Live-Blogging the CNN Republican Presidential Debate in Las Vegas

After ugly outbursts of Islamist terrorism in Paris, France and San Bernardino, California, terrorism and the strategic challenge posed by the Islamic State have emerged as key points of concern and conflict in tonight’s Republican Presidential debate.

Ecccentric real estate billionaire and reality TV antihero Donald Trump in particular has been a further beneficiary of the fearful (and angry) reaction to the resurging trend of Islamist violence outside of Syria and Iraq, one-upping House Republicans’ recent and cowardly efforts to block resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees of civil war violence in the United States by calling to bar non-American Muslims from travel to the United States.  Many, many Republicans (but notably not Senator Ted Cruz of Texas) have criticized these comments as not only un-American and stimulative of our worst impulses, but also positively dangerous and a possible boon to Islamist radicalization and terrorist recruiting.

Since calling for barring foreign Muslims entry to the United States, Trump has actually broken the 40% mark in national Republican Presidential Primary polling in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling for the first time.  Tactically if not ethically, it seems this bigoted populist can do no wrong.  This is the last opportunity for half a dozen other Republican prospects–particularly Senators Cruz and Rubio, widely recognized as the current 2nd and 3rd-placers–to outshine the Republican candidate of the lowest common denominator in prime time.  Here we go…

11:07 pm: Talking about what Trump has said–regardless of whether he has made a new outrageous statement or not–is boring.  “We don’t win anymore,” and if we elect Donald Trump, “We will win again.”  It’s almost like a deliberate parody of Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” talk, as if the 1980s actually cured the growing insecurity of middle-class life in the United States.

11:05 pm: Senator Cruz is unable to explain why he is running for President without mentioning  Barack Obama than Ronald Reagan.  Most political candidates have ideas; all Cruz has is brand loyalty.

11:03 pm: Senator Rubio reaffirms the American dream and calls for rebuilding US military and intelligence apparatus.  He’s still the most-interesting to listen to.

10:59 pm: Senator Paul thinks that the greatest threat to our national security is our national debt.  Terrorism, global warming, nuclear proliferation, a new financial crisis, the Middle East, North Korea, Russia…”Oh, God!  Quick, let’s all become Libertarians!”

I don’t see it; nor does almost anyone else, for that matter.

10:52 pm: Senator Cruz really loves pandering to fools.  He says that President Reagan defeated Communism (which he didn’t do) by “committing all of his forces to defeating” Communism, and claims that President Obama hasn’t done the same.  (I guess Cruz is suggesting he just doesn’t feel like it.)  I wonder if he thinks that George W. Bush’s problem was that he just…wasn’t committed-enough to destroying al-Qaeda.

How did he get on this subject?  Oh, we was asked some vintage CNN nonsense about  something he said “behind closed doors” about Donald Trump and his temperament, whatever.

10:46 pm-10:50 pm: Several Republican Presidential candidates say that the military should be expanded and its equipment modernized.  They’re right.

10:45 pm: Governor Christie calls for retaliatory cyber-attacks against the People’s Republic of China to release compromising information about official policy and official corruption to the Chinese people.  He criticizes President Obama for being unresponsive to cyber-attacks by certain political interests in China.  He has a point–but he of course tries to implicate Clinton in this inaction, which is both inaccurate and probably very misleading.

Governor Bush strongly seconds Christie’s sentiments regarding our right to retaliatory cyber-attacks.  I have no idea just what kind of effect that would have on Chinese foreign policy or Chinese politics; we are in uncharted territory here, and what is being discussed is too vague–for now.

10:42 pm: In response to a question about North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Ms. Fiorina showcases her foreign policy acumen by calling China a rising threat.  So many Republicans spouting-off like angry couch surfers who will never be President…

10:36 pm: It’s sad to see what has become of Governor Christie.  He didn’t rub me the wrong way in his first term as Governor of New Jersey the way he did many Liberals, but hearing him pander so dully to sentiments that the government is dysfunctional and ineffective–and that women can be terrorists too–as a complete argument for closing the door to tens of thousands of refugees from Syria just makes Christie look every bit the thug his critics have said he is.  Populist anger is a stinky cologne, Chris.

