One of the 10 Republicans who debated Wednesday night is going to end up as the party’s nominee. None of them looked like presidential material.
That theme was sounded early on, when Ohio Gov. John Kasich swatted away the first question — what is your biggest weakness? — by addressing the larger weakness of the field: “My great concern is that we are on the verge, perhaps, of picking someone who cannot do this job.”
Indeed. The two manifestly unqualified front-runners, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, were remarkably muted. Trump simply repeated his, yes, comic-book version of a presidential campaign — huge wall, huge tax cut, huge Trump smarts — except when he was shamelessly denying he had said what was in his own immigration plan.
Where Trump craves attention, Carson, curiously, seems to flinch from it. Even when pitched softballs, he veers quickly from substance to off-topic platitudes.
Asked about his plan to replace Medicare with individual savings accounts, Carson tossed out some numbers (wrong, actually; 55 million are enrolled, not 48 million, which matters because it reduces the money available in Carson’s private accounts). Then he shifted to conservative autopilot: “It was never intended that the government should be in every aspect of our lives. This is a country that is of, for and by the people.”
Or consider this answer about drug companies profiteering on life-saving medicines, reproduced here in its incoherent entirety:
“Well, there is no question that some people go overboard when it comes to trying to make profits, and they don’t take into consideration the American people. What we have to start thinking about, as leaders, particularly in government, is what can we do for the average American? And you think about the reasons that we’re having such difficulty right now with our job market.
“Well, the average small manufacturer, whatever they’re manufacturing, drugs or anything, if they have less than 50 employees, the average cost in terms of regulations is $34,000 per employee. Makes it a whole lot easier for them to want to go somewhere else.
“So what we’re going to have to start doing instead of, you know, picking on this group or this group, is we’re going to have to have a major reduction in the regulatory influence that is going on. The government is not supposed to be in every part of our lives, and that is what is causing the problem.”
Paging Dr. Carson, the question was about pharmaceutical companies charging astronomical prices for medications. That’s the government’s fault?
Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) is the anti-Carson: He was the rhetorically nimblest of the bunch Wednesday night, an alchemist at turning criticism into advantage, and not only in deflecting Jeb Bush’s attack on his Senate truancy.
He turned a question about his finances into an opportunity to retell his compelling family narrative, and then, into even sweeter lemonade: “I’m not worried about my finances, I’m worried about the finances of everyday Americans who today are struggling in an economy that is not producing good paying jobs while everything else costs more.”
Nicely played. But there are legitimate issues involving Rubio’s personal and campaign finances. At some point, “my father was a bartender” isn’t going to be a sufficient answer, especially if the debate helps turn this into Rubio’s moment, and Rubio’s nomination.
Rubio will also have to deal with the matter of his youthful looks and his biographical similarity to a certain other first-term senator (and, yes, I criticized Barack Obama’s inexperience back when).
As Democratic pollster Peter Hart wrote after an Oct. 20 focus group with GOP voters in Indianapolis, “Those who know Rubio still see him as a little brother, buddy, or sidekick. He is still Linus to Charlie Brown and Robin to a stronger leader’s Batman.”
Which brings us, sigh, to Jeb Bush, whose trademark exclamation point is looking rather droopy these days. Indeed, Bush seemed most animated Wednesday night when talking about his fantasy football team. Then he was, pardon the word, trumped even on that topic by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s outburst on the inanity of the question.
I continue to think that Bush would make the best president of the GOP bunch. But the divergence between campaigning skills and governing skills — what it takes to win and what it takes to run the country — has never felt wider than in this strange, worrisome GOP race.
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