Live-Blogging the CNBC Republican Presidential Primary Debate

After a very good week, Hillary Clinton has gone from being highly-  to being extremely-likely to be the Democratic nominee.  Have the Republican Presidential prospects learned anything?  Stay tuned…

Something else to consider: Dr. Ben Carson now leads Donald Trump in Iowa Caucus polling!  That’s the Christian Right vote for sure, and is probably not a transferable asset; Trump still leads by almost as much in nationwide Republican Presidential polling, though Carson is still on the ascent.  The Liberal Ironist is morbidly-curious to see if this is really going to be the year that Republican Presidential Primary voters actually buck historical habit (and good judgment and nominate a non-politician) and nominate a Republican with no political experience whatsoever as their Presidential candidate.  Not every non-politician you could run for President is Dwight Eisenhower (who as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during World War II definitely had impressive prior political experience), and Donald Trump, Dr. Carson, and Carly Fiorina for sure are no Dwights Eisenhower.

10:25 pm: This really was the best Republican Presidential Primary Debate to-date by far.  There were some hard questions here, but they stayed focused on topics the candidates themselves generally wanted to discuss, and those questions inspired some good discussion.

Donald Trump handles post-debate interviews with far more discretion and thought than we’re used to hearing from his campaign speeches and even his debate performances…It’s been asked several times already, but are we witnessing a performance artist?

10:19 pm: Governor Bush says he won’t indulge in divisive rhetoric, that that’s no way to lead.  It occurs to me that the subliminal story behind all the audience boos over panelists’ attempts to set the Presidential hopefuls against each other is that the (slightly trailing) candidates are quite happy to indirectly attack one another (including rather harshly) and hope it will make an impression on watching or listening Republicans.

10:17 pm: Senator Rubio really is the establishment communicator right now.

10:16 pm: Donald Trump is upset because “We lose, we don’t win.”  There’s nothing to talk about here: Donald Trump says Barack Obama deals weakly and he’ll deal strongly.  This coming from an heir to a fortune who has won some and lost some and generally always occupied positions wherein he could bark orders to people.

10:16 pm: Carly Fiorina promises that she is “Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare.”  Fiorina is more-comfortable going on the attack than she is talking about what she believes in or what she wants to do with political power.  Maybe she lacks the presence of mind to grasp the difference.

10:15 pm: Senator Cruz promises to stand up against (any legislation by President Obama or which President Obama could sign).  Vintage Cruz.

10:13 pm: Governor Christie promises he will be a good Realpolitik President, invoking his record in New Jersey.  He is prone to refer to vigilance against Islamist terrorism; the shadow of September 11th is very deep in New Jersey.

10:12 pm: Senator Paul’s closing statement consists of a general enthusiasm to (extremely) limited government, then a promise to filibuster the compromise between Congressional Republicans and President Obama on the 2-year budget.  That filibuster is doomed.  Vintage Paul.  That’s Libertarianism in Federal politics: A statement of general principles, followed by shouting in the storm.

10:08 pm: Dr. Carson says that personal finance must play a role in making seniors’ finances more-secure.  Social conservatives (speaking very broadly) do add 1 element to political debates which is difficult to find elsewhere: They will talk about actions by ordinary citizens outside of government action as a partial (or sometimes, more-naively, total) corrective to policy problems.  I can see the appeal of that call–to a point.

10:06 pm: Governor Bush seeks to reestablish himself as a policy-minded candidate with candor, asserting that he believes his economic plan would lead to 4% annual GDP growth, but that it would still be necessary to restrain Social Security and Medicare spending growth, something Trump was too…vague to commit to.

10:05 pm: “We’re going to bring jobs and industry back.  We’re going to deal with the deficit, and we’re going to fix Social Security and Medicare.”  It’s not hard to understand where much of Donald Trump’s constituency is: There are a lot of ideologically-vague Conservatives who want to be told encouraging things.  Trump’s campaign is a pure cult of personality, with a racist temper.

