A truly bone-chilling GOP debate: Why the most sedate one yet was also the scariest

Last night's Republican debate was light on insults and heavy on the issues — and it was terrifying

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 11, 2016 8:45PM (EST)


Last night, GOP held its 547th presidential primary debate, once again featuring the final four, Trump, Cruz, Rubio and Kasich. It was a debate like no others we've seen,  Shocking, in fact. Trump didn't call anyone a nasty name. Nobody called anyone a liar. There were no fireworks at all. But that wasn't what was shocking. It was the substance of their allegedly civilized commentary that sent chills down the spine. It turns out that if they aren't yelling at each other like schoolboys they're talking about what they would do as president. And it's terrifying.

In some respects Trump was the least surprising. Yes, he was restrained and even somewhat subdued. But according to pollster Frank Luntz's focus group  he was just terrific. It seems he can do no wrong. Because his speeches have been covered so relentlessly, however,  for the most part his answers to the moderators questions weren't anything we haven't heard before. He is nothing if not predictable.

For instance, he said he'd make really, really, really good trade deals, the best deals. And because he's a businessman and has taken advantage of all the laws that favor businessmen he was the only one on the stage who knows how to change those laws. One wonders why one of his rivals didn't point out that two U.S. senators and one sitting governor were on the stage with him and they might know a little something about lawmaking. But everyone was playing nice so they let him preen ludicrously about his non-existent talent for governance.

The others all said they would make trade deals that would be better as well, although they each suggested in their own ways that maybe free trade was something they also thought was a good thing. And there are issues with work visas at Disneyworld that need attention apparently.

Then they talked immigration. Everyone knows what Trump thinks -- a big, beautiful wall, deportation, the usual.  John Kasich said that if we didn't have immigration in this country that he might be running for the president of Croatia and declared that he would easily pass a reform bill in the first 100 days. (You may have heard him mention once or twice that he's been involved in virtually every political fight since the Civil War and has a very long record of achievement so he's the guy who can get that done because he'd done it. )

Cruz laid out a long list of things he's going to do to ensure that immigrants don't take advantage of good hardworking Americans anymore -- end sanctuary cities, build Trump's wall, triple the border patrol and deny federal money to anyone who doesn't agree with him. He also pointed out that the only reason Democrats care about immigration is because they "view those illegal immigrants as potential voters."

Actually, they view Hispanic Americans as constituents and think being xenophobic and racist toward their families and communities is a bad way to serve them. But this trope about "creating voters" is a popular view on the right and his "very-conservative" base (the only ones who like him) is sure to notice.

Rubio told his parents' heartwarming life story about how they immigrated and worked their way up from the bottom with very little education. And then he explained that now that their kids are doing well it's time to shut the door because there are no more opportunities left to go around.

They all agreed that Social Security is going bankrupt but they have different ways to deal with it. Rubio believes in the standard GOP orthodoxy of cutting away at it until it is drowned in the bathtub. Kasich wants to means test it. Trump said he would cut all the waste, fraud and abuse in the system (of which there is actually very little) but mainly is going to make this country so rich and so great that we'll be able to afford anything we want.

Ted  Cruz, meanwhile, wants to put privatize it. Apparently the Wall Street insiders he demonizes for buying politicians in "the Washington Cartel" can be trusted with the entire retirement income of every American. And then he made this bizarre statement:

"Listen, we've got lots of challenges in the world. But the answer can't just be wave a magic wand and say problem go away. You have to understand the problems. You have to have real solutions.It's like government spending. It is very easy. Hillary Clinton says she'll cut waste, fraud and abuse. If only we had smarter people in Washington, that would fix the problem. You know what? That is the statement of a liberal who doesn't understand government is the problem."

Apparently, he didn't want to attack Trump, so he attributed Trump's puerile nonsense to Hillary Clinton. It would be a neat trick if it made any sense at all. He did it more than once and it was just as weird each time.

Foreign policy was where it got scary, though. Trump reiterated his recent comments that "Islam hates us" and babbled something about how they treat the women terribly. Rubio tried to explain that it's not only incorrect but that we need the help of Muslims to fight terrorism so maybe "ixnay on the atehay" stuff.

Cruz said he'd tear up the Iran deal and proclaimed that he could never be neutral on the subject of Israel, at which point Trump pointed out that his son-in-law was Jewish and that the Jews had no greater friend than him, which is proven by the fact that he was Grand Marshall at the Israeli Day Parade. Kasich said he didn't think there would ever be peace between the two peoples so we just have to keep giving Israel weapons and back them 100 percent. Forever apparently. Or until all the Palestinians evaporate in a cloud of dust.

