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Presidential Horse Race 2016: South Carolina debate – Audience and moderators help establishment strike back

The lead-up to every Republican presidential debate in the 2016 cycle has more or less been dominated by Donald Trump and his various dust-ups with the other candidates – or in the case of the Iowa debate, by his absence.

But not even Trump could take over the buzz ahead of Saturday night’s event, which took place at the ironically titled Peace Center in conservative Greenville, South Carolina. The news of legendary originalist conservative CBS Republican debateJustice Antonin Scalia’s death earlier in the day was the only thing on everyone’s mind, not only for the deep sorrow lovers of the Constitution felt, but also for the fact the presidential race just got a severe jolt forward as extremely consequential.

Up until now, everyone agreed this election would likely determine the future of the Republic because of issues like the national debt and viability of entitlement programs (not to mention foreign policy). Now we KNOW the future of the Republic is at stake, because with one more Democrat-nominated leftist ideologue Justice on the Supreme Court, that’s the ballgame on matters such as religious liberty and Second Amendment rights.

There are more than these matters in the balance, of course, but the list has to start somewhere.

Some debates are remembered for moments, such as last Saturday’s, which will long be recalled for the exchange between Chris Christie and Marco Rubio. Christie’s ability to expose Rubio as a pre-programmed robotic talking point machine cost the Florida senator dearly in New Hampshire and very well could have derailed Rubio’s bid for the Republican nomination.

The South Carolina debate will be remembered for taking place on the day Antonin Scalia died. Period.

The tragic news made everything else seem trivial, but unfortunately did not stop the “boxing match” quality of the program. The moderators whipped Donald Trump into a frenzy and he responded by savaging Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush at various times. As Cruz pointed out after the event, whenever Trump is confronted with his record his reaction is to attack the attacker.

Trump said Cruz was the “biggest liar on stage,” even worse than Jeb Bush. The key exchange came over the issue of funding for Planned Parenthood, which Cruz truthfully pointed out Trump said “did good things for women.”

Rubio got in on the bash Cruz act as well, saying Ted was either “lying then or lying now” regarding his support for comprehensive immigration reform.

Well, Marco, YOU are the one who’s lying – then and now. Rubio refuses to acknowledge his role in the Gang of Eight, preferring to pretend it never happened rather than explaining his rationale for siding with the liberals in calling for massive amnesty. He said “I’ve never supported amnesty.”

Talk about a lie.

But I digress…

It’s amazing to me that the moderators (John Dickerson and Major Garrett of CBS News and the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel) – and commentators after these debates – allow Rubio to get away with fabricating this issue. Rubio basically answers any question on immigration with his robotic “25-second speech” (thank you, Chris Christie) about how the American people don’t trust politicians to solve the issue and that the border needs to be secured first.

We’ve heard it all before. And every time Rubio robotically repeated something he’s spouted before the establishment-heavy audience hooted and hollered its approval. It reminded me of all the negativity Ron Paul endured over the past couple primary election cycles whenever he said something the establishment-set disagreed with.

Which was often.

It’s a shame, because if anything positive can come from the loss of a brilliant man like Scalia, it can manifest itself in a return to talking about what matters to conservatives and Republicans in the person of the next president. Scalia’s absence will shine a bright spotlight on the race itself, since the man who wins could very well be responsible for choosing not only the replacement for Scalia, but two or three others as well.

Judicial nominations are among the most important duties of the president and the issue has received precious little attention thus far in the campaign.

Now, it will get its due.

And needless to say, the overall campaign for control of the Senate just got its predominant issue as well, since confirmation of the next Justice will be contentious no matter who’s in control. As the leader of the conservative faction on the Court, Scalia – along with Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito – were the sole reliable defenders of reigning in governmental power.

The race has suddenly become serious, folks. Donald Trump will no longer be able to get away with saying he’d nominate his sister or his daughter to the Court. If Trump’s truly the conservative that he insists he is, he’d better produce the right kind of assurance that he’ll take the matter seriously rather than offer another clever quip about furthering his family.

No more bluster, Donald. This election has real consequences. Maybe more people realize it now. After Saturday’s debate, you’ve got a lot of work to do, too.

Mostly winners and one clear loser in South Carolina

It’s very hard to name “winners” in a debate like this, since the participants in the testy back-and-forth exchanges looked bad whenever they happened simply because it’s impossible for most people to separate fact from fiction on the issues.

It’s very easy to call someone a “liar,” for example, and it’s much harder to prove it – but you don’t need to with a sympathetic audience at your feet.

Of all the candidates on stage, Ben Carson looked like the most attractive option on Saturday night. If the race had only started yesterday, he would be the one many people would favor with his optimistic message and level-headed calm as well as his persistent references to “We The People.”

But the race didn’t start yesterday. Carson has become an afterthought in the Republican contest and no amount of good debate showings is going to change that fact now.

John Kasich also came across well, as hard as it is to admit. He got the better of an exchange with Jeb Bush over Obamacare and Medicaid expansion about halfway through the program and looked presidential by basically laughing off all the contentiousness between the frontrunners. His ability to remain on message and stay above the fray could potentially help him – at least in contrast to his establishment compatriots.

Kasich’s centrist approach to immigration also was effective, basically narrowing it down to eliminating citizenship but calling for a guest-worker program.

Was it the right solution? From a conservative standpoint, no. But for the people looking for a positive-only message, he’s the guy.

Jeb Bush had another strong debate and the crowd reacted enthusiastically to his defense of his brother’s record. It’s the Jeb Bush the establishment was touting a year ago. But Bush’s negatives are so high it really doesn’t matter at this point. He’s a winner and a loser at the same time.

Ted Cruz had several good answers in focusing the election on a proven conservative leader but was wounded somewhat by the dual “he’s a liar” approach of Donald Trump and Marco Rubio along with being the only true conservative on stage with no help from competitors or the audience.

Ted’s all alone up there. His superior intelligence and stellar debating skills allow him to trade arguments with anyone, but there’s no doubt the other candidates are trying to isolate him – and Saturday night, it worked.

(It should be noted Jeb Bush never attacks him… why, I’m not quite sure.)

Lastly, Marco Rubio came across well in his return performance from the “Marco Roboto” disaster in New Hampshire. Rubio was his old self in South Carolina, dishing out his 25-second speech answers and swatting away challenges with his linguistic gifts.

But he’s also competing in South Carolina with Jeb Bush and John Kasich for the establishment vote. Trump’s voters aren’t going to abandon him for Rubio. Neither are Cruz’s. So where does he fit in? I don’t think he does.

As far as losers, there was only one. Donald Trump. Trump has done well in debates thus far by keeping his cool when confronted with challenges. He didn’t in South Carolina. He looked rattled several times in discussions with Jeb Bush and even looked angry at times, turning red and gritting his teeth, which isn’t attractive.

Trump said George W. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction to get America into the Iraq War, which generated loud boos from the establishment audience. That’s a debatable point, one way or another, but Trump clearly picked the wrong forum to bring up the argument.

Trump’s “we don’t win anymore” message is growing somewhat stale. That was evident on Saturday night.

Scalia’s passing will refocus the campaign on individual liberties. Advantage, Cruz.

Since Justice Scalia’s passing was so prominently on everyone’s mind, it’s safe to say many are wondering how it might change the Republican presidential race.

The simple answer is to say it will focus new attention on judicial appointments. That’s certainly true, though it goes much deeper than that. Without Scalia on the Court to lead the fight for life and liberty, these matters will need a presidential advocate who will not only add them to the national agenda, but will advocate for them as well.

It’s no longer enough to say you’ll protect gun rights or oppose Obama’s unconstitutional executive action on immigration. It’s not enough to say you’re pro-life and will defund Planned Parenthood or will try to get Roe v. Wade overturned. It’s not enough to say you’ll honor religious liberty.

As Ted Cruz pointed out during one of the debates, every candidate on stage would give lip service to these topics. Now, people will be looking for evidence that these issues are important and central to each candidate.

In this sense, Scalia’s death is not too much different than how the Paris attacks changed the discussion in the presidential race in November. As soon as the sometimes complacent American public was reminded that Islamic terrorism is an eternal threat instead of something that happens only in the Middle East, they looked for the person of a strong leader who would ditch political correctness and fight the barbarians rather than make excuses for them like Obama does.

Donald Trump certainly benefitted from the renewed focus on terrorism at that time because people saw him as a strong leader. His willingness to throw Muslim immigration into the conversation likewise gave him another leg-up on security.

Now, those candidates who are seen as strong on defending individual liberty will likely see some more support on this issue from here on out.

Of the remaining candidates in the field, two in particular have made the Constitution the focal point of their campaigns, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson (Rand Paul also was a constant advocate for the Constitution, but he’s out now in favor of defending his Senate seat in Kentucky).

Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Marco Rubio occasionally mention the Constitution, but they don’t place limiting government at the center of their appeal. In his primary emphasis on making “great deals” and cleaning up the “mess” that is our government, Donald Trump certainly gives the impression he’ll rule by decree rather than relying on the separation of powers and federalism to function.

It’s funny, Trump was asked during Saturday night’s debate about how we would achieve some of his promises, such as keeping American companies from locating elsewhere in the world. The Donald’s answer was that he would work for a consensus in Congress on the individual cases and then tax the products from the foreign factories as they come back across the border.

An interesting answer, but the president really doesn’t have such powers. He would need a large amount of support in Congress for such a proposal, something he’s not likely to enjoy. He’ll face universal opposition from Democrats and also a good many Republicans in the effort.

Trump wants to run the government like he does one of his companies. Unfortunately for him, the Constitution gets in the way. President Obama, especially in his second term, has shown absolute contempt for the Congress in bending the rules to achieve outcomes.