10:04 pm: Governor Huckabee really likes to talk about public health.  “Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer–You fix those, and you’ve fixed Medicare.”  Huckabee is running as the senior candidate–and when he talks about public health, particularly the health of the elderly, he seems to have a point in doing so.

9:56 pm: Governor Bush, who is himself a Fantasy Football participant (currently 7-0), admits that it might need to be regulated by the government due to a lack of oversight into how money is gambled through it, or how big data can be used to monitor consumer habits through it.  He says that if the NFL cannot oversee it fully, it may have to disassociate itself from it, or that government may have to regulate it.  Governor Christie gets some applause with a Seinfeldian, “Are we really talking about having government regulate Fantasy Football?  Let them play it.  Who cares?”

9:50 pm: Governor Christie stays on the question of threats to the moral authority of public servants, noting FBI Director James Comey’s recent inference from a rising crime rate in some cities that, due to a heightened scrutiny and apparent loss of public confidence, police seem to be ambivalent to engage in the face of possible acts of lawbreaking.  He speaks well on the point, but it doesn’t carry to other debate participants.

9:49 pm: Governor Huckabee is asked if he believes that Donald Trump has the moral authority he needs to be President.  Boos from the audience!  Lots of boos!

Considering Governor Huckabee (and many Republicans) have called for a President who possesses greater moral authority, it’s hard to see how this is an unfair question.  Think about Donald Trump’s life, and especially the tenor of his campaign.

Governor Huckabee, a Baptist Minister by vocation, defends Trump.  Trump intejects “What a nasty question–Thank you Governor,” and Huckabee immediately attacks Secretary Clinton.

9:47 pm: Trump is asked if he would feel more comfortable if his own employees were armed (you know, in self-defense).  He responds (very unconvincingly) that he probably would…He really does look uncomfortable thinking about the prospect.

9:46 pmSenator Rubio says we need to reform our immigration laws to make naturalization to the United States more merit-based (essentially removing family immigration privileges).  Senator Rubio’s “bow to political prudence” in joining his fellow Republicans back in the Coolidge era is sad to see.  He had what I would call a redeeming quality on policy; now I don’t see how he is distinguishable on substance from a Tea Partier.

9:45 pm: Donald Trump insists that “(immigrants) have to come into the country legally.”  He has tapped into a refrain that has been typical of the Right since George W. Bush proposed what is essentially the current comprehensive immigration reform proposal back in 2004.

9:39 pm: Governor Kasich gets a question about marijuana reform.  The debate is being hosted in Colorado; the State has seen scores of millions of dollars in new revenues from its full legalization of marijuana by popular referendum.  Governor Kasich’s answer is a celebration of State policy innovation: Let 50 flowers bloom.  He lands neatly on what he has accomplished in almost 5 years as Governor of Ohio.  (He was re-elected just shy of a year ago with 64% of the vote.)  Republican Governors consistently have more to say for themselves than Republicans in Congress, at least when they ask the American people for a promotion.

9:34 pm: Governor Bush decries the fact that about the bottom 1/2 of Americans on the income scale pay no Federal income tax (which is true), and again uses that phrase, popular among Conservatives, that we “lower the rates and broaden the base.”  How can Republican Presidential candidates continue to claim that they can lower taxes on the rich and deal with the Federal budget deficit while also not raising taxes on the working class?  If you’re already lowering tax rates on the rich, you can’t get a whole lot of money back by taking away their deductions!

Naturally, this segues into a debate over whether Senator Rubio’s tax cut would effect a tax increase on the working class.  He denies that it would (wow).

Point of interest: George W. Bush cut taxes on the rich, the middle class, and the lower-middle class in 2001; that was what he spent the Clinton-Republican budget surplus of the 1990s on.  No one was soap boxing on budget deficits, you see; it was still possible to be ideological without being cruel then.

