Welcome Back, My Friends: What to Expect from Tuesday’s GOP Debate

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Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends!
We’re so glad you could attend,
Come inside! Come inside!

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Karn Evil 9

If it seems like we are in a Bill Murray-esque “Groundhog Day” scenario, it is about to come to a close. On Tuesday night, 13 of the 14 remaining candidates from the Republican Party will meet at the Venetian in Las Vegas, representing the final time in 2015 that the GOP will parade their talent across the stage for the U. S. voter. It is expected that, by the time of the next debate two days after the State of the Union address in January, this field will be whittled down again (since the start of the campaign, three candidates – former Texas Governor Rick Perry, current Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and current Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker – have already tossed in the towel…and thus completes our moment of silence for them).

It is appropriate that Las Vegas is the host of the final GOP debate for 2015 because, for many of the candidates, it is a full-out gamble that they’re taking by staying in the race. The four men who will make up the undercard (or “kiddie table”) debate – current South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, former New York Governor George Pataki, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee – were unable to make the criteria for the main CNN debate (to be eligible, a candidate had to poll at least at 3.5% nationally or at 4% in either Iowa or New Hampshire) and probably should have left this contest months ago (another candidate, former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, was left off this stage because he doesn’t poll at all in the GOP race, he just hasn’t gotten around to ending his campaign). They do little for the process other than to confuse voters, offer nothing as to “fresh” ideas and simply aren’t viable (on the Democrats side, Martin O’Malley serves this purpose all by himself). There would have to be a tremendous “change of fortune” if any of these longest of “long shots” were to pay off with a residency in the White House.

The nine person GOP All-Star team that will be in the “Main Event” – billionaire businessman  Donald Trump, brain surgeon Ben Carson, current Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Ohio’s Governor John Kasich and current Kentucky Senator Rand Paul – could have probably been cut as well, but we don’t want to have three debates that would provide emergency rooms with more alcohol poisonings than they could handle. With just the top four alone – Trump, Carson, Cruz and Rubio – nearly three-quarters (73.5%) of the GOP has decided who they will back. The other five candidates divvy up 15% of the vote, not enough for any of them to mount a serious charge at the top and probably not enough to swing the top four in any particular direction (the rest are basically undecided, either supporting one of the bottom four or have truly not made a choice). As such, this debate (and maybe they’ll do it by the January debate, but I’m not holding my breath) might be the last time we’ll see this many GOP hopefuls on the center stage.

The run-up to this debate has been intriguing if not necessarily pretty. Paul was a last-minute addition (due to a late Sunday Fox News poll that showed him doing well in Iowa) to get him to the main stage. There was talk that he would be shuttled to the undercard debate, which brought the threat from Paul of either a lawsuit or a resignation from the campaign. Trump has been wavering atop the ladder, with a surprising Cruz passing him in some polling while Trump has extended his lead in others. Finally, there has been the grandstanding that many in the GOP have done as a result of situations in the world and in the United States over the past few weeks.

This debate is being billed by CNN – who will put commentator Wolf Blitzer in as the moderator, with assistance from CNN Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash and Salem Radio (co-host of the debate) talk show host Hugh Hewitt – as a comprehensive look at the threat of terrorism and foreign policy. With the attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino over the past few weeks, the actions of ISIS and terrorism in general has come to the forefront as an important issue. This doesn’t bode well for a few of the candidates – Carson, Fiorina, Kasich and Paul in particular – because it isn’t their forte. Some of the other candidates on the stage – Cruz, Rubio, Bush and Christie – have been very consistent with their proposals to counter terrorists’ threats. It is Trump who is the wild card simply because he presents “solutions” that will not even be seriously considered (registering a religion for government surveillance or forcing them into “training camps”, bombing the “shit” out of ISIS regardless of where they are, etc.); the real question is when will Trump grow up and figure out simple civics and government protocol and offer viable ideas.

