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.

Conservative pundits spurn Kasich’s strong performance

John Kasich in New Hampshire earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.
John Kasich in New Hampshire earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate was a useful reminder — as if I needed one — that these events are not being staged for my benefit.

Late in the proceedings, John Kasich put the finishing touches on what I thought was a strong performance by name-checking the conservative Catholic theologian Michael Novak in arguing that the free-enterprise system needs to be “underlaid with values.” No, I haven’t read Novak, but I was intrigued. Earlier, Kasich had what I thought was an effective exchange with Donald Trump over immigration. (The Washington Post has published a transcript here.)

To check in with the conservative media today, though, is to learn that some on the right think Kasich all but disqualified himself.

“Kasich espoused positions that can charitably be called compassionate conservatism, less kindly mini-liberalism of the sort that he says he practiced so successfully in Ohio when ‘people need help,’” writes the economist Irwin M. Stelzer at The Weekly Standard. Adds Paul Mirengoff of Powerline: “John Kasich annoyingly kept demanding speaking time. He used some of it to remind everyone that he’s the least conservative candidate in the field.”

A neutral analyst, Boston Globe political reporter James Pindell, thinks Chris Christie’s strong showing in the unwatched (by me, anyway) undercard makes him a good bet to replace Kasich in future debates. Kasich, Pindell notes, “backed increasing the minimum wage, bailing out big banks, and allowing 11 million illegal immigrants to stay in the country. It is hard to see how many Republicans will go along with the sentiment.”

Clearly Kasich — a top lieutenant in Newt Gingrich’s conservative revolution of the mid-1990s — has been recast as a hopeless RINO. And the notion that he might be the most appealing candidate the Republicans could put up against Hillary Clinton is apparently not nearly as interesting to conservative stalwarts as his heterodox views, summarized by the PBS NewsHour.

As the debate opened, all eyes were on the moderators. Would they manage to avoid the anti-media controversies that befell the CNBC panelists a couple of weeks ago while still managing to maintain a firm hand? My answer is that they partially succeeded. They avoided the snarky, disrespectful tone of the CNBC debate, and the candidates responded with a substantive discussion of the issues.

But on several occasions the panelists were just too soft. One example was Neil Cavuto’s exchange with Ben Carson in which he tried to press Carson on questions that have been raised about his truthfulness. Carson didn’t really answer, and before you knew it he was off and running about Benghazi.

Cavuto’s follow-up: “Thank you, Dr. Carson.”

Then there was the rather amazing question Maria Bartiromo asked Rubio toward the end of the debate, which I thought was well described by Max Fisher of Vox:

https://twitter.com/Max_Fisher/status/664292269554438144

Who won? After each of these encounters, the pundits keep telling us that Rubio is on the move. And yes, the Florida senator has risen in the polls, though he’s still well behind Trump (who informed us that he and Vladimir Putin are “stablemates”) and Carson.

But Rubio’s over-rehearsed demeanor may not wear well. I thought his weakest moment on Tuesday came when Rand Paul challenged him on military spending. The audience liked Rubio’s militaristic response. Paul, though, appeared to be at ease as he offered facts and figures, while Rubio just seemed to be sputtering talking points.

As for Jeb Bush, well, the consensus is that he did better than he had previously, but not enough to make a difference. “He may have stopped the free fall,” writes Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post’s conservative blogger, “but he was outshone once again by competitors.” The questions about Bush’s continued viabililty will continue.

Carly Fiorina turned in another in a series of strong performances. But they don’t seem to be helping her much in the polls, and there was nothing that happened Tuesday night to make me think that’s going to change.

John Dickerson of Slate, who is also the host of CBS News’ Face the Nation, seems to believe the race will ultimately come down to Rubio’s mainstream conservatism and the much-harder-edged version offered by Ted Cruz, who once again showed he’s a skilled debater.

If that’s the case, let’s get on with it. Tuesday night’s event featured eight candidates — a bit more manageable than the previous three debates, but still too large to sustain a coherent line of thought. (What was that about Michael Novak again, Governor Kasich?)

For that to happen, though, Trump and Carson are going to have to fade. And despite months of predictions (including some by me) that their support would collapse, they remain at the top of the heap. As long as that’s the case, Rubio versus Cruz means precisely nothing.

“The Democrats are laughing,” Cruz said at one point in response to a question about immigration. In fact, the Republicans have given their rivals plenty of comedic material during in 2015. The question is whether that will change in 2016 — or if Hillary Clinton will be laughing all the way to Election Day.

Ben Carson, Politico and the truth

Ben Carson in Nashua, New Hampshire, in July. Photo (cc) by Marc Nozell.
Ben Carson in Nashua, New Hampshire, in July. Photo (cc) by Marc Nozell.

