The first Republican presidential debate two weeks ago has spawned countless news reports about what the candidates said, with emphasis on Donald Trump’s anger at being confronted with his own words about women. What do these men think about the real issues that face our nation?
The surprisingly pointed questions posed by the FOX moderators tilted the debate in certain directions. The first few questions pointed up potential weaknesses of various candidates, such as the problems in New Jersey’s economy under Gov. Chris Christie and the divisive rhetoric of Sen. Ted Cruz, inviting defensive assertions, but not policy statements.
Abortion was the first real issue brought up. Gov. Scott Walker and former Gov. Jeb Bush bragged about defunding Planned Parenthood in Wisconsin and Florida, although what they actually did was to reduce funding to family planning clinics, some of which are run by Planned Parenthood. Walker and former Gov. Mike Huckabee said they do not support any abortions, even to save the life of the mother. Nobody contradicted them.
Of course, immigration was a big topic for discussion. Trump wants to build a wall, Rubio said, “We need a fence,” Walker said, “Secure the border.” Nobody liked the idea of amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Of course, nobody mentioned that their number rose from 8 million to 12 million while George Bush was President, and has fallen slightly since 2008. Nobody offered any ideas about how to deal with so many people already living here. Only Bush offered anything positive, a “path to earned legal status”.
Foreign policy brought out some tough language. Walker wants to send weapons to Ukraine and put missiles in Czechoslovakia and Poland. Cruz wants to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Carson approved of torture of enemies. Bush said we should “take ISIS out with every tool at our disposal,” which sounds like sending more troops to the Middle East. Most who spoke on military issues urged an expansion of our armed forces. Nobody explained how this might be funded at the same time as taxes are reduced.
Gov. John Kasich offered the only discussion all night about poor Americans. He defended Ohio’s expansion of Medicaid as a means of helping the addicted, the mentally ill and the working poor. The only other person to bring up poverty in America was Jeb Bush, who said, “There’s 6 million people living in poverty today, more than when Barack Obama got elected.” That’s an amazing statement for a presidential candidate, since the US Census Bureau reported last year that over 45 million Americans live in poverty. Otherwise no candidate even acknowledged that poverty was an issue, much less offered any kind of policy to deal with it.
Conservative disdain for dealing with poverty is linked with their desire to cut government programs. Here in Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s effort to cut the state budget is depriving programs which help the poorest people of their funding. When the United Way surveyed 400 Illinois social service agencies, most replied that they could operate only a couple of months more without additional funding, and one-third have already cut back their programs.
While everybody else demanded a repeal of “Obamacare”, only Kasich discussed the importance of caring for the health of poor people. Nobody said anything about the millions of uninsured Americans, a number which has fallen from 18 to 12 million since 2013. The phrase “health care” was never used. Besides Kasich, nobody spoke of Medicaid or Medicare except Huckabee, who wants to get rid of the income tax in favor of a consumption tax. Nobody spoke about Social Security except Christie, who wants to increase the retirement age by two years.
Nobody spoke about racial issues. When Megyn Kelly asked Walker about Black Lives Matter and police killing unarmed blacks, he spoke only of improving police training. She brought up race relations again, but only asked the one black man, Dr. Ben Carson. He criticized people who talk about racial issues as divisive and said we should “move beyond” that.
Nobody mentioned the environment. Not a word about climate change or pollution, either from the moderators or the candidates. Nobody mentioned our aging infrastructure, our unsafe bridges, our closed mines full of toxic wastes. Environmental issues inevitably cost money and require regulation, and thus don’t fit the Republican mantra of reducing government and eliminating regulations.
Primaries are about trying to appeal to your friends. Republican primaries in recent years have been about portraying oneself as conservatively as possible. The candidates who have the least conservative records, like Bush and Christie, forcefully asserted their conservatism. Nobody uttered the word “moderate”, not even Kasich. Nobody talked about compromise or reaching across the aisle. Everybody talked about unifying the country, but nobody acknowledged that only a minority of Americans characterize themselves as conservative. The latest Gallup poll puts the proportion of social conservatives at 31%, which has fallen from 42% since 2009. In fact, only 53% of Republicans identify themselves as social conservatives, with 34% moderates, and 11% liberals.
Despite the talk of bringing Americans together, these Republicans disdained the majority of Americans who voted for President Obama as deluded or even stupid. We can expect 11 months more of such rhetoric until the Republican National Convention in July 2016.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 18, 2015