Thoughts on the Debate

Thoughts on the Feb 13 Republican Debate


The Debate Of Socrates And Aspasia

I haven’t decided yet who to vote for, and I am not political expert, but as an ex-debater and someone who intends to vote in a few days I followed the recent Republican primary debate in Greenville, SC with a high level of interest. Here are some of my personal reactions.

On Replacing Scalia

John Dickerson the moderator seems to have an agenda and seems to be debating with the candidates rather than moderating a debate between them.

He tried to press several candidates about their suggestion that Obama should not nominate a successor, hinting that it was the president’s responsibility to do so.

Trump said pragmatically that Obama would nominate a successor no matter what he thought. Part of Trump’s popularity is this bluntness, in contrast to someone like Kasich who seemed to say in effect “I wish he wouldn’t.”

Bush gave exactly the right answer, in my opinion. “Of course, the president, by the way, has every right to nominate Supreme Court justices. I’m an Article II guy in the Constitution. We’re running for the president of the United States. We want a strong executive for sure. But in return for that, there should be a consensus orientation on that nomination…”

Dickerson: So, Senator Cruz, the Constitution says the president “shall appoint with advice and consent from the Senate,” just to clear that up.

And I thought, what is there to clear up, and why do you feel obligated to interject that? Isn’t that what Bush just said?

Dickerson: So he has the constitutional power. But you don’t think he should.

Dickerson then had a confusing exchange with Cruz over the issue.

Cruz: we have 80 years precedent of not confirming Supreme Court justices in an election year.

I think this is factually incorrect – Anthony Kennedy was confirmed on Feb. 3, 1988, an election year. It could be that Cruz meant “not appointing,” I am not sure. In any case, Dickerson, who apparently had done his homework, interrupted:

Dickerson: “Just can I — I’m sorry to interrupt, were any appointed in an election year or is that just…”
Cruz: Eighty years of not confirming. For example, LBJ nominated Abe Fortas. Fortas did not get confirmed. He was defeated.
Dickerson: But Kennedy was confirmed in ’88.
Cruz: No, Kennedy was confirmed in ’87…
Dickerson: He was appointed in ’87.
Cruz: He was appointed in…

I wish Dickerson would have let Cruz finish his sentence here. It would have been very helpful to hear what he was going to say.

Dickerson: … confirmed in ’88. That’s the question, is it appointing or confirming, what’s the difference?
Cruz: In this case it’s both. But if I could answer the question…
Dickerson: Sorry, I just want to get the facts straight for the audience. But I apologize.

The audience boos at this point. I am not sure why, perhaps a Republican audience is wondering (as I am) why this seemingly hostile moderator has taken over the debate and is actively debating with one of the candidates.

Ironically, that one election year confirmation was eight months after the retirement of Justice Powell whom Kennedy replaced. The process took eight months because Reagan’s original nominee, Robert Bork, was “borked” by the Democrats and the media and was not confirmed. Bork is indeed a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary which defines it as “to defame or vilify (a person) systematically, esp. in the mass media, usually with the aim of preventing his or her appointment to public office; to obstruct or thwart (a person) in this way. “

The whole Scalia exchange leaves me without much insight into who to vote for.

On National Security

I like Dickerson’s next question.

Dickerson: It’s your first day in the situation room. What three questions do you ask your national security experts about the world?

Trump: What we want to do, when we want to do it, and how hard do we want to hit? Because we are going to have to hit very, very hard to knock out ISIS.

I am not impressed with this answer. Too narrowly focused on ISIS and it assumes he knows what is the best thing to do and he just wants details. What follows is a rambling reference to Iran and Russia that I don’t follow.

I like Rubio’s answer a lot:

Dickerson: Senator Rubio — just 30 seconds on this question, Senator Rubio. Are those the questions you would ask?
Rubio: No. I think there are three major threats that you want to immediately get on top of. No. 1 is, what are we doing in the Asia-Pacific region, where both North Korea and China pose threats to the national security of the United States.
No. 2 is, what are we doing in the Middle East with the combination of the Sunni-Shia conflict driven by the Shia arc that Iran is now trying to establish in the Middle East, also the growing threat of ISIS.
And the third is rebuilding and reinvigorating NATO in the European theater…

Dickerson then changes subjects and asks Carson about his preparedness to be president with no political experience.

Carson: As far as those two a.m. phone calls are concerned, judgment is what is required. And the kinds of things that you come up with are some sometimes very, very difficult and very unique. One of the things that I was known for is doing things that have not been done before. So no amount of experience really prepares you to do something that has never been done before. That’s where judgment comes in.