The doubts raised by Ben Carson and his defenders are beginning to recede. Politico’s story that the Republican presidential candidate had “fabricated” his oft-told tale about being offered a “free scholarship” to West Point is looking reasonably strong, though not perfect.

In an editor’s note that now appears at the top of the story, Politico says it stands behind staff writer Kyle Cheney’s reporting while conceding that the Carson campaign had not admitted to any falsehoods. Media blogger Erik Wemple of The Washington Post has a good rundown.

We still don’t know exactly what happened. My theory is that Politico’s editors took a solid story and got themselves into trouble by cranking the volume up to 11. But even though Carson is not admitting to anything (see this New York Times account of the uncharacteristically belligerent news conference over which he presided on Friday), the evidence is piling up that he is, in fact, a serial fabricator.

Particularly devastating is this Wall Street Journal article (sub. req.*) by Reid Epstein that recounts the questions raised about Carson’s autobiography in recent days. It offers some new details as well. This passage is a jaw-dropper:

In his 1990 autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” Mr. Carson writes of a Yale psychology professor who told Mr. Carson, then a junior, and the other students in the class—identified by Mr. Carson as Perceptions 301 — that their final exam papers had “inadvertently burned,” requiring all 150 students to retake it. The new exam, Mr. Carson recalled in the book, was much tougher. All the students but Mr. Carson walked out.

“The professor came toward me. With her was a photographer for the Yale Daily News who paused and snapped my picture,” Mr. Carson wrote. “ ‘A hoax,’ the teacher said. ‘We wanted to see who was the most honest student in the class.’ ” Mr. Carson wrote that the professor handed him a $10 bill.

No photo identifying Mr. Carson as a student ever ran, according to the Yale Daily News archives, and no stories from that era mention a class called Perceptions 301. Yale Librarian Claryn Spies said Friday there was no psychology course by that name or class number during any of Mr. Carson’s years at Yale.

When the dust settles, I suspect that Politico’s tactical retreat is not going to look like a very big deal. We are left with a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination who appears to have concocted multiple elements of his life story and who has made bizarre or offensive (or both) statements about Muslims and the presidency, Jewish victims of the Holocaust and (yes) the pyramids.

The next Republican debate is Tuesday night. It will be interesting to see if Carson is willing to show up and face the music not just from those nasty moderators but from his fellow candidates as well.

*You do know how to access Wall Street Journal articles if you’re a non-subscriber, right? Just search for a phrase from the article in Google, click and you’ve got the whole thing. It’s OK — Rupert knows about it.

Will the media call out Trump on his anti-vaxxer nonsense?

Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.
Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

By any reasonable standard of what constitutes acceptable public discourse, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign should have ended on Wednesday at about 10:50 p.m.

That’s when he set his extravagantly sprayed hair on fire by indulging in some truly dangerous myths about vaccines. It was, by any measure, a deeply irresponsible exercise. I’d call it pandering, except that it’s possible he believes his own foolishness.

It began when CNN debate moderator Jake Tapper invited candidate Ben Carson, a physician, to lambaste Trump for repeating the false claims of the anti-vaxxer movement linking vaccines to autism. Carson responded mildly — too mildly. And that gave Trump an opportunity to pounce.

“I am totally in favor of vaccines. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time,” Trump began. A few seconds later came this: “Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”

Sadly, neither Carson nor the other physician-candidate, Rand Paul, wanted to rile the conspiracy theorists they’re hoping to win over. So both men oh-so-respectfully disagreed with Trump while actually endorsing his statement that parents ought to be able to spread out the timetable for their children to get vaccinated.

“It is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time,” Carson said. Added Paul, who’s traveled down this road before: “I’m all for vaccines. But I’m also for freedom.”

In case you’re not up on all the details, Julia Belluz of Vox offers an overview of the “elaborate fraud” behind the thoroughly debunked link between vaccines and autism. As for Trump’s spread-them-out advice and Carson’s and Paul’s weasely responses, science journalist Tara Haelle wrote in Forbes:

Vaccines are very precisely manufactured to include only what is absolutely necessary to induce enough of an immune response that the body can protect itself against those diseases. So a smaller dose wouldn’t protect a child. It would stick a child with a needle for no reason at all. And spreading out vaccines? That just increases the risks to the children, including leaving them more susceptible to the diseases for a longer period of time.

So what was CNN’s responsibility in promoting Trump’s life-threatening views? Some, such as Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan, took to Twitter to argue that Tapper shouldn’t have asked the question in the first place.

