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Did the Third GOP Debate Finally Cull the Herd?

The Republicans are beginning to sweat even though it’s still a year out because the size of their field.

Mention of Indians: one, in the Democratic debate. Mention of Indian policies: zero. Still, we pay our taxes and fight their wars and so our interests are on the line. The fact that they don’t debate Indian policy does not mean they won’t have one.

The Democrats are down to four candidates and the order has not changed: ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig.

The Republicans are beginning to sweat even though it’s still a year out because the size of their field means the percentage of the vote required to win can be in the 20s. Twenty-three percent of the electorate claims to be Republican, raising the chance that the nomination will be determined by approximately one fourth of one fourth of all voters. That would not bode well for the general election.

In the Republican herd, the leaders have been those who claim they can do political science by starting at the top. Reality TV star Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson are nip and tuck for the lead. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina mopped up in the first two debates. Her win in the first one broke her out of the undercard and her showing in the second gave her a short-lived spike in polling numbers.

Fiorina’s fade could be people beginning to notice her less than stellar record in corporate America or it could be that more voters than she anticipated fact checked the bare-faced lie she told in the last debate about what was on the Planned Parenthood ambush videos. It was not so much that she lied, but that she did it as an emotional high point of her closing statement. Then, when caught by the fact-checkers the next day, she doubled down and made the claim again, a claim anybody could check. Polling averages have Fiorina dropping from third to sixth since the last debate, but there’s no telling why.

Only Trump and Carson are polling in double digits. The single digit candidates fall in this order: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

The rest of the candidates cannot reach one percent: Former Virginia Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and former New York Gov. George Pataki. Graham exceeded one percent, but it took three percent to make the grown up table in this debate, so he remained on the undercard.

Had different recent polls been picked, Christie and Kasich would also be at the kids’ table, so they needed to stand out to keep their status, while Graham is within striking distance of moving up. Everybody but Trump and Carson needed a stellar performance to remain serious contenders.

The Undercard

Graham sounded like a different candidate. He’s improved on each outing and probably ought to move up if performance counts. The Commander-in-Chief role is still the centerpiece of his campaign, but he’s learned to smile and to embrace policies beyond killing people.

He’s acquired a sense of humor. Asked the most used app on his cell phone, and knowing he was on CNBC, he said with smile, “Sorry. Fox News. I am running in the Republican Primary.”

His signature line came after ticking off all the places where he says President Obama is not aggressive enough. “Make me Commander-in-Chief and this crap stops!”

Jindal stepped in it on the first question by making a claim that had been debunked by the fact checkers at the front end. Jindal claimed credit for “cuts” in Louisiana that were a result of federal disaster aid running out and he created a $1.6 million budget deficit.

Jindal still believes that cutting taxes results in more money for the government. I could understand if he slept through the Reagan Administration—Reagan did—but he also seemed to have missed Sam Brownback’s destruction of the Kansas economy.

Pataki made the astonishing claim that he knows Clinton’s server was hacked and classified information got to Iran and several other bad actors.

Millionaires Santorum and Graham vied for the title of Working Class Hero. Forbes attributes $2 million to Santorum and $1 million to Graham. This sounds like Clinton ($45 million) claiming she and Bill were “broke” when they left the White House or Ann Romney’s recollection of poverty when Mitt had to sell stock his dad gave him for tuition and they were reduced to “eating tuna fish out of a can.”

Santorum admitted to error in voting for the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which is a terrible error only if you understand that repeal as the primary legal cause of the Great Recession. Good luck with that. Bill Clinton signed the repeal and Hillary Clinton won’t agree to undo the error, because the voters just don’t know.

Graham’s best laugh line was that any Republican ought to be able to win when the Democrats’ “number one claimed to be broke after eight years in the White House and their number two went to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon and never came back.”

The first is a non sequitur and the second only works for people who don’t know the difference between socialism and communism. Which means GOP Primary voters will love it. Advantage Graham.

Main Event

This debate showed little promise to cull the herd. Bush failed to justify the money he’s raised, but he has enough left he does not need to quit.

Christie had a good night that may move him out of single digits and Fiorina was as strong as she was in the first two debates and as fact-challenged.

The major takeaways are that they are all angry; they all think taxes are too high; they all think there are too many regulations; they all think the tax code is too complicated—and did I mention they are all angry?

The first question was a softball gimmick: What is your greatest weakness?

