One of the big surprises for me about covering the Republican National Committee summer meeting these past few days has been the incredible nostalgia the GOP has for Jimmy Carter. Next to the sainted Reagan and the usurper in the White House, it has been the 39th President whose name has been taken in vain most frequently by the speakers here. Maybe because he was Democrat the GOP could defeat. So it is only appropriate to credit the Georgia Peanut with the most apposite summation of what even RNC staffers have been calling “the kids’ table” debate that just ended: “Life is unfair.” That’s the short version, and the most frequently cited. But what Carter actually said, back in 1977, arguing, as it happened, against federal funding for abortions for poor women, was this: “There are many things in life that are not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people can’t.”
Rick Santorum knows how that feels. Asked afterwards if he planned to watch the A-Team debate, he said that he’d be going out to dinner with some of his fellow also-rans. “Who’s going to pick up the check?” a hard-charging TV reporter demanded.
Whoever’s campaign account has the most money, Santorum replied, adding that he felt pretty safe in predicting that wouldn’t be him.
Spare a thought, too, for Lindsay Graham. In Spin Alley the senior senator from South Carolina was articulate, self-deprecating, even funny. Asked how he felt about being relegated to the kids’ table, Graham said he preferred to think of it as “the Happy Hour debate. If you start drinking now, by 9 o’clock it will all make sense to you.” But on stage—and on camera—Graham came across as wooden, needy, and frankly terrifying, promising to send more troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, and to expand the war to Syria as soon as possible.
But in the last quarter Graham’s Security is Strength super PAC raised a mere $2.9 million—over half from donors who gave more money to other candidates. Meanwhile Donald Trump—who just sold his Manhattan penthouse for $21 million—not only gets to sit with the grownups, in the last few weeks he’s gone from the being the GOP’s crazy uncle to the party’s celebrity draw.
Even Jeb Bush, whose Right to Rise super PAC raised a record $103 million in the last six months—four times as much as all the super PACs combined managed in the last cycle—has been on the receiving end of a cruel lesson in economic inequality. Bush may have inherited his father’s inability to string together two coherent sentences. But as the third generation to live off the wealth accumulated by George Herbert Walker, Jeb has been hopelessly outgunned by real estate mogul Fred Trump’s boy, who can write his own campaign checks, thanks to a personal fortune that Bush, with all those baby Bushes and cousin Bushes to look after, just can’t match. There was once a time—not all that long ago—when $100 million would have bought Jeb and his backers enough gravitas to overcome any presentational glitches.
Not any more. Instead we seem to have become a country that has gleefully embraced the notion that there is one law for the really rich—and another law for the rest of us. And at least for one night, some of the richest, most powerful men got honorary membership in “the rest of us.” Maybe that’s the reason why the pundits awarded the pugnacious Carly Fiorina the post-debate honors. As she always reminds her audience, Fiorina started out as a secretary, and though her post-debate bounce won’t last past the commercial break till the Big Boy debate, in her game willingness to beat up on Hillary Clinton and Planned Parenthood, she gave a convincing performance in the role of a woman who never expected life to be fair.