The CNBC Republican Debate: Bring In the Clowns

Robert Borosage

The CNBC Republican presidential debate last night opened with a startling bolt of straight talk: “We are on the verge, perhaps, of picking someone who cannot do this job,” said Ohio Governor John Kasich, ignoring the inane moderator request that the candidates begin the debate by naming their biggest weakness.

“I’ve watched to see people say that we should dismantle Medicare and Medicaid and leave the senior citizens out – out in the – in the cold. I’ve heard them talk about deporting 10 or 11 [million ]– people here from this country out of this country, splitting families. I’ve heard about tax schemes that don’t add up, that put our kids in – in a deeper hole than they are today.”

Donald Trump sniffed dismissively: “[Kasich] was such a nice guy. And he said, oh, I’m never going to attack. But then his poll numbers tanked… And he got nasty.”

Straight talk never had a chance after that. Kasich began looking like the drunk railing at the end of the bar. And the debate veered into the wingnut fantasies about 10 percent flat taxes (Ted Cruz, Ben Carson), government so small “I can barely see it” (Rand Paul), corporations and markets that somehow self-regulate (virtually everyone), the liberal media and government as the root of all evil (unanimous).

Horse Race Musings

The talking heads, of course, focus on winners and losers. Since more people hear about the debate than watch it, the media’s consensus usually congeals into the public takeaway. By this measure, the second team – Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – is likely to enjoy a bump from the debate. Both stayed on message and roused the crowd with assaults on the moderators and mainstream media (the Democrats’ real super PAC, Rubio charged).

Jeb Bush fared worst, getting schooled by Rubio, providing a punch line for Chris Christie and generally looking like he wished he were doing other “cool things.” Carson and Donald Trump, the front-runners, didn’t make much impact. Mike Huckabee had good moments defending Social Security and comparing government to the runaway military blimp in Pennsylvania. Paul and Carly Fiorina faded.

More interesting is the measure of who wins and who loses. It isn’t the person with the most sensible policy ideas or the most compelling record. It isn’t the truth-teller. Winners are those who “stay on message,” who “score points” against their opponents, who are glib and facile in the heat of debate. Carson utters lunacy with a somnambulant calm that seems effective. Rubio deals adroitly with his ruinous personal finances, his flip-flops on policy, his lies about his tax plan, his pervasive shallowness, and so is crowned the night’s winner.

The Populist Right

These Republicans – other than Jeb – have learned to appeal to the populist temper of the times. They are most compelling as they detail the decline of the middle class, the rise of the 1 percent, the stagnation of incomes. They rail about our corrupted politics, about crony capitalism, big corporations using big government to crush the little guy. They condemn loopholes and tax lawyers. Cruz pledges that under his tax plan “hedge fund millionaires” will pay the same rate as their secretaries (not mentioning that they will pocket an obscene tax break in the process). When talking about little guy, these folks sound like Bernie Sanders protégés; they feel the Bern.

Of course, their answer to all this is to savage government. Big government (not counting the military) is the root of all evil. Their tax plans (and imperial fantasies) would require elimination of virtually every function of government, while doling out huge tax breaks to the richest Americans. Their regulatory rollbacks would free up the banks, the drug companies, the corporate behemoths, insuring epidemics of fraud and abuse. And with the exception of Huckabee and Trump, they seem intent on cutting Social Security and Medicare, adding to our looming retirement crisis.

Missing in Action

Also striking is what is absent from the debate. There is no mention of the shocking decline of our public infrastructure – everything from roads and bridges to water systems – that is increasingly dangerous to our health and costly to the economy. There is not a murmur about deregulated Wall Street blowing up the economy, causing a crisis that doubled the national debt as a percentage of GDP, and savaged the middle class. No mention – other than Trump on the stump – about our ruinous trade policies. Only the moderators raise climate change, with Chris Christie offering nonsense in response. This list can go on.

And Kasich is right: these candidates are selling fantasies. They reject arithmetic and confound logic. They can’t admit that a flat tax – a tax that lowers top rates – by definition gives a massive tax break to the wealthy. They can’t admit that a 10 percent or 15 percent flat tax raises trillions less in revenue. Like incoming House Speaker Paul Ryan, they can’t admit that their pledge to cut taxes, balance the budget and expand the military will require literally gutting the domestic functions of the federal government – from education to disease control.

And somehow, at a time when the rich capture ever more of the wealth, when the profit share of GDP is near record highs and the income share near record lows, they argue that cutting taxes on the rich and accountability on the corporations will magically generate growth. No wonder Kasich, who does believe in addition, is reduced to railing like the drunk at the end of the bar.

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