AMY DAVIDSON -The G.O.P. Debate: Crowded, Bloated, Sour, and Trump ||| JOHN CASSIDY -Carly Fiorina Tests Donald Trump’s Indestructibility

september 17, 2015Newyorker TODAY

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“Should he stop saying that vaccines cause autism?” Tapper asked.

Trump, Carson replied, was “an intelligent man and will make the correct decision after getting the real facts.”

Trump proceeded to demonstrate his decision-making qualities with a digressive rant about how he knew “a beautiful child” who “went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.” He’d had his own regimen for his children, he said, spreading things out; if people followed his advice, “I think you’re going to see a big impact on autism.”

You’re not: the science is very clear that vaccines do not cause autism, and that all the deniers have accomplished is to provoke outbreaks of diseases, like measles, that were once almost forgotten in America. (My colleague Michael Specter has written about this extensively.) A lot of what Trump says—diplomacy by yelling, for example—would be dangerous if put into practice. But most of it, assuming he doesn’t actually get elected, won’t be put into practice. The refusal to inoculate children, though, is something that his admirers can try at home. No other candidate was willing to anger the ideologues by standing up for something as suspicious as science. Given a final chance by Tapper, Carson smiled and said that Trump was “an O.K. doctor”—a reference to Trump’s dismissal of Carson’s surgical skills. Rand Paul, who is also a doctor, added that though he was for vaccines, “I’m also for freedom”—namely the freedom to reschedule shots, “even if science doesn’t say” that there’s a problem.

The exchange was of a piece with the rest of the debate and with the state of the Republican Party: fervid, claustrophobic, recklessly insinuating, and, at the same time, utterly timid when it comes to extremism in its own ranks. The discussion about vaccines was immediately preceded by one about climate change: Tapper—citing George Shultz, Reagan’s Secretary of State, who said that his boss had urged industry leaders to come up with a plan to move away from chemicals destroying the ozone layer “as an insurance policy in case the scientists are right”—asked Marco Rubio why we shouldn’t now do the same, just in case there was something to the overwhelming evidence of climate change, rising sea levels, and retreating glaciers all around us.

“Because we’re not going to destroy our economy the way the left-wing government that we are under now wants to do,” Rubio said. “Single parents already struggling,” he added, couldn’t afford to do things that, in his view, wouldn’t affect the climate. And anyway, “America is not a planet.”

Tapper turned to Chris Christie, apparently on the theory that he had previously been more willing than other Republicans to recognize the reality of climate change. He didn’t have much better luck than he did with Carson. “I agree with Marco. We shouldn’t be destroying our economy in order to chase some wild left-wing idea that somehow us by ourselves is going to fix the climate,” Christie said. Not that he was interested in working with others: he bragged that, while making the air cleaner in New Jersey, he’d pulled the state out of regional cap-and-trade agreements. America may not be a planet, but New Jersey is. Scott Walker then jumped in to say that he wouldn’t listen to the E.P.A. Tapper managed to move on, despite Paul’s clamoring to be heard “if you want a skeptic” about climate change. No one tried to break in on behalf of the planet—the one that America is on.

The flaw in the debate, evident in both of these exchanges, may have been a structural one. In the interests of mixing it up, CNN’s moderators—Tapper was joined by Dana Bash, the network’s political correspondent, and Hugh Hewitt, the conservative radio host—repeatedly quoted criticisms that one candidate had made of the others. The most blunt example may have been when Carly Fiorina was asked what she thought of Trump’s comments, to Rolling Stone, about the unelectability of her face. In lieu of an apology last night, Trump said, “she’s a beautiful woman.” (He also said that he’d heard that Jeb Bush’s wife was “lovely.”) Fiorina declined to simper; throughout, she played her designated role of Trump teller-offer, mixing in references to “my good friend Bibi Netanyahu” and lurid (and inaccurate) descriptions of secretly taped videos of Planned Parenthood employees. Later, she and Trump sniped about their respective business records, prompting Christie, of all people, to tell them to “stop playing” and being so “childish.” “And Carly—Carly, listen,” he said. “You can interrupt everybody else on this stage, you’re not going to interrupt me, O.K.?” He sounded like a first grader striking a pose for the kindergartners.

But rather than really pushing the candidates on their positions, CNN’s did-you-hear-what-he-called-you approach served to keep the debate within the tinny echo chamber of the G.O.P. For example, Bash asked Jeb Bush, “After Chief Justice John Roberts voted to uphold Obamacare twice, Senator Cruz criticized your brother for appointing John Roberts to the Supreme Court. Looking back on it, did your brother make a mistake?” What followed was a somewhat bizarre exchange in which Bush offered a tepid defense of Roberts while saying that Cruz had supported him, too. Cruz replied by comparing Roberts—who, Obamacare aside, has led the court to achingly conservative decisions in Citizens United and Hobby Lobby, has helped to roll back voting rights, and has written bitter dissents on marriage equality—to the far more liberal David Souter. Mike Huckabee, who had earlier said that Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who is violating the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, had been afforded less respect for her religious beliefs than “the detainees at Gitmo,” jumped in to expostulate about litmus tests. Only in the Republican primaries would any of this make sense.

