Friday Talking Points -- GOP Debates, Round One

Well, that was entertaining, wasn't it? We refer, of course, to the grand spectacle of the first Republican presidential debates, held last night on Fox News. Since this is all anyone's talking about in the political world today, we are going to follow suit and devote most of this column to our reactions.
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Well, that was entertaining, wasn't it? We refer, of course, to the grand spectacle of the first Republican presidential debates, held last night on Fox News. Since this is all anyone's talking about in the political world today, we are going to follow suit and devote most of this column (with the exception of the awards) to our reactions to seeing all the Republican candidates under one roof for the first time.

Of course, all 17 of them weren't actually on the same stage at the same time. The big event was limited to the top 10 in recent polls, which meant the others had to make do with a "kids' table debate" -- given to a cavernously empty auditorium, much earlier in the day. The consensus from the punditocracy is that Carly Fiorina won the earlier debate, but for the life of me I can't see why. She did her usual shtick, alternating smoothly from viciously snarky all the way to snarkily vicious. It's what she does, and what she's always done. Maybe some of the national pundits hadn't seen her before, that's the only explanation that springs to mind (full disclosure: I live in California, where we were subjected to "demon sheep" ads from Carly years ago).

What few commentators will openly admit is that pretty much all of these 17 candidates are pretty much all agreed on pretty much everything. With the possible exception of Rand Paul and John Kasich, there is so little difference between them that having a "debate" means nothing more than either agreeing with each other or trying to outdo each other in how much you agree. Seriously, here's a quick recap of both debates, summarizing what pretty much all of the candidates stood for:

  • War -- lots of wars, in lots of places. We're going to really stick it to ISIS, and wipe them out in three months. Then we might just jump into the war Ukraine's having with Russia. And Iran better watch out, because we'll be coming for them, too, real soon. China may have to wait a few months, but shouldn't rest easy or anything.

  • Abortion will be made as illegal as possible. Rape victim? No abortion for you. Incest victim? Too bad. Mother might die? Still no abortion possible. Dead pregnant women is just the price you pay for being "pro-life."
  • All taxes will be flat. Business taxes will shrink to non-existence. In fact, let's base our income tax system on the Bible, how's that?
  • We need a great big ol' wall on the southern border. Then, after it's built, we need to kick out all those 11 million "illegals." And we'll then dial back the number of legal immigrants allowed in, just for good measure.
  • Obamacare, of course, must be killed.
  • God is a Republican. Planned Parenthood is the Devil.
  • Have we missed anything? Pretty much every candidate agreed with pretty much all of that, all night long. With the exception of Kasich (who stunned the others by saying nice things about both poor people and gays getting married) and Paul (who isn't for all-war, all-the-time), it'd be hard to find a single statement disagreeing with much of any of that by any of the candidates.

    Some candidates stood out, for various reasons, both in the debate and in all the pre-debate hype. Bobby Jindal sees absolutely no irony in complaining about Obama's supposed use of the I.R.S. against conservative groups, and then pivoting to promising to do just that against liberal groups. Rick Perry seems enamored of someone called "Ronald Raven." Maybe he's a linebacker for Baltimore, or something? Ted Cruz has a video out showing how to (no, really!) cook bacon on the barrel of a machine gun. Marco Rubio is apparently selling a shirt on his campaign website called the "Marco Polo" (OK, that's pretty funny, we have to admit). But the funniest joke of the night came in Ben Carson's closing statement -- about how he's the only one to remove half a brain.

    The biggest knock-down fight of the night came as somewhat of a surprise, because The Donald was not even involved. Rand Paul came ready to rumble, and he got into it with Chris Christie over surveillance and the Fourth Amendment. Paul even unloaded the "you gave Obama a big hug" line on Christie. Now, Chris Christie is normally combative, but we certainly saw a feisty Rand Paul last night. Will it do him any good? That remains to be seen.

    Of course, everyone was watching center stage last night, to see if Donald Trump would explode. He didn't, at least not much more than he normally does when he opens his mouth. He actually pretty much stuck to his promise not to punch (merely to counterpunch), and most of the others just seemed afraid to throw anything Trump's way. The only one who really took him on was Rand Paul, but not to much noticeable effect. His biggest sparring partner was actually Megyn Kelly, one of the Fox News moderators, on his past dismissive and insulting statements about women. Trump brushed it off (after making a Rosie O'Donnell joke), saying he didn't have time for political correctness. The crowd (mostly) loved it, and Trump later tweeted that Kelly was a "bimbo," just for good measure. Trump did get a bit testy when asked about his four bankruptcies, but he's always been a bit tender on that subject.

    The most surprising thing Trump did last night was to speak up for the single-payer medical systems in Canada and Scotland. Trump, being rich, has actually travelled outside the country and seen with his own eyes the reality of single-payer. Most Republican voters haven't. If the other Republican candidates start running anti-Trump ads, I would bet the clip of Trump praising single-payer will feature prominently.

