The long-awaited inaugural Republican debate of the 2016 primary season resembled a low-gas flame — generating a degree of heat, but little light in terms of what voters are looking for: a real, live, practical plan to create good jobs and boost middle-class incomes.
Hardly any fire — and practically no illumination — came from two of the front-runners: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, second and third in the polling order, respectively. Bush seemed rusty, even hesitant, and too detached and cerebral to connect with voters. And Walker, though earnest, scored few points and hardly elevated any pulses.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, probably offered enough of his characteristic bluster to mollify his supporters, who are starving for plain talk at the top of the ticket. But the casino magnate did himself no favors with his refusal to pledge “at this time” to support the ultimate GOP nominee and his unconvincing and often head-scratching responses to charges of misogyny and questions on immigration and financial mismanagement.
Candidates ranked in the middle of the pack did much better, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Huckabee demonstrated his legendary ease on the presidential debate stage with the line of the night, paraphrasing Ronald Reagan with his withering putdown of President Barack Obama’s criticism of Iran deal opponents as “trust but vilify. He trusts our enemies and vilifies everyone who disagrees with him.”
Cruz, the star Princeton debater, was equally compelling, bringing down the house with his pledge that with him as commander-in-chief, “If you join ISIS, if you wage jihad on America, you are signing your death warrant.” And the boyish Rubio may have helped himself the most by combining passion and a focus on the future with presidential-level poise and self-assurance.
But it was left to Christie to spark the most heated exchange in shutting down Rand Paul — who came across as desperate all evening long — for the Kentucky senator’s critique of intelligence-surveillance measures that had benefited the New Jersey governor in terrorism prosecutions.
Having none of Paul’s libertarian-inspired overreaction, Christie bristled, “When you’re sitting in a subcommittee, just blowing hot air about this, you can say things like that” in contrast to “when you’re responsible for protecting the lives of the American people.” Christie also dazzlingly demonstrated his national-security bona fides with his detailed command of military facts and figures.
But for all the rhetorical fireworks, the candidates … left America wanting more when it came to rebooting the U.S. economy and reviving the middle class.
Yes, Ohio Gov. John Kasich stressed “economic growth as key” and Bush unconvincingly rehearsed his line about boosting annual GDP growth to 4 percent and creating 19 million jobs. But no one offered anything other than the same, tired nostrums of cutting taxes and regulations while repealing Obamacare that Mitt Romney tried and failed to sell in 2012.
Listening to the debaters, voters would never know about the chronic un- and underemployment resulting from millions of manufacturing jobs having been shipped abroad. (Friday’s Bureau of Labor Statistics report pegs the labor-force participation rate at 62.6 percent, the lowest since the Jimmy Carter presidency, and notes the number of Americans who have stopped looking for work has hit an all-time high.) Nor would GOP voters know that a treacherous congressional leadership from their own party had just jammed through “Obamatrade” authority to make matters worse.
You’d have no clue about precipitously declining wages and opportunities, undercut by unimpeded immigration displacing both employment among both skilled and unskilled workers. Bush even displayed the chutzpah to attempt to defend his infamous line that illegal immigration is “an act of love” and twice repeated his belief that a “fixed immigration system” is an “economic driver” — as if American strength comes from outside the country, not within.
You’d never know of the mounting federal debt fed by ballooning welfare programs as working people are left to languish, and the assault on the natural family norms that once reinforced our middle class’ ascent. Instead, Christie chased down a fiscal rabbit hole demanding “reforms” of Social Security and Medicare — a crazy idea considering that voters over 50 years of age vote heavily Republican and don’t want earned-benefit programs scaled back — setting up Huckabee to make the case that Social Security shortfalls stem from a broken economy, not a broken system.
Huckabee also came closest to addressing the underlying problem: “A Wall Street-to-Washington axis of power” where the “donor class feeds the political class, who does the dance that the donor class wants.”
Yet neither the former Arkansas governor nor anyone else offered specific ideas for nation-building investments that would generate new jobs, whether reversing U.S. manufacturing decline, pursuing cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s, or rebuilding our antiquated transportation infrastructure.
Rubio triggered laughter by acknowledging that G-d “has blessed the Republican party with some very good candidates. The Democrats can’t even find one.” But it’s no laughing matter when no GOP candidate presses the one issue that matters: job creation.
No matter how much heat they generate, if Republicans don’t produce some bright ideas to restore the middle class, their performance in the 2016 election will prove as ultimately unsatisfying as what took place on the debate stage Thursday night.