Kasich, Christie, Rubio, and Paul did not answer. Huckabee tries to live by the rules. Bush is too impatient. Trump is too trusting. Carson is unable to visualize himself as POTUS (one of the few things I have in common with Dr. Carson). Fiorina doesn’t smile enough. Cruz is too passionate about freedom.

The moderators drew more fire than the Democrats. They told Carson his tithe (10 percent) flat tax does not work. He claimed it does and threw up words against the arithmetic but went up to 13 percent and then 15 percent and none of it made sense. Of course, neither did Cruz’s flat tax proposal but he always has his applause line about doing away with the Internal Revenue Service.

Not to be outdone, Fiorina promised to reduce the Tax Code from 73,000 pages to three. Given the opportunity to say she didn’t mean that literally, she claimed she did. Three pages.

Here’s the problem. When the government wants people to behave in a certain way, it can pass a criminal law and put people in jail if they act any other way. Or it can reward them with a tax break when they do the thing the government wants. My first career was in the criminal justice system, and I’d rather see excesses in the Tax Code than in the Criminal Code. The criminal law is a blunt instrument. Tax deductions are one level of encouragement and tax credits are another and they are better tools for the job.

Fiorina the businesswoman got a question directly in the area where she claims competence. What should the government do about the retirement of people responsible for the growth of the sharing economy?

Lots of Indians should care about this because Uber drivers are in the same boat as musicians, artists, and craftspeople. They have no 401K and they will not have much Social Security.

Her answer should be screaming news: nothing. The government should have no role. It is up to people to save for their retirement and, if they don’t, that’s not a government problem.

Christie attacked the moderators for asking if gambling on fantasy football should be regulated. Cruz said the media was meaner to GOP debaters than Democrats. He called the Democratic debate “Bolsheviks v. Mensheviks,” which is funny if you understand the historical reference, but not everybody did. Rubio got a big round of applause for claiming “Hillary Clinton has a SuperPAC called the mainstream media.”

Jim Cramer asked Dr. Carson about price gouging by pharmaceutical companies. Carson did not answer.

Rubio was confronted about mismanaging his personal finances and his only real answer was that the Democrats were saying that.

Cruz attacked the Federal Reserve Bank for “trying to juice the economy,” not mentioning the Fed stepped in with monetary policy when Congress failed to juice the economy with the proper tool, which is fiscal policy.

Paul agreed that the Fed is evil and accused it of causing income inequality, adding that there should be “no controls on the price of money.” I’m still scratching my head over that because I thought monetary policy is about the price of money and the Fed was created to give the regulation to finance professionals rather than politicians. The price of money has lots of public interest consequences and saying that government should not use monetary policy requires some explanation that was not forthcoming.

Bush was asked something I’ve always wondered in the context of his tax reform proposal. Why should money from wages be taxed more heavily than money from investments? Bush did not answer.

Turning to Social Security and Medicare, Christie and Huckabee agreed that those programs represent the government lying and stealing. Huckabee went a step farther and asserted reforming those programs is not about math but about morality.

Paul said you are not serious about fixing Social Security and Medicare if you don’t want to raise the age for benefits.

Bush said benefits should be means tested.

Paul liked both those ideas; Trump liked neither, asserting that he could grow the economy enough to solve the problem.

Dr. Carson wanted to give retired persons a chance to opt out of Medicare and get the sum of money Medicare spends per person, which he said was $12,500. That might cover one trip to the emergency room. Anybody who is on Medicare and has compared the “rack rate” to Medicare’s negotiated rate understands how crazy that is.

Trump interrupted a question by Becky Quick about his reference to Marco Rubio as “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator” for his position on H-1 visas and claimed he never said that.

A couple of minutes later, Quick read him the quote off his own website, but he just ducked. As Jim Cramer said after the debate, “She had the goods and it didn’t matter.”

That pretty much sums it up. Having the goods did not matter. Arithmetic did not matter. The thundering herd is angry.

Rubio, Cruz, and Christie probably improved their standing and Fiorina will get another polling spike if nobody fact checks her or nobody cares. It came out in the fantasy football discussion that Jeb Bush’s fantasy team is winning big. His presidential campaign is not, and he did not help himself in GOP III.

Culling the herd is in the interest of the Republican Party so they don’t nominate a candidate with one fourth of one fourth of the voters and no chance in the general election. Rand Paul should already have quit. Chris Christie should quit if his performance tonight does not spike his numbers, but he probably won’t. The biggest loser this evening was the Republican Party.

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