Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: The Republican Debate

Las Vegas makes its money by catering to our baser appetites. Last night, Republicans followed suit. Carpet bomb ISIS. Take out Assad. Destroy Iran. Shoot down Russian planes. Launch cyberwar against China. Expand the Army, Navy, Air Force; modernize nuclear weapons on land, sea and air. Spy on everyone. Build walls, close doors. The only thing we have to fear is insufficient fear itself.

CNN marketed hysteria to promote last night's debate. And, in the wake of Paris and San Bernardino, it isn't surprising the Republican candidates rose to the bait.

Stuff and nonsense abounded. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton "betrayed America." (Chris Christie). America's military has been "destroyed." (Marco Rubio) Ted Cruz seems to think that "radical Islamic terrorism" would be dramatically impacted if only the president would "utter its name." Marco Rubio argues that there were "no alternative groups to be reinforced" in Syria because the "president led from behind." [Rubio is the master of uttering complete nonsense with glib authority]. Carly Fiorina argues we'd have caught the Tsarnaev brothers who attacked the Boston Marathon except we were using the "wrong algorithms." Chris Christie suggests that serving as US Attorney in New Jersey is somehow the equivalent of McArthur on the bridge. Kasich wants a "massive" invasion of Syria, while "punching Russia in the nose." Christie promises to shoot down Russian airplanes. Fiorina wouldn't even talk with Putin until she rebuilt the Sixth Fleet among many other preconditions.

Rand Paul, who remarkably was a voice of relative reason most of the night, got it right. He skewered Christie's inanity about shooting down Russian planes with "I think if you're in favor of World War III, you have your candidate." Jeb Bush, who was the only candidate willing to take on Donald Trump directly, delivered a prepared but good line. Calling Trump the "chaos candidate," he quipped, "Donald, you're not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency. That's not going to happen." Only that could easily have been applied to the whole gaggle.

The Trump Effect

Trump was more focused than normal at first, but faded over time as he often does [a "low energy" candidate?]. Bush challenged him directly, but the others largely directed their fire at one another rather than the front runner. Jeb's gibe that Trump gets his briefings "from the shows" hit home as Trump clearly had no clue about what the nuclear triad was when he was asked which arm (bombers, submarines or land missiles) he would "modernize" first. Preening like the teacher's favorite at the front of the class, Rubio then defined the triad and, characteristically, argued that all three arms had to be modernized, as if the U.S. didn't already have more nuclear weapons than needed to blow up the world.

Trump is an ignorant bigot. But there is no question, as he noted, that he sets the tone, and his rivals scramble to catch up. He wants to build a wall, and now all of them dutifully call for strengthening the "fence." He wants to halt admission of any non-American Muslims temporarily, and now more and more call for a "pause" or shutting off refugees from anywhere ISIS or al Qaeda operate. He promises to "bomb the shit" out of ISIS. And now they all strain to be tougher than thou. Trump leads the race to the bottom in the Republican campaign, but his rivals are intent on keeping pace.

Regime Change

In the midst of the bombast, a serious debate managed to break out. Rand Paul argued forcefully that the bipartisan enthusiasm about toppling dictators - in Iraq, in Libya and now in Syria - has had calamitous results, leading to failed states, violence and chaos in which terrorist groups like ISIS can thrive. "Out of regime change you get chaos," Paul argued, "from the chaos you have seen repeatedly the rise of radical Islam." Paul was backed by Trump and Cruz. They argue, in Trump's sensible words, "that we should do one thing at a time." Take on ISIS first, and not push to dislodge Assad. Implicitly, although none would say it, form a partnership with Russia, Syria, Iran and our Sunni and European allies to destroy ISIS.

Against this, Rubio, Christie, Kasich and Fiorina offered bluster. America could take on ISIS, Assad, Iran, Russia and China if only it a president who would not "lead from behind," who believed in America. "All of our wounds can be healed," Fiorina promised, "by a tested leader who is willing to fight for the character of our nation," whatever the hell that means.

Prudence generally does not fare well against swagger. But last night, the hearty viewers that survived the first hour got a dose of common sense amid the posturing. The media reviews suggest that Rubio got the best of Cruz in their exchanges. But I suspect Cruz will fare well among conservatives - and have, alas, greater reach among independents - with his arguments about "focusing on the bad guys" both at home rather than trampling the privacy of "innocent Americans", and abroad rather than "getting distracted" by thinking we can spread democracy by dropping a few bombs.

Who Won and Who Lost

Rand Paul was forceful and clear for much of the night, but is going nowhere. Fiorina and Kasich, as Trump would say, "don't matter." Carson continues to be lost on the stage.

Bush had a relatively strong night, willing to go after and stand up to Trump, but it is likely too late for him. Christie was the most bellicose and the most disingenuous. He might get another look in New Hampshire.

Of the leaders, Trump's ignorance was exposed once more, but then it always is and hasn't mattered. Rubio was glib as always, silver tongued despite his five o'clock shadow and his dry mouth. But he comes off often as callow and thin, confidently saying things that simply aren't true out of ignorance or dishonesty. Cruz's filibusters were irritating, and his face is a cartoonist's dream. He is almost universally hated by his colleagues, but he emerges from this debate stronger than ever.

As always, the first casualty of the debate was the truth. The fact is that America has the most powerful military in the world. Our domestic security capacities are greater than ever. Our intelligence agencies suffer from collecting too much data not too little. Our allies get a free ride. We lack not weaponry but wisdom. We suffer from the bipartisan presumption that we are the indispensable nation able to police the world. We will control the Persian Gulf, press NATO to the borders of Russia, surround China with troops and fleets, intervene constantly in far corners of the world and then be constantly surprised at the blowback.

Republicans scorn the real and present threat of catastrophic climate change, even as its cost in lives and resources soars. We have a debate on national security without even mention of the global stagnation that now threatens a return to global recession or worse. These candidates bray about spending more on a military that is the most powerful in the world while -- other than Donald Trump -- ignoring the reality that we aren't making the investments at home vital to our economy and society.

We got a large helping of fear and loathing last night in Las Vegas. Time will tell which candidate fared the best. But we already know that the Republic was not well served.