Rand Paul was excluded from Thursday night’s Republican debate. But the senator from Kentucky still delivered the most cogent analysis of the forum, when he flipped off everyone involved.
Literally and figuratively.
In an interview with ABC News Radio’s Aaron Katersky, Paul raised his middle finger as he was saying, “Ninety-nine percent of our supporters are calling in and saying [this] for the media, that’s where you can go.”
The pressure from Paul backers to open up the debate did not succeed. And what viewers were left with—because of the absence of Paul and other contenders who might have been willing to push the envelope when it came to the discussion of issues and the direction of the party—was a diminished discourse that will be most remembered for an absurd exchange that began with billionaire Donald Trump pointing out that Calgary-native Ted Cruz was “not born on the land.”
Then Trump assured Cruz that, while he would never bring a lawsuit challenging the Canadian-born senator’s status as a not a natural-born citizen, Democrats surely would do so if Cruz were to secure the Republican nomination. “You have a big lawsuit over your head while you’re running. And if you become the nominee, who the hell knows if you can even serve in office,” said the billionaire.
Cruz had his comeback ready: “I’ve spent my entire life defending the Constitution before the US Supreme Court. And I’ll tell you, I’m not going to be taking legal advice from Donald Trump.”
Things degenerated from there.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio elbowed his way in with a scripted announcement that “I hate to interrupt this episode of Court TV.”
Then Rubio proceeded to accuse New Jersey Governor Chris Christie of writing a check to Planned Parenthood, and Christie replied by telling Rubio, “You talk so much so that nobody can see if whether what you’re saying is accurate or not.”
At around that point, Bill Maher tweeted, “I’ve seen productions of Boys in the Band that weren’t this bitchy.”
This was a debate that could have used some Lindsey Graham talk about rational responses to immigration and respect for American Muslims. This was a debate that could have used some Rand Paul talk about avoiding quagmires or ending the drug war or defending privacy. The point here is not to suggest that Graham (if he was still in the race) or Paul or any of the other excluded contenders would have arrived as visionaries, or even candidates with right answers to every question. Far from it.
But they might have provided an alternative to the empty squabbling of grown men who had obviously spent very little time preparing to talk seriously about issues—and very much time preparing to talk trash about one another.
The Republican debates are going from bad to worse not by chance but by design.
That’s what Paul was complaining about on Thursday.
Paul’s frustration was not surprising. He is anything but a front-runner in the Republican race, but he is a credible contender who was elbowed to the sidelines in a process that relies on bizarre and frequently unfair readings of polling data—and that seems, increasingly, to be about entertainment and ratings rather than issues and ideas. Rejecting an offer to appear in another of the ridiculous “under-card” debates the the GOP and its “media partners” have organized, Paul raged all day Thursday against the process. And Thursday night’s debate proved he was right to do so.
That process has made these debates more vapid, shoving aside the contenders with the clearest and most valid critiques of Trump and Cruz. It has also steered the debates away from deep discussions about war and peace, about criminal-justice reform, about trade policy—and about the direction of a Grand Old Party that Paul warns is becoming “the old white man’s party.”
On the eve of the debate, Paul told Chris Hayes on MSNBC’s All In that “one of the faults of the Republican Party is we’re not diverse enough” and said that, as such, “we’re never going to win another election.”
The exclusion of that perspective from one of the last two Republican debates before the Iowa caucuses was troublesome—for the party and for the country. So, too, was the loss of South Carolina Senator Graham, the steadiest critic of Trump’s crude attacks on immigrants, from both the debates and the race itself.
Without alternative voices and views on Thursday night, what was supposed to be a debate was often just a petty exercise that saw the Republicans bashing President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and one another.
The Obama bashing was especially crude. Cruz accused Obama of “betrayal.” Christie went further, dismissing the president of the United States as “a petulant child.” Griping about Obama’s use of his executive authority to address gun violence, Christie said, “The American people have rejected your agenda and now you are trying to go around it? That is not right and it is not constitutional and we are going to kick your rear end out of the White House come this fall.”
Rejected? No, President Obama was elected twice with overwhelming popular-vote majorities and Electoral College landslides.
There really were points at which Thursday night’s debate seemed delusional.
At other points, it was just plain weird.
When the issue of his natural-born citizenship arose, Cruz joked that he was “glad we’re focusing on the important issues.”
He was being ironic.
But not too ironic.
Within minutes, Cruz was spinning scenarios that ended with the senator mentioning that Donald Trump’s mother was born in Scotland.
Cruz concluded: “On the issue of citizenship, Donald, I’m not going to use your mother’s birth against you.”
So that was settled. But not much else.
Debates don’t have to be this way. They can be meaningful. They can matter. There are still some Republicans who want to be a part of such debates. But they weren’t allowed on the stage Thursday night.