Did the Big Debate Hurt the Republicans?

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Republican 2016 U.S. presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump talks with fellow candidate and former Governor of Florida Jeb Bush during a commercial break at the first official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential race in Cleveland, August 6. Brian Snyder/Reuters

The raucous first debate of the 2016 presidential season might not go down in history as a landmark political face off, like the near fisticuffs of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal in 1968, but it was some of the best political TV in years. It was a retro, bruising free-for-all that belonged in one of Donald Trump’s casinos with cigar-chomping high-rollers placing bets, and the few dames around relegated to the sidelines—if not in furs, then in Carly Fiorina’s rose shantung silk suit.

By now the high and low points are well known: Rubio and Fiorina won, according to the conventional wisdom, with pointed and polite performances. Bush, Cruz, Walker and Kasich held their own. A well-baited Trump bared his misogynist teeth and got ugly with Fox News’s Megyn Kelly. Chris Christie and Rand Paul engaged in a death match of pettiness ending with Paul telling Christie to go hug Obama, “again.” Rick Perry, poor gaffe machine, invoked Ronald Raven. Mike Huckabee announced “The purpose of the military is to kill and break things.” And Ben Carson promised to base the tax code on Old Testament principles.

The weaker candidates might not start falling off the parade float today, but donors and polls will soon begin culling the ones at the back of the pack. Trump might stick around for a while, but the party needs to get him out the door as fast as they can in order to get back to business. But it’s too late, because the debate will be remembered for what he and his colleagues revealed about the GOP’s problems with money and women.

First: money. It’s been said that Republicans, party of the wealthy, are ironically paying the higher price for the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling because more of their donors are pouring more money into more organizations that allow candidates with no chance of being the nominee to stay in the race, weakening the front-runners. And that is true. But that’s not the worst of it. Where other than the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on Thursday could one witness the singularly nauseating spectacle of a billionaire with an American flag in his lapel pin boasting that he used the bankruptcy laws to pull his business out of a dying American city before he went down with it, without offering either a word of condolence to the people left behind or a single idea about how to put it back on its feet?

That moment alone should extinguish the sad, misguided hope, noted by Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently, that Republican primary voters seem to nurture about Trump’s potential as some kind of class warrior. Trump’s casual comments about ditching Atlantic City in the nick of time remind us why back in the ’80s, Manhattan observers who knew him best called him a short-fingered vulgarian. When Chris Wallace asked him about the four bankruptcies, Trump was prepared with his stock answer. He was “just taking advantage of the laws” to build and maintain his empire.

The millions of Americans who filed bankruptcy when they drowned under their mortgages in the crash understand bankruptcy as an advantageous law. But what Trump did was to share one of the myriad little ways the 1 percent, like him, game the same system. A Trump bankruptcy doesn’t save him from sleeping in his car, it enables him to get even richer while leaving creditors (albeit “killers,” he noted, perhaps to differentiate his lenders from the nice mega-banks that bleed most debtors dry) counting losses to the tune of a billion dollars.

Fair enough, he gamed the system, and his fans admire that about him. But when Wallace asked him about a 2009 bankruptcy filing by Trump Entertainment Resorts, which left thousands of casino workers jobless, and without health and retirement benefits in a dying town, Trump boasted that his bailout was perfectly timed. “Every company in Atlantic city went bankrupt!” he whined. “I had the good sense to leave Atlantic City before it totally cratered. I made a lot of money in Atlantic city and I’m very, very proud of it.”

He didn’t say a word about the 15 percent unemployment rate that exists today in boarded-up Atlantic City.

Having Trump in the race forces Republican primary voters and the rest of the GOP candidates to face up to how Big Money really behaves, in a way that the Democrats cannot offer. Even though Hillary Clinton is second only to Jeb Bush in the money raised by associated SuperPACs, Democratic voters can certainly not count on her to explain what it buys. And Bernie Sanders can yell about it, but he can never demonstrate it as effectively as the short-fingered vulgarian.

Trump acknowledged that he’d donated to politicians of both parties as a sound business investment, to get his calls answered. When asked about donating to Hillary Clinton, he said his money probably “got her to come to my wedding.” The nine fellow candidates—in hock to the tune of tens of millions to businessmen far more discreet than Trump, and with interests that go beyond weddings—already owe countless metaphorical future “weddings” and the race is barely begun.