9:29 pm: Senators Cruz and Paul have a love-in over their bill to audit the Federal Reserve Bank.  I’m not sure what they expect to find, but I imagine another Congressional (Republican) trip up a creek with a small lamp.

9:26 pm: Senator Rubio says “The Democratic Party has the biggest super-PAC there is: It’s the mainstream media.”  Thunderous applause.  Pressing his luck (without suffering injury), Senator Rubio claims that the 11 HOUR Congressional hearing actually caught Secretary Clinton’s deception in her emails…Ugh, yawn.

9:25 pm: Trump rails against super-PACs–again!  He calls them a scam and says they have degraded the tenor of national political campaigns.  (Wow!)  There is a lot of evidence now that Conservative or Tea Party-themed super-PACs are in fact often multilevel marketing campaigns.

9:23 pm: Senator Rubio has a smart proposal for the H1-B (foreign workers in the tech industry) visa: Increase the rate at which such visas can be issued, but require that any tech job which an tech company wants to offer to a foreign worker on this visa to be advertised for 180 days, then pay the foreign worker more than a domestic worker would have been offered, then bar companies that fail to follow these regulations from ever using the H1-B visa program again.

Interestingly, when asked about his apparent stated criticism of Rubio’s stand on this issue, Donald Trump expresses his strong support for the H1-B visa program and says that he has no problem with Rubio’s proposal.  His panel questioner wonders where she heard that he made this assertion, and he shrugs: “I don’t know, you guys write this stuff.  I don’t know where you get it.”

9:15 pm: Carly Fiorina says that it’s hypocritical for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to campaign as the prospective first woman President when Barack Obama’s policies (by implication Secretary Clinton’s policies) have been so disastrous (supposedly) for women.  This point really doesn’t make any sense; that just goes to show that, in Presidential politics, you can sometimes make claims that make no sense upon inspection–as long as you state them very slowly and in a low pitch.

9:12 pm: Governor Kasich calls for raising government revenues through increasing economic activity.  He then calls for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  That’s a doomed dual rallying call for the man who wants to return to Congress.  (In the 1990s John Kasich was a prominent Republican Congressman).  In Ohio, Governor Kasich raised a lot of revenue by allowing hydraulic fracturing of natural gas, as disparagingly noted by Donald Trump.  The United States does not enjoy Ohio’s relatively simple fiscal (and geographical) incentives to just drill for more natural gas and tax it.

9:08 pm: Ms. Fiorina, in response to a question about the controversy surrounding online retailers that don’t pay sales taxes (an incentive created early in the Internet era which now disadvantages traditional brick-and-mortar retailers that employ more people and also pay property taxes), she says that government created a problem by creating the special incentive for Internet retailers in the first place.  She gives other examples, claiming that the Federal Government maintaining low student loan rates and FCC maintenance of Net Neutrality is more of the same: Government imposes an arbitrary policy to address one problem, and the result is harmful market distortions.  That’s a case of smart reference to a general Republican talking point.

9:06 pm: Asked if he would support a deal in which Democrats offered $10 in budget cuts for $1 in tax increases, Governor Bush says that for a Democratic offer like that, “I’ve give (such a Democrat) a warm kiss.”  I guess that’s a yes.

9:03 pm: Noting that he had previously said that no executive during the bailout era went to jail for negligence, Cramer asks Governor Christie if anyone at General Motors should go to jail for hundreds of deaths in vehicular accidents caused by faulty acceleration switches in their cars.  Christie, a former prosecutor, answers that government should regulate business less, but that the Federal Government needs a more-aggressive attorney general to prosecute lawbreaking by business.

That’s a bold call from a Governor of New Jersey–like, maybe any of them.

9:02 pm: Cramer’s question was about whether the government should be involved in price-setting for prescription drugs through various entitlements and regulations.  Dr. Carson answers that government over-regulates many aspects of business.  Cramer, a very conservative Democrat, seems genuinely appreciative when he says “Thank you, Dr. Carson.”

