My Reaction to a 2008 Republican Primary Debate

The Republicans were pretty much doomed to failure this cycle following Bush and the Great Recession. On some level I’m sure even they knew that. I think McCain from 2000 was a great candidate and would have made a good President, and I remember seeing him on the morning news before school around the beginning of the ’08 election and thinking he was a really down to earth, likable guy. I preferred Obama, but I wasn’t dreading the thought of a Republican victory should McCain win. Like a lot of people though, I lost some faith in him with the VP choice, and how he wasn’t really speaking to the needs of the average American hurting for money and dignity—just tired Conservative “bootstraps!!” platitudes come the general. I’ve heard a lot of people say 2008 is where McCain sold out his old “maverick” values to win. I’m gonna see if that’s reflected here. Also, I’m curious to see if the GOP maybe tried to moderate a bit this cycle, or at least take a stand against GWB’s neoconservative agenda which had proven wildly unpopular in an attempt to woo back some people who’d become disenchanted over the last 8 years.

Mitt Romney, was the front runner (!!) at this early stage in the race. Then there’s Giuliani. Huckabee, who as I recall was the evangelical nut this cycle in the vein of Buchanan and Cruz. Some unfamiliar names to me include Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo, Tommy Thompson and Duncan Hunter. Finally we have Ron Paul, whom I recall was the Libertarian candidate this cycle and as I recall, popular among the younger crowd on the internet.

For me personally, the Paul-faction represents the best possible long term evolution of the Right-wing in America. I’d love it for Republicans to actually be a party of small government, fiscal conservatism and personal responsibility as they claim and I think they’d do great electorally if they stood by such values. I wish they would drop the evangelical/social conservative stuff by saying “it’s not the government’s business who you screw, marry, or the gender you present/dress as, nor is it our business what you smoke, consume or drink in your spare time.” The vast majority of Americans identify as socially liberal, fiscally conservative and a party that actually embodies this would do well following a few rough years during the purge of the toxic evangelical and xenophobic wings of the party. As is, the Republicans are just the crony capitalist, “too big to fail,” prop-up-failing-businesses, Reganomics party, same as the Centrist wing of the Democrats, but with a little minority bashing to taste. It’d be nice if we had a real ideological choice between Paul-style fiscal conservatism and Bernie-style social democracy.

Attack Ads and the Prelude to Trump

I’m not sure how I feel about starting the debate off with Brownback’s anti-Romney ad. On some level I think it’s good to hold people’s feet to the fire on negative ads they run. But I also think they do Romney (the attacked) no favors by making him defend himself against whatever bullshit the other candidates throw around in their attack ads. It’s similar to how Dean had to spend the entire Iowa debate of 2004 on the defensive because of the ridiculous charges thrown against him and thus had little time to discuss his own platform. Plus, I think these debates ought to be about the candidates’ stands on the issues, nothing more. They should have just brought up the subject of abortion and let Romney clarify that he’s pro-life, that would clarify his real position without forcing him to answer to another man’s baseless attack.

It’s possibly too early to say, especially without seeing even one 2012 debate yet, but could this focus on insults and negativity also have helped cause the perfect environment for Trump to rise? The 2016 GOP debates were a complete and total farce. Absolutely no policy discussion at all, just ad hominems and forcing the candidates to respond to whatever ridiculous attacks Trump had posted on twitter the previous week. It would be fascinating to think the trend began this far back. Anyway, this 2-4 minute segment is completely asinine. It’s just Brownback saying over and over again “[Romney’s] pro-choice. [Romney’s] pro-choice.” And Romney saying “I’m pro-life. I’m pro-life.” over and over. Nothing productive comes of it, it’s schoolyard “nuh-uh/yeah-huh!” nonsense that’s beneath the dignity of a presidential debate.