By boasting that he gave politicians money so they’d return his calls, Trump is a betrayer to the 1 percent, yes, but he’s certainly not a friend to the working class. He can argue that fixing immigration helps some working people, but he put his money where his mouth was when filing bankruptcy as a smart business strategy in Atlantic City and leaving thousands of workers behind to fend for themselves in “cratering” Atlantic City.

What he does provide Republican primary voters—and anyone else watching —is a glimpse into how he and men like him work the system that powers the candidates.

Many of his competitors on that stage were fresh back from an exclusive Koch brothers event in California last week, where they had submitted to being sniffed and poked and having their teeth inspected by unnamed donors deciding which horse to buy. Trump’s presence on the stage beside them put a little blood and color on that and all the other meetings behind the staggering numbers released last week about Super PACs, a full third of it from just 60 individuals, whose largesse is helping make the 2016 campaign the most expensive ever, with a predicted $5 billion price tag.

That’s a whole lotta weddings to attend.

Besides money, the debate last night gave voters a chance to assess how the GOP is dealing with its gender problem. The conventional wisdom was that Carly Fiorina won the “kiddie table” debate, and social media was still buzzing about her poise and ripostes well into the second debate. True, she spoke in crisp, complete sentences, never lost her train of thought and showed a little humor. But no one asked her why she lost the Hewlett Packard CEO spot, even though her rise from management trainee at AT&T to the C-suite is the centerpiece of her self-made woman legend. But this was the second tier debate, and furthermore, she is the only female in the Republican presidential primary. She was never going to take a punch. This will certainly change if she rises in the polls, but Republican men will have to tread carefully around her in order not to raise the War on Women cry.

Republicans want to leave that phrase back in 2012, buried with Todd “Legal Rape” Akin. But, alas, the GOP still has a woman problem. And it is in the numbers, not just the tone. Republican females are vastly underrepresented in Congress compared to Democrats (3 to 1). The nonaligned gender research organization Political Parity released a study earlier this year finding three reasons why: GOP primary voters who distrust female candidates, assuming they are too moderate; a national party that doesn’t recruit and train female candidates, and a financing infrastructure that doesn’t support women, compared to Democratic women, who find a donor base in the well-funded pro-choice and more liberal women’s business networks.

The only female at the grown-up debate table was moderator Megyn Kelly, and without her, the party’s woman problem might have remained dormant.

She asked Trump about his misogynistic—or as he would have it, “fun”— tweets calling women fat pigs, dogs and slobs. “You once told a contestant on 'Celebrity Apprentice' it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees,” she reminded him. “Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?"

Trump talked about political correctness and then hurled a veiled personal threat at Kelly herself. “What I say is what I say,” he said. “And honestly, Megyn, if you don't like it, I'm sorry. I've been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn't do that.”

One might be tempted to say, well, it’s only Trump. But as with the money issue, Trump is only venting the party’s embarrassing problems in a politically inconvenient forum. Back at the kiddie table, Rick Perry showed his slip on what he thinks about the little ladies when, answering a question about the Iran deal, dropped in, “I’d rather have had Carly Fiorina negotiating than Kerry.” Fiorina didn’t comment, but the implication was that even a woman would be better than the Obama administration’s team.

The main debate offered the risible spectacle of 10 men telling a mother of three—Kelly—when life starts, what women should and should not do with their bodies, how their lives are, in fact, secondary to embryos and fetuses, and how they must be forced to bear the progeny of rapists and incestuous dads, whether they like it or not.

Mike Huckabee promised to overturn Roe v. Wade immediately if elected by ordering the Justice Department to go to bat for embryos’ Fifth and 14th Amendment rights. Scott Walker refused to say he would make an exception if a pregnant woman’s life was in danger and said he’d defunded Planned Parenthood “four years ago.” Marco Rubio, the usually thoughtful voice of the GOP’s Gen X, announced that not only is he against abortion and Planned Parenthood, but that he has never supported a woman’s right to an abortion in cases of rape or incest.

During the halftime show between the first and second debates, Greta Van Susteren was riffing with conservative radio talker Laura Ingraham. They extolled Carly Fiorina’s performance and lamented that she hadn’t been in the first tier of candidates.

“Where’s the girl power in the Republican Party?” Van Susteren wailed.

Neither had an answer.