I watched Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate held in the Sin City. It was riveting theater in every material particular. Until that night, the party’s candidates had always presented a somewhat monolithic front as they piled on the Democrats, especially Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. This time, they mixed it up as they carried out what almost earned the right to be termed a circular firing squad. In the ultimate analysis, we saw in Las Vegas a party that is, as you read this, sundered along ideological fissures.
But what I found most interesting was the fireworks, the feistiness, of some of the candidates. In particular, Ted Cruz, the Tea Party puritan from Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky in whose veins courses Libertarian blood, double-teamed Marco Rubio, the first-term senator from Florida, on anything from true conservatism to immigration to terrorism to refugees to war. Rubio, a 44-year-old man of Cuban origin with a gift of the gab and known for being quick on his feet, met his match in Cruz, also 44 years old, and with paternal ties to Cuba as well. A seasoned debater with the agility of a feral beast, Cruz has the stentorian voice of an orator and the ability to pivot on a dime and turn his vulnerability on a given issue into strength. We saw this on full display as he deflected Rubio’s attacks and instead held his feet to the fire on an immigration bill that the Florida senator had collaborated upon with some Democratic senators in 2013. Long touted as Clinton’s most dreaded potential foe, Rubio, a smooth, nimble and telegenic debater, came off defensive and off his usual top-notch game.
At long, long last (!), Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, showed some blood in him. He summoned just enough pluck and vigor to sail into Donald Trump repeatedly, causing the front-runner to redden with irritation. “He gets his foreign policy experience from the shows. That’s not a serious kind of candidate,” Bush said, drawing a loud applause from the audience. A debate format is not Trump’s best suit. You could see how flustered he was. I tweeted: “Poor Trump! He just showed how easily he withers under fire.”
It was doubtless the best debate performance by Bush. But the effort seemed a day late and a dollar short. Trump, a Zeppelin, is far and above in the sky and looks seemingly “undownable” by anything Bush or anyone for that matter fires at him at this time.
The exchange I found most interesting, however, was that between Chris Christie, the New Jersey Governor who just got rescued politically from the dead by CNN after being given a podium on the primetime debate stage, and Paul who frowns on any form of American military interventionism around the globe. Taking Christie on, the Kentucky senator called him “reckless” when the governor reiterated his readiness to shoot down Russian jets from a declared “no-fly zone” if he became president of the United States.
Even before Turkey shot down a Russian military jet from its airspace recently, Christie had been parading the view that it was all right to down a Russian jet from the sky if the pilot refused to heed a no-fly zone order already in place. Christie believes there’ll be no hell to pay for such an action. Russia’s decision not to immediately retaliate against Turkey by shooting down its plane and starting a war with NATO as a consequence, perhaps, has further emboldened Christie’s reckless — yes, that’s the right word — behavior.
If anything, Christie has proved himself to be an effective debater so far. Part of his method involves playing extremely to the Republican gallery by railing like a maniac against President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (see my recent blog). A typical Christie debate sentence involves Clinton as a subject and a rhetorical hogwash as the predicate. That has pleased his audience so well. However, the one thing Christie doesn’t know how to do, is govern well. He has been a poor advertisement for a governor. That is why his poll numbers in New Jersey are still in the latrine. A recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll of the people of New Jersey had very discouraging news for the governor. By 67%, the people wanted him to end his presidential campaign and come back home. In a recent editorial, the New York Times also advised him to end his campaign and go back to his state to address issues that mattered to its people.
Christie called Obama very ugly and disrespectful names at the Las Vegas debate. It was okay for him to do so. It’s all part of the ugly rhetoric that ensues in a campaign season like this. After all, I witnessed the Democrats also call George W. Bush all manner of names in 2004. But the truth is that Christie doesn’t have what it takes to replace Obama as president of the United States. His judgement leaves much to be desired. His uncouthness, his rudeness and stomach-churning insensitivity are almost without parallel. Such a person has no business being handed the key to the White House, for not only will America be in peril for several reasons, but also all of mankind as we know it today could soon commence a countdown towards perdition, should Christie get so lucky as to become president. It is indeed our relief for the time being that the only adult on that Republican stage occupied by mostly fear-mongers and war hawks took it to Christie (see video below). I can only say, Thank you, Rand Paul.