It made sense that the two biggest names in the GOPeeWee debate belonged to men who weren’t even in the room: Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, representing two touchstones and two diametrically opposed directions for the modern GOP: angel and devil; Reagan, the polestar and patron saint of the party, and Trump, the reality TV star who crashed the gates and changed the game with his crass and classless tactics.
As if by invoking their names over and over again — the former to be emulated, the latter disparaged — the four men who couldn’t crack the top 11 spots in the race for the nomination could catch some of that Gipper/Donald name recognition and mojo secondhand.
It was a much smaller playing field than the primetime debate: the increased intimacy a kind of consolation prize for not making the varsity team. Standing in the shadow of Ronald Reagan’s Air Force One housed in his Simi Valley, California presidential library, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, U.S. senator from South Carolina Lindsey Graham, former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum, and former New York governor George Pataki made a bid to elevate their credibility and perhaps snag a spot on the big-kids debate next time around.
But the candidates’ own records, policies, and campaign promises seemed to play second fiddle to the legacy of the man whose presence and plane dwarfed them onstage, and to the billion-dollar elephant waiting in the wings — to say nothing of the 10 other candidates leading them in the polls.
Pataki opened by invoking Reagan’s “tremendous smile,” “optimism,” and his dedication to “safety, security, and prosperity” — promising to bring that kind of leadership to the Oval Office. But he lamented that “the first four questions have been about Donald Trump.”
On the subject of Trump, Jindal doubled down on his criticism of the real estate mogul, saying that the current GOP frontrunner wasn’t really a conservative, or even a liberal. He believes in one thing, Jindal said: “He believes in Donald Trump.”
Despite taking Trump to task for his take-no-prisoners, bombastic style, Jindal was guilty of adopting a similar scorched-earth tack: On a number of positions, he asserted his dominance as the most unequivocal and uncompromising of the four candidates on stage. Conservatives have never stood up for their beliefs, he argued. In a field of capitulators, he was the only real soldier for conservative values.
The subject of religious liberty is near and dear to the devoutly Catholic Jindal, making it the focus of his first campaign video. Ever the purveyor of straw-man arguments, Jindal demanded that the left furnish Christians with a list of jobs that they were allowed to do, since, he said, they clearly weren’t allowed to be florists, bakers, and Kentucky county clerks.
(Pataki said he would have fired Kim Davis, the recalcitrant Kentucky clerk who went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses — “We have the rule of law in America,” he said. There is a country “where religion supersedes the rule of law,” he added. “It’s called Iran.”)
Jindal took aim at Senate Republicans who had wilted on Obamacare and weren’t willing to shut down the government — even in the face of “Planned Parenthood selling baby parts.” He chastised the “Establishment” and “permanent governing class” (including, by implication, the U.S. senator to his left, Graham) for caving too often to the executive branch.
If Senate Republicans weren’t willing to do what was necessary to end the wholesale trafficking of baby parts, he said, it is time to be done with the Republican Party. “At least [congressional Democratic leaders] Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi fight for what they believe in. ”
Graham countered that he was sick of Jindal — and his fellow conservative crusader, Ted Cruz — filling Republican voters’ heads with nonsense, telling them just what they wanted hear. He emphasized the need to reach across the aisle and compromise “in order to get things done.” Leadership, he said, required a “certain amount of honesty.”
But there was one area in which Graham gave no quarter: He came out swinging on foreign policy. He leveraged his Air Force service and his many trips to the Middle East to emphasize his qualifications and “uncompromising dedication” to defeating ISIS and the other “religious Nazis running wild,” and to restoring American dominance overseas.
Regarding the question of “religious liberty,” Graham erred on the side of the “rule of the law,” and said that in the grand scheme of things it didn’t matter if you were a gay couple or a Christian florist: “Let’s not lose sight of the big picture. Radical Islamists would kill them all.”
We need to “destroy the caliphate” ISIS had established, Graham said, and warned that if the U.S. and its allies couldn’t succeed in ousting Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, the war would come to America’s shores.
Throughout the debate, he leavened his hawkishness with a series of limp jokes. It is admittedly easier to insist on the need for ground troops when you’re making self-deprecating quips in your best “aw shucks” voice.
On the subject of immigration, Graham played the level head to Rick Santorum’s promise to be deporter-in-chief. Graham stressed that the labor force was rapidly diminishing and unless everyone wanted to make like Strom Thurmond and have four children, the nation needed a rational path to legal immigration.
“I have seven kids,” Santorum quipped. “I did my part.”
After the debate, the four men were invited to remain on stage for a group photo of all 15 Republican candidates — before being asked to clear off for the primetime show.
Image: The men, from tallest to shortest. They’re all polling the same before the debate, so why does it matter? Screengrab via CNN