The third Republican debate would draw a lot more viewers if CNBC had selected Mad Money host and Squawk on the Street co-host Jim Cramer as a solo moderator for the main debate (as opposed to a mere member of “the panel of CNBC experts” tossing in occasional queries). Cramer could have shouted, “Risky!” “Don’t Buy!” and “Sell!” in response to each and every absurd answer.
But viewership will still be strong, as the candidates have created plenty of their own drama.
Dr. Ben Carson has displaced billionaire Donald Trump in several polls, and Trump is hopping mad about that. He’s already talking about Carson’s religion—once more crossing lines of political propriety.
Carson arrives on the debate stage with a claim on more of the spotlight and, presumably, the prospect of more scrutiny regarding his most outrageous positions and statements (he proposes to abolish Medicare and says a Muslim president would “have to reject the tenets of Islam”).
Then there is Jeb Bush, the former front-runner who is now is such dire straits that his campaign is cutting salaries and cutting back its focus to critical first-caucus and -primary states. If Bush does not deliver the performance of his life tonight, this could be his last debate—or, at the least, his last debate on the main stage rather than at the kids’ table to which credible-but-not-gonna-happen candidates such as Senator Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, find themselves relegated. (Of the undercard experience, Graham says, “I think it sucks.”)
For the most part, however, Trump, Carson, and Bush will be playing politics as usual—trying to deliver memorable lines, zinging opponents, delivering canned speeches in the time allotted and hoping to keep or gain traction.
The best prospect for a genuine break from routine is that Ohio Governor John Kasich might do what Democrats, independents, and reasonable Republicans think should have been done long ago: call his fellow Republicans out.
Before the debate, at a rally in Ohio, Kasich declared, “I’ve about had it with these people.”
The governor, an arch conservative who ought not be confused with a moderate on economic or social issues, then proceeded to explain how his fellow Republicans had gone off the deep end.
Kasich did not name names. But he left nothing to the imagination.
Clearly speaking of Carson, Kasich said, “We got one candidate that says we ought to abolish Medicaid and Medicare. You ever heard of anything so crazy as that? Telling our people in this country who are seniors, who are about to be seniors that we’re going to abolish Medicaid and Medicare?”
Clearly speaking of Trump, Kasich said, “We got one person saying we ought to have a 10 percent flat tax that will drive up the deficit in this country by trillions of dollars.” He also ripped the billionaire’s harsh immigration stances, noting that there’s a Republican contender who “says we ought to take 10 or 11 [million] people and pick them up—I don’t know where we’re going to go, their homes, their apartments—we’re going to pick them up and scream at them to get out of our country. That’s crazy. That is just crazy.”
Very clearly speaking of Bush, a fellow contender for so-called “establishment” support, Kasich said, “One of the candidates said he’s known as Veto Corleone. He’s so proud of the fact that he vetoes everything, you know what vetoes are? Vetoes are a sign you can’t get what you want.”
Referring to the front runners and the rest of the field, Kasich said, “We got people proposing healthcare reform that’s going to leave, I believe, millions of people without adequate health insurance. What has happened to our party? What has happened to the conservative movement?”
Kasich is right.
There really is a difference between a very conservative Republican and an off-the-rails Republican making proposals that would have startled Ronald Reagan. Truthfully, Kasich has taken stands, especially on labor rights and education funding, that would have rattled mainstream Republicans of the past—those who once identified with Dwight Eisenhower’s “modern Republicanism.” So there is no sense in portraying him as the reincarnation of former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, former president George H.W. Bush or former governor Mitt Romney (when he was the healthcare reforming governor of Massachusetts).
But if Kasich were to call Carson, Trump, Bush and, yes, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and former CEO Carly Fiorina and the rest, out for their extreme stances, if he were to say bluntly and without apology that what the other contenders propose is bad craziness, he would not just help his own candidacy.
He would restore a measure of common sense to a race for the Republican nomination that does indeed raise the questions: “What has happened to our party? What has happened to the conservative movement?”