Hard Truths — Presidential Truthbleed

HardTruths1_8_13_15Cleveland has been the butt of pop culture jokes for as long as I can remember. Right now the “mistake on the lake” is riding pretty high on post-debate positivity. The first of the Republican primary presidential debates was held there last week, and the reviews have been pretty strong. Conservatives saw a field of 17 candidates try to defend their respective plans for the way forward, and for the most part they seem to think their guys (and lady) acquitted themselves quite well. Liberals saw a field of lunatics and corporate sycophants attempting to out-crazy a dangerous sociopathic real estate mogul with a great haircut.

What was really onstage, though? A little bit of both, of course.

One of the few consensus opinions coming out was that Carly Fiorina mopped the floor with the other six candidates on the seven-candidate undercard. Due to the huge field of “viable” candidates, Fox News opted to take the top 10 candidates (according to national polls) and let them duke it out in the main event, while relegating the other seven to a pre-show row.

Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO and California gubernatorial candidate, unequivocally won the day. Whether it was her handling of questions about Donald Trump or her pivot to savaging Hillary Clinton, she was one of the few candidates out of 17 that pundits agree made no missteps.

Fiorina’s ascent comes at a time when there’s no clear frontrunner, save for The Donald (though we’ll get to that momentarily), which makes a dark horse who can stay on message much more likely to challenge the established frontrunners.

You’re Choired!
How in the world is it 2015 and I’m actually writing about Donald Trump as a candidate, a frontrunner, for president. That, to coin purloin a phrase, is f*cking apesh*t.

Trump’s popularity in the polls held after the debate, which featured the best and worst of the divisive superstar.

In the best column was one of the most fascinating moments in modern politics, when Trump, speaking of his power and influence, mentioned that he had given money to lots of politicians in order to get things done. He noted that this group of paid for pols included most of the men on stage with him, which in itself was utterly astonishing (not the revelation itself, but his casual reference to it). Then he saw and raised himself by giving an example of this quid pro quo, saying he wanted Hillary Clinton at his wedding, and that she was indeed in attendance because he had paid her and she had no choice.

This moment was mind-blowing not just because it offered up a pretty good explanation as to why the other GOP candidates haven’t been going after him very hard—that they’re clearly a bit frightened of what he might disclose about them—but because this encapsulates why even some ostensibly reasonable people actually like Trump. He may be a lot of things, some more unflattering than others, but undeniably he’s the only candidate in the mix who has nothing to lose. Trump has no aspirations toward politics other than being the president, so he has no problem running a scorched earth campaign that leaves him with no friends. The rest of the candidates are in one form or another likely to be involved in the GOP in a serious way after the primary, and they all need to stay largely civil to each other. The Donald straight up gives no f*cks. And it shows.

But it wasn’t all rainbows and HJs for Trump in Cleveland. Megyn Kelly, one of the moderators for Fox News, tried to confront him on some of his less politically correct and less presidential statements in the past. When he tried to wriggle out, Kelly gave no quarter, interrupting him and pressing on, asking if his politically incorrect jabs reflected a presidential “temperament.” That’s when this happened:

Trump: …And frankly, what I say, and oftentimes it’s fun, it’s kidding. We have a good time. What I say is what I say. And honestly Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that.

There’s clearly some standard Trump bluster in there, but if you can see your way past his tiptoeing on the edge of propriety, what you’re left with is a threat. Trump, thinking he could treat the debate stage like a board meeting, actually threatened one of the moderators in front of the whole nation, and got applause for it. Again, see my previous phrasing regarding apes and their feces.

This all led to a congregation of incensed pundits. The polls after the debate remarkably showed Trump gaining ground. But then the bullsh*t hit the fan.

On Friday night, talking to Don Lemmon of CNN and grousing about Kelly’s harsh treatment of him in the debate the night before, Trump said, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” And finally he had taken a step too far. The insinuation that Kelly’s menstrual cycle may have been the inspiration for her tough questions finally pushed the GOP over the line, and the last week has been a parade of Republicans (both journalists and politicians) dumping on The Donald.

This episode should have taught Trump a valuable lesson: You can say what you want about Rosie O’Donnell, and you probably won’t lose a lot of Republican votes. But nobody f*cks with Megyn Kelly.

Fight for Your Right(wing) to Party
Lost in all the discussion of Trump was one of the most interesting exchanges of the evening. There are a lot of different views of conservatism competing for control of the party and the country right now, but the two candidates that most encapsulate the poles of opposition are probably Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. Paul represents the growing libertarian wing of the right, and has a veritable child army of college students and radical hipster Republicans jumping on board his fiscally conservative, socially liberal brand of Republicanism. Meanwhile Christie represents the establishment GOP that refuses to let go of the party. Christie has made his name fighting unions and simultaneously embracing compromise with Democrats, a concept that’s as alien to Paul as Area 51.

In one of the few truly testy exchanges that took place on stage, Paul and Christie sparred over the NSA domestic surveillance program. Christie harkened back to Giuliani’s presidential campaign, wasting no time invoking 9/11 in defense of massive surveillance by the federal government of law abiding U.S. citizens. Paul, for his part, didn’t hesitate to sink his teeth into Christie, accusing him of violating innocent Americans’ rights, taking a cheap shot at Christie’s now famous photo op hugging President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy a few years ago, and then rolling his eyes at Christie’s somewhat clubfooted riposte about the hugs he got from the families of 9/11 victims.

While Christie undeniably came out looking “better” (hint to the Paul campaign team: it never looks good to roll your eyes while someone is talking about the victims of 9/11), his defenses of surveillance of Americans amounted to, “You guys don’t know what it takes to defend the country, and you don’t want to know, so don’t ask and just trust me.” Not exactly a winning strategy.

Final Scorecard
Now I’m going to do something you won’t see from many commentators. I’m going to tell you what comes next. Get back to me in 90 days and we’ll see how right (or preposterously wrong) I was.

Carly Fiorina and Rick Perry will take a step up and join the contender pool. Jindal, Santorum, Pataki, Gilmore, and Lindsey Graham are pretty much done, and we’ll likely see most of them pulling out of the race soon enough, possibly even before Iowa.

Out of the 10 candidates who took the main stage last week, Trump, Huckabee, and Carson have very insurmountable obstacles before them. Carson because of overall greenness, Trump because of overall reptilian nature, and Huckabee because he’s apparently running for the presidency of a United States that still exists in 1954 and actually cares enough about social issues like gay marriage to make them the top priority.

The next debate should heavily feature Ted Cruz and Rand Paul defending libertarianism, governors Christie, Bush, and Perry defending compassionate conservatism, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich defending economic reform and foreign policy robustness, and, it is to be hoped, Trump just burning down bridges and revealing interesting things but never ever coming anywhere near the nomination.

Your republican nominee will be Marco Rubio… or Kasich. Or possibly Jeb Bush. You know what? Can we just get Mitt Romney back in here so I can make some easier jokes and we can just pay more attention to the Hillary trainwreck?

By Sidney Reilly