As this goes on, I can see why Mitt nosedived soon enough in this contest. Right after they got him to condemn negative ads and say nobody but the candidate themselves can accurately sum up their stance on the issues, they then play a clip of Mitt himself attacking Giuliani with similar “he’s pro-life! And pro-LGBT!” attacks. Ouch, a perfectly executed “gotcha!” setup and he walked right into it. Not a good look at all. Romney just comes off like a total bumbler here, trying to downplay his own underhanded remarks “I think Rudy’s a great guy…he wasn’t a candidate yet…I understand him a lot better now…” He starts stuttering and looks weak, two faced and desperate. Really, this one moment sums up why Mitt was never cut out to win a national election—he just doesn’t have the ability to think on his feet. You see it in his famous debate with Ted Kennedy, you see it with Obama kicking his ass to an unprecedented level in the 2012 general debates, I expect we’ll see it in the 2012 primaries, and here it is again. The man is just completely incapable of not putting his foot in his mouth. Every time Romney tries to be a big tough guy and attack, he walks into an obvious trap and looks like a moron as he saunters off to lick his wounds in the corner.

ASIDE: That said, I think Romney’s correct that this debate ought to be the candidates describing their own views, not playing attack ads where they describe each other. What’s honestly the point of the latter? It just incentivizes being the meanest and most willing to lie about your opponents rather than encouraging intelligence and thoroughness in policy. You can see, yet again, the seeds of Trumpism being planted here.

Its pretty surreal seeing how long they drag this pro-life topic out, having each candidate go one after the other circle-jerking over just how pro-life they are. You’ve even got McCain trying to argue it’s an issue of national security (!!!) for crying out loud. I have my issues with the Democratic Party, that’s for damn sure. But at least at their debates they talk about actual GOVERNING and policies that will move America forward. It’s not just chest bumping about who checks off more conservative/evangelical bingo card points and who will waste the most time trying to overturn Supreme Court decisions and set women’s rights back 40 years. I understand it’s a divisive issue and I do acknowledge that if you think it’s murder, this is be a big deal to you. But come on. Surely there’s better things to talk about after so long? Even the audience looks bored as hell, some almost seem to be suppressing eye rolls and sighs, every time the camera pans to them during this segment. While his pivot from abortion to Radical Islamic Terrorism is bizarre and ridiculous, I’m actually grateful to McCain for trying to get the debate onto another topic.

Iraq War

When they do finally move on to Iraq, Ron Paul gets massive positive response when he answers the question “whats your strategy to win the war in Iraq?” with “Just come home.” Perfect demonstration of how unpopular the war had become even to the party who started it. Ron Paul gets no less than three huge rounds of applause by criticizing US foreign policy and illegal warmongering since Korea. It’s clear there’s an audience for his kind of message, and that for a lot of conservatives, the military industrial complex and war profiteering are part of the “big government” they dislike so much. Nobody wants Neoconservatism, yet both parties push it, and the “fringe” candidates at both parties’ primaries who speak out against our war crimes are snuffed out each cycle. It’s outrageous.

Almost on cue, Hunter comes in to chastise Paul and (just like with Dean in 2004) accuse him of not supporting the troops, bizarrely receiving a contradictory round of applause. That go-to attack about not supporting the troops anytime someone comes out against unnecessary, unproductive and unpopular wars has got to be the single most annoying thing about American politics, which is saying a lot. It’s such a misguided outlook at best, intentionally Orwellian double-speak at worst in how it insinuates that the people who want to keep our troops from fighting in the first place somehow don’t love or care about them, yet the people who use them as cannon fodder and then under fund the VA do. The ridiculous hero worship of troops while not providing what veterans actually need makes me want to punch the screen. It’s not patriotism, it’s using our servicemen and women as political pawns, both to win elections at home and pursue imperialism abroad.

I like what Brownback is saying, about how the troops have done well but the political situation has deteriorated due to weak and divided Iraqi leadership. Really, the solution should have been to divide Iraq in three—it never should have been merged into one artificial country to begin with post-WWI. (Biden seemed to be hinting at a similar plan in the Democratic debate.) McCain throws that idea out the window outright and uses a flimsy at best anecdote about Iraqis holding up Iraqi flags at a soccer match to “prove” there is the will for it to remain one country. I do think he’s right that we had to stay until the job was done. It wasn’t the popular thing to say, and again we never should have gone in in the first place, but once broken we had to fix it. We didn’t, that left a power vacuum and now we have ISIS running amok there and even worse instability in the Middle East.

