Republicans face off in South Carolina debate | Arkansas Blog

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Republicans face off in South Carolina debate

Posted By on Sat, Feb 13, 2016 at 8:03 PM

TRUMP: "Obviously the war in Iraq was a big fat mistake."
  • TRUMP: "Obviously the war in Iraq was a big fat mistake."


UPDATE
: What a trainwreck. The candidates shouted and hollered and the audience (who sure seemed like Bush and Rubio donors) booed like they were at a wrestling match. Insults flew and temper tantrums blew. It was like a kindergarten class filled with children with very serious behavior disorders. I just can't remember a serious national political event that so resembled the Jerry Springer show. Dan Pfieffer, a former advisory to Obama, tweeted, "Tonight's debate is more evidence that one of @BarackObama's legacies is driving the GOP so insane that it is in danger of breaking." Indeed. 

It's hard to get a clear read on how all of this will play because so many of the most memorable moments in the debate involved Donald Trump doing stuff that would be a disaster for most candidates but is par for the course for Donald Trump. He gave an absolutely furious condemnation of the performance of George W. Bush as president. He said that the president failed to "keep us safe," blaming him for 9-11. He said, "Obviously the war in Iraq was a big fat mistake. ... We should have never been in Iraq, we destabilized the Middle East."  He said, "They lied, they said there were weapons of mass destruction and they knew there were none!" Close your eyes and you might have thought he was an angry liberal protester. 

Of course, part of what Trump has proved during this campaign is that GOP voters care a lot less about Republican orthodoxy than the GOP establishment seems to believe. He also gave a vigorous defense of Social Security; turns out slashing the safety net isn't popular when the GOP base is dominated by the elderly! It was certainly strange to see the GOP frontrunner so ferociously attacking the last GOP president — and the same conservative pundits who constantly predict Trump's demise are saying he blew tonight's debate. Color me skeptical that this will hurt Trump. Perhaps the George W. Bush legacy is just hideously unpopular, even if the GOP establishment doesn't want to admit it and pundit fave Marco Rubio is running as W 2.0. 

Will any of it hurt him in South Carolina? Will its military and establishment-friendly political culture tolerate the attacks on W and the Iraq war? What about Trump saying that he opposes abortion but Planned Parenthood "does wonderful things for women"? He took some wild risks tonight ... but Trump has a healthy lead and a way of coming out ahead in these kinds of circus environments. Assuming that GOP voters continue to forgive his apostasies, I thought he won by being the biggest clown in the clown car (and registering as authentic in the moments when his opponents were slimiest). 

That said, it's also undeniable that he often seemed like a petulant, out-of-control madman, and spent half the debate screaming lines that could have come from Howard Dean. As the frontrunner, Trump had the most to lose tonight and he also had the riskiest performance. I won't pretend to know how GOP voters will respond. But they keep coming back to Teflon Donald, so he'd still be my bet to win South Carolina. 

Meanwhile, I thought the GOP's attempt to pack the house with Trump haters totally backfired. Trump called them out, relished the boos, and the whole thing made him look like an anti-establishment warrior. The folks booing actually seemed more childish than Trump. 

The man Trump sparred with the most, Jeb Bush, stood out to me as one of the winners of the debate. Bush was finally forceful and energetic. I thought he was wrong on the merits on a lot of the foreign policy scuffles, but he played the adult in the room, the role he imagined way back when. If this Bush had showed up at prior debates, the race might have a different shape. 

Rubio and Cruz also scuffled all night, but neither was as memorable. Cruz in particular disappeared for stretches, unusual for him. He also was on the receiving end of an unhinged Trump attack. Trump called him "the biggest liar" and "a nasty guy." Because Cruz is a nasty liar, those sloppy punches actually landed.

Rubio was smooth but I have to wonder whether he can shake the perception that he's spouting off memorized talking points. That's why his last debate was such a disaster — it's hard not to think about his worst moment precisely when he's successfully disciplined and on message in his delivery. 

Rubio also accused of Cruz of not being able to speak Spanish and Cruz told Rubio, in Spanish (haltingly, but still), that he'd be happy to debate in Spanish. Trump said he'd make Mexico pay for a wall. 

Kasich stuck with his moderate routine and complained about negativity. He's looking ahead to blue states. 

Carson gave the single worst debate performance of any major candidate for president in history. The words he uttered this evening are still flittering incoherently through the Greenville night, like drunken fireflies.

Original post and real-time reactions below: 

The six remaining Republican contenders will debate tonight in Greenville, South Carolina. This is a big one, with the pool finally dwindled enough to allow for a coherent discussion. Well, okay, I won't hold my breath. But the candidates should be able to tussle more and engage each other in a sustained way. It also comes just as news breaks of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Selecting his replacement is arguably now the single biggest issue in the race. 

You can watch the livestream here

The stakes are high and the potential for dramedy is higher. Consider this your open thread for the debate, and I'll do some liveblogging here. Refresh this post for updates. 

For an idea of the silliness to come, here's a quick check in with Donald Trump's Twitter feed (this tweet came after Scalia's death was announced): 


Jeet Heer of the New Republic projects that the Scalia news will bring out sparks at tonight's debate: 

Antonin Scalia’s death will cause fireworks at tonight’s GOP debate.The unexpected death of the conservative Supreme Court justice is already disrupting American politics, especially on the Republican side. With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell peremptorily stating that Obama should not appoint a replacement and that the Senate won’t consider any appointments. Republican presidential candidates are rushing to take sides on this issue. So far, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson have echoed McConnell, while Jeb Bush and Donald Trump have kept quiet on the matter.