The tone of the debate on Tuesday night is going to be two-sided. For those at the bottom of the totem pole – Paul, Kasich, Christie (making his return to the main stage after being “sent to the minors” for the last debate) and Fiorina – they are going to have to put out a big bet (in keeping with our Las Vegas theme here) and hope that it hits in their favor. This could be some sort of proposal to combat terrorism, an attack on another candidate showing how their position is wrong, or a particular stance that makes them potentially look like “the adult” in the room rather than a pandering child. Expect the “slings and arrows” for this debate to come out of this bunch because, let’s be honest, they haven’t got anything else to fall back on if they are to be viable in the campaign.

The top five in the GOP – Trump, Cruz, Carson, Rubio and Bush (and he barely gets into this class) – will probably be on their best behavior, especially Trump. After months of acting like your crazy, drunken uncle at the Thanksgiving or Christmas gathering, Trump is now being tracked down by the one candidate who is actively looking to pull away his supporters, Cruz. He has to try to look somewhat “sane” as he tries to parlay the attack of Cruz (who was called by none other than Arizona Senator John McCain a “wacko bird”). Cruz, who has basically burned every bridge he might have been able to use in the GOP to push his candidacy forward, HAD been the “lunatic fringe” of the GOP before Trump came along and now is potentially viewed by some as more “Presidential” than before. Instead of staying this course, Trump is strangely resorting to trying to portray himself as having a better “temperament” for the Presidency (as the rest of the political world does massive spit-takes); whether that strategy pays off has yet to be seen.

These five guys will, for the most part, spar lightly with each other but mostly will look out for the heavy ammunition from the back of the pack. Despite his bombast, Trump isn’t well-versed in foreign policy matters, so he’ll probably sit back and look for someone else to make a mistake (instead of the one Trump did in the last debate when Paul pointed out China – one of Trump’s favorite targets for beating – wasn’t a part of the Asian trade pact recently negotiated). This plan doesn’t bode well for him, however, as it could result in a drop in the polls if he doesn’t display “strength.”

I expect good showings from both Cruz and Rubio on this issue. The two are well-versed from their Senatorial work in potential foreign policy options and could present a viable course of action. Bush might surprise here, if he can separate himself from the Albatross that were his brother’s actions in the Middle East, while Carson suffers from a worse case of the same condition that afflicts Trump – no knowledge of foreign policy (although this would be a good time to demonstrate that he’s been listening to his advisors and show some deep thought on the subject).

What has held true for all the previous debates – and will continue to hold true for this one – is that it won’t have much effect on the current campaign at all and I don’t say that cynically. Trump has been the leader since he stepped into the race this summer and, despite every verbal bombast, insult and slur that he’s thrown, he’s either maintained the lead or expanded it. It isn’t going to be until that late-January debate that there might be a change in the numbers on the board, more so true if there are some candidates who come to their senses and realize they have no shot at the big prize and withdraw from the race. While Las Vegas may be the city where “dreams come true,” it more often than not crushes those dreams into dust; it will be that way for some of these GOP candidates as we head towards the end of 2015.

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What to Expect at the First Democratic Debate

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Just when you thought that the political world had calmed down, the first of a planned six debates from the Democratic Party will be held on Tuesday night in Las Vegas. The five announced candidates – former New York Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, current Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former Rhode Island Senator and Governor Lincoln Chafee and former Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb – will take the stage around 9PM Eastern Time on Tuesday night at the Wynn Las Vegas, presenting their reasoning for being the party’s selection for the 2016 Presidential nomination. It may not be as visually exciting as what the Republican Party have been able to put on in their previous two clashes, with their myriad of candidates all saying the same thing but trying to sound different, but these debates are just as important as those on the GOP side.

With President Barack Obama heading off into the sunset following his two terms in office, it is up to one of these five people to try to maintain the legacy of the Democratic Party for several reasons. One, the next President will probably have at least one and potentially as many as three Supreme Court justices to name in their 4-8 year term, basically allowing for a reshaping of the Court towards a more conservative or liberal bend. Two, if the next President is one of these Democrats, they will be able to firmly ensconce the Affordable Care Act – “ObamaCare” to many – as the “law of the land” and make it even more difficult to take away through repeal as it becomes more entrenched in the U. S. psyche. And three, the Democrats would be able to maintain the current foreign policy viewpoint of diplomacy before dominance – the major difference between them and the GOP, who want a war on all days that end in a “y.”

