Everything was on the line for the men participating in the first of the two GOP debates hosted by CNN on September 15. The four candidates – former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, former New York Governor George Pataki, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal -- all successfully scored points with a respectful audience at the Ronald Reagan Library. The moderators of the discussion encouraged the participants to engage with each other, and that they did. Each drove home themes that resonate with Republican voters, sparring over immigration, tax policy, how to respond to issues of religious liberty and how to confront the liberal policies of President Obama.
At the end, it is unlikely that any one of the four rescued their troubled candidacies.
Pataki has been out of the game far too long, and as a moderate voice will not move past the well-funded Jeb Bush.
Santorum has also been absent from politics, and though he made a strong showing in the debate, has been eclipsed by other social conservatives in the race, like Ted Cruz and Ben Carson.
Lindsay Graham came across as knowledgeable and revealed an appealing brand of self-deprecating humor, but is a one-trick pony, focused almost exclusively on defeating ISIS.
Bobby Jindal has failed to gain traction; Wednesday night's debate probably won’t move that needle.
As of the end of the last reporting cycle, Santorum, Pataki and Jindal were low on cash. It’s doubtful their performance will boost their fundraising.
Donald Trump was not present at the first debate, but he was surely the elephant not in the room. Bobby Jindal, egged on by the CNN moderators and perhaps intent on capturing headlines, declared that front-runner Donald Trump isn’t a Republican, or a Democrat – that all he believes in is Trump.
Rick Santorum, maybe hoping to pick up some supporters should The Donald’s star fade, tepidly defended the blowhard billionaire’s right to run.
Pataki, who signed the pledge committing candidates to supporting the eventual nominee, was called out on a recent declaration that he would not back Trump. Pataki’s defense: Trump is not fit to be president, and in any event will not be the nominee. We shall see.
“Trump or not” wasn’t the only target assailed by the four contestants; thankfully, the four candidates also took on President Obama and Democrat hopeful Hillary Clinton.
The participants in the junior varsity debate reminded us of the depth and richness of the Republican bench. And how widely their views differ on numerous topics.
Lindsay Graham delightfully vowed to encourage more boozing in the White House if elected president. He noted that President Ronald Reagan spent time drinking with Tip O’Neil; out of that conviviality grew a partnership between adversaries, one which allowed for significant progress on vital matters such as Social Security reform. What a wonderful, old-fashioned notion, nearly impossible to sell to today’s cynical voters.
Graham and Pataki represented, perhaps, old-style political leadership – the dreaded “establishment” -- which is under siege today.
Bobby Jindal vehemently attacked Graham and other Washington insiders for not doing more to oppose President Obama, to defeat the Iran deal and defund Planned Parenthood. Graham struck back, saying he was tired of such dishonest tirades, which fail to consider the veto power of the president.
This is a serious issue dividing Republicans today; both men scored points.
Graham also veered off GOP orthodoxy on immigration, reminding the audience that the United States, like most developed countries, has fewer and fewer workers helping to support a growing retiree population. As such, allowing new workers into the country makes sense, as long as they have the right skills.
Mainly, Lindsay Graham does not veer far off course. He wants to be elected on his promise to defeat ISIS. He has vowed to send 20,000 troops into Iraq and Syria, claiming that because of his 35 trips to those countries over the past decade, he is the most knowledgeable candidate to take on this war. He is probably right – right that he is exceptionally well informed, that his military career gives him insight, and right that we may need to add our troops to a regional coalition if we want to defeat radical Islam. Most likely, Americans are not going to buy this argument. The threat still seems too distant, the scars of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars still too raw. But, Graham’s argument for a stronger military is right on the money.
George Pataki pressed the need for the GOP to win in 2016. His was a voice of moderation, something thin on the ground these days. Pataki argued for the rule of law, as for instance in the case of Kim Davis, the clerk arrested for not handing out marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In his view, the president cannot pick and choose which laws to uphold. (Someone should tell President Obama.)
Though Jindal and Santorum praised Davis for standing up for her religious beliefs, Pataki said she should be fired for holding public office and not complying with the law of the land. He also did not endorse overturning birthright citizenship, a new cause for those concerned about the growth of our undocumented population.
Rick Santorum, perhaps trying to escape from being tagged a Washington insider, claimed to have “shaken things up” and gotten things done in his time in the Senate, including writing a bill to end partial birth abortion, another enacting sanctions on Iran, and “ending welfare as we know it.” Santorum was forceful in reminding the other candidates the need to look out for American workers – an important pitch. His anti-immigration posture stems from concern over flat wages, as does his support of a higher minimum wage, which most Republicans oppose.
Overall, a lot of good ideas and a lot of energy. Each could have stood their ground on the larger stage. Most likely, none will not get that chance.