that’s what you say in a primary.” Christie and others asserted that President Obama’s recent executive actions on gun control somehow undermined the Second Amendment, but none bothered to explain just how or why that was so.
Ben Carson had acquired some factoids with respect to national security, but gave little reason to think that he would be a strong and competent leader. Perhaps the kindest comment came from Nicholas Kristof in a Tweet during the debate: “Ben Carson always comes across as very likable. If I were looking for a guy to drive across the country with, it would be Carson.” That is not, alas, a qualification for the presidency.
What of the remaining “establishment” candidates, John Kasich and Jeb Bush? We believe that both did well and, by our lights, sounded more presidential than the others on the stage. While we have disagreements with both on some issues, we would be comfortable with either as president. Kasich, however, we believe, continues to rely far too much on brandishing his resume. It is an impressive resume indeed, but by now there can be very few voters who are not familiar with it. Moreover, given the anti-establishment mood that appears to be prevailing this year, touting long years of service in Congress, however productive, may be more of a negative than a positive. Bush, we think, seems finally to have hit his stride, and seemed particularly effective, calm but clear, in explaining why he termed Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entry into the United States as “unhinged.” Nevertheless, it is hard to dispute the view of even some who agreed that he did well, that it was too little and too late.
And so the question is what, if anything, is the Republican Party going to do? David Brooks, on the PBS NewsHour, outlined the dilemma and a possible solution:
And that’s how the Republican establishment is right now. They don’t believe that Ted Cruz or Donald Trump can win. They think it could imperil their majorities in Congress, and yet they’re doing nothing about it.
But the donor class could do something. Frankly, the country is filled with state legislators who are Republicans, congressmen, senators, local committeemen, a lot of whom are in panic. And so maybe they should do something about it. Maybe they should have a MoveOn.org-type organization and get some rallying, which the other side has already done, and have a counterweight, so they don’t send the party into suicide.
And that might involve, not now, but after New Hampshire, winnowing the field, and donors and other people going and saying, we’re just going to pick this guy. We’re going to pick Rubio. I’m sorry, Jeb, you’re not going to be president. Christie, you can be secretary of treasury, but we’re going to get organized here and we’re not going to go quietly into the night.
Brooks’s analysis is similar to comments of our own with respect to the need for the vaunted (and reviled) “donor class” to become actively engaged, with or without being asked. As for winnowing the field, Rubio may or may not be “the one,” but winnowing is obviously inevitable and Brooks is probably right that sooner is better than later.
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We would like to place before the readers of RINOcracy.com a minor mystery that has been bothering us. Why has not the media (or anyone else) pressed Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to release their tax returns? Back on October 4, George Stephanopoulos raised the question with Trump, but allowed him to brush off the question with a stunning non sequitur, saying that he would release his returns once “we find out the true story on Hillary’s emails.” We think that the returns of Trump and Cruz, and particularly Trump’s, would provide interesting reading. Trump has said that it is his practice is to “fight like hell to pay as little as possible” and we would be quite surprised if there were not some questionable judgment calls made in pursuit of that goal. If any of our readers can shed any light on this matter, or stimulate the interest of others in it, we would urge them to do so.