Anyone who says that the Democrats didn’t think that this would be a simple coronation for Clinton on the way to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July 2016 would be out-and-out lying. After getting stunningly pummeled in 2008 by Obama, Clinton did her duty in first accepting the Secretary of State role in the Obama Administration and then in not trying to usurp Obama is 2012. Her reward for this party loyalty was supposed to be a free pass to the Democratic nomination in 2016 but, along the way to the coronation party, someone threw a huge monkey wrench in the plans.

Sanders, the genial, grandfatherly Senator from the Northeast who calls himself a “democratic socialist,” has been stealing a great deal of Clinton’s thunder, especially in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Part of the appeal of Sanders has been his Quixotic-tilt against the uber-rich, banks and corporations, which has struck a chord with the young and the downtrodden. His firm stance against all military action in the Middle East has also drawn comparisons of Sanders to fellow Kentucky Senator and Presidential hopeful Rand Paul – you know, back when Rand Paul was cool before he became a Republican.

Sanders has become so popular with some Democrats that the threats against Clinton in the early primary states have forced her into campaigning much sooner than she would like to have done. The Clinton team is looking to get her through the first few primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, ready to take a second place finish behind Sanders, and prepare for the “SEC Primaries” at the beginning of March in the South, a traditional stronghold of the Clintons that would allow her to be able to thwart a Sanders attack through numerous victories.

There are a few differences between Clinton and Sanders, but there is more diversity when you toss the other candidates in the mix. O’Malley is a “law and order” type that, as mayor of Baltimore, was able to lower crime rates and improve the city’s image (it is also alleged that the tactics employed by O’Malley – the “stop and frisk” utilized by police officers, in particular, where officers could stop anyone for investigation despite not visually committing a crime – were a major impetus for the Baltimore riots of earlier this summer). Chafee is a former Republican who first became an independent before moving to the Democratic Party, while Webb is almost a DINO (Democrat in Name Only) as he supports the “close the border first, then maybe amnesty” program popular with Republicans as well as reining in the Environmental Protection Agency and its regulatory authority.

The 800-pound gorilla in the room will be the specter of current Vice President Joe Biden. Supposedly considering a third run for President, Biden has not committed to this debate as of Monday, but CNN has stated that a podium will be on hand should Biden state he wants to take part in the festivities. With Biden polling better than Sanders (but still behind Clinton), Biden would be an immediate (and strong) challenger to Clinton, forcing her to fend off not only Sanders but also Biden.

What exactly is going to happen in the debate? First off, Sanders and Clinton – and throw Biden into the mix should he show up – will not attack each other as the GOP candidates did in their second debate. First, moderator Anderson Cooper and his panelists, CNN reporter/anchor Dana Bash, CNN anchor Don Lemon and CNN en Espanol’s Juan Carlos Lopez, are not going to ask the “challenging” questions that saw the Republicans rip into each other during their debates. “I think it’s just as interesting to kind of learn about some of these candidates who the American public doesn’t really know much about,” Cooper stated in an interview on CNN’s Reliable Sources over the weekend, “as it is to hear from some of the candidates you do.”

There has also been a remarkable bonhomie between Sanders and Clinton in that they haven’t brought the knives out against each other. Sanders, in particular, has been given multiple opportunities to rip into Clinton over a variety of problems she has faced (her private e-mail server, her work with the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative and how it affected her time as Secretary of State, her vote for the Iraq War in 2003, etc.), but he has refused to do any mudslinging and instead concentrated on his message. That is a bit refreshing in this current day and age of politics.

Both Clinton and Sanders are going to continue with their own presentations of what their plans as President will be, which differ in some areas. Sanders in particular has made many suggestions regarding what he would do as President – free college for all students, raising the minimum wage to $15 nationwide, universal health care (going beyond ObamaCare) – but he will also have to answer about how he’s going to pay for those things; if Sanders’ plan to increase taxes on the 1% (for your information, that would be anyone who makes more than $344,000) and reduce military spending doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny, then his other plans won’t be taken seriously.

