For most of the 15 candidates populating the two debate performances, and barely registering in the polls, the backdrop of the Boeing 707 that ferried President Reagan around the world is as close to Air Force One as they’ll ever get. That’s why several candidates on the stage in Simi Valley, Calif., had nothing to lose by swinging for the fences.
◊ ◊ ◊
The back-to-back debate performances recalled the way half-hour TV game shows or sitcoms are often shot: two on the same day. The first one was manageable. Four candidates — former New York Gov. George Pataki, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — took the stage and basically demonstrated why they were on the second-tier debate.
All four men, polling in the low single digits, did what they could to stake out positions separating them from the pack that would follow in the second debate. For much of Debate 1, Santorum was on the attack, trying to occupy a space that could be appealing to moderate Republicans and attractive to hardliners in the party.
Santorum proposed a 50-cent increase in the minimum wage over five years — the only candidate to take such a heretic, populist stance. But he also said the Supreme Court was “abusive” and had “superseded their authority” with its decision on same-sex marriage, which begs the question of whose authority it was to make that ruling. On immigration, Santorum tried to move beyond the blame game, saying that the argument “should not be about what we're gonna do with someone who's here illegally,” but more about the restoration of American jobs, many of which have gone to immigrants in recent years.
◊ ◊ ◊
JINDAL SAID he’d never support amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Otherwise outlining his bona fides, he said “I've got the backbone, I've got the bandwidth, I've got the experience to get us through these tough times, to make sure that we don't turn the American dream into the European nightmare.”
Pataki said that, if president, he would undertake to enact “a sweeping conservative agenda.” Part of that apparently entails scrapping the Iran nuclear deal. Pataki said he would "reject this deal on day one," criticizing Hillary Clinton for supporting it, saying her tenure as secretary of state “reduced the Middle East to flames.”
Graham, no doubt aware of how far down he is in the race, let his inner hawk fly around the room all debate long. Never mind the myriad foreign and domestic issues facing the next American president, the South Carolina pepper pot said he’s “running for president to destroy radical Islam, to win the war on terror, to protect you and your family.”
His approach couldn’t have been less surgical. “We're gonna destroy the caliphate, pull it up by its roots; we're gonna kill every one of those bastards we can find,” Graham said, channeling Gen. George S. Patton, and overlooking the likelihood that the caliphate has a large measure of indigenous support.
When moderator Jake Tapper asked Graham whether his long time in congressional politics was “a liability and not an asset,” the South Carolina senator somehow managed to answer in the aggressive military affirmative. “Well, what I hope Republican voters, libertarian, vegetarians, Democrats, you name it, will look for somebody to lead us in a new direction, domestically, but particularly on the foreign policy front,” he said. “I hope you believe that experience matters. It's an all-volunteer force. When you vote for commander in chief, they are stuck with your choice. We’ve had one novice as commander in chief; let’s don’t replace one novice with another.”
◊ ◊ ◊
FOR THE most part, the undercard show was a rerun, a restatement of the usual Republican pieties. In that way, it was a perfectly fitting intro to the main event that followed. But there were fissures in the wall of unified response.
Jindal, speaking specifically on Wednesday about the fight over Planned Parenthood funding, revived his earlier generalized commentary about his own party. “I am tired of this surrender caucus,” he said. “I am angrier at the Republicans in D.C. than I am at the president. The president is a socialist. At least he fights for what he believes in.”
And Santorum, responding to uncharitable reactions to his 50-cent minimum wage increase proposal, posed a question that cuts to the heart of the Republican disconnect with most American voters. “How are we gonna win,” he asked, “if 90 percent of all Americans think we don’t care about them?” If any question deserved to be elevated from the little debate to the big one, that was it.
Image credits: Debate quartet: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters.