Wednesday the most important economic/fiscal policy development of the entire presidential cycle occurred in Washington: The GOP-controlled House approved a two-year budget deal that takes away every conservative point of leverage until after the elections. It confirmed for the rank-and-file conservative “base” every suspicion about the gutless and treacherous Republican Establishment.
Yet in a GOP presidential debate Wednesday evening, the budget deal barely came up. Instead, for a variety of reasons, the candidates mostly took turns attacking the big dumb abstraction of Big Government as the cause of every conceivable problem, with Hillary Clinton and the feckless CNBC debate moderators getting beaten up nearly as much as Washington.
Perhaps it is telling that the budget deal was only emphasized by Rand Paul, a desperate candidate who had already announced he was going to filibuster the deal in the Senate when it comes up for a vote Thursday. Ted Cruz mentioned it, too, but only because it fits seamlessly into his usual rap. And John Kasich denounced it in passing but only to contrast it with his own alleged fiscal accomplishments way, way back in the day. Presumably the issue didn’t “work” for anyone else, and perhaps they were relieved to retreat to the minutiae of their tax plans and the vaguest and broadest suggestions that any federal involvement in any area of domestic government is to be opposed.
As to “winners” and “losers,” the latter are clearer than the former. Kasich screwed up his heavily telegraphed attack on Trump and Carson as unqualified. Then he spent the rest of the debate shouting about modeling America on the glorious wonderland of his Ohio. Jeb Bush by all accounts needed a strong performance tonight to calm nervous donors and keep pundits from declaring Rubio his conqueror. He didn’t get one, and at times looked like one of those defeated candidates who doesn’t much care any more. Rand Paul, too, look tired and hopeless, even though his filibuster pledge should have brought back stirring memories of the “Stand With Rand.” His weary-sounding lecture about the alleged insolvency of Social Security and Medicare was impolitic in the extreme.
Trump and especially Carson probably won by failing to lose. As usual, Carson emitted crazy little dog-whistles about “political correctness” but managed to make his mega-Heath-Savings-Account proposal sound like a boring policy footnote rather than (potentially) a political death warrant. Christie stayed alive once again with his quick responses and one-liners, nicely crystallizing the candidate and audience hostility to moderator John Harwood, already attacked prior to the debate for failing to be a movement conservative. Huckabee even made a decent showing, though he’s starting to sound cranky with his constant pitches for a “Cures” initiative. Fiorina was very Fiorina-esque, getting off her big applause line about being HRC’s “worst nightmare” and very confidently getting through a preposterous rap (echoed by Ted Cruz) about Barack Obama being the enemy of working women.
That leaves the two candidates who will probably get the laurels as “winners,” Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Cruz assumed the very unlikely role of unity candidate–in opposition to the moderators–and actually pulled it off, which is quite a trick for the guy so hated in the Senate that he can’t get a second on his floor motions. There have been some jokes about Cruz being the “centrist” in a field dominated by Trump and Carson, but we saw an actual glimpse of that tonight, in part because of the monotonous government-bashing the other nine candidates undertook. Fact-checkers, if they wished, could have a field day with his claim that the Fed needs to stop this loose monetary policy that’s creating runaway inflation, but this wasn’t a very big night for the facts.
Rubio managed to best Bush in a direct argument over his Senate attendance record, and got in a good burst of pseudo-populist counter-punching at moderator Becky Quick in an exchange over his personal finances. Otherwise he kept his nose clean and go to make some dubious claims about his tax proposals.
Suffice it to say that the biggest winner of the entire day and night was Paul Ryan, whose two-faced response to a budget deal designed to make life easy for him received a tepid rebuke from Paul but nothing more. Unless there’s a real surprise in the Senate, it appears the GOP, including its presidential candidates, is ready to find some alternative to debt limit defaults and government shutdowns in order to smite its foes. Hearing them all sound like they want to go back to the governing philosophy of the Coolidge administration made me wonder if the biggest threat of all is that they might win next November.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.