10:33 pm: Senator Rubio says that if we allow 100 Syrian refugees into the country whom are fleeing violence, and 1 of them turns out to be “an ISIS killer,” then “we have a problem.”  I agree that we would have a problem in that case, but that hypothetical proportion is utter nonsense.  Republicans in Congress have simply ignored the process or the length of the wait involved in processing refugees entering the United States.

10:32 pm: Dr. Carson, while eagerly dropping the names of Middle Eastern locales, assures us that the best thing to do would be to keep Syrian refugees in refugee camps in the Middle East…preferably somewhere in Syria…so that they can more-easily be re-settled in Syria over the longer term.

10:30 pm: Governor Bush criticizes President Obama for declining to do anything to implement immigration reform to maintain it as a wedge issue; all he is able to come up with as a demonstration of this is slow construction progress on the border fence.  WOULD HE LIKE TO TALK TO THE HOUSE REPUBLICANS THAT REFUSED TO EVEN VOTE ON THE BILL THAT PASSED THE SENATE AND WAS PREVIOUSLY ENDORSED BY THE PRESIDENT?  Republicans really are determined to run on their own near-decade of Congressional intransigence.

10:21 pm: Senator Rubio gets the question about his co-sponsorship 2 years ago, along with Senate Democrats, of an immigration reform law that would allow illegal immigrants to remain in the United States and work, pay back taxes, and start an application for citizenship.  (Broadly-speaking, both President Obama and President W. Bush before him have called for exactly the same reform.)  He finally, after being backed into a rhetorical corner, admits he is still open to allowing immigrants who either entered or remained in the United States illegally an opportunity to stay and apply for citizenship.

During the following exchange with Senator Cruz, he points out that Cruz de facto supports allowing some illegal immigrants to remain in the United States and expanding work visas for specialized workers.

This leads to a 4-way shouting match between moderator Dana Bash, Senators  Rubio and Cruz, and Ms. Fiorina, who says that this is why people are fed up with politicians–and then tries to insert herself into the political debate.

10:13 pm: “It seems that if you want World War III, you already have your candidate!”  The noninterventionist Senator Paul gestures towards the Neoconservative Governor Christie.  He decries Christie’s promise to shoot down Russian planes in enforcement of a no-fly zone in Syria.  I agree that that’s a pretty scary thing to promise just to burnish your credentials as a hawk during a foreign policy debate, and I side with the hawks in substance.

10:09 pm: Governor Christie just called for backing out of the nuclear agreement with Iran…because Iran needs to be watched.  He says that Iran and the Islamic State “are inextricably linked.”  That will come as news to the Islamic State, as they broke from the umbrella organization of al-Qaeda because the older terrorist organization disagreed with its policy of mass murder of Shi’a Muslims.  Iran is a Shi’a Muslim theocracy sponsoring the incumbent regime in Syria which the Islamic State would like to replace.

10:06 pm: Senator Cruz tries to steamroll a moderator and re-litigate a past argument.  Wolf finally gets the lawyer to quiet down by reminding him that he is violating debate terms he previously agreed to.  There you see the most-hated man in the U.S. Senate at work.

10:02 pm: Former HP executive Carly Fiorina criticizes Trump for…saying the government should spend money on roads.  Wow.

9:57 pm: This is tiring to watch.  Senator Cruz blames the Obama Administration for the Libyan uprising and (more-ridiculously) the overthrow of President Mubarak in Egypt.  He reduces the Muslim Brotherhood, a widespread party in Egypt, to a radical Islamist group.  The Obama Administration, in Cruz’s worldview, simply controls events in the Middle East, and there are no moderates involved in contentious politics in Islamic nations.  In his response he refers to them as “purple unicorns.”

Senator Rubio passionately defends intervention on behalf of Libyan rebels in 2011 (which is both courageous and smart of him), and makes the additional daring claim (which is probably spot-on) that Colonel Gaddafi was a state sponsor of terrorism with a long record, and that he only moved towards greater cooperation with the United States in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Governor Kasich, in turn, also affirms as Rubio did that there are moderate political forces among those who call for revolution in the most-despotic Middle Eastern regimes.

9:55 pm: During the commercial break, there is a re-election ad for President Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian antihero of House of Cards.  It is awesome.

9:48 pm: Senator Rubio, with great presence of mind, blames Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for essentially creating the civil war in Syria in order to force a political choice between the incumbent family-led single-party regime and chaos in Syria.  He would make a serious foreign-policy candidate, a challenger to Secretary of State Clinton on her strong suit.

9:44 pm: Donald Trump got applause (though not resounding applause) when he accused Senator Paul of saying that “They can kill us, but we can’t kill them,” but loud boos from when he called for China-like restrictions on the Internet (which I agree is weird and scary talk).  There’s definitely a very particular sort of crowd in the room tonight.

9:42 pm: Dr. Carson gets some of the loudest applause of the night for no other reason than because he was asked if the punishing air attacks he called for against the Islamic State would kill thousands of civilians.  Watch the exchange: He got huge applause because he was asked that question about his own military strategy.

9:40 pm: “Donald, you aren’t going to be able to insult your way into the Presidency.  That isn’t going to happen.”  That’s Governor Bush, calling a toupee a toupee.  It’s the right thing to say, it sounds right and it goes over well; it won’t stick.  It never sticks.

9:3o pm: Wolf tries to get Senator Cruz to admit that he has implied he would use Vietnam-style massive bombing campaigns against the Islamic State, which in its home territories of eastern Syria and western Iraq could kill thousands of civilians.  He says he wants those airstrikes to be surgical…which would leave us with the approach President Obama is following already.

Senator Rubio calls for expanding the military budget, notes that the Islamic State can’t be completely destroyed by air strikes, and criticizes Senator Cruz for what a short-sighted support of military budgets that were constrained by deep sequestration budgets cuts that weren’t in the interest of US Defense policy.  Rubio is consistently impressive in discussing Defense, foreign, intelligence and national security policy.  He’s shining onstage tonight.

9:22 pm: Governor Jeb Bush says that his brother, President George W. Bush’s words that the United States is at war with terrorist groups and not in a civilizational war against Islam or against Muslims”are still relevant if we want to destroy ISIS.  We can’t disassociate ourselves from peace-loving Muslims.”  The pushback against Trump’s (and Cruz’s, and Carson’s) general advocacy of closing-off the country in various ways to different groups of apparently-threatening people is interesting in that it is now very coherent and certainly going to stay, but it hasn’t actually advanced against Trump and his supporters among Republicans.

9:18 pm: Senator Paul attacks Senator Rubio from the right on immigration; Rubio comes back pretty strong, defending the NSA’s controversial surveillance programs and calling further measures to restrict immigration as trivial in comparison to the ambiguous location of future terrorism threats.

9:13 pm: CNN’s Dana Bash points out that Senator Cruz supported the USA Freedom Act and its proscription of the NSA metadata collection.  She asks if he changed his mind in light of the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks.  He rejects the premise of her question.  Don’t forget that he is a Harvard-trained lawyer…

9:07 pm: Senator Cruz explains his emphasis on the Islamic religious beliefs and identity of the terrorists and terrorist groups we have been fighting since 2001 with a metaphor he learned from his father: “All horse thieves are Democrats–but not all Democrats are horse thieves.”  He doesn’t hate all Muslims or such; he’s just close-minded and shallow and can’t really function professionally outside of confrontation.  OK, I understand.