    We're all going to have to wait a few days (middle of next week, roughly) to see how any of this will affect the poll numbers, of course. Debates don't normally have a huge impact, although this one just might (mostly because so many people watched it). Will Trump continue his dominance of the Republican field? Will a second-tier candidate move up in the ratings as a result of a stellar performance? Will one of the big names begin to fade? Nobody yet knows the answers to these questions, so we'll all just have to wait and see.

    That's enough on the debate for now -- we'll get to more debate reactions in the talking points, once we get the awards (and the other news of the week) out of the way.

    There were a lot of impressive Democrats this week to choose from, which means we've got a lot of Honorable Mention awards to hand out before we get to the big award.

    Barack Obama's administration just released their carbon rules, and they are a giant step in the right direction. His plan earned him immediate praise from Hillary Clinton, we should add.

    In other good news from the administration, the new head of the Drug Enforcement Agency publicly admitted that "heroin is clearly more dangerous than marijuana," which doesn't sound very impressive until you realize this is the first time anyone at the D.E.A. has made such a commonsense statement. Dan Riffle, of the Marijuana Policy Project, had the best reaction: "In other news, the sky is blue."

    Martin O'Malley is calling for an amendment to the Constitution to guarantee voting rights, which we think is a great idea. In fact, we'd like to see all the Democratic candidates jump on board this particular bandwagon.

    Bernie Sanders leads all the Republican candidates in head-to-head polls. He leads Donald Trump by a whopping margin -- 59 to 38 percent. This means that even Democrats' second-place candidate is beating the entire Republican field -- that's a pretty positive thing to see.

    Elizabeth Warren gave a great speech last week, ripping into the do-nothing nature of the Republican Congress. Each Congress is two years long. We're one-fourth of the way through this one. What have they done in that time? Given Obama fast-track trade authority -- that's really about it. Warren points this out in great detail. Warren also is to be credited for another Obama administration rule coming out of the S.E.C., that will force companies to publish the difference between their C.E.O.'s pay and an average employee's salary.

    But this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week goes instead to Representative Sam Farr, who (together with Republican Dana Rohrabacher) is fighting hard for a law he passed last year, which makes it illegal for the Justice Department to spend any money on prosecuting medical marijuana operations in states which have allowed them. They zeroed the budget for such activities by any federal agency.

    When they originally passed this law (as Tom Angell revealed this week), the Justice Department actively lobbied against it. By lying. They used scare tactics, saying if the law passed it would mean they couldn't enforce recreational marijuana use either. This was (and still is) just flat-out wrong, but that didn't stop them from trying it.

    But back to the present. Farr and Rohrabacher just wrote a rather pointed letter to the Justice Department, which seeks an investigation into the Justice Department itself, for breaking their new law. Medical marijuana providers are still being prosecuted, in states where they are legal. The Justice Department is not supposed to be spending one thin dime on this, and yet they are. In other words, the Justice Department is prosecuting people for breaking federal law, and by doing so, the Justice Department itself is breaking federal law.

    Which is why we say: "More power to Farr and Rohrabacher!" They should investigate this fully, and bring charges against any federal attorneys involved in such prosecutions. This law was passed for a reason -- medical marijuana providers needed relief from the prosecution (and persecution) of some federal attorneys. This has not fully happened yet. Either the Justice Department must stop breaking the law, or some heads should start rolling. No two ways about it. Which is why Sam Farr is our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week.

    [Congratulate Representative Sam Farr on his House contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]

    We're not entirely sure who deserves this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week, so we're just going to go to the top of the food chain and award it to President Barack Obama. Maybe John Kerry deserves it more, or maybe some lower staffer. But it's hard to imagine this happened without some degree of acceptance from higher-ups.

    The United States keeps a list of countries that are notorious for human trafficking (the "Tracking In Persons" report). This is supposed to shame other countries into getting their act together on modern-day slavery. Just last month, however, some countries were suddenly upgraded on the list. Malaysia, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia all got moved up, while China didn't move down. There is no evidence or reason for any of these decisions. China should have moved down, on the evidence. Malaysia, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia should not have moved, because they haven't done anything to crack down on the problem.

    The only reason for the move? Politics. In particular, the politics of our relations with the three upgraded nations. We just opened an embassy in Cuba for the first time since the dawn of the Cold War. So Cuba's upgrade was basically a present to them, to show how happy we are with them right now. Saudi Arabia is disgruntled about our nuclear deal with Iran, so the upgrade was a kind of a bribe to get them on board. Malaysia is the worst of the bunch, because it wasn't even a diplomatic favor, really, but an economic one. If Malaysia is on the worst-of-the-worst list, it means we can't make trade deals with them. Since they're supposed to be a part of the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, they had to be moved up in order to qualify.

    The people at the State Department whose job it is to monitor human trafficking objected to all of these moves. They were overruled. That is beyond disappointing, it is a disgrace. The Obama administration is looking the other way on human slavery, both for politics and to make a buck. That's a shameful legacy for America's first black president to leave behind.

    Which is why we're awarding the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week to President Obama. No matter whose fingerprints were on these decisions, the ultimate blame lies at the top. If Obama had told John Kerry "I don't want to use this list politically" then this never would have happened. He didn't. It did. Which is why Obama earns this week's MDDOTW award.