Anyway, Giuliani and Romney seem to agree more or less with McCain’s position. Romney in particular calls out Obama personally, calling him Dr. Strangelove and accusing him of wanting to bomb our allies in Iraq. If Mitt only knew how thorough a shellacking he’d receive at Obama’s hands four years later.

I like Thompson’s position, saying America taking on the whole burden of war and passing this insurmountable debt to the next generation isn’t doing us any good.

We come back to Ron Paul who reiterates a lot of his earlier points in more detail, and proves himself the single most honorable, electable person on stage. By contrast, if you needed more proof what a smarmy huckster Mitt Romney is, he makes the sarcastic quip “has he forgotten about 9/11?” when Ron breaks for a pause after finishing a sentence. Yeah, because Iraq totally did 9/11, Mitt. Way to perpetuate the greatest exploitation of grief and patriotism in American history. Maybe we should have invaded Iran after the Boston Bombing just because we needed someone else to take our anger out on. (I kid, but for real I could totally see something like that happening in the future.) I think even the Republican audience could tell what a lousy attack that was because it gets no response, and coupled with his humiliation earlier in the debate it’s no wonder Romney blew his massive lead in the polls. Mitt is like the Republican Hillary–they start off with big leads due to name recognition, but their own bases were never that enthusiastic for them, and the more independents saw of each, the more they disliked them.

General Observations

At this point I have to say this is one awful moderator. I can now honestly say that the vast majority of them are extremely flawed at best. But this guy has a nasty habit of cutting the candidates off mid-sentence just as they’re making their point, so often the key idea they’ve been building up to in their answer is lost. Tancredo complains he hasn’t spoken yet almost 20 minutes in and unlike most instances of a candidate whining about time, this one is legitimate. However, as Tancredo begins to talk more, you wonder if maybe keeping his mouth shut would actually serve his chances better. He constantly trips over his own words and keeps his eyes wide open which makes him look really nervous as he speaks. He stands out in this crowded field of mostly similar candidates, but not in a good way.

You’ll notice the recurring trend of the Republicans needlessly shitting on the Democrats just as they did the last 2 or 3 cycles. Here, they all take turns whining about how the Democrats didn’t say the exact words “radical Islamic terror” at their own earlier debate. And as I mentioned, Mitt called out Obama personally. It really is worth noting that this nastiness and personal insults has been completely one sided through the years. Admittedly, I’ve only seen one debate from each cycle, but when NONE of the Democratic debates I witnessed had anyone bringing up the Republicans to mock or scold and ALL of the Republican debates I’ve seen had them doing just that to the Democrats, I think that’s sufficient evidence to call out a pattern. I know these are opposing parties and they’re going to disagree, but it’s always so personalized and so much more drawn out on the Republican side than it needs to be. And to anyone claiming I’m making this up due to my bias, I say watch the primaries through the years for yourself; you’ll see the pattern clear as day. We would not tolerate this kind of unsportsmanlike behavior from a children’s school mock debate, why do we accept it from our leaders? This also, I would venture, aided in making a vacuous bully like Trump a plausible choice in the eyes of GOP supporters. The Republican voters had already been conditioned to accept bullying as the main focus of their primary debates—he just did it better than the establishment candidates.

Yet another example of Romney being a two-faced snake comes up when he advocates for “what we did in Massachusetts” (basically Obamacare) when the topic changes to healthcare. Something he would shamefully decry when Obama passed it, just as the GOP has stonewalled a lot of their own ideas when it comes from Obama for no other reason than because it came from Obama. The refusal to have a hearing on Garland, even after prominent GOP members said he’d be a great choice, is just the latest example. It’s also pretty bizarre to hear Giuliani somewhat defend Medicare in his own answer when, as far as I’m aware, the new blood of GOP politicians, especially Ryan, want to cut it entirely. Just shows how ridiculously far right the Republicans have pivoted from just eight years ago, let alone since the ’90s and beyond.

Hunter basically supports a plan similar to what Trump was talking about in the 2016 GOP primaries, about being able to buy across state lines. But man, he could join Gephardt as the king of stupid empty soundbites here. The very first words out of his mouth in this segment? “Let’s get back to freedom.” (Eye roll.)

