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Deliver us from these buffoons: The hits, misses, and WTF moments in the second GOP debate

The debate went about as expected -- with a few surprising (and cringeworthy) moments


Sean Illing
September 17, 2015 10:12PM (UTC)

Last night the GOP held its second presidential debate at Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA. I prepared for this debate the same way I did the first: I poured a cocktail, grabbed my notepad, and watched the farce. Yesterday I wrote a preview of the debate, summarizing what was at stake and what each candidate needed to do. The debate unfolded more or less as expected, with a few surprising flourishes. The format was terrible. The moderator, Jake Tapper, couldn’t stop the candidates from bloviating. There were too many people on stage, and the petty squabbles felt contrived. It was, in short, the made-for-TV spectacle we all assumed it would be. There were, however, some interesting takeaways.

My goal after each of these debates is to offer an accurate (but mildly amusing) candidate-by-candidate breakdown. Due to the rambling incoherence of the debate participants, no attempt is made to organize or make sense of these observations. I recorded them in real time and they’re as intelligible as the source material.

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Donald Trump

At this point, we pretty much know what to expect from Trump. He’s a disciplined performer. Last night was no different. He began humbly by reminding the audience that he’s a billionaire, but stressed that he wasn’t bragging or anything. It’s just that he’s succeeded at everything, including turning the massive fortune he inherited from his dad into a more massive fortune.

Graciously, he complimented Jeb’s elevated testosterone levels, noting that Jeb appeared more “high energy tonight.” As to his qualifications for office, it’s simple: “I’m a spectacular entertainer,” he said, “and that’s what America needs because we’re not respected.” Trump was tough on the issues, too. On the question of Russia’s expansionism, he said he’ll “get along with Putin” and that that would “get it done.” The Syrian civil war? No problem. Trump said he’ll “let them fight each other.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s misogyny has hurt him with women voters, but he addressed that as well: “I will take care of women, I respect women.”  Immediately after that, he disrespected the only woman on the stage, Carly Fiorina: “She [Carly] has a beautiful face, I think she’s a beautiful woman.” Trump then returned to his core message on immigration. “Right now we don’t have a country,” he said confidently, and that’s why we need to build a big wall. Problem solved. Trump saved his most powerful (and detailed) stuff for the end of the debate. He closed by telling the audience that if he’s elected, we’ll do “something special” and we’ll “find solutions”  and thus “make America great again.”

Jeb Bush

This wasn’t Jeb’s best night. Elevated “T levels” notwithstanding, he failed to impress. One of the first things he did was ask Trump to apologize to his wife, for once retweeting a supporter who cited Columba Bush's Mexican birth as the reason Jeb backs immigration reform. Trump politely refused, but noted that Jeb’s wife is “lovely.”

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In any case, Jeb began by taking a swipe at Obama, asking the audience to “name a country where the relationship is better than the day that Obama came into office.” This was a little strange since the answer to that question is practically every country. I guess Jeb is unaware of Pew studies like this one, showing that basically the entire world prefers Obama to his brother. Fair enough. Jeb’s big moment was his heroic defense of George W. Bush’s legacy. When Trump called his brother’s presidency a disaster, Jeb fired back: “You know what? As it relates to my brother, there is one thing I know for sure, he kept us safe.” Again, one assumes Jeb is unaware that 9/11 occurred on his brother’s watch and that we received warning of an attack the month before it occurred. It’s hard to imagine, however, that Jeb doesn’t know that the Iraq War, the one his brother authorized under false pretenses, helped create the global menace that is ISIS and further destabilized an already unstable region.

To be fair, Jeb didn’t have time to explain what he meant by “safe,” so perhaps there’s more to the story here. The most interesting thing Jeb did was admit that he smoked pot. I’m not sure why it matters, but he appeared very human when he said it, so there’s that.

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Ben Carson

As I wrote yesterday, Carson’s strategy is to sound sufficiently pleasant, so that no one notices he doesn’t know anything about politics. For the most part, he did that. Although he slipped a little at the beginning when he admitted to having no relevant experience. However, he quickly recovered by saying “he’s concerned for America” and that’s why he’s running. He did offer a few interesting policy ideas. For example, he said something about basing the U.S. tax code on the Bible, though it’s not clear what that means. He also explained that we can’t raise the minimum wage because young people won’t be able to get jobs if we pay them a livable wage. On the Iraq War, Carson conceded that it was a mistake with no chance of success, but added that it only failed because we pulled out. All told, Carson held his ground and should remain near the top of the polls.

