Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate on economic policy began with a clear reminder that campaign-style policies seldom make good policy—before it veered into a full-blown airing of long-simmering grievances.
As the 10 leading candidates sparred over the economy in Colorado, it was clear that the 2016 race for the GOP nomination was entering a new phase, where veiled criticism gave way to open warfare. It made for good television but it was unclear if these lines of criticism might leave the eventual nominee badly wounded—either of their own doing or from foes’ barbs.
“My great concern is that we are on the verge, perhaps, of picking someone who cannot do this job,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich said as he opened the debate with some of the harshest criticism in the field.
It escalated from there. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush criticized former mentee and fellow Floridian Sen. Marco Rubio for missing votes in the Senate. Indeed, Rubio has one of the worst attendance records in the Senate, and Rubio is not seeking a second term because he deeply dislikes the chamber.
“This was a six-year term. You should be showing up for work,” Bush said. “Resign and let someone else take the job.”
Rubio said Bush didn’t have a problem with other Senators who missed votes when they were seeking the nomination. “Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you,” Rubio shot back.
But the reason for the event, an economic debate, made clear that some of the contenders struggled to make the math in their tax plans work. “Let’s be honest: Is this the comic book version of a presidential campaign?” one moderator asked Trump. Another moderator told Carson that his ideas were a mess: “I looked at the numbers.” A third host challenged Carly Fiorina, who proposed a three-page tax code: “Are you using really small type?” Kasich, who is looking for a second wind in his campaign, shared the host’s disbelief. “This is the fantasy,” Kasich said of his rivals’ tax plans. “Why don’t we put a chicken in every pot in these fantasy tax schemes?”
Trump didn’t bother responding to the specifics. Instead, he hit Kasich for his time at Lehman Brothers. “He was on the board and he was a managing general partner,” Trump smacked Kasich. Kasich was not, in fact, on the board.Trump didn’t bother responding to the specifics. Instead, he hit Kasich for his time at Lehman Brothers. “He was on the board and he was a managing general partner,” Trump smacked Kasich. Kasich was not, in fact, on the board.
Heading into Wednesday night’s debate, Trump had slipped from atop the polls in Iowa and was slowly sliding down in national surveys, too. Increasingly, The Donald has sounded more like someone who is going through the five stages of grief: he’s moved past denial to anger, with bargaining right around the corner. Strategists for his rivals worry that the brash billionaire is incapable of accepting his pending losses, and might lash out in ways that will leave the GOP unable to recover.
“What the hell are you people doing to me?” Trump half-jokingly asked an audience in Iowa on Tuesday. “If I lose Iowa, I will never speak to you people again.”
Even amid his recent slide in the polls, it has been Trump who continues to drive the conversations. The billionaire defied political logic through the summer and early fall. His insults to immigrants only won him more support in the GOP, even as business partners scurried away. He is set to host Saturday Night Live on NBC, a network that canned him over his hostility toward immigrants in the country illegally. Immigrant-rights groups are already planning protests of the Peacock Network over that coming turn on Nov. 7.
Advisers to Trump’s rivals worry that he might try to recreate his summer magic with even more invectives. He’s already gone after Columba Bush, a Mexican-American immigrant, and Fiorina’s appearance. He’s mocked Paul’s hair and questioned Carson’s faith. “He’s completely unpredictable,” says one Republican strategist whose candidate already has dropped out. “And that makes him dangerous.”