There were no fireworks at the first Republican debate of the 2016 election: a warmup event created to catch the runoff from the uniquely crowded GOP field. The debate played like a chamber piece opening act for the main event.
Rather than take potshots at each other, the seven candidates relegated to the second-tier debate seemed to be wrapped up in honing their own audition for the big league, and united in a tacit pact to take aim at safe targets: illegal immigration, radical Islam, marriage equality, and legal abortion.
And if any GOP contender in the so-called “minor-league” had suffered a loss in confidence from their low poll numbers, none of them showed it.
Former Texas governor Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, former New York governor George Pataki, and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore took the stage before the virtually empty Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland to condemn President Obama’s entire legacy, the Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, and the “elephant not in the room,” Donald Trump.
Fiorina burned with conviction, claiming that she was exactly as high in the polls as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama had been at this phase of their respective elections, and seemed to set the tone for the entire debate with her assertion that the next president needed to “begin by undoing” the current one’s record, whether “EPA regulations or the Iran deal.”
Each candidate took the tack of characterizing the last two terms as an utter failure, and each asserted in his or her own way that the only way forward was backward. They promised to reverse, void, tear up, and cancel President Obama’s policies on every issue.
Obama, Jindal said, lacked “moral honesty and clarity” in his negotiations with Iran and his manner when discussing radical Islam in general, dismissing Obama’s “hearts and minds” approach for a hard hawkish line: “Sometimes you win a war by killing murderous evil terrorists.”
Graham echoed his own hawkish line, swearing that he would do “whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to defeat” ISIL.
A smirking Perry vowed to bring a bunch of Wite-Out to the Oval Office on his first day to erase Obama’s executive orders. “The first thing I will do is tear up that agreement with Iran,” he said.
Graham said he would restore the NSA’s domestic spying apparatus, which he said had been “gutted,” repeal Obamacare, rescind Dodd-Frank, reverse Obama’s veto on the Keystone XL Pipeline, and restore American ground troops to Iraq (and Syria as well).
On the subject of Planned Parenthood, each candidate expressed moral outrage at the notion that the nonprofit women’s health organization was, in Graham’s words, “harvesting organs in little babies” — echoing claims made in deceptively edited videos released by an anti-abortion group.
Jindal declared that he would unleash the full force of the executive branch — including the Department of Justice and the IRS — on Planned Parenthood. He voiced his support for shutting down the government over Planned Parenthood, although he said that if the government were to shutter, it would be President Obama’s decision for not bowing to congressional Republicans.
Jindal touted his success slashing and burning through Louisiana’s budget — even though his approval ratings in his state are at a dismal low.
Many of the candidates expressed an intention to enshrine “religious liberty” rights — a gloss on legislation designed to protect the right of Christians to discriminate against gay couples.
On immigration, Perry trumpeted his success as Texas governor who could secure the border, denounced Amnesty and so-called “sanctuary cities,” and said that all immigration policies were moot until the border could be effectively secured. Santorum echoed his hard line: When asked what he would say to a child whose family was broken up by his harsh immigration policies, the former Pennsylvania senator said that America is a country whose compassion is reflected in its laws, and that “America is worth the wait.”
Each candidate was asked to reckon with the force of nature that is Donald Trump — currently the GOP frontrunner.
Fiorina mentioned the mogul’s connection to the Clintons and history of donating to Democratic candidates, while Perry excoriated Trump for once supporting a single-payer health care option. Fiorina said that his flip-flopping on a number of issues was alarming, but claimed that The Donald’s surge in support was due to widespread outrage in the political class and Trump’s success in firing up passion: “He’s tapped into that anger,” she said.
An unlikely feat for this crowd.