Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party’s devolution into white supremacy

Newt Gingrich. Photo (cc) 2010 by Gage Skidmore.

The Washington Post today has an excerpt from Dana Milbank’s new book, “The Deconstructionists: The Twenty-Five Year Crackup of the Republican Party.” Here’s a free link so you can read the whole thing. Milbank offers some pretty bracing stuff. For instance:

Admittedly, I’m partisan — not for Democrats but for democrats. Republicans have become an authoritarian faction fighting democracy — and there’s a perfectly logical reason for this: Democracy is working against Republicans.

Milbank traces the degeneration of the Republican Party into an antidemocratic force animated by white supremacy to the rise of Newt Gingrich in the early ’90s. I’d go back further than that, but there’s no question that Gingrich represented something new and terrible, or that it reached its full flowering in the form of Donald Trump.

Why ‘both sides’ journalism fails in the face of the rising threat to our democracy

Previously published at GBH News.

One president lied about COVID-19 (the country’s and his own), embraced white supremacists and tried to overturn the results of an election that he lost. Another president has hit a few bumps in the road as he attempts to persuade Congress to pass his agenda. Can you guess which one received more negative news coverage?

If you guessed President Joe Biden, then come on down. According to an analysis of 65 news websites, Biden’s treatment by the media was as harsh or harsher from August through November of this year than then-President Donald Trump’s was during the same four-month period in 2020.

On one level, it’s inconceivable. On another, though, it’s all too predictable. Large swaths of the media simply cannot or will not move beyond both-sides journalism, equating the frustratingly hapless Democrats with a Republican Party that has embraced authoritarianism and voter suppression.

“My colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy,” wrote Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who ordered up the study. He concluded: “Too many journalists are caught in a mindless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between fact and fiction. It’s time to take a stand.”

As I’ve written before, and as many others have said, we’re in the midst of a crisis of democracy. The Republican Party, already disproportionately empowered because of the Constitution’s small-state bias and the Senate filibuster (the latter, of course, could be abolished tomorrow), is working to strengthen its advantage through partisan gerrymandering and the passage of voter-suppression laws. The result could be white minority rule for years to come.

The situation has deteriorated to the point that the European think tank International IDEA now regards the United States as a “backsliding democracy.” To quote from IDEA’s report directly, “the United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale.”

And the media remain wedded to their old tropes, covering political campaigns as though they were horse races and treating the two major parties as equally legitimate players with different views.

It’s a topic that was discussed at length recently on Ezra Klein’s New York Times podcast by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and guest host Nicole Hemmer, a scholar who studies right-wing media. Their conversation defies easy summary (the whole episode can be found here), but essentially, Rosen argued that the political press falls back on its old habits because breaking out of them is just too difficult.

“The horse race absorbs a lot of abuse from people like me,” he said. “But it can take that abuse, because it is such a problem-solver. It checks so many other boxes that even when people know it’s kind of bankrupt, it stays on.” As an alternative, Rosen proposes coverage based on a “citizens agenda,” which he has written about at his blog, PressThink. But he admitted to Hemmer that we may lose our democracy before his ideas are adopted by more than a fraction of journalists.

What I find especially frustrating is that the media have not been ignoring the Republican threat to our democracy. Far from it. As just one small example, the Times on Sunday published a front-page story by Nick Corasaniti on a multitude of actions being taken at the state level to suppress the vote and put Trump loyalists in charge of the election machinery.

“Democrats and voting rights groups say some of the Republican measures will suppress voting, especially by people of color,” Corasaniti wrote. “They warn that other bills will increase the influence of politicians and other partisans in what had been relatively routine election administration. Some measures, they argue, raise the prospect of elections being thrown into chaos or even overturned.”