Carly Fiorina

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Fiorina likely won the debate. It’s true that she made a lot of false claims, but she made them so quickly that no one really noticed. She boasted about her record as CEO of Hewlett Packard, which, while disastrous, shows that she’s willing to “challenge the status quo,” even if it means running a company (or country) into the ground. She also declared her bold plan to re-militarize America. Fiorina argued that we need to build more warships, send more missiles to Poland, and deploy troops (everywhere, I think) in order to let Putin know we’re prepared for WWIII if it comes to that. In a rather weird moment, she linked Iran to Planned Parenthood (I still don’t know why). Without question, her strongest moment came when she told the crowd that the women of America know exactly what Trump meant when he criticized Fiorina’s looks. This was the one point in the debate where Trump looked like the asshole we all know he is.

Rand Paul

I’ll be honest, I like Rand Paul. As libertarians go, he’s not bad. He sounded like the most reasonable person on stage. He said America shouldn’t police the world and that intervening in foreign conflicts is probably not the best idea. He shined when he pointed out the non sequiturs in Trump’s arguments, but it appeared only a few people in the room knew what a non sequitur is. Paul also said some admirable (and undeniably true) things about the folly of the drug war as well as its racist roots, but that’s unlikely to score many points among conservatives. Paul, unfortunately, was at the bottom of the polls before the debate and will likely stay there after the debate.

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Marco Rubio

Rubio’s performance was mostly unremarkable. He didn’t hurt himself, but that’s about it. He stuck to his I’m-a-serious-person-with-serious-idea routine, but I’m not sure it helped much. He kicked things off with a joke about bringing water to a drought-plagued state – it didn’t go over well. He was one of the few candidates to address climate change, noting that he’d rather destroy the climate than our economy – that appeared to win over the room. In the end, I doubt Rubio boosted his campaign in the eyes of his donors, which is what he needed to do.

Mike Huckabee

Huckabee stayed disciplined throughout the debate, sticking to his I’m-the-most-charming-theocrat-you’ll-ever-meet routine. He said a few preposterous things about how dangerous Iran is (mostly to Israel) and about the many terrible things Iran has done to the U.S. He wisely declined to comment on America’s history of intervening illegally in Iran. He boldly declared that Kim Davis’ struggle proves once again that it’s illegal to be Christian in this country. Near the end, he equated slavery and abortion and emphasized that, when he’s president, he’ll tell the Supreme Court what to do. All in all, Huckabee sold a lot of books last night just may have secured his next TV gig.

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Ted Cruz

As I said from the very beginning, Cruz is an objectively unlikable human being. He hasn’t been able to overcome that in the debates. His strategy has been to side with Trump on everything and then swoop in for the asshole vote once Trump exits the race. But Trump isn’t going anywhere, and so Cruz is left without a solid plan. As always, he played up his theocratic intentions for America. The room responded well to his ramblings, but, again, his unlikability seemed to weigh him down. If he had a “moment” in the debate, it was when he called Obama the biggest “financier of terrorism in the word," which he said while staring longingly into the camera.

John Kasich

As I noted yesterday, Kasich distinguished himself in the first debate by courageously siding with Christ over Republican Christians in the debate over gay marriage. I predicted that he’d dial down the decency last night, as this debate was not in his home state of Ohio. For the most part, he did that, and my guess is the establishment wing of the GOP appreciated that. He did stumble a bit when he said that “I don’t know a single person in American who doesn’t want to defund Planned Parenthood.” From that I concluded that Kasich doesn’t know a single person in America. In any event, Kasich didn’t move the meter one way or the other last night.

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Chris Christie

Like Fiorina, Christie performed well last night. He bragged about being an outsider in his home state of New Jersey, which was another way of saying no one likes him there. And he effectively played his usual role as the straight-talking tough guy. His big moment came when he reminded the audience that he denied health care to women seven times in New Jersey, a great talking point in that venue. As I expected, he also smuggled four 9/11 references into the debate, ensuring that everyone there knew he was near New York when that happened.

Scott Walker

Walker was a bit of a dud last night. He’s been sliding in the polls and needed a strong performance in order to convince the Koch Brothers to buy the election for him. He didn’t do that. While he did remember to tout his disinterest in the right of women to control their bodies, he failed to engage any of the frontrunners, which is what he had to do. All he really did was tell the audience that he’s “ready to go big and bold” and that he’d love to play cards with Obama because Obama folds so easily (which was a joke, I think). Needless to say, Walker was a loser last night.

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Josh Earnest Cracked Jokes About Last Night's GOP


Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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