    [Contact President Barack Obama via the White House contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]

    Volume 356 (8/7/15)

    OK, let's get back to debate reactions. Most of these are fairly generic, because (as we've already mentioned) most Republican candidates agree on most things. Therefore we've painted with a very broad brush this week. Oh, sure, it's fun to beat up on Donald Trump and all of that, but what the debate really showed was that while the other Republican candidates might cringe at how Trump phrases positions, they actually share the same basic positions as he does. They're just more polite at voicing them, that's all.

    Democrats right now would do well to keep an eye on the general election. The beauty of the Republican debates -- as always -- is that it forces all the candidates so far out to the extremes that they can't recover after winning the primary. So by all means we should help this process along as much as possible.

    Right now, Republicans are terrified of being out-flanked on the right. So exploit that by pointing out how extreme this game has already become.

    How many wars?

    An obvious question.

    "I'm sorry, but I lost count during the Republican debates -- how many wars will we start if a Republican wins the presidency? Six? Seven? With all the jingoism in the air, it was easy to lose track of how many countries were threatened with war in the course of the debate. You could almost hear the salivating when Mike Huckabee promised the American military would be unleashed to, quote, kill people and break things, unquote. In fact, I think we're going to need a bigger army, if we're going to fight all these wars at the same time. A much bigger army. And, of course, it goes without saying that any Republican candidate who loses the race for the nomination will be among the first folks in line down at the recruiting office, because they all want to see all these wars fought -- and somebody's going to have to fight them."

    The fatherhood rights of rapists

    Democrats need to point out how extreme the Republican position on abortion has now become, in the harshest possible language.

    "Republicans apparently all stand for protecting the fatherhood rights of rapists. If they get their way, abortions will not be available for rape victims. This means that rapists will be able to choose the mother of their baby by who they decide to rape. Because, to the Republican Party, the rights of the rapist are more important than the rights of the victim of a horrific crime."

    Your soul will be clean when you die

    This also needs harshly pointing out.

    "The Republican candidates also tried to outdo each other on outlawing abortion even when the mother's life is in danger. That's unbelievably extreme, but nobody seems to have noticed. If a medical problem happens and the only way to save a woman's life is to abort her baby, then according to the Republicans, she should just die. I guess that's what they mean when they say they're 'pro-life' -- that a woman's unnecessary death is the price of being morally pure, as they define it. That is inhumane. But that is now the default Republican position."

    A beautiful wall

    This one, obviously, was spurred on by Trump.

    "Once again, Republicans are in a tizzy trying to trump Donald Trump. We won't just build a great big wall, we'll build a wall so deep they can't tunnel under it. It'll be the biggest, most beautiful wall you've ever seen. It'll be a hundred feet high... no, five hundred feet high... no, a freakin' mile high! Yeah, that's the ticket! Maybe we can add a moat, too. And put alligators in it. Wait -- how about alligators armed with laser beams?!? Man alive, this is going to be the most awesome wall in human history!"

    Trust us, we'll think of something

    This is just becoming laughable.

    "For over five years now, Republicans have been trying to kill Obamacare. All the Republican candidates for president agree that repealing Obamacare would be one of the first things on their to-do list as president. They've had all this time, and they still haven't got a single clue what to replace it with, though. They've held the House of Representatives for years now, and they have yet to even move a single replacement bill out of committee, much less held a vote on it on the House floor. There is absolutely nothing stopping them from doing so. And yet they haven't. Their answer, for five whole years, has been the same -- it was the same answer the Republican candidates gave on stage last night. Trust us, they say, and right after we repeal every word of Obamacare, we'll be sure to think of something to replace it with."

    Even Fox too tough?

    The real loser of last night's debate is a guy who, when you take the vowels out of his name, becomes: "RNC PR BS."

    "I have to say that I'm not entirely sure who won last night's debate, but I do know who lost: Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican National Committee. They had a plan to avoid the fiasco that was the Republican debate cycle last time around. Their plan was to limit the number of debates, limit the number of people on stage, and only allow friendly right-wingers to be the moderators, so the candidates wouldn't be asked embarrassing questions. This was supposed to keep the crazy people out and showcase the serious Republican candidates. But the plan failed, as last night already proved. The crazy people were let in, the craziness was in fact at center stage, and now conservatives are even complaining that Fox News reporters were insufficiently deferential to the candidates. How in the world do they think any of these candidates are going to survive debating Hillary Clinton -- to say nothing of going toe-to-toe with Russia or Iran -- if even Fox News was too tough for a Republican debate?"

    If I only had half a brain....

    And we're going to close the way the debate did -- with a funny moment.

    "Ben Carson got the biggest laugh of the night, when he pointed out he was the only one to take out half a brain, adding 'although if you took me to Washington you would think someone beat me to it.' But from where I sat, I really don't think he had to travel all that far. Washington is a long way to go, when there are many standing right next to you on that stage who would have been great to use as examples of people with only half a brain."

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