Foreign Policy

Its also interesting to see the moderators play a clip of Obama for all the candidates to react to. It entails Obama saying he’d go into Pakistan to take out al Qaida leaders if the President of Pakistan wouldn’t do it himself. Obama wasn’t even President yet and already he was dictating the discussion of the GOP, which is pretty crazy. And we ultimately did go into Pakistan without informing their government to kill Bin Laden. I’m wondering if Romney would be talking such a big talk against Obama’s words now with that in mind. This segment also entails Obama discussing opening relations with Cuba and Iran, whom Romney dismisses as “our enemies” and implies they don’t deserve our time or respect. Apparently once someone is deemed an “enemy” they must remain that way forever and can never be approached in good faith. I suppose Nixon never should have went to China and we should have stayed “enemies” with Great Britain, Germany and Japan all this time because of the Revolutionary and World Wars, respectively. Someone with such a binary, reductionist, needlessly aggressive mindset has no business running our country if you ask me.

Giuliani is a little more ambivalent and while he criticizes the way Obama phrased it, he says he “wouldn’t take that option off the table” himself. That’s called being a diplomatist.

I actually applaud Huckabee’s answer when asked if his foreign policy would be to export democracy as Bush’s was. He and Ron Paul say our job is to be the best we can and serve as an example to other countries, but not spread our way of life by force. Since Huckabee went first and lays all this out, Paul uses a good portion of his own time then to decry Bush and the neoconservative agenda (he even uses the word openly which is amazing) he governed with.

Giuliani says democracy should be a long term goal and what we need to establish first is rule of law, respect for institutions and stability. McCain agrees and claims rule of law and stability are taking hold in Iraq (LOL). It’s pretty hypocritical to see Romney include education and healthcare on this list when we don’t even have those here in the US and they’re under fire all the time from the GOP itself.

Any sympathy I may have had for Tancredo flew out the window when he holds firm on some previous statement he made that he’d bomb Medina and Mecca as retribution for any future attacks on America. (That’s a good way to finally unite the Middle East again–against the United States.) He says his job as President wouldn’t be to provide healthcare or education but to “keep Americans safe” apparently by starting WWIII with the entire Islamic world. I heard this and answer and couldn’t help but think “what an absolute madman.” Based on this statement, Tancredo is a complete, reprehensible war criminal in waiting who doesn’t know or care what his big talk would lead to in practice. And when the moderator points out the state department has called this proposal insanity, he scoffs and says their disapproval is proof he’s right.

Again, you can see with your own eyes by watching these old GOP debates how they themselves perfectly set the stage for the rise of a strong man authoritarian demagogue like Trump. This is exactly the same brash militarism, unequal response and shameless anti-intellectualism that led to Trump’s “I’d bomb the shit out of ’em,” bullets in pig blood and threats to attack terrorists’ innocent families. Tancredo is just as crazy and dangerous of a person yet he didn’t get anywhere near the attention for it, and because comments like this weren’t unilaterally decried by the GOP, it allowed for a future wannabe tough guy to come along and say the same thing to greater effect. The difference is Trump has charisma where Tancredo is a bug eyed stutterer, so the former ended up being far more successful and dangerous. Thompson wisely and nobly calls this out in his own answer in this segment.

Brownback begins his own answer by name-dropping Reagan—because it wouldn’t be a Republican debate otherwise.

I swear to god, I’m not trying to pick on Romney, but when he pulls out the same bullshit phony line Jeb tried to pull about how “GWB kept us safe!” I almost wish someone as brash and gives-no-fucks as Trump or Mike Gravel (of the Democrats) was onstage to shut that claptrap down fast and hard. This soundbite comes up in a segment about how much responsibility should be delegated to the VP, and Romney’s overall answer was extremely wishy washy. Giuliani mentioning how Reagan and Bush worked as a team is pretty interesting, and I agree with him that a situation like Truman coming in and not knowing about the Manhattan Project can never happen again.

I respect how Brownback comes right out and admits that Bush over-relied on Cheney and let him take over the job. It took guts to say that in ’08, especially in a Republican primary. Ron Paul says Cheney with his neoconservatism has led Bush and the whole party astray from its founding principles. I would personally agree with that too.

