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.