I don’t like this answer. Carson may have done some things surgically that had never been done before, but in that arena he draws on a vast background of medical knowledge in order to do that. I am not sure he has the background of knowledge to deal with the challenges of the presidency. I would have preferred to hear something about surrounding himself with experts.

Dickerson then turns to Kasich and back to national security:

Dickerson: Russia is being credited with bombing U.S.-backed rebels on behalf of Assad in Aleppo and Syria. They’ve also moved into the Crimea, eastern Ukraine. You’ve said you want to punch them in the nose. What does that mean? What are you going to do?
KASICH: First of all — yes. First of all, look, we have to make it clear to Russia what we expect. We don’t have to declare an enemy, rattle a sword or threaten, but we need to make it clear what we expect.

I don’t like this answer either. Yes, what? I don’t know what he is saying yes to. Yes, I want to punch them in the nose? OK, what does that mean. “Make it clear what we expect.” What do we expect? I don’t know. And it is not clear that is enough. This sounds like politician speech to me. Sounds like a painful punch in the nose, for sure, to be told what we expect.

Dickerson then asks Bush about Syria. Bush replies in part:

Bush: I would have a strategy to destroy ISIS, and I would immediately create a policy of containment as it relates to Iran’s ambitions, and to make it make clear that we are not going to allow for Iran to do what it’s doing, which is to move towards a nuclear weapon.

I don’t like this answer either. “Have a strategy… create a policy… make it clear.” Those seem like empty words to me. What strategy What policy? Make what clear?

Trump then rudely interrupts for one of the more chaotic and confusing exchanges of the night. You can look up the transcript if you are curious. Trump demeans SC senator Lindsey Graham, derisively calls the audience “lobbyists,” and repeatedly interrupts over the objections of Dickerson and Bush. I cannot imagine voting for someone so rude.

Dickerson then questions Cruz about Syria. Cruz responds with a lengthy and substantive discussion of the situation. I don’t know enough to analyze it in detail, but I like that there is often substance to Cruz’s answers.

Dickerson then baits Trump with a question about George W. Bush and his comment that Bush should have been impeached. This leads to another chaotic exchange, including the now famous “the World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign.”

9/11 was very early in the Bush presidency, and like him or not I think few people would blame him for it.

Dickerson belatedly takes control and says:

Dickerson: Governor Kasich, please weigh in.
Kasich: I’ve got to tell you, this is just crazy, huh?
Kasich: This is just nuts, OK? Jeez, oh, man. I’m sorry, John.

I agree. A poll today says 50% of respondents think Trump won the debate. If that is true we are in big trouble.

Kasich then comments on Iraq, Rubio defends George W. Bush, and Trump interrupts again to repeat his accusation about 9/11.

Dickerson then shifts to Carson and gives him a chance to comment on Syria and ISIS. I found his comments rather vague, he said “you know” three times in one sentence, and I was disappointed by his reference to Obama’s rules of engagement as “asinine thinking.”

On Economics

At this point Kimberly Strassel and Major Garrett take over the questioning and turn the topic to economics.

First she addresses Trump. I didn’t follow his answer, and have little motivation to dig in and try to understand it.

Then she has a lengthy exchange with Cruz over his flat business tax plan. The details of the different tax plans are over my head, but I like the basic idea. You can read a good overview at These tax plans are not a large issue in my mind because the president doesn’t legislate taxes. I think the president’s influence on tax policy is minimal.

Strassel then questions Rubio about his tax plan and particularly higher tax rates to offer a higher child tax credit. The details are a bit over my head but the discussion is substantive and helpful. I like this about both Cruz and Rubio that there is substance to their discussions.

Strassel then engages Kasich about Medicaid reform in his state of Ohio. I have heard that this is conservatives’ major concern about Kasich. He replies that her figures are incorrect. Kaisch often includes an appeal for compassion in his economic discussions, something that I expect appeals to a lot of younger republicans and helps explain his success in New Hampshire. Compassion is a virtue and is important to me, though perhaps not enough to sway me to vote for Kasich. Fact checking the Ohio budged is complicated and difficult. I did find a Cato Institute 2014 “Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors” which gave Kasich a D. is a little kinder, and notes that Jeb Bush received a “C” from the same report in 2006.

This leads to a chaotic exchange between Kasich, Bush, and the moderators. I come away not particularly impressed with either.

Dickerson then gives Carson an opportunity to respond on taxes. Carson has only a minute to highlight his tax plan. One unique feature is a minimum $100 tax for everyone regardless of income “because everybody has to have skin in the game.” Carson then gets cut off for commercial break. I am interested and would like to have heard more.

