Donald Trump commandeered the stage in last night’s Republican presidential debate. Planted in the middle by his lead in the polls, framed by his signature orange bird’s-nest hair, he presented a bloated, looming, ominous visage, a surly Gulliver surrounded by Lilliputians. The Fox News team served him up the most hostile questions, insuring that he captured the most airtime.
The first question of the night was a Fox set up: Would all the candidates pledge not to run as a third-party candidate if they didn’t get the nomination. With a showman’s sense of timing, Trump scanned the stage, paused, shrugged and raised his hand. He wouldn’t pledge to support a candidate that he didn’t respect. But you are standing on a Republican stage, blustered Fox Bret Baier, the stage where the Republicans will name their nominee. “I fully understand,” Trump replied, as if swatting at an annoying fly.
And so it went. When Megyn Kelly challenged him for his demeaning language about women, Trump scorned “political correctness.” When Chris Wallace went after his repeated bankruptcies, Trump schooled him in business, and mocked his sympathies for creditors: “Let me just tell you about the lenders. First of all, these lenders aren’t babies. These are total killers. These are not the nice, sweet little people that you think, OK?”
When they charged him with supporting Democrats and Democratic positions, Trump admitted he gave money to everybody: “I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people, before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me.”
As Trump proclaimed, immigration was on the table because his outrageous statements put it there.
And for the most part, the other candidates decided to pay respect to the outlandish figure in their midst. Invited to take on Trump for his fantasies about the Mexican government, Ohio Governor John Kasich demurred:
“Donald Trump’s hitting a nerve in this country. He is. He’s hitting a nerve. People are frustrated, they’re fed up, they don’t think the government’s working for them. People who want to tune him out are making a mistake.”
Kasich went on: “The point is that we all have solutions…And you’re going to hear from all of us tonight about what our ideas are.”
But that’s where Kasich was wrong. Amid tired bloviating, the debate was virtually devoid of ideas. It will come as no surprise that Republicans want to lower taxes, roll back regulation, shrink government, repeal Obamacare, repeal Dodd-Frank, increase the military budget, build a fence on the border, escalate our presence in conflicts from Iraq to Ukraine, and ban abortions (with Marco Rubio and Scot Walker aghast that they might be accused of allowing an exception for the life of the mother). All promised that this package will somehow produce rapid economic growth, a new American century and nirvana. “I do believe in miracles,” Gov. Kasich said, and so they must.
Senator Ted Cruz, who boldly pledged to speak “truth,” epitomized the bankruptcy in his closing statement. Focusing on what he would do in his first day as president, he pledged to rescind every “unconstitutional executive action” taken by Obama, instruct the Justice Department to stop “persecuting religious liberty,” and start prosecuting Planned Parenthood. Then he would cancel the Iran deal and “finally move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.”
Now there’s an agenda that will kick-start growth and help rebuild the middle class in America.
In contrast, Trump chose instead to end big:
“Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t win anymore. We don’t beat China in trade. We don’t beat Japan, with their millions and millions of cars coming into this country, in trade. We can’t beat Mexico, at the border or in trade. We can’t do anything right. Our military has to be strengthened. Our vets have to be taken care of. We have to end Obamacare, and we have to make our country great again, and I will do that.”
Jeb Bush denied earlier reports that he had called Trump a clown, a buffoon and an @hole. (“He is a true gentlemen,” Trump responded). The disavowal notwithstanding, Bush’s original description fits. But compared to homogenous patter of the rest of this gaggle of candidates, Trump’s bluster and outlandishness provide, at the very least, comic relief.