If you haven't heard that there's another "game-changing" Republican debate tonight, you've either been in a coma or have sworn off cable news for the holidays. It's all they were able to talk about yesterday. Sitting outside Uncle Sheldon Adelson's Venetian hotel, lacquered hair whipping in the cold Las Vegas winter wind, every talking head in the land was on hand to predict, lay odds, and prophesize what was going to happen today. It's a very good thing that absolutely nothing else happened in the world yesterday.
With all that prognosticating going on, some obvious themes emerged. First and foremost, according to these pundits, the entire country is in a full-fledged panic over the violence that's tearing our society apart. They are not referring to the daily bloodletting we face day in and day out from uncontrolled firearms killing people by the tens of thousands, of course. That's just the natural price citizens pay for someone else's freedom to carry lethal weapons. No, according to these commentators, Americans are hysterical over the extremely remote possibility that the bullet that might kill them could come from a gun fired by a Muslim. Evidently, the unique awfulness of that possibility has the whole country hysterical with fear.
So tonight's debate is now advertised as a wing-nut schtick measuring contest for which warmongering demagogue can be the most bellicose. The bar has been set rather high, as you know, with Donald Trump recently proposing torture, mass deportation of any foreigners he thinks are a threat, and banning all Muslims from entry to the US. The rest of the pack is going to have to really use their imaginations to beat that.
Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson and Rick Santorum may have gotten some ideas from their attendance at the National Security Action Summit held yesterday in Las Vegas which was sponsored by none other than Donald Trump's Islamophobic pollster and adviser, Frank Gaffney. The conference attendees were convinced that President Obama is a secret Muslim running the country on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood. There's no word on whether the three presidential hopefuls agree, but they should be reminded that Trump was way out ahead on that one too going back to 2012 when he anointed himself as King of the Birthers.
Chris Christie is out with a blistering web ad criticizing President Obama for "giving away the store" to the Iranians and claiming it was terribly negotiated. He says he would have walked away from the table. This might be a way to establish his foreign policy belligerent bona fides but again, Trump got there first, saying it was negotiated by "stupid, incompetent people. There is something wrong with them.” In fact, Trump appeared with Ted Cruz at a Stop the Iran Deal rally at the Capitol last summer where Cruz laid down the gauntlet by calling President Obama "the leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism." Christie's little web ad is a baby slap by comparison. He's going to have to reach deeper into his bag of nasty (and that bag is well stocked) to compete with this one.
Alleged establishment frontrunner Marco Rubio started running an ad in New Hampshire this week and he sounds downright depressed. It's him looking in the camera saying:
"This election is about the essence of America. About all of us who feel out of place in our own country. A government incredibly out of touch and millions with traditional values branded bigots and haters. This is about wages growing slower than the cost of living. A generation drowning in debt, and a president humiliated by Putin, Iran, and Islamic jihadists.
"I'm Marco Rubio. I approve this message because this is about the greatest country in the world and acting like it."
It's hard to know what he's trying to achieve there other than driving people to even deeper despair. But you'll notice that he's also taking the line that the president has been "humiliated" by Putin, Iran and Jihadists. It would be interesting to hear him explain what he means by that. One assumes the Iran comment is about the nuclear non-proliferation deal which he, like all the others on the stage, are against. The humiliation by "jihadis" probably refers to San Bernardino, and as for Putin, well ... who knows? The right has formed an affection for Putin whom they see as a much more manly leader they could really get behind if he weren't such a foreigner and a commie and all. But again, Trump's already been there on all three. Rubio can try to be tough but The Donald's Muslim bashing is unparalleled and he's on record calling Putin a "thug and a gangster" he could get along with.
We can probably dispense with Bush who will try to sound angry but will come off as a bespectacled muppet. Rand Paul may make a point or two about the inefficacy of the Patriot Act before he once again declares that we should close all of our borders to half the world's population. Kasich will say Trump is crazy (and Frank Luntz's focus group will hate him more than anyone else on the stage).
That leaves Senator Ted Cruz, the man of the hour. He enters this debate with the wind at his back having passed Trump in Iowa and coming on strong in the national polls. He's benefitted mostly by scooping up the Ben Carson supporters as they inevitably dropped the kindly befuddled neurosurgeon for a full-fledged right wing, evangelical warrior. And as has been noted by absolutely everyone, Cruz has been very reluctant to attack Trump hoping to attract his voters when Trump falters. His very mild criticism of Trump and Carson recorded on the sly gave The Donald an excuse to attack the man who's breathing down his neck in Iowa and he did, calling him a maniac who doesn't have the temperament to be president --- as Donald does. (He has a great temperament, a fantastic temperament, that goes without saying.)
Cruz is assumed to be a bit vulnerable on National Security because Marco Rubio has hit him for his vote to slightly limit one of the government's programs that spy on its own citizens without a warrant. (There was a brief moment when a few conservatives mistakenly thought their small government principles extended to police and military activities but they've since pulled themselves together.) It's likely this will come up in the debate and it's also likely that Cruz will have a good answer for it. But he's already signaled that he's not going to allow any daylight between himself and Trump. When asked if he agreed with Trump's proposal to deny Muslims entry to the United States, Cruz said it wasn't his policy but he declined to disavow the plan saying that there were enough people in this world criticising Trump and he didn't need to add to the chorus.
Yesterday, he implicitly endorsed it by appearing by video at that National Security Summit and drooling all over Frank Gaffney saying "Frank is a patriot, he loves this country and he’s clear eyed about radical Islamic terrorism." If he sought to assure the far right that he is one of them when it comes to Islamophobia he couldn't have chosen a better way.
Tonight will be a battle for who can be the most bloody minded. They'll all shake their fists and declare their intention to beat ISIS and any other tin-horned terrorists with their bare hands if that's what it takes. But the winner will be the one who can convince the Republican base that he or she is committed to all-out war with Islam. Trump's certainly in the lead on that one. But he has also said that it's highly unlikely that he would use nuclear weapons while Cruz boldly declared, "We will utterly destroy ISIS. We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out." He's giving Trump a run for his money in more ways than one.
It's hard to imagine how either of these fellows can be any more rhetorically brutal than they already have been, but it's a fair bet they're going to give it a try tonight. One thing to keep in mind, however. For all their bluster, aside from the daft notions of a ban on Muslims or nuking Syria, none of these candidates has even one new idea about how to deal with ISIS.