The GOP farce plods along: Why last night's interminable debate was an affront to the party's patron saint

Fiorina was declared the winner. But all we really know after last night's circus is that "left-wing" Reagan lost

Published September 17, 2015 4:28PM (EDT)

  (AP/Mark J. Terrill)
(AP/Mark J. Terrill)

What did we learn about the Republican Party at the Ronald Reagan Library debate Wednesday night? We discovered that leading GOP candidates think Reagan's administration was part of a “wild left-wing” conspiracy to cripple American business over the hoax of climate change. Also: there, in a shrine to the man who reached out to the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev and helped negotiate an end to the Cold War, nominal debate winner Carly Fiorina said she’ll refuse even to talk to the leader of Russia if she’s elected president.

Of course, all the contenders genuflected at the memory of Reagan while trashing President Obama's Iran deal -- yet nobody mentioned Reagan's role in bolstering the Iranian hardliners by violating an embargo to sell them arms in exchange for help to the Nicaraguan contras and a possible hostage release.

We learned as well that when it comes to Donald Trump vs. the right wing media, it’s Trump 2, conservative media personalities 0. Just like Trump got Fox to bow to him after he savaged Megyn Kelly following the last debate, he humiliated radio host Hugh Hewitt – unbelievably, a “panelist” at this CNN debate -- by getting Hewitt to say that it wasn’t Trump’s fault that he confused the Kurds with the Quds force. “It was my fault,” Hewitt told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” and he seconded that Thursday night.

Hewitt also lobbed a softball question to Trump (which he actually kind of flubbed) giving him a chance to blast President Obama’s Syria policy, and some of his 2016 rivals for not supporting military intervention in 2013. It looked as if Trump’s campaign against Hewitt as a “third-rate” radio host asking “gotcha” questions – backed by Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter – actually worked.

Oh, if you’re waiting for me to tell you definitively who “won” the debate, and who might begin to rise or fall in the polls as a result? I’m sorry, I really have no idea. Dr. Ben Carson looked like he confused his One-A-Day vitamin with Lunesta; he was barely able to keep his eyes open and talked in sleepy non-sequiturs. But I thought Carson blew the last debate, and he rose in the polls. So what do I know?

Jeb Bush clearly had another mediocre night, which he can’t afford. He came out kind of peppy – even Trump praised his “energy” – and accused Trump of exactly the kind of special interest lobbying he rails against, saying the real estate mogul gave him money back when he ran for governor, and then unsuccessfully lobbied to place casinos in Florida. But Trump denied it and loudly talked over Bush; there was brief confusion about whether the former governor was telling the truth (PolitiFact later confirmed it); and the moment faded.

Likewise, Bush was later given a chance by CNN’s Jake Tapper to call Trump out on a Twitter insult to Bush’s Mexican-born wife Columba. Bush started strong, demanding an apology, but then faded again as Trump filibustered.

But Bush’s worst moment was when Hewitt asked him – in another kindness to Trump – about the fact that a lot of his foreign policy advisors worked for his brother, the last GOP president, who got us into disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trump then jabbed Bush – “Your brother, and your brother’s administration, gave us Barack Obama” – which led Bush to retort, “My brother kept us safe.” As if he didn’t remember his brother was president during the Sept. 11 attacks. It was that kind of night for Jeb!

Trump didn’t have a great night either, but he has one thing in common with Reagan – so far he’s seemed to share an impermeable outer political coating with the Teflon president. He engaged in a juvenile spat with Rand Paul early on that ended in his insulting Paul’s looks, and looking kind of silly. Carly Fiorina absolutely owned him when she was asked about the episode when Trump clearly insulted her appearance --  'Look at that face!' he told Rolling Stone. 'Would anyone vote for that?” -- then insisted he was actually talking about her “persona.”

“Women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina shot back. “I think she’s got a beautiful face and I think she’s a beautiful woman,” Trump countered, with characteristic sexism, but looking uncharacteristically sheepish. This was an establishment crowd, heavy on donors, and they were tougher on Trump than the Fox audience was.

Perhaps most damaging, Trump himself seemed relatively “low-energy” – his constant jibe against Bush. He told reporters later that it was his attempt at looking presidential, but whatever: he was much less a factor than in the last GOP go-round.

Still, pundits have predicted Trump’s decline before, including after his boorish performance in the last debate, and they’ve been wrong. Trump himself crowed about a Drudge Report poll showing him the winner of the debate, again. That poll was right last time, so who knows.

Once again, lots of the punditocracy claimed Sen. Marco Rubio was one of the debate winners, but that's crazy. The young Florida senator fell flat on his face with an early joke about the California drought: “I brought my own water!” he said with a big dumb smile. That was a twofer: He made fun of a local tragedy on a day when the death toll of the state’s drought-fueled wildfires continued to mount, and he reminded everyone of his humiliating big-gulp moment when he got to reply to Obama’s State of the Union address two years ago.

When Trump dinged Rubio – accurately -- for having the worst absentee record in the Senate, Rubio essentially defended it by saying Congress isn’t getting anything done. So he stopped doing his job because it was frustrating? In the real world, he’d get fired. Score one for Trump. Anyway, lots of smart-ish folks thought Rubio did well in the last debate to0, but he went nowhere in the polls.

Fiorina probably had the best night -- if you don’t fact check anything she said. She flat out lied about what the doctored, bogus Planned Parenthood videos showed, claiming they featured a still living intact aborted fetus, killed for its organs, when they did no such thing. When she insisted she’d call Iran’s Supreme Leader to call off the recent nuclear deal on her first day as president, the CNN moderators missed a chance to ask her why, as CEO of Hewlett Packard, she skirted anti-Iran sanctions -- rather like the night's patron saint, Ronald Reagan -- and sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment to the anti-U.S. regime.

She was allowed to misrepresent her awful HP record, and inaccurately trash Hillary Clinton on Benghazi and her controversial email practices. Still, she’s a poised, practiced debater, and she may get another small bump in the polls.

I don’t think any of the rest, including the occasionally statesmanlike John Kasich, did enough last night to significantly change their campaign standing. Gov. Scott Walker was a bit more energetic but probably didn’t make enough of an impression to reverse his sinking fortunes. Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Mike Huckabee continued stridently narrow-casting to the far-right evangelical community, which might matter if Trump suddenly left the field. But the twice divorced libertine billionaire and born-again Republican is leading among that group, too.

Whoops, I haven't mentioned the pumped up, inauthentic "It's not about me, guys" flailing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Oh well. Now I have.

At any rate, the seemingly interminable three-hour debate – I accidentally typed “three-month debate,” because that’s how it felt – worked against anyone who had a good moment or two. Still, remember that most post-debate predictions were wrong last time. Once again, we learned that the GOP has moved far to the right of Ronald Reagan – but little else.

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