There is a pre-packaged narrative that says Donald Trump won the final, pre-Iowa Caucus debate by virtue of his not even showing up. Google searches confirm that frontrunner Trump was on the minds of many, even if he was busy staging his own rally down the road. His – to put it politely – pet cause of immigration was one of the prominent topics on stage.
And yes, the opening question Fox News co-moderator Megyn Kelly tossed first at Sen. Ted Cruz was about “the elephant not in the room” and what Trump was saying to Iowa by not attending the debate like the good boys all had.
Everyone said their piece. There was a weasely-sounding quip from Cruz and an awkward one from former Gov. Jeb Bush about leaving the stage like you-know-who. Sen. Marco Rubio called him “the greatest show on earth” but said the proceedings were not about Trump. Later Cruz tried and failed to start a Trump-ish squabble with Fox News but abandoned that tactic when co-moderator Chris Wallace gamely fought back with “it is a debate, sir.”
After a spirited round of pandering to Iowa (“Iowa in 2017 will not be fly-over country. It will be fly-to country,” vowed Cruz, in one of the night’s weird lines that almost worked but totally didn’t) the night moved on to less Trump-as-Voldemort topics. And it worked. Every candidate besides the somnambulant Dr. Ben Carson seemed to be stretching their legs and picking up speed without Trump there to trip them up.
“20 percent of our country lives bi-coastally” -Ben Carson using a word that I thought was rich people speak for having houses in NY and LA— Matt Novak (@paleofuture) January 29, 2016
It felt like a throwback to earlier election years, especially since everyone is still running against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as a package deal. However, even for those of us who only recall the last few presidential elections clearly, it still is amusing to realize how the culture war has taken such a backseat among Republicans. Hell, it’s been pitched right out of the car. Mainly because the porn-watching, pot-smoking gays have mostly won. Even abortion was a blip.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was asked about the summer’s social con martyr Kim Davis. As the heir to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, he had had a decent answer that she needn’t be fired, but the gay couples coming in for wedding licenses should have been granted them. Reminding people he was a U.S. attorney, saying “9/11” over and over, vowing to bring back the war on drugs and vaguely tolerating gay people is Christie’s bread and butter.
In some ways, it was 2004 again, except the guy named Bush wasn’t the scariest person on stage. That honor probably goes to Marco Rubio, who is a perfectly-packaged blend of Bible-thumping, warmongering and pro-National Security Agency candidate. By some definitions, he “won” the thing, but every one of his lines comes off simultaneously boyish and plasticine.
There were no non-interventionists on stage, although Cruz and Paul did briefly clash over who is the real heir to Ron Paul’s libertarian off-shoot legacy. Everybody wanted to go after the Islamic State. Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich specifically mentioned ground troops while vaguely suggesting that some planning should go into wars and while sounding disturbingly personable. Cruz and Rubio manage to be coy about how much war they want to commit to while podium-pounding about America carpet bombing everything.
Politicians are notoriously horrible about technology and the Internet, and the candidates on stage in Iowa are usually no exception. Mostly it didn’t come up this time. Kasich neatly dodged a question about government-mandated backdoor encryption in devices, saying that would be decided by experts and the White House.
kasich thinks encryption shouldn’t be talked about in public which is weird because that’s how i feel about his candidacy— andy levy (@andylevy) January 29, 2016
Rand Paul remains the only candidate running for president who gives a shit about the Fourth Amendment, which he mentioned positively. He correctly said that, “The [National Security Agency’s] bulk collection of your phone data has not stopped one terrorist attack.” Paul was also the only person to mention criminal justice reform. The previous, Paul-less GOP debate went hard on the anti-anti-cop backlash, perhaps because Paul wasn’t around to dispute Trump’s declaration that “police are the most mistreated people in this country.”
A YouTube personality who is an Army Reservist that makes tech review videos asked about Ferguson, policing and body cameras. In response, Paul said he supports those cams and is against racial disparities in criminal justice and cities funding themselves with civic fines that can ruin the poor. Dashing any hopes of bipartisan appeal he later reminded everyone how vehemently pro-life he is and how milquetoast pro-interventionist. (He did at least say that toppling Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad is a great way to hand that entire country over to ISIS.)
The only other signs of it being the age of Internet – besides Chris Wallace repeatedly referring to what sounded like “Gogol” searches – came from the YouTube questions. Since the debate was co-sponsored by Google, three YouTubers with hundreds of thousands of subscribers were given the opportunity to ask questions. They were fairly substantive, but they were so infrequent that they stood out strangely. To the outrage of a few pundits, such as Michelle Malkin, one of the three YouTubers was Dulce Candy, a glamorous Mexican-American who initially entered the U.S. illegally as a child and also spent 15 months in Iraq with the army.
The final YouTuber was Nabela Noor, a Muslim-American who asked about religious discrimination. According to Noor’s Twitter, she’s a Bernie Sanders supporter, which annoyed some Republicans.
Fox News – and particularly Megyn Kelly, hence the Trumplessness – has been accused with some merit of bias against The Donald’s candidacy. However, is Fox suddenly suspected of cultivating secret pro-Muslim, pro-Mexican immigrant sentiment in its normal programming? This was merely an effort to get Trump to put his pro-veteran money where his mouth was. It may have been an ambush, but it was one that involved more real issues than Trump usually addresses.
All that resulted when Donald didn’t show was Jeb Bush managing to seem human by referring to “this beautiful woman” in Candy’s case and praising her for joining the military. Bush also got Noor’s question directly and specifically trashed Trump’s language choices, saying ISIS is a serious threat, but schemes such as banning Muslim immigrants are goofy. He finished his answer with, “we’re never going to win elections if we don’t have a more broader unifying message.” Meanwhile, Rubio and Cruz fought for much of the night over their flip-flops on immigration amnesty and “paths to citizenship,” and Fox made the daring choice to show video of their previous statements on the issue.
By going hard on debate-dominators Rubio and Cruz, and for trying to set up Trump, Fox managed to look like serious journalists. Cruz’s whining about their attempts to sow discord backfired. Chris Wallace did get booed for asking a good question of Bush about his father and brother’s presidencies at one point, however. Rand Paul’s fans seemed to be the loudest in the audience, which appeared to buck up the sometimes defeatist-sounding Kentucky senator who everyone Official agrees did well.
Neither pornography or drugs or gays are the No. 1 Republican demons anymore. When it comes up, encryption and privacy is a good boogeyman (and that goes for Democrats, too). However, in 2016 it’s really all about immigrant bashing and a little pro-war talk, or just a little xenophobia and a new hunger for bombing enemies overseas.
In this way, Donald Trump has cast a shadow that has yet to be lifted on the election. However, there really was a lot more room without him there. Without Trump’s third-grade variety bullshit present, the candidates at least pretended to be thoughtful about the millions of lives they could have in their hands come January 2017 if their dreams come true. Pick whichever dream makes your skin crawl less. Or don’t. (Don’t.)