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Food Fight! GOP Debate Straight Out of a School Cafeteria

The Ninth GOP debate cued up hours after the news that the conservative anchor of the U.S. Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia, unexpectedly died.

And now there are six, three from Florida: Former Florida Gov. Jeb! Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Dr. Ben Carson. From the other 49 states, there are Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and the leader, reality TV star Donald Trump of New York. The last to fall by the wayside, just before the debate, was former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.

The Ninth GOP debate cued up hours after the news that the conservative anchor of the U.S. Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia, unexpectedly died with almost a year remaining on Barack Obama’s lame-duck presidential term. By debate time, virtually every Republican senator had promised to vote against anybody Obama nominates and Obama had promised to put a name forward and make them vote.

If the vacancy remains on Election Day, then (as Sen. Ted Cruz said) two branches of government will hang in the balance. In light of that, the moderators asked about the Supreme Court vacancy straight away.

Trump was brutally honest in advising the Senate in the interest of the Republicans if not the country: “Delay! Delay! Delay!”

Kasich said Obama should either not propose a name or propose one with such broad support that the Senate has to act.

Carson said the Constitution does not address this problem. He then said that life tenure of federal judges is a bad idea in modern times because life expectancies are much longer than at the time when the Constitution was written. It was not clear if Carson understood that those observations are arguments for a style of interpretation typically favored by liberals, who call the Constitution “a living document.”

Rubio said that a lame duck should not make an appointment and that he particularly did not want to see any more justices like “the ones Barack Obama imposed on us.” Rubio must have missed the appointment and confirmation of justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, who were not “imposed” but rather got to the SCOTUS by regular process. After he stops Obama from further imposition, Rubio promises a nominee who believes “original intent” can solve all constitutional issues.

Bush said that “of course” Obama would nominate somebody but doubted it would be anybody he wanted confirmed.

Cruz said he thought there should be no confirmations in an election year. I just about snorted my coffee at the fan of the Federalist Society complaining about lame duck appointments. I’m sure he knows how John Adams put the man who created federal Indian law—Chief Justice John Marshall—on the SCOTUS with a midnight appointment.

RELATED: Meet The Father of American Indian Control Law: John Marshall

Rubio, who came across green and immature in the last debate, was asked to cite a time when he was tested in a crisis. In a bizarre turn, Rubio cited his vote against authorizing the President to use force against the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship in Syria.

RELATED: GOP Debate VII: Cuban Revolution Fails

Rubio claimed that the amount of force proposed was insufficient. This would be the same Rubio who criticizes Obama for calling the use of poison gas on civilians a “red line’ and then failing to attack Syria after the red line was crossed.

On the crisis question, Dr. Carson was asked about the proverbial 2 a.m. emergency phone call. (Last election, Hillary Clinton used that question against Obama, and it was 3 a.m.) Would he feel as comfortable dealing with a political emergency as with a medical emergency?

Carson said he would, because judgment is more important than knowledge of political science.

Kasich was asked what he meant when he said the U.S. should “punch Russia in the nose?” His answer was a bit too scattered to feel like a punch in the nose.

He said he would arm the Ukrainians and he would “clarify our expectations” of Russia. It should make big news but probably won’t that Kasich promised to bring Sweden and Finland under the protection of Article Five of the NATO Treaty (“an attack on one is an attack on all”), even though they are not NATO members.

Bush disagreed with Trump, who had suggested that the priority in Syria ought to be destroying ISIS. Bush said we should attack both Assad and ISIS.

Trump went off on Bush, remarking that the last President Bush knowingly lied about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

The audience went off on Trump and he yelled right back at them, claiming that the room was packed with people on the political dole.

Bush said of Trump, “this is the man who gets his foreign policy ‘from the [Sunday political] shows.’”

Trump, having refused to say whether he thought George W. Bush should have been impeached over lying the country into the Iraq War, got into another shouting match with Jeb!, who was speaking up for his family.

Kasich remarked of the spats, “This is just crazy!” On the merits of the issue, he said he did not think the U.S. should take sides in a civil war.

Dr. Carson was offered a chance to explain why he wants to expand the rules of engagement for U.S. warplanes. He did not draw any line I heard.

Trump was asked how he could be promising no cuts to entitlement programs when it would take either a tax increase or at least a 7 percent growth rate to avoid cuts? Trump ran against “waste, fraud, and abuse” in the entitlement programs. He claimed that thousands of people over 106 years of age are getting Social Security.

Cruz accused Trump of “scattering pixie dust” on budget questions. Then Cruz proceeded to scatter his own pixie dust.

Bush attacked Kasich for expanding Medicaid in Ohio. Kasich replied that the sainted Ronald Reagan expanded Medicaid several times and claimed that Medicaid costs were rising more slowly in his state than they rose in Florida under Bush.

The food fight moved to immigration policy, where the candidates repeated their talking points from the last debate, brawling loudly over who could be the meanest to undocumented workers (who cannot vote). Cruz cited a statement Rubio had made on the issue when interviewed by Univision.

Rubio set a new snark record when he said of Cruz, “I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn’t speak Spanish.”

Bush was given a chance to defend his “act of love” remark about undocumented workers and he did, saying they are human beings who deserve “a little more respect for the fact that they are struggling.”

Trump found that “laughable.”

Some other questions produced answers that stood out:

Dr. Carson was reminded of the big fines investment banks paid for running the economy into the ditch and asked whether anybody should have faced criminal prosecution. Carson said criminal prosecution would not be fair and that many of the regulations they violated ought not to exist.

Trump was asked about his plan to slap tariffs on goods made in plants moved outside the county. How could he do that? “I would build consensus with Congress.”

Rubio, who claims to represent the younger generation, wants a constitutional amendment to push gay marriage back into illegality. That dog won’t hunt with young voters, but Rubio may have recovered from his awful outing last time by being able to function this time apparently without notes.

Dr. Carson again displayed his ignorance of political science and history in his closing statement by recycling a discredited Internet meme involving a quote from Stalin that would have made no sense from Stalin’s point of view. What is disturbing here is not whether Carson memorized a Stalin quote but rather his ignorance of Stalin’s times and motivations. This is why heads of state need to know some history.

Trump continues to violate all customary rules of political discourse. Loudly calling his opponents liars and, for a second time, attacking the studio audience, are the latest violations. If the rules applied to Trump, he would not have lasted this long, let alone be leading.

It’s hard to handicap this debate because it was held in and aimed at South Carolina, but I’ll try to suggest the national repercussions.

Bush was aggressive enough tonight to put Trump’s “low energy” canard away. Bush knows more policy than Trump, owns a better record in Florida government than Rubio and as good a record as Kasich’s in Ohio, knows more history than Carson, and he speaks Spanish better than Cruz. None of which is likely to overcome his name and his thus far lame campaign.

Cruz continued to display his meanness, and few voters like mean. (Unless it’s from Trump.) If Cruz does well in South Carolina, I would attribute that to people paying no attention until they have to.

John Kasich now leads the establishment lane, but Bush is moving up. Sen. Rubio still has a chance to emerge as the not-Trump hoping to become the not-Hillary.

Donald Trump still leads the outsider lane and will until ordinary political standards of conduct reach him. 

It is very much in the interests of the Republican Party to strip this down to one candidate in each lane or—even better, just one candidate. It’s not certain that the Democrats will go very far beyond Super Tuesday with two lanes, but for now they are already down to one candidate in each lane, Hillary Clinton for the establishment and Bernie Sanders as the outsider.

To beat either Clinton or Sanders, the GOP needs to get past the tantrums and insults on display in the ninth round of debate.