So why am I frustrated? Because this sort of valuable enterprise reporting is walled off from day-to-day political coverage. We are routinely served up stories about the congressional Republican leaders, Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Mitch McConnell, going about their business as though they were latter-day versions of the late Bob Dole, sharply partisan but ultimately dedicated to the business of seeking compromise and governing. In fact, whether through cowardice or conviction, they are enabling our slide into authoritarianism by undermining the investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection as well as by failing to call out Trump and the excesses of their worst members.

Earlier this year, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan endorsed the idea of a “democracy beat,” which would look closely at attempts to subvert voting rights. Sullivan would go further than that, too. “The democracy beat shouldn’t be some kind of specialized innovation,” she wrote, “but a widespread rethinking across the mainstream media,” permeating every aspect of political and governmental coverage.

If Trump runs again, he may very well end up being installed as president even if he loses both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Who would stop him? In the aftermath of the 2020 election, there were still enough Republican state and local officials with integrity who refused to go along with Trump’s demands that they overturn the results. That is not likely to be the case in 2024. As Barton Gellman wrote in a new Atlantic cover story, “The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already.”

Meanwhile, the media go about covering President Biden and his travails as though our politics hadn’t changed over the past 40 years. Of course Biden needs to be held accountable. The ugly withdrawal from Afghanistan, confusing White House messaging about COVID and his inability to bring Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to heel are all worthy of tough coverage. (But not inflation because, please, don’t be stupid.) But it needs to be done in a way that we don’t lose sight of the big picture. And the big picture is that we are in real danger of losing our country.

As the Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan put it on Twitter, “The problem is the media failing to distinguish threats to democracy from normal negative coverage (an important form of democratic accountability!).”

Five years ago Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School issued a report showing that coverage of Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 general-election campaign had been equally negative — a finding that he found disturbing. Patterson wrote that “indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions. Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it.”

Well, here we go again. Next time, though, it’s the future of democracy that is likely to be at stake.

The Massachusetts GOP is becoming more extreme and authoritarian

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As the Massachusetts Republican Party becomes more extreme, it’s moving further and further toward authoritarianism in order to intimidate those with whom its leaders disagree.

Just a few weeks ago it seemed beyond the pale when a member of the state committee, Deborah Martell, wrote emails in which she said she was “sickened” that a gay Republican candidate for Congress, Jeffrey Sossa-Paquette, had adopted children along with his husband.

Since then, the party has targeted a Drag Queen Story Hour at the Plymouth Public Library under the caption “Is this really the new normal?,” republishing the library’s phone number on its public Facebook page just in case anyone wants to, you know, express their constitutionally protected views. And last week the party revealed the shocking (!) information that Emma Platoff, a recently hired Boston Globe reporter who’s been covering the party’s meltdown, is a registered Democrat.

“The Boston Globe’s nonstop negative portrayal of Massachusetts Republicans sure makes sense now,” wrote party chair Jim Lyons in an email to members. “Today I learned that the reporter assigned to cover us is a registered Democrat. Journalists, registered as members of the Democratic Party, working in news media, covering Massachusetts Republicans. Well, knock me over with a feather.”

For more details, I refer you to this Twitter thread by Ed Lyons, a political activist from the moderate wing of the Republican Party. As Lyons shows, the GOP makes it appear that finding out Platoff’s party affiliation was as easy as plugging her name into an online form in Connecticut, where she used to live. In fact, you also have to enter someone’s date of birth and town or city of residence, raising the possibility that confidential information was used improperly in order to discover that she’s a Democrat.

Now, a few words about a reporter declaring a party affiliation. It’s no big deal. Ethical codes would forbid a journalist from serving as an active member of a political party by, say, serving on a city or town committee. We can’t make political donations, put political signs on our yards, or take part in any other partisan political activity. But a party affiliation is meaningless. We can declare ourselves as Democrats, Republicans, independents, Greens, whatever. We can vote, although some journalists choose not to.

Up until 2000, I was a registered Democrat. I switched my party affiliation to “unenrolled” that spring so I could take a Republican ballot in the presidential primary. I decided I liked it and never switched back. But it made no difference in how I reported on politics.

