Milwaukee Republican Debate Observations

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On the whole, what I enjoy about this group of candidates is that there are some perceptible differences between them and each has some valid points that make one think about where they stand on some tough issues of the day. One thing that continues to be clear is that there are some serious tax, health, higher education, and regulatory reformers and reform proposals in this race. The contrast between the eventual winner and Clinton and the Obama years should be marked and vastly different than past races with McCain and Romney in the mix and it will be interesting to watch these reformist proposals unfold before the broader American public. My only regret is continuing to have Trump waste precious airtime preventing the optimal fleshing out of the policy debates we should be having.

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised primarily with the performance of the Fox Business Channel moderators. I tend to associate Fox with sensationalized and blaring reporting with loud noises and garish graphics. The moderators Neil Cavuto, Gerard Baker, and Maria Bartiromo were precise, crisp, professional, and deliberately in the background throughout the night. Kudos to them for managing the most useful debate and debate topics to date.

The most significant surprise to me is how well Carson performed. This was a moment for him to be potentially tripped up and consumed by the media reports that his biography is full of lies and also I would have anticipated continued waffling and lack of clarity on policy details. On the topic of inconsistencies in the biography, upon exploration the charges seem hollow and a blatant attempt to discredit and cause doubt amongst the most gullible and cynical of political observers. The fact that someone used the term “scholarship” for admission into West Point is a potential debate on semantics as all admits to West Point don’t pay tuition and effectively pay for college with five years of Army service. It seems entirely plausible that a military officer would easily slip into lingo that would resonate with a young kid in Detroit about getting a “free ride and scholarship” at West Point. The other trite news reported by CNN on the Carson biography includes reference to people they interviewed who did not recall his violent past as Carson discusses in his biography. The point of this in his biography is to highlight Carson’s redemption and turnaround story – the day he nearly stabbed and killed someone and finally saw the light that he needed to change and restrain his temper. Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal made the remarkable quip that, “this is the first time in a Presidential race we are debating whether someone lied about actually stabbing someone.” Carson was questioned on this during the debate, and he observed that while he is getting chased around about stories from when he was a 10th grader, that only conservative media outlets like the WSJ seem to point out the incontrovertible evidence that Clinton was busy texting her daughter and placing phone calls and sending emails to foreign leaders that the attacks in Benghazi were confirmed terrorist attacks while she was busy telling the public and her state department that the attacks were a result of an anti-Islamist YouTube video. Figure out that dissonance if you can, and if truthfulness is a virtue that we require of a Presidential candidate (and I believe it should be) then Carson would hardly be our biggest target to pillory. While I still don’t find him to be the most clear on policy, I was pleasantly surprised at his changed beliefs in the minimum wage. It is clear that he is getting good economic advice, and I think a physician can be given the benefit of the doubt initially on their views on something that feels good at first glance, but beneath the surface is in fact a disaster for those it purports to help, as Carson pointed out. While I am not a Carson supporter, I think his biography-based campaign and his demeanor will keep him in this race for some time to come. His swimlane is effectively the most plausible anti-politician in the race, and this will come ultimately at Trump’s and Fiorina’s expense.

Rubio continues to dazzle in the debate setting. He is no doubt a tremendously gifted orator and a dynamo as it comes to ideas and policy finesse. To counter any barbs that I am a Rubio homer (full disclosure I have made a couple of small donations to his campaign) I will say that I think his child tax entitlement is precisely the wrong thing to do with our tax codes. Either we are in support of liberty and level playing fields and the rule of law that applies equally to all or we aren’t. It is a slippery slope to favor certain interest groups and to create social policy through tax policy, such favors are the reason we are in the 20,000 page tax code mess we are in. Rand Paul was right to call him out on this, although I think Rubio wound up having the upper hand by deftly shifting the debate to an overall argument about foreign policy. Paul has a nice principled stand rooted in fiscal conservatism, but Rubio’s stance on a more muscular foreign policy as a form of leadership and pre-emptive protection and protecting our global interests simply resonates better with the Republican base. I expect to eventually hear Rubio’s reason for supporting sugar subsidies and how this differs from any other cynical government handout. I hope he comes around particularly on this issue and changes course.

Cruz is clearly enhancing his debate performances. His strongest line of attack came in the form of immigration in which he quipped that we would all be hearing a lot more about the economic impact if Mexico was sending a lot of journalists across the border, effectively reducing journalists’ wages. While I completely disagree with the consequent stance that as a result we should be restrictive on immigration and while I also believe that this is tremendously weak economic policy (immigration is hardly a zero-sum game and it can hardly be easily characterized as a game of winners and losers), but his appeal will cater to a significant portion of the electorate. As a result, I see this race eventually being one between Rubio and Cruz for the heart of the party in the end.

Bush clearly has some good policy ideas, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why he has such a hard time effectively communicating them and not delivering them in a sound and meaningful way. It always seems like he is embarrassed to promote and discuss them in a forceful way. This is hardly the time for modesty.

Fiorina delivers a strong and consistent message, but seems to be treading water. I am also deeply skeptical of a tax code boiled into three pages, but will have to wait to see it to believe it.

Paul continues to have principled stands that in many ways I agree with. He had some great points when sparring with Rubio about tax policy. Still, I can’t align with his hands-off approach to foreign policy. I do think it is dangerously isolationist. His message may have resonated really well these days if it were not for the advent of aggression and chaos sowed by ISIS and Russia, which points to a continued need for U.S. leadership and global military engagement. As it stands, his policies seem nice philosophically and for debating purposes in the Senate, but seem hardly suited for the office of the Executive.

A successful governor of swing state Ohio should be more successful than Kasich currently is. Whether it is the primary electorate that trends right when his appeal is more to the center or whether it is his style I have difficulty figuring out. I do think he is harmed a bit by his hectoring, whiny, and moralizing style. If he could make the case for the expansion of Medicaid, support for an increase to the minimum wage, or less ambitious tax reform goals without making everyone else seem like knaves and heartless curmudgeons, I get the sense that his appeal would be wider.  As it stands, whiny is the one word I would use if I had to describe his performance. I still think he has some appeal and place as a seemingly sensible and get things done moderate (I do think he would make a fine VP or high level cabinet member) but as it stands, I think his race is about finished.

My wife humorously observed that Trump is everybody’s drunk uncle on stage. This is a perfect metaphor. Every once in a while, he says something that sounds plausible and sensible. Then he ruins it by going on rants about a beautiful wall he will build between the U.S. and Mexico, how he will send 11 million people back and not cost any money, how we are losing to China and Mexico, how he would befriend Putin, some unbelievable tripe about we should have taken the oil in our invasion of Mexico, dragging China into the reason he does not support the TPP trade deal (which Paul humorously pointed out, after minutes of Trump diatribe, that China was not actually a deal signatory). I have long been on the Trump-bashing wagon so I continue to be amazed by his staying power, but I used to at least be entertained by his act, even if it has been marked by outrageous and ignorance. Now, it seems to me to be getting rather stale and boring. I wonder if his supporters will start to feel the same way and start moving on.

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