I disagree. If, God help us, Trump actually got elected president, he’s going to be besieged by anti-vaxxers demanding that he translate his rhetoric into policy. Then, too, Michele Bachmann in 2011 and Chris Christie earlier this year did enormous damage to themselves by embracing the anti-vaccine movement. Why should it be any different this time?

Still, Wednesday night felt like a botched opportunity to educate viewers about the importance of vaccines.

Media reaction to Wednesday night’s anti-vaxxer moment was slow out of the gate, but by later Thursday and on Friday it had picked up. A particularly intriguing tidbit comes from Stat, a life-sciences vertical that’s part of The Boston Globe. According to reporters Eric Boodman and Ike Swetlitz, Trump is both a donor to and supporter of Autism Speaks, which emphatically rejects the anti-vaxxer myth.

In the immediate aftermath of the debate, the most addled take was offered by The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes (God love him), who wrote that Trump “surprised everyone, including Dr. Ben Carson, by being well-informed on the use of vaccines. As usual, he was a powerful presence.” You can’t make this stuff up.

The New York Times Tuesday morning had little except for a line in Gail Collins’ column and an item by Margot Sanger-Katz in its liveblog; later in the day it posted a strong article by Sabrina Tavernise and Catherine Saint Louis. The Washington Post published a long post by Michael E. Miller headlined “The GOP’s dangerous ‘debate’ on vaccines and autism.” Here’s how Miller described Carson blowing the big moment Tapper handed to him:

For months, Carson has touted his medical expertise while on the campaign trail. And in the weeks since the first debate, the famed surgeon has risen in the polls as a milder-mannered, more rational alternative to Trump.

Now was his chance for a home run; a big hit as swift and incisive as any surgical operation.

Instead, Carson bunted.

In Politico, Ben Schreckinger speculated that Trump’s “weak command” of the issues — including vaccines — may be the prelude to his long-anticipated decline. “The conversation has moved beyond Donald Trump,” he wrote. Added Jamelle Bouie of Slate: “The good news is that this debate might mark the beginning of the end for Trump, who struggled to tackle substantive questions on foreign policy, his advisers, and what he’d actually do as president of the United States.”

We’ll see. Some 51 percent of respondents to a survey posted at the Drudge Report thought Trump won; Fiorina came in second with just 19 percent. It was totally unscientific, of course, but more than 680,000 people took the time to register their views.

Overall it was a dispiriting night. It was somehow appropriate that it ended with the news that right-wing hatemonger Ann Coulter was ranting on Twitter about the “f—ing Jews.” I mean, really. What else?

The vaccine issue, though, deserves to linger — and fester, and grow, until all but Trump’s most unhinged supporters understand that this man has no business being anywhere near the White House.

Published previously at WGBHNews.org and The Huffington Post.

A good night for Bush and a bad one for Trump

I hadn’t expected to watch Thursday night’s Republican debate. But it turned out to be available on my flight to San Fransciso, my credit card was twitching in my hand, and so…

For what it’s worth, I thought Jeb Bush was the winner and Donald Trump the loser. There were three adults on stage: Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich. Christie positioned himself as a bad man for bad times, ready to cut your Social Security and take away your civil liberties, and that never appeals to voters. He certainly got the better of it stylistically with Rand Paul, but I suspect most Americans like the idea that the government can’t spy on you without a warrant.

Which leaves Bush and Kasich. Both were calm, amiable and, in my view, quite appealing. But Kasich, the governor of Ohio, seemed more like the guy who should be welcoming the candidates to his home state, not an actual candidate. Bush seemed happy to be there and fundamentally optimistic in his outlook. He made no obvious errors. It was the biggest event of the campaign so far, and he did well.

Now I realize that Trump has made a shameful and shameless buffoon of himself on numerous occasions, and his poll numbers have only gone up. But I thought the Fox News moderators did an excellent job of forcing him to talk about the fact that he’s not much of a Republican or a conservative. Not that he cared — he responded to everything with his usual bluster. But that, more than a litany of offensive Trumpisms, is going to take a toll on his campaign. He could run as an independent, of course, but I strongly suspect he’ll be a much-diminished figure six months from now.

The post-debate punditry seemed to focus on Marco Rubio. I agree that he didn’t embarrass himself, but he struck me as stiff and overly prepared in the manner of someone who was a little too young and inexperienced to be up there.

Of the rest, Scott Walker disappeared into a miasma of blandness, Ted Cruz should disappear, Rand Paul failed to meet even the extremely low level of plausibility set by his father (although, as I said, I’m mostly with him on civil liberties and his opposition to foreign intervention) and Ben Carson made me wonder what all the fuss was about two years ago.

And Mike Huckabee is just a hate-mongering disgrace.