2016 Elections

Posers on Parade as Republican Debate Veers Toward Substance

The candidates kept it fairly clean this time. But it was hardly Lincoln-Douglas.

Here they go again.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The circus was not in town. No personal insults, no demeaning taunts, no candidate bragging about his ... well, you know. Instead, thanks in part to some solid questioning from Jake Tapper and CNN's other moderators and a strategic recalibration from Marco Rubio after his collapse in recent primaries and caucuses, we had what passes for a serious policy debate on the Republican side.

It was not impressive.

Donald Trump either knows nothing about government and public affairs, or is playing a character who knows nothing. In most cases, his answer to everything is that every deal the United States government has ever made on anything is a disaster, and he would make much better ones. What was wrong with the old ones? What would the new ones consist of? How would he get there? He has nothing, because of course there is nothing; it's just an empty boast. When he tries to talk about specifics, he gets lost, changes the subject -- usually to himself -- or just flat out lies. 

For example: In answering a question about Social Security financing, Trump first tried to say that eliminating waste and fraud would solve everything -- a politician's trick for saying "I won't do anything" -- and then, when pressed, wandered around for a while, falsely claimed that "GDP was zero essentially for the last two quarters," and then eventually wound up talking about how costly it is to protect allies such as South Korea and how he would get those allies to, apparently, fund Social Security in the United States. It's gibberish, on this and on practically everything else. After all, this is a candidate who has twice now answered policy questions about the Middle East by saying that he was "the grand marshal, not so long ago, of the Israeli Day Parade down Fifth Avenue."

And yet ... it's not as if the others, who basically stick to standard movement conservative talking points, are all that coherent. Better than Trump, to be sure. But not great -- whether it's Rubio saying that nothing the U.S. could do would have any effect on climate, or Ted Cruz dragging out the fiction that Barack Obama took an"apology tour," or John Kasich bragging about balancing the budget in the 1990s (while in fact the main steps that accomplished that were George H.W. Bush's budget deal and Bill Clinton's 1993 budget, both of which Kasich opposed).   

Take Cruz. Asked whether he thought it mattered what the rest of the world thinks of the U.S., Cruz immediately answered: "Of course it does." And then he talked about a fictional world in which the U.S. was liked and respected everywhere up until January 2009, leaving the experience of George W. Bush to amnesia. But now, he claimed, "when I meet with heads of states and defense ministers and foreign ministers, they say over and over again, 'it is hard to be friends with America; we can't count on America; America doesn't stand with us.'"

And, as a policy solution to the situation, he pledged to "rip to shreds this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal because the Ayatollah Khamenei must never be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons." Sorry, Ted. Of course, back in the real world, the Iran deal (whether on balance it is good or bad) has resulted in an Iran which is now further from going nuclear -- but more important in this context, it's extremely hard to believe that U.S. allies who support and signed that deal will find a U.S. that "rips to shreds" such agreements to be easier to "count on." 

The point isn't that Cruz is necessarily wrong on Iran. It's that the two halves of his answer don't add up to anything coherent. 

They weren't all terrible all the time. Rubio and Kasich do know their stuff in several policy areas, and Cruz actually did give a solid defense of international trade. But over and over, there's just very little substance on the stage. For a major political party's candidates for president of the U.S., it's a sorry show, even if they did stay out of the gutter this time.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.