It appears that Lyons and company are attempting to intimidate Platoff, just as they were attempting to intimidate librarians in Plymouth. The goal is to divert attention from their descent into Trumpism.

From time to time I tweet a humorous (but serious) message that it’s time for Gov. Charlie Baker to leave the Republican Party. To his credit, he’s been critical of the Lyons wing. But he needs to say and do more.

From a right-wing think tank, a chilling pseudo-intellectual case for Trumpism

Photo (cc) 2021 by Blink O’fanaye

I don’t think any of us believe that Trumpism is going away. To the extent that we take any comfort from the current chaotic state of the Republican Party, it’s that it seems mainly to be defined by the QAnon craziness of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the alleged perversion of Matt Gaetz and the cartoonish cynicism of Josh Hawley. Yes, we need to keep an eye on them. But they’re so out there on the fringes that the amount of damage they could do would appear to be limited.

Which is why an essay published recently by Glenn Ellmers of the Claremont Institute should chill you to the bone. Running at more than 3,200 words, Ellmers’ screed is nothing less than an assertion of authoritarianism and white supremacy, dressed up in intellectual garb. I don’t mean to suggest that he advances a coherent argument — he keeps telling the reader that he’s going to explain what he means, and he never actually gets around to it. But Ellmers can write, and he’s got a worldview that he wants to impose on all of us. “Pure, undiluted fascism,” tweeted my GBH News colleague Adam Reilly.

Ellmers begins by asserting that more than half of his fellow countrymen are “not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.” And what does he mean by that? Well, he wants you to know that his definition of not-Americans goes well beyond those he bluntly labels as “illegal immigrants” and “aliens.” He writes:

I’m really referring to the many native-born people—some of whose families have been here since the Mayflower—who may technically be citizens of the United States but are no longer (if they ever were) Americans. They do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people. It is not obvious what we should call these citizen-aliens, these non-American Americans; but they are something else.

So who are the real Americans? Why, Trump voters, of course. That is, “the 75 million people who voted in the last election against the senile figurehead of a party that stands for mob violence, ruthless censorship, and racial grievances, not to mention bureaucratic despotism.”

There’s the hate, right out in the open. I really don’t need to quote any more except to say that Ellmers goes on at great length, in pseudo-intellectual language, to tell us that action must be taken. What kind of action he doesn’t say. But I would assume that his only regret about the insurrection of Jan. 6 is that it failed.

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What’s especially chilling about this is that there’s none of the unseriousness that often defines hardcore Trumpism — no pedophilia rings masterminded by Hillary Clinton and George Soros, no claims that the election was stolen. Just a pure will to power, which is a defining characteristic of fascism.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing, I recommend this analysis by Zack Beauchamp of Vox. Under the headline “The conservative movement is rejecting America,” Beauchamp writes:

Ellmers’s essay should be taken seriously because it makes the anti-democratic subtext of this kind of conservative discourse into clearly legible text. And it is a clear articulation of what the movement has been telling us through its actions, like Georgia’s new voting law: It sees democracy not as a principle to respect, but as a barrier to be overcome in pursuit of permanent power.

The Claremont Institute, based in California, is what might be called a right-wing think tank that at some point in recent years abandoned ultraconservatism for something much more dangerous. In 2016 it published a pseudonymous essay called “The Flight 93 Election,” arguing that — just like the passengers who brought down a planeload of terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001 — voters had to vote for Donald Trump lest they allow Hillary Clinton to destroy the country. As Conor Friedersdorf explained it in The Atlantic at the time:

The most radical, least conservative people in American politics right now are the so-called conservatives who are imprudently counseling the abandon of core values and norms to avoid a point-of-no-return that is a figment of their imagination, often with rhetorical excesses that threaten the peaceful transition of power at the core of America’s success insofar as the excesses are taken seriously.