On Immigration

Dickerson then turns the conversation to immigration. I will inject some personal opinion here. I think much of the immigration discussion is shallow and simplistic – are you for or against amnesty? It is not that simple. I think we should obviously secure our border and we must be a nation of laws. However, the fact is we should not and probably cannot deport 12 million people overnight, especially people who have lived here for decades and established families. Nor can we give blanket citizenship or legal status (two very different things) to 12 million people. Any way out of the current mess is going to take time and be complicated.

I don’t have time to go line by line through the convoluted discussion of the famous immigration bill in this and previous debates, and how Cruz and Rubio did or did not support it. Both men seemed to support it at the time and now both are criticizing it and each other. Several websites fact-check this one and come to opposite conclusions. After some hours of trying to get to the bottom of it, I feel like Rubio is more honest in expressing the complexities of the immigration issue and looking for a path forward, while Cruz is trying to define and defend a black-and-white line which is in fact impossible.

Same Sex Marriage

On same-sex marriage, Rubio praised Scalia’s dissent in the Obergefell marriage case and then mentioned it again emphatically in his closing. Cruz mentioned marriage in his closing as well.

However, this issue was part of a heated exchange between Cruz and Rubio. First Cruz said this:

Cruz: In addition to that, Marco went on Univision in Spanish and said he would not rescind President Obama’s illegal executive amnesty on his first day in office…

Rubio: Well, first of all, I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn’t speak Spanish.

Cruz responded in some reportedly broken Spanish, demonstrating that he does know a little. From what I hear Rubio is fluent and Cruz is not. Then Rubio followed with this:

Rubio: Look, this is a disturbing pattern now, because for a number of weeks now, Ted Cruz has just been telling lies. He lied about Ben Carson in Iowa.
Rubio: He lies about Planned Parenthood. He lies about marriage. He’s lying about all sorts of things. And now he makes things up. The bottom line is this is a campaign and people are watching it. And they see the truth behind all these issues.

This is a disturbing charge. If Rubio is right, I don’t want to vote for Cruz. If this is all exaggerated or made up, I don’t want to vote for Rubio. It is hard to fact-check it all, but I have discovered this:

1. Cruz’s campaign although probably not Cruz himself, did send an unfortunate email on the night of the primary that probably hurt Carson’s campaign. I think it was based on a misunderstanding and Cruz apologized.

2. More seriously, Cruz, clearly referring to Trump and Rubio, recently said “There is something profoundly wrong when Republican presidential candidates are repeating Barack Obama’s talking points on gay marriage… [saying that] we must accept it, surrender, and move on” ( This does seem to be a serious misrepresentation of Rubio’s position.

3. On the Univision interview, Here is what Rubio said according to a Univision English translation: “[the policy] is going to have to end at some point. I wouldn’t undo it immediately… I don’t think it would be fair to cancel it suddenly.” So Cruz is technically right, Rubio wouldn’t rescind it “on his first day in office.” However, I am bothered by two things. One, that the comment was worded to make Rubio sound worse than he really is. Many listeners would miss the point about “first day in office” and come to a wrong conclusion. Second, that I think Rubio has a point. I am not sure that issue merits presidential attention on the first day in office, and I think some kind of transition might be appropriate.

4. On Planned Parenthood, Cruz has criticized Rubio’s refusal to support his plan to shut down the government over the planned parenthood funding. I think this is highly misleading. Carol Tobias, National Right to Life Committee President, reportedly called Cruz’s comments “inaccurate and misleading… Marco Rubio voted to defund Planned Parenthood before Ted Cruz ever got to the U.S. Senate. Since Ted Cruz joined the U.S. Senate, both he and Sen. Rubio have voted the same on every roll call that National Right to Life regards as pertinent to defunding Planned Parenthood.” (

That is quite a muddle of issues, but in my mind Rubio comes out looking better. There does seem to be a pattern of Cruz comments that are technically true but highly misleading.

On What they Didn’t Talk About

Abortion came up only briefly. Cruz mentioned it in his comments about Scalia (and I think his position is well known) and criticized Trump on the issue. A moderator challenged Trump and included it in a list of issues he has changed his position on. Rubio included it in his strong closing speech and Cruz mentioned it in his.

Social security was scarcely mentioned, except for one exchange with Trump and a closing comment by Kasich. I like the advertisements the AARP has been running during the debates suggesting that this is a pretty big issue and should be getting more attention. I agree.


At the end of the debate I still don’t know who to vote for, but thinking through these issues was helpful to me.

Image: The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia by Nicolas-André Monsiau.

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