The Roberts exchange was one of several in which Jeb Bush couldn’t shake a certain air of petulance. “That’s—that’s my brother,” he said at one point, wiggling his arms a little. He had been trying to finish an evocative line about George W. Bush embracing a firefighter in the rubble of Ground Zero, but, since he’d been interrupted with interjections from, in sequence, Trump, Paul, and Walker, it was hard to figure out just what he was saying, or even parse it grammatically. He certainly didn’t command the foreign-policy discussion, amid a general clamor about renouncing the Iran agreement and Trump dismissing the need to learn “name after name, Arab name, Arab name.” Both Rubio and Carson had stronger moments in explaining why they might, if only occasionally, think before bombing, but both still came across as flagrantly hawkish.

Paul, meanwhile, communicated the anti-interventionism that has set him apart. (His most effective moment, though, came when he talked about decriminalizing drug offenses, prompting Bush to talk about smoking marijuana as a teen-ager and Fiorina to speak, movingly, about her step-daughter who lost her life to addiction.) Bush said that he had chosen the same foreign-policy advisers that his brother and father had because, if you wanted a Republican, those were the only people available, “just by definition.” Near the end of the debate, Tapper asked each candidate to pick his or her Secret Service code name. (Paul: “Justice Never Sleeps”; Cruz: “Cohiba”; Walker: “Harley. I love riding Harley’s.”) Bush went with “Eveready—it’s very high energy, Donald.” Suddenly, it became hard to shake the image of Jeb as a giant Energizer Bunny. It also made him sound like a sulker, fixated on Trump’s description of him as “low-energy.” Trump, for his part, offered Eveready a hand-slap and then proposed his own name: “Humble.”

Tapper had another “light question”: What woman should, in accordance with a Treasury Department plan, replace Alexander Hamilton on the ten-dollar bill? Fiorina wouldn’t give a name, saying that she wasn’t in favor of that kind of “gesture.” Others nominated four American historical figures: Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, and Abigail Adams. The rest of the answers were divided between family members (Huckabee’s wife, Carson’s mother) and foreigners (Bush: Margaret Thatcher; Kasich: Mother Teresa). Really, Miss Oklahoma did a better job with this one than the Presidential contenders. (The correct answer, by the way, is to keep Hamilton on the ten, and put Harriet Tubman on the twenty.)

Trump went with both Parks and his daughter Ivanka—“because she’s been sitting for three hours.” Do we all get a bill, then? The debate was crowded, bloated, sour, and long. Far from adding order to the race, it is likely to have made it even more unpredictable. As was the case last time, each candidate probably did enough to satisfy his or her narrow faction, or at least to convince a couple of big donors to keep paying. Some (Carson, Fiorina, Rubio) likely did more than that. The question is who will lose the support they gain. Trump’s core supporters may not mind his performance, even though, at times, he seemed to be insulting people just to stay awake, like a truck driver lighting another cigarette. He was missing what he would call his usual “braggadocious” verve. It’s going to be a strange and pot-holed road on the way to 2016. But all we watched, on Wednesday night, were a bunch of bumper cars colliding in front of an old Air Force One.

TODAY

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 10.36.11 AMJOHN CASSIDY | Carly Fiorina Tests Donald Trump’s Indestructibility

It is a well-known rule of prime-time television that you don’t give away the plot or run the celebrity interview early in the show, so that people won’t tune out and go to bed. Ideally, you keep viewers on the hook until the last minute. But, when the show is a Republican political debate and it’s three hours long, it’s asking a lot for viewers to watch until the halfway point, let alone the end.

Evidently, the folks at CNN decided that an hour was about as long as they could keep people hanging. That was the point in the debate, which was held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in Simi Valley, California, when the host, Jake Tapper, asked Carly Fiorina to comment on Donald Trump’s recent offensive remarks about her appearance. (According to Rolling Stone, Trump said, after seeing Fiorina on television, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next President?”)

Until that point, the debate had gone pretty much as expected, with various candidates taking their shots at knocking Trump off his perch, and the seemingly indestructible New York businessman bluffing his way through without suffering much apparent injury. Tapper raised Rand Paul’s concern, expressed on CNN earlier in the week, about a man of Trump’s temperament having his finger on the nuclear button. (Trump replied, “My temperament is very good, very calm.”) Jeb Bush had accused Trump of using political donations to lobby for Florida to legalize casino gambling, and claimed that he had rebuffed Trump’s attempt. (“Jeb, don’t make things up. Come on,” Trump said, rebutting the notion that he’d wanted casino gambling there.) And Scott Walker, evidently unaware of Trump’s actual role on his long-running reality-TV show, said that we don’t need another apprentice in the White House. (Trump didn’t bother responding to that.)