Miscellaneous Questions

Then they’re asked what mistakes they’ve made and how they learned from them. Hunter, after a pause, replies that he almost joined the Democratic Party early in his career and gets a laugh, because “Democrats are yucky! LOL.” Yet another example of the unnecessary put-downs in this, and all other, GOP debates. It’s really strange how the “moral majority” and “Party of God” feels the need to constantly make fun of their opposition in such a juvenile manner, especially when that same opposition never sinks to the same level in their own forums. It’s complete hypocrisy in fact, and that’s to say nothing of how this is a weaselly non-answer on Hunter’s part anyway. Giuliani also weasels out of answering by telling a joke. Thompson gives an interesting answer about not doing more for breast cancer research. Tancredo gives the most groan inducing response, saying he didn’t accept Jesus as his savior earlier.

Final round, and they’re asked what they’ll restore to the Oval Office. Tancredo says hope which after his earlier answer about starting an all-out holy war against Islam is just pathological lack of self-awareness. His answer comes out in a stuttering mess and he even blames political correctness for the loss of hope. Thompson too, harps on how detrimental political correctness is, as he gives his own answer (“open up the east wing.”) Brownback would “restore the family” and points to the number of children born out of wedlock as evidence for some great decline in America. Hey dude…have you even considered that maybe that’s what happens when you take away birth control and abortion rights? That maybe forcing women to have EVERY baby does more harm than good and leads to these children born to parents unready, unwilling and unable to look after them properly? Naw. The answer is shotgun weddings, of course! ‘Muricah!

McCain will fight Radical Islamic Terrorism. Giuliani cribs the “hope” answer and uses his time to shit all over the Democrats, because we haven’t seen enough of that in this debate. Romney rattles off his inspirations “My dad…Ronald Reagan (groan)…Teddy Roosevelt (you know he was a progressive reformer, right?)…the Declaration of Independence (uh huh)…” What a joke. Huckabee would put up a picture of a different average citizen everyday in the White House to remind himself whom he works for. Interesting, unique answer at least. Ron Paul would restore openness to the government. Hunter gives a mushy spiel about God, families and the military, the Republican’s bread and butter.

Conclusion

So, that’s the end of this debate. It was actually pretty interesting, in sharp contrast to the previous two GOP cycles. I’m not sure if its because I’m in a better mood or what, but the candidates didn’t grate on my last nerve even though I disagreed with most of what was said. You still had those annoying tropes like insincere Reagan name-dropping, incessant Democrat-shaming, pandering to the anti-abortion crowd and more. But maybe it’s because there were actually a few decent candidates up there, or maybe it’s because the bad ones weren’t quite so obnoxious, but it was a lot easier to sit through.

It was fascinating seeing the precursor to Obama-bashing as they played his words and then took turns attacking him in absentia…even though both Mitt and Rudy still agreed with the core of what he was saying. We witnessed a window into the next 8 years of GOP rhetoric right there. With the emphasis on attacks and using the debate as a forum to trade insults and focus on negative campaigning, I believe we also witnessed a crucial piece fall into place in the rise of Trump. By taking the focus off in-depth policy discussion and putting it on “who can insult the other candidates and opposing party with the catchiest zinger” they made it inevitable that a charismatic bully would eventually come out on top sooner or later. It’s also interesting to me how there was clearly a lot of GOP supporters in the audience even then who were sick of Iraq, yet the top tier establishment candidates were the ones still pushing the war, thus demonstrating the beginnings of the disconnect between what the voters wanted and what the establishment was offering them. Again, this has since come to a head with the TEA Party and now Trump’s Alt Right, which have taken over the whole party. I believe history will therefore look at GWB as the man who broke his party’s electoral coalition through an unpopular war the same way LBJ did to the Old Left with Vietnam.