9:05 pm: Senator Rubio criticizes Trump on much the same terms that Governor Bush did, but the debate is like a river, stopping for no one and always flowing downhill.  The conversation moves on.

9:02 pm: Governor Bush attacks Trump’s call to bar foreign Muslims from entry into the United States as “not a serious proposal.”  Trump dismisses him as an ankle-biter, claiming that Bush is “cynically” challenging him from behind when his campaign is nonexistent.  Trump avoids–studiously–addressing the charge that his fortress America talk is a fantasy and a counterproductive vision.

9:10 pm: Governor Christie is being blamed for de-fanging the NSA.  (He’s referring to the USA Freedom Act, an amending update of the USA PATRIOT Act that restricted telephone metadata-gathering procedures of the NSA.)  This time 2 years ago, President Obama was being accused of dictatorial ambitions–in so many words–because of the power of the NSA, which I should add was subject to FISA Court oversight.

Good thing I have my sense of humor.

9:00 pm: Donald Trump gets Wolf’s first question of the night.  (Ugh…)  He defends his recent comments about barring foreign Muslims from entering the United States on strictly national security grounds; oddly, he promptly seeks to link this cause to his call to build a wall along the US-Mexico border and to deport all illegal immigrants–including those who have been given provisional residency by President Obama through executive order.  There is applause–not thunderous and overpowering, but definitely sustained.

8:57 pm: Senator Cruz talks slowly and stiffly.  He’s trying to look strong while pledging to take the fight to Islamic terrorism and to “utterly destroy” the Islamic State.  He isn’t a very impressive performance artist.

8:51 pm: Governor Christie condemns President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton for leaving America an endangered place.  Simply-put, Christie knows better than to judge a President simply for whether terrorism simply happens; I’m saying that on the assumption that he has the perception and judgment in confronting issues of law-enforcement and terrorism as he says.

Also, it’s frustrating, after all that President Obama has tried to do–much of which Governor Christie sustained in New Jersey–to stem gun violence in this country, to see a Republican Presidential candidate talk in such indignant tones as if he doesn’t care or understand that this country has an epidemic homicide problem.

8:50 pm: Governor Kasich, interestingly, chooses to spend a little more time talking bread and butter issues.  He was a bit of a policy man as a House Republican in the 1990s and a very popular Governor of Ohio early in his 2nd term; he is going to be a domestic policy candidate, period.

8:49 pm: “Today is the Bill of Rights’ anniversary: I hope you will cherish that in the fight against terrorism.”  Senator Paul speaks in general terms against Trump’s comments on barring non-American Muslims from entry into the United States, and almost links that by implication to other, more-standard counterterrorism tools and approaches.  He also calls for “Arab boots on the ground” in Syria and the Iraqi war theater to fight the Islamic State.  Uh, good luck?

8:48 pm: HAH! the debate bell is still used to cue a Presidential hopeful that their speaking time is up.

8:45 pm-8:47 pm: A discrete singing of our national anthem: The land of the free and the home of the brave.  Many silent, hearts beating.

8:44 pm: Even just walking onstage, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) really is just more-interesting to look at.  Charisma is a hell of an advantage in politics.

8:43 pm: “I’m Wolf Blitzer, your moderator tonight.”  Well, folks, we’re already off to a rough start right there.  Let’s get ready to AAARRGGH!

8:34 pm: “I think we all agree that any one of these candidates here onstage would be a world better than Hillary Clinton.  Are you with me?” -Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, calling on attending and viewing Republicans to close ranks in the minutes before the last Republican Presidential Debate before the Iowa Caucus.

No, I’m definitely not with him, but it’s interesting to see the RNC Chair try to head-off criticism as much as half a year in advance as the Republican Party leadership seriously debates holding a contested convention brokered by elites–the sort of thing that used to happen 50 years ago and earlier–rather than let Donald Trump–or no one–win this primary cycle.


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