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MILWAUKEE THEATRE – Well, we learned a few important things about how the GOP presidential candidates differ.
Donald Trump apparently loves Vlad Putin because they appeared together on "60 Minutes" and talked in the green room or something. His foreign policy strategy has finally materialized: "Let Putin do it." If Putin wants to "knock the hell out of" ISIS, Trump is all for that.
Most people want to see someone knock the hell out of ISIS, if we are honest. The problem with letting Putin knock the hell out of everybody while we stand back is what happens if a super empowered Putin then controls the world and wants to knock the hell out of us? Yes, that’s being sort of hyperbolic. But only sort of.
But then Trump said he doesn’t want America to be the policeman of the world (his phrase) but he thinks we should have taken all of the oil. He also thinks we should have given "chunks of oil" to wounded soldiers. Liberals must be really confused. They will love the "we don’t want to be policeman of the world part" but confused why Trump wants to snatch all the oil. Usually liberals say it was "just about oil," and conservatives deny it. Trump is the first politician to admit he wants to take all the oil. Not sure how he’s going to get it now if he’s going to let Putin do all the work. And wait a minute: Does oil come in chunks? I can imagine some wounded warrior saying, "Wow, thanks for the chunk of oil."
In all seriousness, the problem is that, on ISIS, people probably do want someone who will knock the hell out of them, but they also want us to be assertive on the world stage (there has to be some truth in the middle, right?).
On this point, Jeb Bush finally had some shining debate moments, and they came on – perhaps a surprise here – Iraq. It started out haltingly. A few minutes in, and Jeb was already begging the moderators for time. But he was memorably serious and substantive on foreign policy.
"We're not going to be the world's policeman, but we better be the world's leader," Bush said. Meanwhile, Fiorina said she wouldn’t talk to Putin, and Marco Rubio said Putin was a gangster leader of a criminal organization (he’s been watching the Sopranos too much, I think).
Rand Paul said Americans are more afraid of debt than ISIS, and he would basically defund the military (not going to play). No, Americans are afraid of ISIS beheading Americans on TV actually, and, yeah, they don’t like debt either, but I’m not sure they’re more terrified of it than ISIS. Paul accused Marco Rubio – who didn’t stand out like everyone thought he might but did have a strong moment against Paul on national security – of having a "liberal military" spending strategy. Isn’t that an oxymoron?
So, on foreign policy, Jeb Bush did best, and Rubio was pretty strong too. The others were either isolationist, middling or incoherent. Paul and Trump arguing that we should be less assertive on the world stage isn’t going to play.
This debate, in Milwaukee, was also not without its moments of hilarity – although they came from the candidates far more than the moderators this time. However, the debate also teased out some key differences on policy – and it wasn’t just on foreign matters. The moderators didn’t get in the way this time. They didn’t become the story.
"Thank you Donald for letting me speak at the debate. What a generous man you are," Jeb said at one point after Trump told an interrupting John Kasich,"You should let Jeb speak."
Who won? A lot of the candidates had a "moment" where they sounded good. No one became a potted plant, had a huge gaffe or vanished completely. But a lot of those with a good moment here or there didn’t absolutely dominate and kind of disappeared a bit.
Ben Carson is the front-runner now in polls, and he was consistently thoughtful. He was a debate winner as a result. He stuck a stake in the bio questions right out of the gate by thanking the moderators for not asking about what he said in 10th grade. As a result, the "vetting" drama and controversy didn’t dominate, and he never seemed defensive, so that’s good for him. Hard to see how he goes down as a result of this debate. "Where I come from, they call that a lie," Carson said of Hillary Clinton on Benghazi.
Cruz had some good moments, and I think he will see some ascendancy as a result. He was strong and assertive. Although, Cruz wants to eliminate the Department of Commerce – twice (he listed five departments he wanted to abolish and that one made the list twice). Basically he wants to get rid of the government. Of course, he is running in a GOP primary. He also revealed he doesn’t want to push grannies off cliffs. Yeah, there were some weird moments again, but he did well overall, and there’s anti-establishment fever out there still.
Fiorina had her moments but wasn’t a standout. Rubio had some good moments, but he didn’t deliver a knockout punch to fuel his momentum into the immediate stratosphere. He had a weird moment when he said he wants more welders and fewer philosophers. I guess thinking isn’t valued in politics anymore. He wasn’t weak and was very strong in some ways. He just didn’t demonstrably dominate.
Bush needed to do more. Bush had the aforementioned strong moment on national security, but he needed to dominate the whole thing to secure a second look as a potential front runner and didn’t. However, he wasn’t awful, and he still has a ton of money. This was a better debate for him than the other ones. The media consultant must be working.
Rand Paul was a loser. Rubio called him a "committed isolationist," and isolationism isn’t going to play. Scott Walker was a loser because, not only is he not on the stage anymore, but he was mentioned exactly once in a weird comment by Fiorina about Walker creating a meritocracy that she didn’t really explain.
Kasich stood out more than he did before with so many candidates on the stage. He was feistier. But it also turned out that when Kasich gets air time, he tends to use it to whine, and it didn’t play with the crowd – at all – when he started talking about rich people paying more money for stuff. He kind of sounded like a liberal.
Then there was Trump. Honestly, he came across as a little weird. At one point, he told Fiorina to stop interrupting people. He got in a weird skirmish with Kasich in which he started blathering about his billion dollar companies. He seems to love Putin a bit too much. He let Kasich (Kasich!) get under his skin. He said basically that America is going down the tubes. Actually his direct quote was that America "is going to hell," and he will fix it. I recall Reagan saying how great we were, a shining city upon a hill and all that, but Trump thinks we’re a wrecked city in a gully I guess.
He sounded better on the economy though. He sounds like he knows what he is talking about. Then there was illegal immigration, though. Trump is always hard to predict because you have to consider the GOP base. Trump basically stuck to his plan of kicking 11 million people out of the country. Kasich and Jeb Bush said this plan was ridiculous and inhumane.
The left, moderates and media will love Bush and Kasich over this. They’re right. We need to get tougher on border security, but it’s ridiculous and unworkable to kick 11 million people out of the country. But remember Trump is running in a GOP primary where immigration fever is running high. So he can basically argue now that he’s tough on illegal immigration, and the other guys aren’t (except Cruz, who seems to be constantly auditioning to be the Trump VP. "Try going to a foreign country illegally and see what they do," Cruz said).
Conservatives find Rubio squishy on immigration too. So Trump cornered the "illegal immigration" market again and, in a GOP primary, that makes his performance another wildcard. He basically stuck to platitudes, saying, "We are a country of laws. We either have a country, or we don't have a country." But that kind of thing plays emotionally to a lot of folks on the right.
So there wasn’t a knockout punch, but we learned a lot. And in all honesty, Republicans should be happy they had such a vigorous, revealing debate with a slate of formidable and interesting candidates. Why doesn’t Hillary debate more again?
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.