Here are some thoughts on the Republican presidential debate the other night. It was a long evening at three hours, so much more could be said. This is what stood out to me (in no particular order):
First: The Republican field has, in general, become remarkably strong and vocal on abortion. A number of the candidates (Fiorina, Cruz, Christie, for example) spoke clearly and at length against abortion. Nobody contradicted them. This is something of a change in the Republican Party. In the past, the Party was pro-life enough that the nominee would probably have to be pro-life, but there were still some candidates who tried to win the nomination as pro-choice, or as markedly to the left of the party on this question. The people behind the Planned Parenthood videos may or may not have succeeded in changing the country’s conversation on abortion, but they have certainly succeeded in changing the conversation within the Republican Party.
Second: The way CNN treated two of the debate questioners was strange. Jake Tapper was on most of the night, and Dana Bash and Hugh Hewitt only appeared once in a while. It was like they were at the little kids’ table at Thanksgiving. Why were they even included?
Third: Donald Trump’s style and persona have obvious drawbacks, but also some strange advantages. He is very clever at keeping the attention on himself, even when it should be on someone else, and using the attention to make himself look good. In the first debate, when Jeb Bush was asked if he had really called Trump a certain bad name, Bush denied it. As he was denying it, Trump interrupted and said: “I appreciate that. You’re a gentleman.” Last night, when Bush said his Secret Service codename would be “Ever-ready,” and told Trump that this was a “high energy name,” Trump reacted by holding out his hand for Bush to “give him five”–which Bush did! Again, Trump made himself the center of attention. Moreover, when he does things like this it might give some voters the sense that he is not as bad a guy, really, as his bad-boy persona suggests–that it is part of an act he puts on. How well this will work I don’t know, but it is an interesting way by which he sort of takes the edge off his personality without really compromising it.
Fourth: On substance, Trump did something interesting, for the second time since he declared. Trump stirred up the race at his announcement speech by unloading on illegal immigration. He thus picked up an issue that has many Republican voters very concerned, but that most Republican candidates do not much want to talk about. So he changed the conversation markedly. Last night, he openly said that the Iraq war was a mistake. I don’t think a Republican candidate would have been able to get away with saying that until recently. At least a leading candidate would not have said it. I think there is a submerged sense among Republican voters that the war was a mistake, but nobody wants to say it. Now it is being said more openly. And last night–and, as far as I can tell in the conservative commentary today–nobody has really gone after Trump for saying it. Again, Trump has seen a kind of opening and walked right into it.
Fifth: Jeb Bush was rather impressive on the question of judicial nominations. While I don’t agree with his criticism of John Roberts, Bush is correct to argue that a Republican president can no longer take the risk of nominating people to the Supreme Court with no record, in order to avoid a nomination fight. The president, Bush said, has to engage in the nomination fight in order to confirm nominees with a solid conservative record. This answer showed that he has thought about this problem, and that speaks well for him.
Sixth: John Kasich spoke about the need for Western Civilization to have some positive moral identity, besides just standing for prosperity and technology. I thought that was a good moment.
Seventh: Rand Paul had some good moments, but his argument about the conflict between federal and state marijuana law was not one of them. He tried to argue that you must not believe in federalism and the Tenth Amendment if you think someone can be prosecuted for using a drug that is legal in the state in which he uses it. But of course the federal government has the authority to forbid certain actions. If it has such authority and uses it, then it is no violation of federalism to enforce its law when the state law says otherwise. The whole question turns on whether the federal government has an authority to forbid the action in the first place. If Paul wanted to argue that the federal government has no authority at all to regulate marijuana, he might be able to make a case. But I doubt he would want to do that, since if it were true the federal government would have no authority to regulate other more problematic drugs, like cocaine or heroin. Paul obviously does not want to go there, and it makes his position inconsistent.