I couldn’t find a whole lot about Ellmers other than his bio at the Claremont Institute, which describes him as a visiting research scholar at Hillsdale College, another bastion of the far right, as well as a minor politico of sorts. Of local note: According to the bio, he holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Boston University.

More than anything I’ve seen since Jan. 6, though, Ellmers’ essay defines and explains the ongoing threat we face from Trumpism.

President Joe Biden speaks often about his desire to unite the country, and poll numbers suggest that he’s having some success. Until and unless the fever breaks, though, it’s clear that a large minority of Americans — 25%, 30%, 40% — are going to regard themselves as the only true patriots and the rest of us as the Other.

It’s a horrifying dilemma, and there’s no clear path forward.

Republicans and the media greet ‘the new normal’

There he is again. Photo (cc) 2015 by Matt Johnson.
There he is again. Photo (cc) 2015 by Matt Johnson.

Previously published at

Now that only the most literal-minded (or John Kasich) would call Donald Trump anything other than the presumptive nominee, the media are ready to turn to the next storyline in this bizarre, disturbingly dark campaign. Based on the morning-after chatter, the big question that’s emerging is whether Republicans will fall in line behind the demagogue or if, instead, the party will fracture.

In a Twitter back-and-forth that National Journal’s Ron Brownstein called “the GOP debate after the #IndianaPrimary in a single exchange,” former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer wrote:

 The way forward for anti-Trump Republicans is unclear. As Sean Sullivan and Katie Zezima report in the Washington Post, Republicans who would like to run a third-party candidate against the nominee of their own party face significant logistical and psychological hurdles—although, elsewhere in the Post, former Bush I and Bush II official Eliot Cohen argues for exactly that, calling Trump “utterly unfit for the position by temperament, values and policy preferences.”

But since a high-profile third-party effort would only strengthen Hillary Clinton’s already strong hand against Trump (never mind her weaknesses as a candidate, underscored by her loss to Bernie Sanders in Indiana), why shouldn’t anti-Trump Republicans simply endorse Clinton? That’s the route Michael Barbaro explores in the New York Times, noting that John McCain strategist Mark Salter and contributor Ben Howe have said they’ll support her.

Of course, we’re a long way from knowing whether any of these gasps of pain will translate into something more substantive. Liberal editorial pages such as those of the Times, the Post, and the Boston Globe have all lamented the Republican Party’s descent into Trumpism. But the Wall Street Journal, to which actual Republicans pay attention, offers only a mildly worded rebuke to Trump, instructing him “that the responsibility for unification is now his,” and leaving little doubt that the Journal is prepared to live with him as the party’s standard-bearer.

Frankly, the more likely scenario is that most Republicans will unite behind Trump. In the Journal’s news pages, Beth Reinhard writes that longtime party stalwarts such as former Republican chairman Haley Barbour and former Ronald Reagan operative Ed Rollins have climbed aboard the Trump bandwagon. “I don’t want to roll over and play dead,” Rollins is quoted as saying. “I want to beat Hillary Clinton, and I don’t want to lose the Senate.”

Yes, as Trump himself as observed, it’s all about winning. So much winning.

There are several problems with the anti-Trump movement. One is that there is a sharp division between the sort of establishment Republicans who would have preferred Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio and the right-wingers who wanted Ted Cruz. If a third-party challenge develops, it will almost certainly come from the right, with members of the establishment comforting themselves with the thought that Clinton is likely to be the most unpopular president-elect in history.

The other problem is that some of the most eloquent voices of anti-Trumpism belong to people whom Trump supporters most despise—“the GOP’s donor class and Washington-based establishment,” as Eli Stokols puts it in Politico.

For instance, the most forceful argument against Trump in recent days was offered in New York magazine by Andrew Sullivan, who writes that “hyperdemocracy” has fueled Trump’s rise, and that a Trump presidency would usher in something that looks very much like fascism. But as a Brit, as a conservative who’s not all that conservative, and as a gay man, Sullivan is not exactly well-positioned to sway the Trumpoid base.