The ones who have nothing to lose are O’Malley, Chafee and Webb. Any airtime they get during the debates would be welcome as the three men currently are barely even making an impact on the polls (Webb is averaging .9%, O’Malley .6% and Chafee .2%, according to Real Clear Politics and their national polls). They also have to make viewers/voters remember them, so taking some shots at Clinton, Sanders and/or Biden (if he shows up and he’s polling at 18.6%) might help them out. If these candidates can’t get a bump out of this debate, they may not get another shot at the next debate in November, especially if Biden announces a run for the Presidency and their numbers stay the same.

One thing that will NOT happen is any of the candidates making a serious faux pas. All of them are experienced debaters and, as such, will be able to withstand the slings and arrows that come from their opponents. Only the introduction of Biden into the mix (due to preparation by the candidates for those that are currently on the dais and not an 11th hour introduction of another player) or a change in tactics by Sanders regarding his “no mudslinging” tactics with Clinton might change the game.

It might not be as electric as the GOP debates have been to this point, but the Democratic debate should provide viewers/voters with more substantive information on the candidates. It will also mark the drive towards next November when the next President of the United States will be chosen.

What to Expect From the Second GOP Debate

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After what turned out to be a relatively calm first debate last month, the Republican Party will gather their candidates for President of the United States together again tonight for a debate. The second GOP debate will begin at 6PM on CNN with the undercard – the four competitors, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham; Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal; former New York Governor George Pataki and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (two of their brethren, former Texas Governor Rick Perry (has ended his campaign) and former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore (nonexistent in the polls) have already been excluded from the debate) who couldn’t build up enough support to crack low single digits – will be featured in this showdown at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA. While some points may be scored here, the attention of the 500 or so people who will be in attendance will more than likely be on the “Main Event” that begins at 8PM (Eastern Time).

The main field is now expanded to 11 participants, with former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina the only candidate who came out of the “Happy Hour” debate in Cleveland improving on her support and earning her way onto the main stage. Even with the addition of Fiorina, the leader has stayed constant:  Donald Trump, despite pissing off and insulting pretty much the entirety of the human race with a brain, continues to lead the Republican parade. What has made it interesting is that the second place candidate has changed and it isn’t one of the “usual suspects.”

Coming off a notable debate performance in Cleveland, Dr. Ben Carson has been able to pull his way up to second in some polls and at least in the Top Five in others. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush will be beside Trump also, putting two “low energy” opponents (Trump’s words, not mine) on each of the New York billionaire’s hands. The difference this time around is that both of those hands are in danger of being gnawed off.

Unlike the first debate, this one is going to be a free-for-all. In the first debate, the novelty of a Trump campaign hadn’t worn off yet for the other nine competitors as they, for the most part (save for Kentucky Senator Rand Paul), stayed away from Trump, expecting to see him crash and burn on his own. Not to say that Trump didn’t try, making a point as the only candidate at that time who would not pledge support of the eventual GOP nominee and/or swear off a third-party run (he has since signed a “loyalty pledge” which will be about as binding as the toilet paper in Trump Tower) before then insulting Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly during and after the event. Another month into the campaign – and with polling and favorability numbers for Trump that are going up instead of down – and the rest of the GOP has finally come to the realization that they have to take him out.

Jindal has basically said that Trump is a “madman” who will do irreparable damage to the conservative cause and perhaps even end the Republican Party. “It’s pointless arguing policy with someone not intellectually curious enough to care and who makes it up on the fly,” Jindal wrote in an op/ed on CNN. “According to him, his plans will be ‘fabulous’ and ‘something terrific.’” With his own polling numbers around 1%, Jindal has seemingly taken on the sword of taking Trump down (and he may have some backup in Graham). The problem is these men are on the “kiddie table” while Trump plays on the Grand Stage; the only way that anyone from the early debate will be able to touch Trump is with a trebuchet.