9:01 pm: Jim Cramer!  Will he shout “They know NOTHING!”?

8:54 pm: Senator Cruz still believes in President Reagan’s 11th Commandment (“Never insult a fellow Republican”)–just not for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom he called a “liar” on the Senate floor.  He refers to an exchange between Governors Huckabee and Christie as “good,” saying they are “both right.”

Governor Huckabee had made a clever argument for a Republican, arguing that Social Security and Medicare are not welfare programs because the programs are funded through “their money: They already paid into the system.”  Actually, it’s your money if you are working now, as Social Security checks and Medicare services are both funded contemporaneously out of the payroll tax in your paycheck–You, the contemporary American worker, pay for the benefits of current program recipients.

Governor Christie accused Governor Huckabee of engaging in fantasy, saying that Social Security and Medicare are dangerously insolvent.  (Don’t cry that the sky is falling before it is, Chris.)  That’s actually a pretty big difference in perspective and policy among Republican Presidential contenders.  Huckabee’s defense of Social Security and Medicare, while inaccurate in principle, is far more politically-canny; Republicans are deeply-reliant on White retirees today.

8:48 pm: Senator Paul is asked about his opposition to outgoing House Speaker John Boehnor (R-OH)’s 2-year budget deal with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and President Obama, saying that the deal is taking money from Medicare and Social Security over several years to meet discretionary spending preferences now.  (The truth is that Medicare spending needs to be restrained over the longer-term, which I’m sure Senator Paul agrees with.)  He temporizes, declining to make an ideological argument about steep across-the-board budget cuts which we know he wants.  (They’re in his budget proposal.)

8:47 pm: Chaos.  Senator Cruz started it.

Senator Cruz had been asked about what to do about the Federal debt limit, and he saw this as yet-another opportunity to go after the mainstream media for bias.  (It’s just…not as convincing when Senator Cruz does it as when Senator Rubio does it.)  He said that the Republicans onstage each have more wisdom and prudence than any of the Democrats running for President.  “Their last debate was like a debate between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.”  Yeah, this guy is capable of acting in elected office outside of the deep South effectively…

8:43 pm: In response to a difficult question about her firing as CEO of HP, Ms. Fiorina responds that “politics” forced her out of the boardroom–an answer that people who are just difficult to work with frequently give–and that Tom Perkins later expressed regret about her firing, and said that she had, upon closer inspection, been a good CEO.

In response, Fiorina was asked about Perkins’ controversial statement earlier this year, that wealthy Americans should get more votes than poor Americans.  (Wow, as if they weren’t benefiting from good fortune enough already.)  Fiorina’s answer is clever but flippant: “Well, now you see why Perkins and I had disagreements in the boardroom!”  Maybe we do, maybe.  Fiorina steers away from Scylla while there is no Charybdis on the other side of her ship.

8:39 pm: Governor Bush tells Senator Rubio that he’s not on a French work week; if he isn’t going to show up for work–Bush notes that he had supported Rubio not just as a mentor but as a constituent, and that he considers Rubio to be coming up short on constituent service.  He tells him to “Show up for work–or resign!”  The Senator fires back that Governor Bush had said he now wanted to model his campaign on Senator McCain’s comeback campaign–and that Senator McCain skipped many votes to campaign and is still a mover-and-shaker in the U.S. Senate!  Hah!

8:37 pm: Senator Rubio gets the hard question about the Sun-Sentinel editorial: “Rubio should resign, rather than keep ripping us off.”  A panel moderator notes that Senator Rubio has missed most of his Senate votes so far in the 114th Congress…and Senator Rubio notes that Senator Graham and then-Senator Obama missed a lot of Senate votes–fewer than him–while campaigning for re-election or for President, and notes that the Sun-Sentinel endorsed Graham while the papers didn’t criticize Obama’s absence.  “This is just another example of the mainstream media’s bias against Conservatives in politics.”