By any measure, Clinton should not only beat Trump, but should send him to a historic defeat, possibly ushering in a Democratic majority in the Senate and maybe the House as well. As Chris Cillizza notes in the Post, even a normal Republican would have a huge challenge given the Electoral College realities of 2016. But “Crooked Hillary,” as Trump calls her, has plenty of problems of her own, and it’s not difficult to imagine her getting bogged down between now and November. A smart prediction is that she will almost certainly win, with the emphasis on almost.

Then, too, there’s the media’s responsibility in making sure that Trump is not treated like a normal candidate. This is a man who has hurled racist invective toward Latinos and Muslims, who has called for torture in the interrogation of suspected terrorists, and who has called for murdering the families of terrorists just to send a message.

On Tuesday, Trump began his day by linking Ted Cruz’s father to JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on the basis of an evidence-free story in the National Enquirer. By the time the polls had closed in Indiana, his latest bizarre outburst had been all but forgotten—as had Trump’s numerous other transgressions. As Isaac Chotiner writes in Slate:

CNN, MSNBC, and Fox contented themselves with bright chatter about Ted Cruz’s hurt feelings, about Donald Trump’s political skill, about the feckless, pathetic Republican establishment. None of the commentators I saw mentioned the import of what was happening. Large chunks of the media have spent so long domesticating Trump that his victory no longer appeared momentous. He is the new normal.

There is, or should be, nothing normal about Trump’s rise. Sadly, the political instinct is to make nice with the victor, while the media’s instinct is find and occupy middle ground—and when there isn’t any, pretend otherwise.

No, the entire country has not gone Trump-crazy

Police photo of Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski grabbing reporter Michelle Fields’s arm.

At a time when it seems like the entire political world has gone mad, I offer some welcome perspective this morning from E.J. Dionne:

  • President Obama’s approval rate is currently 53 percent. At a similar point in George W. Bush’s presidency, his standing had fallen to 32 percent.
  • Donald Trump’s favorability rating is a minuscule 33 percent, and just 34 percent among independents. The vast majority of his support comes from Republicans, 64 percent of whom view him favorably.

Dionne writes:

Trumpism is not sweeping the nation. It has a strong foothold only in the Republican Party, and not even all of it….

We are allowing a wildly and destructively inaccurate portrait of us as a people to dominate our imaginations and debase our thinking.

We’ve got a long way to go between now and November. As Dionne notes, the successes of Trump and Bernie Sanders “reveal the discontent of Americans who have been left out in our return to prosperity.” (Needless to say, even though both Trump and Sanders have embraced economic populism, only Sanders has managed to do so without couching it in the language of racism and violence.)

But it’s wrong to think that the entire country has gone nuts. Just part of it. And I agree with Dionne that the media could do a far better job of making that clear.

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Why I think Jeb Bush will win the Republican nomination

Jeb Bush at the 2015 CPAC conference in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

I’ve already said this to a few people, and I want to put it out there so I’ll have a record of it in case it actually happens.

I predict that Jeb Bush will be the Republican nominee. Don’t ask me how, because I have no idea. At this point he seems utterly irrelevant, although the Armies of Lindsey Graham pledged this morning to line up behind him. Could a George Pataki endorsement be next?

Basically it’s just guesswork and the process of elimination. As James Pindell of The Boston Globe reminds us today, 65 percent of Republican-leaning poll respondents can’t stand frontrunner Donald Trump. It’s difficult to imagine Ted Cruz winning this, even though Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post considers him the most likely nominee. Richard Nixon supports John Kasich, who has some good qualities, but it’s hard to see that happening.

Chris Christie yells at everyone like the angry bully that he is; where’s the appeal? Rumor has it that Ben Carson is still running, though I have no independent verification of that. And Marco Rubio has dropped the baton that the Republican establishment has handed him maybe four or five times now. Even in a business not noted for its authenticity, Rubio comes across as a transparent phony.

