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Trump Throws Down on Megyn Kelly: Rating the Republican Debate

Last night, we saw the Republican candidates making their first attempts to distinguish themselves, to stand out in the crowd.

Indians are in a peculiar position every presidential election year. The U.S. Constitution fixes responsibility for Indian policy on the federal level. No other group of people has so much at stake but, at the same time, our issues are never debated.

If we care about our interests, we must pay attention. Historically, our interests do not travel in party platforms, which limits the salience of party identification. For that reason, and because the candidates will not discuss our issues, we are left trying to make judgments about character. Character is a difficult judgment in the midst of all the political theater.

The Republican Party is in much better shape than in 2012. The good news is the candidates are smarter and more serious. Nobody will call this crowd “the clown car.” The bad news is there are too many candidates and the voters don’t know most of them.

Last night, we saw the candidates making their first attempts to distinguish themselves, to stand out in the crowd. Fox News picked the top 10 in national polling to be—arbitrarily—the first tier. The decision was arbitrary because it was statistical nonsense. If you count the margin of error in the various polls, there were four leading candidates with most of the rest too tightly packed to rank them.

The leaders were Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Ben Carson. Over the next few days, we’ll see if the standings shuffle.

Before the top 10 took the stage in prime time, the other candidates had a warm up session that felt like political speed dating in an empty room. The empty room was the latest strange decision Fox News imposed on the process. Nobody could draw energy from the audience when there was none.

The Undercard

Let’s skip the suspense. One thing the talking heads agreed upon, from Fox on the right to MSNBC on the left, was that Carly Fiorina won the undercard of the GOP Primary debate.

Fiorina, ironically enough, was not the candidate on the bubble who almost got to sit with the grownups. That would be Rick Perry. The former governor of Texas will always be remembered for last election’s “Oops,” when he could not remember the last government agency he wanted to axe. Should he become POTUS, his record with Texas Indians suggests, all that will save the BIA is his poor memory.

Perry is much better this time, and it’s not just the glasses. He remembered to tell us several times that Texas is the 12th largest economy in the world and Texas added jobs during the Great Recession. Perry did not remember to thank the oil business.

Those who are still wondering what happened with George W. Bush need to understand that Texas has a Reconstruction era weak governor Constitution. The governor has less real power than the lieutenant governor (who controls the agenda in the senate), the speaker of the house (ditto in the lower chamber) and even the comptroller of public accounts (who attaches a fiscal note to every proposed law). The governor usually has no legislative agenda, proposes no budget, and even has no pocket veto. If he fails to sign a bill, it becomes law anyway.

In short, there is nothing about the job that prepares a politician to be president of the United States. Oops.

The man who came in second to Willard Romney last time, Rick Santorum, complained that Democrats are “interested in politics and power.” Santorum served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1991-1995, the U.S. Senate 1995-2007, and he’s run for POTUS twice. Sure glad he’s not interested in politics and power.

Lindsey Graham answered every question with the assertion that the U.S. must send ground troops back to Iraq and into Syria “for as long as it takes” and any candidate who disagrees is not prepared to be POTUS. Indians, with their disproportionate rates of military service, better pay attention to this guy.

Bobby Jindal claimed he would protect us by saying “radical Islamic terrorism.” It was unclear whether he meant those words as a mantra or an incantation to go with a spell he purchased in one of those Vieux Carré voodoo shops. If the latter, the spell was not working for him last night.

George Pataki would not hesitate to put mosques under surveillance because terrorism “is like shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater.” That’s what we call in lawyer Latin, non sequitor. So is Pataki’s candidacy, since the GOP has not put forward a pro-choice candidate since Roe v. Wade.

Fox moderators Martha MacCallum and Bill Hemmer framed some questions in a peculiar manner to fence in the answers. One such was the assumption that many Americans would rather receive public assistance than work. Graham, Santorum, and Jim Gilmore were sucked into that one.

Santorum did blurt out that a 20 percent flat tax would jump-start the economy so everybody could have a job. Gilmore raised the tax cut ante by suggesting 15 percent and “eliminate the death tax.” The estate tax is framed “death as a taxable event” by Republicans, who seldom point out that it hits about 2 of every 1,000 estates, most of those it hits consist of capital gains that have never been taxed, and it contains more holes than Swiss cheese.

The other biased framing required the candidates to agree that Ohio Governor John Kasich “got it wrong” when he expanded Medicaid with money provided by Obamacare.

Jindal and Pataki swallowed that.

Then came a curious, convoluted question that assumed coming to agreement with Iran rather than going to war put the U.S. “on the same side” but went on to point out that our Sunni allies, like Iran, fund terrorism. It did not appear the candidates were avoiding the question but rather could not untangle it within the time allowed.

Lindsey Graham asserted that the answer to climate change is to promote fossil fuels and anybody who does not want American troops in Iraq and Syria is not qualified to be POTUS.

Back at the social issues corral, Santorum asserted that marriage equality is not settled law. If fossil fuels will save the environment, I suppose anything is possible.

Pataki was the only one who would not fight Roe v. Wade, but he vowed to defund Planned Parenthood.

Jindal went one better, vowing to sic the IRS on Planned Parenthood.

Graham said that would not be a war on women but, by the way, our Arab allies don’t really have armies so we need to send American troops to Iraq and Syria.

Carly Fiorina’s best dig was at The Donald, at the head of the grownup debate, “Bill Clinton did not call me before I got in.” Showing herself unafraid of taking risks, she uttered words to remember, “This is a great nation.”

Well, why didn’t she say so in the first place?