Regarding the candidates themselves, it’s no surprise that Ron Paul, in my personal opinion, is far and away the best on stage. He calls out the neoconservatism that’s taken over both parties and calls for a return to real conservative principles as well as transparency in government. I think he’d have made a great President. Huckabee too, whom I thought was the evangelical of the bunch, turned out to be alright at least in this debate. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has some hidden dark side I didn’t get to see here, but just going purely off this one debate I liked him. Brownback and Thompson had some alright moments and some groan-inducing ones. Hunter was typical post-Reagan Republican I can’t stand. Tancredo, in my honest estimation, is the single worst candidate yet to emerge from either party. He is a terrible orator, a typical Reagan Republican, and more importantly he’s a dangerous lunatic who revels in anti-intellectualism. He is the missing link between a responsible politician and Trump. I cannot denounce this raving madman enough.

The top tier candidates in terms of polling in this cycle were Romney, McCain and Giuliani. Romney is his usual blustering oafish wannabe “alpha male” self. He was a bad orator, a bad candidate, a sleazy two faced person with an outdated worldview, and he should never come within a mile of the Presidency. You see here how woefully bad at debating he is even though he carries himself with this misplaced sense of importance. He deserved to lose, and it’s no wonder he collapsed so spectacularly in the polls. I’ve heard many Republicans I know in real life say that nobody was excited for him in 2012 and he only won because there was nobody better that cycle. I can definitely see that for myself now, because if Romney is the cream of the crop, there’s something wrong.

Giuliani…what happened? He seemed pretty reasonable in this debate. Someone I almost wouldn’t mind having for President in fact, and yet in 2016 he has gone all-in for Trump. Nowadays he’s always saying the most awful, hateful things and projecting his own infidelities onto everyone. I have no idea whether he legit went insane, or is being blackmailed, or bribed, or replaced by a robot or what but it’s scary to see how completely he unraveled. I guess Giuliani was always that bad on some level deep down and was just better at hiding it before, like so many people who’ve revealed their true selves when they felt empowered by a bigot like Trump saying openly what they’ve believed for ages behind closed doors.

Finally, McCain. I was expecting him to be the same charismatic, clear winner he was in 2000 and without the Bush money pouring in to prop up their successor, he’d come away as the best and most viable by far. But no. He’s become a lot less exciting and likable in the ensuing eight years. He’s slower, softer, and a lot more militaristic. He’s pushing for Iraq like no one’s business, and while I agree it was a bad move to pull out like we did, his strange devotion to the artificial state itself is troubling. I think the three state solution of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds he’s so quick to denounce (because of a stupid anecdote about a soccer match) is by far the most sensible and I believe would have prevented the chaotic vacuum which led to ISIS taking over the whole thing. I applaud him for sticking to his instincts, unpopular as they were in the time. That takes guts, and we need that kind of conviction and foresight in government. I just think that by pretending the war was some great noble cause in the first place, he came off as just another neoconservative or a whipped boy falling in line behind the establishment talking points. Like Giuliani, I’m wondering what the hell happened to this guy. In 2016 he stood idly by while Trump attacked him personally, the gold star Khan family, and advocated war crimes. You can excuse it as “oh, but McCain needed to suck up to Trump to get reelected in the Senate!” but that’s pathetic. Come on. He’s like 80 years old, what does he need to be in the Senate for—especially when it means selling out all your principles, your legacy as a supposed “Country First” maverick, and your personal dignity as you go out like a sad old dog obeying an abusive owner’s commands.

[NOTE: The YouTube video of the debate has been deleted and I can no longer find the entire thing online, unfortunately.]

1 Comment

  1. Another interesting debate analysis, I probably watched this one to see Ron Paul. In the election I Probably wrote in Ron Paul. As for the other Republicans, McCain was always my least favorites, His stupid warmonger interventionist policy was always a big turn off for me. Obama couldn’t go into Pakistan to take out Bin Laden since he had been already dead for about 4 years. But the Republicans couldn’t admit that because the phony War Bush started in Afghanistan to supposedly get him was still on. That didn’t stop Obama from his later phony mission to Pakistan that he claimed took him out. I still don’t understand why if the claimed they got him, they just didn’t end the war and bring the troops home. Would have saved so much money and lives.This is a debate that I think would be worth watching again just to hear Ron Paul, in my book the greatest US politician of the 20th century. Had he been elected and able to put in action some of his ideas the US would not be in the mess it is in today. Would have been great to have a president with some common sense.

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