So who will it be on the stage in front of President Reagan’s Air Force One (if you haven’t already seen the stage for the CNN debate, it is a feat of engineering that has the 747 right behind the candidates – a feat that required set designers to build a 30 foot scaffolding for the stage itself) that tries to take down Trump? How about everyone?

The moderators for the debate, CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash and conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, have already said they want the debate to take on more of a donnybrook look than a genteel tea party. “My goal is more about: Let’s draw the contrasts between the candidates, and have them fight it out over these policies, over who has the best approach to Putin, over who has the best approach to taxes, over who believes what over immigration reform,” Tapper stated to the New York Times on Tuesday. “Have them lay it all out so voters can see it.”

Paul has already stated he will come at Trump with every weapon he has available, telling CNN that Trump is a “fake conservative” who won’t be able to handle the job of the Presidency. “Do we really want someone in charge of our nuclear arsenal who goes around basically using the insults of a junior high, or a sophomore in high school?” said Paul during a CNN interview. “That’s not the kind of person we want to be practicing the diplomacy of the United States.”

What about the other candidates? New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Ohio Governor John Kasich have been non-committal on what their approach to Trump will be, but if any of them are to last much longer than Iowa and New Hampshire, their time is now to make a move and attack the frontrunner(s). Texas Senator Ted Cruz, whose lips have been locked on Trump’s ass for so long it may take Ben Carson’s surgical talents to remove him, won’t be looking to harass Trump as he hopes to take his supporters if, and or when Trump decides he’s had enough of the campaign. For their part, Bush and Carson have also said they aren’t looking to attack “anyone” in particular, but you can be sure that if the opportunity arises they’ll be looking to cut their own pound of flesh out of Trump.

As it has been since he entered the race, it could be Trump who is the key as to what this debate may turn out to be, a bloodbath or a policy discussion. If the Trump that comes out on stage on Wednesday night is the same boorish, misogynistic, xenophobic, arrogant ass that has been running around the United States for the last two months, then the other 10 competitors on the stage are going to carve him up. Yes, Trump is an excellent counter-puncher, but there isn’t a counterpunch to a death by 1000 cuts. If you’re constantly on the defensive – and if you even show a glimpse that you’re thin-skinned, you’re over with – you’re not going to be taken seriously.

On the other hand, if Trump comes out and talks halfway intelligently about issues – discusses SERIOUSLY where the money will come from to build the wall across the border between Mexico and the U. S. and not the half-cocked plan of having Mexico pay for it; offers a plan for the humane treatment of immigrants here illegally to return them to their home countries (or offer them a form of amnesty, an anathematic word to conservatives); give a few details as to his taxation plans (once again, Trump sees nothing wrong with the wealthy and businesses paying “their fair share,” another policy point that whips the GOP into a horrified frenzy) – then his opponents will have no opportunity to go at him except on a policy level. Instead of attacking his general personality, now the other GOP candidates would have to pick apart details of his suggested plans and probably have to stake themselves to something they might not want to do with their own plans at this point. Trump has to be careful here because as soon as he strays from policy into any sort of “insult campaigning” (which has been his creation for political scientists to dissect in the future), the floodgates open and the attacks will fly.

So what is going to happen in the sacred grounds of the Reagan Library? It’s going to be a bloodbath. Simply because he is either too proud or has too big an ego, Trump isn’t going to be able to hold back his personal attacks on his opponents and, as such, the other 10 players in the game are going to descend on him like a pack of hyenas. The hyenas may not kill the wildebeest quickly on Wednesday night, but it will mark the beginning of the end as they will, while getting their fangs and claws bloodied, rip apart any thought that Trump could actually have a solid plan to lead the nation. (I wonder what the odds are of an expletive making it out over the CNN airwaves is.)

It’ll all go down later tonight and will probably be more entertaining that boxing champion Floyd Mayweather’s fight was last weekend. The two debates – the “kiddie table” at 6PM and the “Main Event” at 8PM – promise to be high theater for all involved. Unfortunately, it will also show the worst of what is the U. S. political process in a mudslinging debacle instead of a discussion of ideas and opinions.