By that logic, it’s Jeb, whose maturity and reasonable demeanor wear well over time, and who is certainly far enough to the right (despite his RINO image) that he should be able to pull together most of the Republican coalition.

Two repulsive moments should’ve defined Tuesday’s debate

Previously published at

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

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:

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.

Live-blogging tonight’s Republican presidential debate


11:19. Well, I thought Kasich won by a lot, though if past performance is any guide, Republican viewers will disagree. Rubio was OK but over-rehearsed. Bush did little to help himself. Trump was pretty good — and a lot better than Carson. And that’s a wrap.

11:11. OK. Closing statements.

11:07. I’ve zoned out.

11:02. So what’s going on? “That was fun. Let’s have a third hour”?

11:00. Maria Bartiromo tosses a softball: How can any of you match up with Clinton’s experience?

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10:55. What do you mean “More questions coming up”? We’ve only got five minutes to go, and we’re heading into a commercial.

10:54. You get in an argument with Cruz, you look good. So Kasich looks good. Fiorina: Socialism!

10:50. You know, I would have liked to hear five or six minutes from Kasich on the notion of ethics and values on Wall Street. He cites the Catholic theologian Michael Novak, who’s written a book called “The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Might be the most important thing anyone has said all night, and it’s said in passing, with the debate clock ticking.

10:45. Dodd-Frank blah blah blah price of soap this is an outrage. Bleah!

10:42. Rather than talking about ordinary people, Bush talks about his deep empathy for bankers. Community bankers rather than mega-bankers. But bankers.

10:40. You know who else has disappeared? Carson.

10:37. Kasich finally gets to talk, and he’s rambling, trying to hit every foreign-policy point that’s been brought up in the last 20 minutes. Worst answer I’ve heard from him. Make one coherent argument that viewers might remember.

10:34. Opposing views.

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10:32. Paul: If we enforce a no-fly zone, we’re going to shoot down Russian planes, and you’ll be sending our sons and daughters to the Middle East. Reminds everyone that he opposed the war in Iraq. Trump gets booed when he criticizes Fiorina for interrupting Paul. Rubio calls Putin “a gangster.”

10:28. Fiorina knows them all.

10:27. Trump is asked if he’ll stand up to Putin. His answer, essentially, is that he and Putin are buddies, and that Russia is useful in the war against ISIS. Bush jumps on him. Trump comes back with a semi-coherent response about not wanting to help Syrian rebels when we don’t know who they are.

10:16. The Bush Campaign Death Watch is only going to become more intense after tonight. If he were otherwise a good candidate, it would be one thing. But he’s been less than compelling on the stump, he doesn’t have a particularly compelling story to tell about his years as governor of Florida, and the Bush brand is pretty badly tarnished.

If Republican voters decide to go with one of the extremists, Bush gets frozen out. If they go with a mainstream conservative, Kasich and Rubio seem like far better bets at this point. It is very difficult to see how Bush can get back into the race.

10:08. Every answer that comes out of Rubio’s mouth sounds totally rehearsed. Rand Paul — remember him? — scores some points by going after Rubio’s tax plan and sounding like he can actually think on his feet. Paul: “Can you be conservative and be liberal on military spending?” Now Cruz jumps in to talk about sugar subsidies, of all things. Fiorina is talking about zero-based budgeting and a three-page tax code (definitely shorter than the Bible).

Bush has disappeared.

10:01. Did Clinton really say we’re going to have to live with 2 percent annual growth, as Bush just claimed?

9:57. Cruz: “There are more words in the federal tax code than there are in the Bible.” A very telling point because — uh — what?

9:56. This popcorn is good.

9:55. Purely from a performance point of view, Fiorina is turning in yet another strong debate performance. Yet despite predictions by analysts that she will start to move up in the polls, she’s stuck within the ranks of the also-rans.