The Main Event

This early in the crowded process, it makes more sense to ask who advanced in the rankings rather than who won. Fiorina’s runaway with the undercard was a surprise.

The co-moderators for the main event—Megyn Kelly, Chris Wallace, and Brett Baier---came loaded for bear, and the primary bear they appeared to stalk was the poll leader, Donald Trump. Only post-debate polling will tell whether they wounded him. If they did not wound Trump, it would not be for lack of trying.

The first tier candidates who did themselves the most good were Marco Rubio and John Kasich. Most of the others at least held their ground, some of them against long odds. Several kisses of death failed to kill.

Jeb Bush stayed with his support for Common Core education standards and immigration reform with a path to legal status.

John Kasich effectively defended his decision to expand Medicaid in Ohio.

The Donald Trump’s mouth was supposed to be the kiss of death and it certainly appeared so, but the smart money was betting his frothing will just make him stronger unless Fox News replays a loop of Trump belittling the right’s favorite daughter, co-moderator Megyn Kelly. Trump drew a big laugh trashing Rosie O’Donnell, who was not present.

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As expected, Trump made the biggest news of the night. The issue where he made news was not expected. Trump became the only man on the stage who would not pledge to support the Republican nominee.

As expected, Rand Paul made a great deal of noise trying to revive his slumping campaign. You do stand out in a crowd when you persist in talking out of turn to suck up other people’s time. His first move was to break in with the news flash that Trump “is used to buying politicians.”

“I’ve given you a lot of money,” Trump replied, as if swatting a pesky fly. “I’ve given to most of the people on this stage.”

“Not me,” Marco Rubio piped up. “You gave to Charlie Crist.”

Later, Paul engaged Chris Christie in a shouting match over government spying, trying to out blowhard the blowhard. Next to Christie’s bellowing, Paul was squeaking.

With all the theatrics, there were still some illogical head scratchers.

Ben Carson came out for a flat tax by tithe—ten percent—because the Bible says so and God’s pretty smart.

Marco Rubio asserted that the Dodd-Frank regulations of “too big to fail” investment banks are killing small commercial banks. So, in the name of small banks, he curries favor with the big banks by advocating repeal of Dodd-Frank.

Rubio went on to vehemently deny that he supported exceptions to abortion bans for rape and incest.

On the same issue, Scott Walker was asked whether he would really let the mother die rather than allow an abortion? Of course he would.

Mike Huckabee claimed that DNA proves a fetus is a human being. I suppose he’s being consistent, because by that standard an embryo would be a human being, and there are folks out there who believe that, offering to “adopt” embryos not used when in vitro fertilization is successful.

Ted Cruz was asked whether he was electable in light of having called Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar? Cruz responded, “I tell the truth,” sounding as if he meant to double down by saying he told the truth when he said McConnell is a liar.

Jeb Bush had to answer for having served on the board of the Bloomberg Foundation, which gave a lot of money to Planned Parenthood. At the end of his rant about how anti-abortion he’s always been, he slipped in that he’s been active in “end of life issues as well.” It’s hard to believe he would take the risk of making voters recall his role in the sordid Terry Schiavo affair.

There were some obvious attempts to plant remarks ginned up for the occasion. Scott Walker was in a class by himself because his entire presentation came off as scripted, but other candidates came with canned zingers.

Huckabee reminded voters that Ronald Reagan said of the Soviet Union, “Trust, but verify.” He accused President Obama, regarding the Iran deal, of adopting “trust, but vilify” (anybody who disagrees).

He also recycled the old saw that “the purpose of the military is to kill people and break things.”

Rand Paul, still squeaking, recycled a bogus Internet meme about the lesbian mayor of Houston subpoenaing sermons from local ministers, supposedly for censorship purposes.

The moderators ended the show with a question off the Internet. Had the candidates received a word from God on what they should do first if elected?

Ted Cruz said he gets words from God every day but did not share much content.

John Kasich admitted, “I believe in miracles.”

Scott Walker admitted to being “an imperfect man” and credited Jesus with his presence on the stage.

Marco Rubio invoked a partisan God, who “has blessed the Republicans with lots of good candidates and the Democrats can’t even find one.”

Dr. Ben Carson, who had struggled all evening to distinguish himself from the furniture, finally broke through in his final statement, claiming that of all the candidates he was “the only one to take out half of a brain, but if you go to Washington you’ll think somebody beat me to it.”

The first Republican debates scored well on entertainment value, but a bit lower on substance. That’s normal this early in silly season. The game plan appears to be that candidates will be ranked by public opinion polls, which this far out is only moderately more logical than a coin toss.

Carly Fiorina earned a pass to the grownup table next time.

Scott Walker and Rand Paul had to have disappointed their supporters; the former stiff and the latter shrill.

Marco Rubio strengthened his claim to represent the new generation.

Jeb Bush, the establishment’s man, did not lose in spite of his positions on education and immigration, which have been attacked as “moderate.”

Blowhards Trump and Christie played to type.

Ted Cruz was much lower profile than anybody anticipated but did nothing to sink himself. He and Ben Carson were quiet in a raucous crowd.

The question for the next debate, unless the sorting rules change, is who has to leave the grownup table to make room for Carly Fiorina. The polls will decide.

Indians, unlikely to be polled, will remain spectators in a contest where their vital interests are at stake. We might as well milk it for entertainment value and try to understand who these people are. When it gets down to one Republican and one Democrat, we have to make a decision or whistle through the Indian policy graveyard as if it doesn’t matter. History teaches that it does matter.

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