Two repulsive moments should’ve defined Tuesday’s debate

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Who won Tuesday night’s Republican debate in Las Vegas? More important, whom have the pundits anointed as the winners, thus helping to frame the race in the final weeks leading up to Iowa and New Hampshire?

I’ll get to that. But first I want to highlight two statements that were so repulsive, so nauseatingly immoral, that we shouldn’t let them go unmentioned. I’m referring to front-runner Donald Trump’s endorsement of US-led terrorist attacks on the families of terrorists and former front-runner Ben Carson’s blithe acceptance of the killing of children.

Trump was asked by Georgia Tech student Josh Jacob via Facebook about his recent statement that the United States must kill the families of ISIS members. Jacob knew whereof he spoke: according to Politico, Trump recently said exactly that, thus—er—trumping his call for banning Muslims in terms of sheer outrageousness. Here’s Trump two weeks ago:

It’s a horrible thing. They’re using them as shields. But we’re fighting a very politically correct war. And the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families. They, they care about their lives. Don’t kid yourself. But they say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.

On Tuesday, Trump neither backed down from nor clarified his views. He mentioned the mother of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, and in the context of his earlier statement you might have wondered if he thought she should be dragged out of her home and executed in front of the neighbors. He repeated a longstanding falsehood that the family members of the 9/11 terrorists were flown out of the country after the attack on the World Trade Center.

“They knew what was going on,” Trump said (I am relying on a debate transcript published by The Washington Post). “They went home and they wanted to watch their boyfriends on television. I would be very, very firm with families. Frankly, that will make people think because they may not care much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their families’ lives.”

As Conor Friedersdorf put it in The Atlantic’s live blog:

Donald Trump frequently makes offensive statements, often transgressing against deeply held norms, so much so that we begin to ignore them. But the abhorrent statement that he would strike out at the family members of terrorists may well be a new low, even for him.

Carson’s remarks were less consequential given his fading importance in the Republican contest. But this is a man whose entire campaign is based on his self-promoted image as a good person and a deeply religious Christian. So when debate panelist Hugh Hewitt asked him about the inevitability that thousands of children would die in the carpet bombing of ISIS-held territory that Carson supports, Carson said nothing about trying to minimize civilian casualties. Instead, the neurosurgeon floated off into a reverie about brain tumors. Which led to this:

CARSON: Well, interestingly enough, you should see the eyes of some of those children when I say to them we’re going to have to open your head up and take out this tumor. They’re not happy about it, believe me. And they don’t like me very much at that point. But later on, they love me….

You know, later on, you know, they really realize what’s going on. And by the same token, you have to be able to look at the big picture and understand that it’s actually merciful if you go ahead and finish the job, rather than death by 1,000 pricks.

HEWITT: So you are OK with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilian? It’s like…

CARSON: You got it. You got it.

And how did the audience respond? Although I didn’t hear it, according to several accounts, including this one from Business Insider, Hewitt—not Carson—was booed. (Update: Business Insider has changed its item to say that Carson’s “You got it” was a response to the audience, not to Hewitt. I half-agree. I think it was clear that Carson was responding to both—affirming his position on civilian deaths and playing to the crowd.)

Now I realize I’m deep into my word count and I’ve barely mentioned how the dynamics of the Republican race may or may not have changed as a result of Tuesday night’s proceedings. My assessment: not by very much, though I do think a few interesting things took place on the margins.

I thought four serious candidates came out of the debate: Trump and Jeb Bush, who had his best night by going after Trump; and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who, like Trump and Bush, clashed repeatedly in their own mini-debates. I don’t know that Bush really hurt Trump, who was at his confident, bullying, ignorant (as he was on the nuclear triad) best. But Bush got off some decent one-liners. I especially liked his calling Trump the “candidate of chaos,” since it conjured up images of Maxwell Smart and KAOS.

Rubio took Cruz to school when Cruz criticized him for supporting the toppling of brutal dictators like Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and, now, Bashar al-Assad of Syria. But Rubio seemed lost and unable to explain his position when Cruz accused him of being soft on immigration. And I agree with Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, who writes, “Rubio is polished but you can see in the split screens a guy who’s studied up but basically insecure and unsure of himself in debate.” Overall, it was not a great night for the Republican establishment’s preferred choice (assuming Bush can’t find his way back to relevance).

Did Chris Christie have a moment? I didn’t think so, but I may have missed something. Polling prodigy Nate Silver believes Christie may be in roughly the same position that John Kerry was in late 2003, when Howard Dean looked like the inevitable if unlikely nominee. (Thanks to old friend Al Giordano, who flagged that on Twitter.) Adds Taegan Goddard of Political Wire: “Christie, in particular, may have bought himself more time and could be a real threat to Rubio as the establishment choice.”

I don’t want to let Trump’s promise not to run as an independent go unmentioned. It was interesting mainly because Hewitt, the conservative commentator who asked the question, actually applauded Trump’s answer. If CNN had any journalistic standards (and it doesn’t), Hewitt would have instantly disqualified himself from participating in future debates. No cheering in the press box.

Finally, a word about Rand Paul. While John Kasich and Carly Fiorina have outlasted their usefulness, Paul—who has as much chance of winning the nomination as George Pataki—comes across in debate after debate as knowledgeable, principled, and able to bring something to the table that the others can’t.

Paul’s strong libertarian views, and especially his non-interventionist approach to foreign policy, are completely out of step with today’s Republican Party. CNN apparently had to ignore its own rules to include Paul in the debate.

Paul’s continued participation is a little like inviting Bernie Sanders onto the stage to offer running commentary. But it’s also a welcome respite from the death and destruction promised by the rest of the field.