I think the reason is that Fiorina has made a conscious decision to compete for the large share of the Republican electorate that wants and expects to be lied to — the abortion video she’s seen that doesn’t exist, her alternative history of her time at the top of Hewlett-Packard, her demagoguing on the Affordable Care Act. The problem with that strategy is that the free market (as she might put it) has decided, and they’re going with Trump and Carson.

9:46. Fiorina makes a brazen pitch for all those Scott Walker supporters out there.

9:42. “If Republicans join the Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose,” says Ted Cruz before making some truly tortured analogies about bankers and journalists. “We’re tired of being told we’re anti-immigrant. It’s offensive.” Of course, it’s also true.

9:38. Kasich and Trump both looked good on the exchange on immigration. Trump was a little more controlled than he usually is, but Kasich nevertheless exposed him as a charlatan (as he’s done before). Bush makes a point that’s both reasonable and instantly forgettable.

9:34. Trump likes Ike.

9:33. Neil Cavuto hits Carson with the first tough question of the night — his trustworthiness regarding his life story. “What I do have a problem with is being lied about,” Carson says. And then, without answering any of the questions about him, he goes after Hillary Clinton for lying about coming under attack in the former Yugoslavia. (As if that wasn’t a huge story in 2008.) “People who know me know I’m an honest person.” Cavuto: “Thank you, Dr. Carson.”

So the panelists are handling themselves with considerably more dignity than the CNBC folks did a couple of weeks ago. But “Thank you, Dr. Carson” is not an adequate follow-up. There has to be a midpoint between the snark and disrespect shown by the CNBC panelists and the failure to press the issue that Cavuto just showed.

9:28. This shingles commercial is disgusting.

9:27. If you’re just checking in, welcome to our steam-powered vintage live blog. If you’re not accustomed to old media, remember that you need to hit refresh every so often to see new content.

9:22. OK, let’s find this mother Carly Fiorina claims she talked with. There’s a pattern here.

9:21. Let’s repeal all of Barack Obama’s rules, Bush says. Among other things, he would repeal net neutrality. And he casts regulation as contributing to poverty and lack of opportunity.

9:18. Bush is whining.

9:16. John Kasich has a shambling, friendly-uncle style that I find appealing. He’s very conservative, but he comes across as less ideological and less hard-edged than some of the other candidates, as well as less prepped than Rubio. I’ve thought for some time that he would be the Republicans’ best bet in a general election. But in the current environment, he’s been cast as a hopeless RINO.

9:12. Nativist Trump opens by saying we can’t have higher wages if we want to compete with other countries. Wonder how that will play with his America First supporters. Carson says a higher minimum wage would hurt African-Americans trying to enter the job market. Marco Rubio says a higher minimum wage “would make people more expensive than a machine.”

“Welders make more money than philosophers,” Rubio says. “We need more welders and less philosophers.” Thus combining populism and anti-intellectualism, which are kissing cousins in any case.

8:58. Stephen Hayes says the most pressure is on Jeb Bush and Donald Trump. My suspicion is that the pundits are poised to say two hours from now that Bush had a good night — as long as he gives them something to hang their hats on.

8:47. What I’ll be looking for tonight: Can the Fox Business Channel rise above the very low bar set by CNBC? Will Ben Carson hold up under what is likely to be a heavy barrage over his tales of dubious truthfulness (West Point, Yale, the belt buckle) and just plain dubiousness (Muslims, the Holocaust, pyramids)? If Carson crumples, can Donald Trump reassert his dominance? Can Jeb Bush get back into the race?


I’ll be live-blogging tonight’s Republican presidential debate on the Fox Business Channel. Why? I’m finding that live-tweeting is more and more dissatisfying, as it becomes a contest to see who can be the most clever and snarky and thus generate the most traffic.

Besides, I’ll be writing something up for tomorrow morning, and it seems to me that blogging is more likely than tweeting to yield useful notes. So tune in here at 9. And feel free to weigh in with your comments — using your real name, of course.