The new vacancy in the court also creates an opening for Trump’s rivals to play up how dangerous he is to GOP orthodoxy. Trump has said that his sister Maryanne Trump Barry, a federal judge, would make an excellent Supreme Court justice. The problem, from a traditional Republican point of view, is that Judge Barry is pro-choice. Are anti-abortion Republicans who might otherwise like Trump really going to risk making Roe v. Wade permanent? In a bible belt state like South Carolina, where tonight’s debate is being held, that’s a great argument to make against Trump.

LIVEBLOG (below the jump): 

Rubio looks nervous. Pressure is on after his epic disaster at the last debate.  

The debate begins with a moment of silence for Scalia. 

Donald Trump has a very direct answer on Obama nominating someone to replace Scalia. He says the Senate should "delay, delay, delay" — even as he admits that he would try to nominate someone if he was a lame duck president in office. At least this answer wasn't phony. Trump outright admits hypocrisy and doesn't pretend there's a principle at stake beyond his own preference — Trump wants Trump to nominate someone, not Obama. 

All of the candidates are offering baloney, pretending there is some principle at play beyond a raw power grab. 

Jeb Bush said he wouldn't have a litmus test on specific issues for the Supreme Court. "Not at all," he said. This is not a good answer for GOP primary, particularly in South Carolina. 

The candidates have really latched on to the totally phony talking point floating around conservative media — that no justice has been nominated and confirmed in an election year in the last 80 years. That's not a precedent. It's just that a vacancy in a presidential year happens to be a relatively rare event — and Anthony Kennedy was confirmed by a Democratic Senate in 1988. Ted Cruz is totally wrong that about Justice Kennedy being confirmed in 1987 (he was confirmed in 1988, nominated in 1987). The moderator John Dickerson corrected him. The audience lightly booed this assertion of the facts. In total, seventeen justices have been confirmed in presidential election years in the nation's history. 

Rubio seems scared of Chris Christie even though Chris Christie isn't on the stage. He's like a basketball player who has had his shot swatted so many times that he's spooked by the shot blocker's shadow. 

Jeb Bush is coherent and fluid tonight. Eventually Trump will probably pants him, but he's on a roll thus far and doing well in what's been the most sober and least goofy GOP debate thus far. 

"Jeb is so wrong," Trump says. The crowd boos. Trump says "that's Jeb's special interests." Trump points out (correctly!) that the nation has wasted massive resources on neoconservative adventures in the Middle East. Trump doesn't come out and say this, but of course Jeb's brother was the worst offender. 

Bush has grown some balls. Tells Trump that he gets his foreign policy from television shows. "These are serious times," he says. Trump says listening to Bush's advisers will lead us to World War III. 

Trump enjoying the boos, continuing to blame them on Bush's special interests. 

"Obviously the war in Iraq was a big fat mistake," Trump says. "We should have never been in Iraq, we destabilized the Middle East." 

Astonishing to hear this at a GOP debate: "They lied, they said there were weapons of mass destruction and they knew they were none!" Trump notes that 9-11 happened on George W. Bush's watch. "That's not keeping us safe," he says. 

I have no idea how this plays with South Carolina base voters but kudos to Trump for calling out hawkish bluster. If he wins, what an astounding repudiation of the GOP neoconservative establishment.

Rubio says Bush "kept us safe." Trump says, "How did he keep us safe? The World Trade Center came down. I lost hundreds of friends. How did he keep us safe?" 

Trump is absolutely furious in his condemnation of George W. Bush. Has anything like this ever happened? The Republican frontrunner demolishing the last Republican president?

Bush's response is mostly that he really loves his family and he's bummed that Trump is being mean to them.

Trump says he will protect Social Security. What we are watching right now is a populist slashing his way through Republican orthodoxy. Protecting the social safety net and ending unnecessary foreign wars. The donor class hates Trump, but it's not clear that Republican base voters actually like Republican dogma. 

Cruz gets asked about his VAT tax, which will massively raise taxes on senior citizens. His Republican foes keep skipping past this, but a Democratic opponent would likely destroy him in a general election on this point. 

Kasich asked about Medicaid expansion and...makes a compelling argument for Medicaid expansion! Notes impact on working poor and the mentally ill. Unclear why he opposes Obamacare though. 

Bush says Medicaid expansion is "expanding Obamacare," which will add to the debt. This is long what I've expected will be the undoing of Kasich.  "We expand [Medicaid] to get people on their feet," Kasich said. He says Ronald Reagan expanded Medicaid five times. (He's right — to low-income children, the disabled, pregnant women.)

I just have no idea what Ben Carson is saying. You could spill out some Spaghetti-O's on a table and jumble them together to make random words, and you wouldn't have anything all that different than Carson's remarks tonight. 

Ted Cruz is attacking Marco Rubio on immigration (the Rubio-Schumer amnesty plan" he calls it), but it seems like someone slipped Cruz a painkiller. Long pauses and soft delivery. 

The boos in the crowd seem to help Cruz and Trump, who keep claiming that it's establishment plants in the audience. In any case, it's getting distracting. Feels like a professional wrestling crowd, only stocked with Bush and Rubio supporters. 

Rubio says Cruz doesn't speak Spanish (is that a feature or a bug in the GOP race?). Cruz starts speaking Spanish. Rubio calls him a liar (and notes his dirty tricks against Ben Carson). 

Jeb Bush says it's weak for Trump to disparage women and Hispanics. Trump laughs it off.

This is so astoundingly silly that I just don't what to say. Taking a break from the blow by blow but I'll be back at the end for a wrap-up. 

Trump calls Cruz "the single biggest liar." He says he's a "nasty guy." All frankly undeniable. Trump also said that Planned Parenthood does "wonderful things for women." We're at a Republican debate. This is unreal. 

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