Tonight the Republican presidential candidates gather in Milwaukee for their fourth debate, hosted by the Fox Business Network. The predictable sameness of the candidates’ general positions on every issue means that any excitement – I use that term very loosely – will come from watching them tumble and fall over each other like puppies going after a squeaky toy to get further and further out to the right on specifics, distinguishing for the base which of them will cut taxes the most, bomb Vladimir Putin the hardest, and throw the most poor people off of Medicaid.
With an evening of enervating boredom staring us in the face, we might as well root for some out-of-left-field questions:
“Governor Bush, you have publicly stated in no uncertain terms that you would travel back in time to kill baby Hitler. If you’re elected, will you commit the resources of the federal government to a Manhattan Project-level effort to invent time travel and make this happen?”
“Dr. Carson, given your penchant for alternative history, how psyched are you for ‘The Man in the High Castle’? And how ticked off will you be if Governor Bush’s time-travel initiative erases its existence?”
“Governor Huckabee, were you and Grimace separated at birth?”
“Senator Paul, you are apparently still running for president. No, I don’t have a question.”
Ah, but this debate is moderated by FBN anchors Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto, along with Gerard Baker, the editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal. So frivolity is likely off the menu.
Whether they will push the candidates on their policies is another matter. But just in case Cavuto and Bartiromo feel like getting tough, I’m really hoping they will go after Marco Rubio and his absurd plan for tax cuts. Other commentators have been pointing out all the ways the Florida senator’s plan is a big, sloppy kiss for the very wealthy. The short version is that over a decade, his cuts would cost the economy about three times what the cuts put into place by George W. Bush cost. And since those cuts blew a hole in the deficit that you could navigate the entire Sixth Fleet through, you can only imagine what Rubio’s plan would do.
At the CNBC debate, moderator John Harwood tried to nail down Rubio on the details of the plan. But Rubio slid out of it by deftly pretending that Harwood had asked him an entirely different question. It was partly for that moment that Rubio was feted by the right-wing media and anointed the new Establishment favorite for the nomination, even as his poll numbers still don’t approach those of Donald Trump or Ben Carson.
Still, if Rubio is to be the newest fetish object for people still desperately trying to cling to the belief that there is a moderate, not-insane candidate in this group of fiscal and moral reprobates, then one would hope some serious-minded financial types – like, say, anchors from something that bills itself as a business network – would give his plan a serious fisking. And that they will not be dogged and undeterred by Rubio’s ability to weasel his way out of having to answer serious questions.
This is not to say any of the other candidates’ plans are any better, of course. All of them are basically a version of the hitchhiker scene in “There’s Something About Mary.” (“If you’re not happy with a top rate of 25 percent, I’ll cut it to 10 percent. Free!”) But Rubio is the golden boy of the moment.
It is a sad commentary on the field that the biggest suspense going into tonight revolves around what sass the candidates might throw at the moderators for daring to ask particular questions. But given their base-rallying attacks on the media that boosted the candidates when they went after the moderators of the CNBC debate last week, not to mention the attention given to Donald Trump when he attacked Fox anchor Megyn Kelly during the first debate in August, a couple of the folks onstage will probably try early on to capture lightning in a bottle a second time. FBN has been pushing the line that tonight’s tilt will be all business and will not devolve into mudslinging. We’ll see if the network and its chosen moderators can stick to that.