It’s not likely Trump would be as successful in doing the same unless he’d be willing to go outside the Constitution. That’s not a winning argument this year, Donald.

John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Medicaid and Obamacare

One of the big questions going into the evening was how John Kasich would handle his new role as head of the establishment candidates – at least if you count his second place finish in New Hampshire as the leading indicator of who’s ahead in the establishment lane.

Even before the debate started there was renewed scrutiny of perhaps Kasich’s biggest question mark, his embrace of Obamacare and its optional Medicaid expansion.

Peter Sullivan of The Hill reports, “Kasich’s acceptance of the Medicaid funding has long been viewed as a potential liability, and his rivals are seizing on it now that he threatens to emerge as the top alternative to Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the Republican race.

“Jeb Bush, who is battling Kasich for the support of establishment Republicans, has amplified his criticism of the Ohio governor over the Medicaid expansion in recent days.”

Credit goes to the CBS moderators for broaching the topic in Saturday night’s debate. Kasich of course said that expanding Medicaid was a positive because it saved the state money and would ultimately require the poor to take responsibility for their own healthcare decisions.

Jeb Bush called him out on it, claiming Kasich accepted Obamacare and he would never have done the same in Florida. (Of course we don’t know because Jeb Bush left office at the end of 2006, four years before Obamacare was passed.)

It soon devolved into a difference of opinion over details. Kasich good naturedly refuted Bush’s claims and Jeb stuck to his guns in claiming Kasich’s wasn’t a conservative solution.

They both were right, actually.

The Kasich/Bush exchange demonstrated how big government can take a somewhat simple at its foundation issue – personal healthcare – and complicate it greatly by trying to govern it at the federal level.

Why not let the states handle the matter? There has to be a better way and you’re not going to get it if Kasich or Bush are at the controls.

The Donald is tacitly keeping the third-party possibility alive

In conclusion, while he may not mention it much in debates anymore, Donald Trump is clearly keeping the possibility of a third-party run open to save himself some negotiating room.

Bradford Richardson of The Hill reports, “Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Saturday accused the Republican National Committee (RNC) of ‘deceptive Washington tricks’ by fundraising off of his name.

“’The RNC does not treat me well and then uses my name, without my knowledge, to raise money for themselves,’ Trump’s campaign said in a press release.”

Trump is using such tactics to keep distance between himself and the party for the sake of his supporters but is also preserving an “out” option in case he loses.

If you make Donald angry enough – which seems pretty easy to do – he’ll go nuclear on you and throw the whole race.

It’s just one more interesting element to think about this year. Scalia’s death adds yet another incomprehensible twist to an already unfathomable presidential race.

How this ends, nobody can forecast.

Saturday night’s debate probably didn’t change many minds, though every minute of these events helps clarify where the real choices lie. We’ll know a lot more next Saturday night after South Carolina’s voters reveal what they think of all of this.

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Trump's Tariffs vs Cruz' Flat (and fair) Tax

It is important to remember that the Great Depression was triggered by the combination of a left-wing ideologue president, and legislative malfeasance.
Donald Trump, meet Smoot and Hawley, the Godfathers of "beggar thy neighbor" tariffs. Got a problem with trade and currency imbalances? Just slap a tariff on goods coming from the wrong places and presto! Except that in the real world, those countries are going to turn around and slap tariffs right back on our goods, leading to a downward spiral in the economy. This flavor of populist snake oil NEVER works.

Contrast this with Cruz' flat tax plan which, although incorrectly derided by opponents as a Value Added Tax, has important features that make it function a lot like the Fair Tax beloved by libertarians. The most important of these features is that all good SOLD in the USA are subject to the business flat tax, but goods exported are not (border adjustable, in legalese).

Carrot vs stick - Trump would punish American companies manufacturing overseas, while Cruz would lower and simplify business taxes so that doing business here is the most attractive option.

Historians are afraid of Trump's approach, while economists are hugely supportive (I don't count Krugman as an economist) of Cruz' plan.

Carson fails constitutional test, Bush passes!

"You recently wrote a book about the Constitution, doctor" - REALLY? Him and which ghost?

When I have to tell you that JEB came closer to understanding what the constitution says about nominating judges than Carson, it is clear that Carson has a flimsy grasp of facts, policy, and (because he's still there) reality.

The constitution is quite clear that the president proposes, and the senate disposes. It matters not whether decency suggests the most left-wing ideologue since FDR should abstain from nominating a new justice - the constitution says he can, and he will.
What matters is the advice and consent of the senate, under rules which currently require 60 votes for cloture, and under the control of Mitch McConnell, who says (but dare we trust) that no Supreme Court justice will be approved this year.

Again, it pains me to say that Kasich was at least partly right - if Obama seeks and presents a candidate who is broadly acceptable, possibly somewhat conservative, he could guilt enough Republicans into giving us another swing vote on the court. Our best hope is that Obama persists in presenting nominee(s) who cannot get to cloture.

Cruz was, of course, on fire and on point.