Fiorina, though, bided her time. Offered an early opportunity to comment on Trump’s putative role as commander of America’s nuclear arsenal, she demurred, noting merely that he was “a wonderful entertainer.” The question of his fitness to be Commander-in-Chief would be one for the voters to answer, she said. A bit later, she made it clear that she had no doubt of her own C-in-C chops. Rather than negotiating with Vladimir Putin (as Trump has suggested he would), Fiorina said that she would rebuild the Sixth Fleet, reconstruct the American missile-defense system in Eastern Europe, and send thousands more troops to Germany. Russia was “a bad actor,” she averred, and Putin was “someone we should not talk to.”

That comment earned Fiorina some applause from an audience that appeared to have been drawn from the Hoover Institution/Cold War wing of conservatism, more than the Tea Party. But she didn’t receive nearly as much applause for that as for the response she gave to Tapper’s question about theRolling Stone article, following another exchange between Trump and Bush, during which Trump emphasized that he’d heard something Bush had said. Looking levelly into the camera, Fiorina, the only female in the G.O.P. race, said calmly but forcefully, “Mr. Trump said that he heard Mr. Bush very clearly and what Mr. Bush said. I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”

Doubtless, it was a line that Fiorina had rehearsed, but she delivered it beautifully, and it generated by far the biggest cheers of the night. Trump, for once, seemed somewhat at a loss for words, and his face, which was red all night—it was very hot onstage, and many other candidates were sweating, too—seemed to blush a little deeper. “I think she’s got a beautiful face,” he said, finally, “and I think she’s a beautiful woman.” It wasn’t an apology (Trump doesn’t do those), and it was greeted with near silence.

A bit later on, Tapper afforded Trump the opportunity to win back some points of his own, bringing up Fiorina’s record as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard. “The company is a disaster and continues to be a disaster,” Trump said, citing a study by a Yale professor that described Fiorina’s tenure at H.P. as one of the worst in corporate history. Fiorina stayed calm, though, and showed that she possesses political talents that appeared sadly lacking in her previous venture into electoral politics, an abortive 2010 run in California for the U.S. Senate. In particular, she demonstrated the invaluable ability to deliver whoppers with apparent sincerity. Dismissing the Yale study as the work of a Clintonite, she described her troubled time at H.P., which ended when the company’s board fired her, as a period of revenue growth, innovation, and desperate measures taken in desperate times. She even managed to slip in the fact that, on the day she was fired, Steve Jobs called her to commiserate. All Trump could manage was “I only say this. She can’t run any of my companies.”

After that, Trump seemed a bit deflated. (Admittedly, it could have been the heat.) And Fiorina, evidently seeking to portray herself as just as hawkish as any of the men surrounding her, laid it on a bit thick during a discussion of ISIS, saying that she would make sure that the U.S. military had fifty Army brigades, thirty-six Marine battalions, more than three hundred naval ships, and enough nuclear weapons to blow up the entire solar system. (I made up the last bit, but you get the idea: Jeane Kirkpatrick meets Dr. Strangelove.) By that stage, though, it probably didn’t matter. The television audience had dwindled, and the online pundits were already declaring Fiorina the winner—which, until the post-debate polls arrive, means she was the winner.

For many of the other candidates, it was a mixed night. Jeb Bush was more forceful than in the previous G.O.P. debate, but the most memorable things he said were that he smoked pot in college, would choose Margaret Thatcher if he had to select a woman to appear on the ten-dollar bill, and would make his Secret Service name Eveready, because, as he explained to Trump, who has accused him of listlessness, “It’s very high energy.” (This comment came in garbage time, and it earned him an ironic low five from the front-runner.) Ben Carson, who is the closest candidate in the polls to Trump, once again disappeared for long stretches, but in a debate that most voters, even Republican voters, will only watch via soundbites, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for him. He had a couple of strong moments, such as when he revealed that he had advised George W. Bush not to invade Iraq (earning him a high five from Trump, who also opposed the war), and when he affirmed, twice, that there is no evidence that vaccinations cause autism. (Carson even had the temerity, in front of a Republican audience, to suggest that there are moments when it makes more sense to rely on intellect than military force.)

Marco Rubio, once again, had some good moments, although probably not enough to dislodge him from the position of everybody’s second-favorite candidate. John Kasich, to his credit and, almost certainly, his own detriment, followed a rote assertion that the Iranian nuclear deal was a “bad agreement” with an attempt to defend the virtues of a multilateral approach to foreign policy. Chris Christie, the forgotten man of Trenton, sought to position himself as the adult in the room, admonishing Trump and Fiorina to stop quibbling about their business records and concentrate on the concerns of construction workers who don’t give a fig about their careers. (It must be noted, however, that Christie’s efforts to look serious weren’t helped when he said that his Secret Service security name would be True Heart. Evidently, he was unaware that True Heart is one of the Care Bears.)

Those were sidebars, though. The big story was Fiorina’s attempted takedown of Trump. “I think she’s a very nice person,” Trump said in an interview after the debate. We will have to wait and see if her performance has any lasting impact on the race.