Judging by the crowd’s reaction, Senator Rubio just hit a fastball out of the park.

Let’s go Mets!

8:36 pm: Carly Fiorina grandstands a bit on tax reform, noting that about 60% of Americans hire a tax professional to help them understand the available income tax deductions.  She might do better tonight on substance, in a domestic policy debate.

8:28 pm: Dr. Carson was told that his tax plan would create multiple trillions of dollars of new debt that practically couldn’t result in a balanced budget through spending cuts, and he disputes the numbers.  That’s going to be hard to do with a panel of political journalists from CNBC, who are probably all briefed on aggregate budget forecasts.  Through the narrowed eyes from which he exudes that charming calm, Dr. Carson is probably aware that he has a large support base in the Christian Right that feels appreciation to the point of fidelity to him because of his consistency…and his stubborn lack of regard for what those not in the Christian Right think of him.

Governor Kasich criticizes multiple candidates on the stage for their pie-in-the-sky tax and budget proposals in their Presidential candidacy.  I wonder if the Republican Establishment will ever take a serious interest in Kasich as a possible redeemer for next year.

Trump jumps on Governor Kasich, noting his low poll numbers (outside of Ohio), criticizing Ohio’s reliance on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas as a source of revenue, and saying that Kasich was on the Board of Managers at Lehman Brothers in 2008.  (Ouch!)  Trump will attack his opponents onstage in Republican Presidential Primary debates from the left.

Kasich seems eager to defend his record.  He notes Ohio has a diverse (and diversifying) energy industry, including renewable energy production.  He also corrects Trump, saying he was not on the Board of Managers at Lehman Brothers, but that he was a banker, and that this helped him to learn about business at the local level.  (What, Trump got his facts wrong?)

8:18 pm: “You guys know that in a lot of job interviews, you get the question: ‘What is your biggest weakness?’  Now, in 30 seconds, without saying ‘I work too hard’…what is your greatest weakness?”

Governor Kasich ignores the call for probity and makes a campaign plug.  He isn’t a superficial candidate, but as a moderate-Conservative he’s just desperate to stand-out in this field.

Governor Bush tells us our greatest days lie ahead.

Senator Rubio says our greatest days lie ahead.

Donald Trump answers the question!  Wow!  He answers this question seriously!  He says his greatest weakness is that he is trusting of people whom he relies upon to a fault.  And then, if he feels that his trust or expectations are conclusively not met, he never forgets and tends to hold grudges.  He says his wife noted this about him and told him to let-up.  That was actually a good answer.

Dr. Carson says perhaps his biggest weakness was that he couldn’t imagine himself as President until hundreds of thousands (of the Conservative grass-roots) called upon him to run for President.  That wasn’t his greatest weakness, it was his modesty and his good sense, and it’s on hold now.

Carly Fiorina joked that she has been told since the last debate that she should smile more.  Either she sees this question as just a losing proposition for her in 30 seconds or less, or else she lacks self-knowledge.

Ted Cruz jokes that his greatest weakness is that he’s too agreeable, then he gives a serious answer that he’s too passionate and too prone to confrontation over his beliefs.  He is, and that is indeed a great weakness.  I would sooner say, maybe, that it’s his cynical opportunism, his “failure to distinguish fame from celebrity,” as Christopher Lasch would put it, and his inability to make friends in his chosen profession is his greatest weakness, but at least it’s a substantive answer.

Governor Christie, with his own character now much in controversy both within New Jersey and without, declines to answer the question, instead talking about what he perceives as the flaws in the Democratic Presidential prospects.  That ought to increase confidence in his sense of perspective…

Senator Paul also answers the question by not addressing it.


8:15 pm: CNBC goes for a…kinda funny dramatic opening.  I like it, but I’m not sure it’s for the right reasons.  I feel like the Mets-Royals World Series is a more authentic serious tone.


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