And then they all agreed that we need to send in troops to defeat ISIS. Cruz said we have to abandon the rules of engagement and according to John Kasich we need to use "shock and awe" to defeat them.

If any of these people win the election, we are going back in. And if we go back in, they are determined to be as brutal as possible, war crimes be damned.

Trump proved that he knows absolutely nothing about Cuba but insists that he would have made "a better deal" with them. There's no word on what deal he's talking about, but apparently he believes that the U.S. should have gotten something material in exchange for a return to normal diplomatic relations. (Maybe he wanted a hotel or two?) He said he would make a "good strong deal" because "right now, everything, every single aspect of this deal is in Cuba's favor...all we do is keep giving. We give and give and give."

Rubio is against the rapprochement because he's running in Florida and that's just what you do. Ditto Cruz, who said that Hillary Clinton makes bad deals. She wasn't in government when this done but evidently she's left some sort of ghostly presence that still guides all policies.

But all of that was nothing compared to mild-mannered John Kasich, who let fly with this assessment of current foreign affairs:

I think the problem with the administration, if you talk to our friends around the world, they say what is America doing? You know, you don't support us, we can't figure out where you are.

You won't arm the freedom fighters in Ukraine, we let the Russians trump up some excuse in the business of Russian-speaking people. You had a red line in Syria. You walked away from it. You refused to fund the Syrian rebels, you undercut Egypt and we ended up with the Muslim brotherhood for awhile.

And then we turn our back on Netanyahu when he comes to Congress to talk about his concerns of the Iranian deal. Look, I know in human nature sometimes there's a sense that you make better with your enemies than you do with your friends. And you know what happens when you do that? You make a terrible mistake.

You need to support your friends, you need to hold your enemies out here and you need to negotiate tough deals. The fact is, they need to understand who we are. The Chinese understand. They don't own the South China Sea. They have to stop hacking everything we have in this country or we'll take out their systems. We will arm the Ukrainians so they have lethal defensive aid.

We will destroy ISIS and Mr. Putin, you better understand, you're either with us or you're against us. We're not rattling a sword. You're not our enemy but we're not going to put up with this nonsense any longer.

And a strong America is what the entire world is begging for. Where has America gone is what many of our allies say around the world. When I'm president, they're going to know exactly where we are because we're coming back.

In case you forgot, that's the nice establishment moderate in the race.

They actually asked a question about climate change, and Marco Rubio said he doesn't think humans contribute and that we can't pass laws to change the weather anyway. Besides, if there was anything we could do, India and China wouldn't do it too so why ever bother? It was one of the more depressing exchanges of the night.

Ted Cruz offered up yet another slimy misdirection when he was asked whether foreign countries were right to be alarmed by the tone of this election, and pretended they were alarmed by Clinton and Obama.

Meanwhile, Trump defended his appalling appreciation for authoritarian dictators Putin and Kim Jong Un by acting as if his compliments weren't value judgments. And then there was this, which was a new one on me:

TAPPER: Mr. Trump, some of your Republican critics have expressed concern about comments you have made praising authoritarian dictators. You have said positive things about Putin as a leader and about China's massacre of pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square, you've said: "When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it, then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength."

How do you respond...

TRUMP: That doesn't mean I was endorsing that. I was not endorsing it. I said that is a strong, powerful government that put it down with strength. And then they kept down the riot. It was a horrible thing. It doesn't mean at all I was endorsing it.

There was no riot. And of course he was endorsing it: He said "they almost blew it" until they "put it down with strength." That's Trump.

Jake Tapper then raised the question of violence at the Trump rallies, including an incident yesterday in which someone was slugged in the face by a Trump supporter. He read off a number of Trump's comments egging them on, wishing they've be carried out on a stretcher, lines that get huge cheers from his audience. It's a daily refrain. Trump said he doesn't condone it but his followers are angry and that the protesters are often "bad dudes" who are allegedly swinging at people.

(We've seen the videosThat's not what's happening.)

There were a few questions about the delegate math and Trump said he thought that whomever came to the convention with the most delegates should win. They then sparred a bit about whether or not Trump's self-declared "flexibility" is a problem. Needless to say he believes that he is such a great deal maker that he will always get everything he wants and the other side will get nothing but everyone will be happy. That's the "art of the deal."

Most of the post debate punditry seemed to think this one would change nothing which means the advantage stays with the frontrunner. Cruz was even more unctuous than usual -- confidence doesn't become him. Rubio was the best he's ever been. (Maybe Trump was right about him, no grace under pressure.) Kasich will make a big speech at the convention. Trump was said to look "presidential" simply because he didn't discuss his penis. And that, mercifully, was that.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Donald Trump Elections 2016 Gop Debate Gop Primary John Kasich Marco Rubio Ted Cruz