One of these days it will happen, Donald Trump will chew the head off of a bat and Ben Carson will reattach it.
I am joking of course. The Republican debate of November 10 represents an important turning point in this season's campaign trajectory. For it was on Tuesday night that real philosophical and policy divisions became apparent among the GOP candidates.
These divisions did not center on what was billed as the debate's main focus -- the economy. On business and economics, the participants sounded stereotyped and wooden. The repeated refrains of "opportunity" came across as ideological and state, like old party plenum speeches from a different place and era. And the candidates' positions on tax policy were utterly predictable. Cary Fiorina wants to reduce the tax code to three pages and Rand Paul wants to "blow up" the tax code and make the government invisible. Is it possible to be both nihilistic and boring simultaneously? Fiorina and Paul accomplished this feat.
Perhaps the most compelling disagreement among the candidates centered on American foreign policy and the role of the military. Fiorina and Marco Rubio can safely be described as militarists. Fiorina promised "very aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states." She also called for a "no fly zone in Syria," apparently without realizing that Russian pilots are doing much of the flying. She insisted that America must have "the strongest military on the face of the planet, and everyone has to know it." We already do, Carly.
Not to be outdone, Marco Rubio helpfully chimed in that Vladimir Putin "is a gangster. He is basically an organized crime figure that runs a country." Regarding ISIS, Rubio fretted that "They are coming to us."
Let's stipulate that Vladimir Putin is internationally ruthless and aggressive and that he has treated his neighbors atrociously. Let's agree that ISIS is wicked. Both Putin and ISIS need to be confronted. Still, I'd like a president with a little more sobriety and self-control doing the confronting.
There were at least two other approaches to foreign policy on display in Milwaukee Tuesday night. Rand Paul argued for a kind of conservative realism. He reminded viewers that it is never a good idea to shut down all possibility of communication with world leaders, even including Vladimir Putin. He also was the one to break the news to Fiorina that Russian jets fly in Iraq and Syria at the invitation of the governments of those states and that enforcing a no-fly zone would be, well, a delicate procedure. There was a thoughtful modesty to his responses on foreign affairs, although on the whole I think the United States should be more deeply engaged with the world than Paul would have us be.
Donald Trump, finally, represented what can be called a full-throated and crude American nationalism. We have an interest in destroying ISIS, he proclaimed, and so do the Russians. And so "if Putin wants to go and knock the hell out of ISIS I am all for it."
Regarding Russian aggression in Ukraine, Trump added that the European nations most directly interested should take action. "We can't continue to be the policeman of the world," Trump stated. It is hard to find coherence in his recommendations. Trump's main point seems to be essentially, "Too bad that the prevailing world order is crumbling, let the devil take the hindmost, we look after our own." Short-sighted doesn't begin to describe the flaws in this reasoning.
These are deep and intractable divergences, and it is hard therefore to see how one candidate bridges these differences at the end of the day. But these differences are as nothing compared to the debate that ensued over immigration.
Once again, Donald Trump made the case for mass deportations. "We are a country of laws. We need borders. We have to have a wall." He added that undocumented immigrants are "going to have to go out."
Mass deportations on the scale Trump proposes would, of course, trigger a humanitarian crisis that would make the refugee problems in Europe pale in comparison. Eleven million people uprooted and sent to lands that, in many cases are entirely alien to them, especially where children, adolescents and young adults are concerned.
Quite properly, Trump was criticized for this proposal by more sober-minded candidates. John Kasich summoned the ghost of Ronald Reagan to say that, yes, even President Reagan crafted legislation that allowed undocumented immigrants to remain in the country and to qualify for citizenship. "For the eleven million people, come on folks, we all know you can't pick them up and ship them across." Jeb Bush quickly seconded these remarks. But will Kasich and Bush gain any traction in the polls? Will they ever move out of single digits? Who knows?
So, who won, who lost Tuesday night's debate? And how do we define victory? My own definition looks less to who accumulated the most debating points than to who will receive the largest boost in the polls.
And there I think Ben Carson emerges in a strong position. His answers by and large are not statements that I agree with. But if I ask myself whether the Republican base will find them satisfying, then I have to answer in the affirmative. Neil Cavuto threw him a softball on the fabrications he invented about his "violent" childhood and adolescent and Carson had his big opportunity. He bashed the press, he talked about the future and he put behind him the entire lack of evidence regarding his assorted stories about playing with knives. His closing statement, furthermore, was an appeal to the kind of compassion that at least the Republican base would understand: people are dying from drug overdoses, veterans are taking their lives, but the "people of America" are "special" and if we just reject "political correctness" we can make things right. Root causes? Ben Carson just does not do the root causes of fear and desperation and hopelessness.
And the other candidates? Donald Trump was all theatrics, histrionics and misstatements (China is not a member of TPP). His supporters will nevertheless love him for the theatrics and not care about the other stuff. For Kasich and Bush to take the stands they did on immigration required political courage, and while I like to think that courage still matters, I acknowledge that they are likely on a fool's errand in trying to change the minds of Republican base voters.
Rand Paul invariably makes some interesting comments on foreign affairs, some strange comments about the Federal Reserve, and has not experienced the slightest benefit in the polls. Ted Cruz had a quiet night. He will pounce, though, and he must surely know that the time to strike is drawing near. Fiorina was simply over the top, more so perhaps even than Trump. And that leaves Marco Rubio. Yes, he is the establishment's anointed one, but will ever win the primary? That must be on the thought on everyone's mind.