“We’re on the Verge of Picking Someone Who Can’t Do the Job”: Fraying GOP Holds 3rd Primary Debate

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With the campaign at roughly the halfway point between its opening summer debate and the Iowa caucus next year, Wednesday’s Republican debate was the first with business mogul Donald Trump no longer leading the polls. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has surpassed Trump in recent days, though the two are still way ahead in the crowded Republican field. The surge of these two relative outsiders has thrown the Republican Party into turmoil. The more established political candidates are scrambling to gain ground as party leaders grapple with Trump and Carson’s outlandish views—and the potential that one of them might end up the nominee. We assess the debate and the state of the GOP field with four guests: John Nichols of The Nation, New Republic editor Jamil Smith, Imani Gandy of RH Reality Check and This Week in Blackness, and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter David Cay Johnston.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The third Republican presidential debate was held Wednesday night in Boulder, Colorado. With the campaign at roughly the halfway point between its opening summer debate and the Iowa caucus next year, it was the first debate with business mogul Donald Trump no longer leading the polls. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has surpassed Trump in recent days, though the two are still way ahead in the crowded Republican field. The surge of these two relative outsiders has thrown the Republican Party into turmoil. The more established political candidates are scrambling to gain ground as party leaders grapple with Trump and Carson’s outlandish views—and the potential that one of them might end up the nominee. In his early remarks, former Ohio Governor John Kasich voiced exasperation at the current state of the Republican primary.

JOHN KASICH: This stuff is fantasy, just like getting rid of Medicare and Medicaid.

JOHN HARWOOD: You said yesterday—

JOHN KASICH: Come on, that’s just not—you don’t scare senior citizens with that. It’s not responsible.

JOHN HARWOOD: Well, let’s just get more pointed about it. You said yesterday that you were hearing proposals that were just crazy from your colleagues.

JOHN KASICH: Yeah.

JOHN HARWOOD: Who were you talking about?

JOHN KASICH: Well, I mean right here, to talk about we’re just going to have a 10 percent tithe, and that’s how we’re going to fund the government? And we’re not—we’re going to just fix everything with waste, fraud and abuse? Or that we’re just going to be great? Or we’re going to ship 10 million Americans or 10 million people out of this country, leaving their children here in this country and dividing families? Folks, we’ve got to wake up. We cannot elect somebody that doesn’t know how to do the job.

AMY GOODMAN: Ohio Governor John Kasich. He was speaking right after Trump and Carson were questioned about their campaigns and some of their proposals.

JOHN HARWOOD: Mr. Trump.

DONALD TRUMP: Yes.

JOHN HARWOOD: You’ve done very well in this campaign so far by promising to build a wall and make another country pay for it—

DONALD TRUMP: Right.

JOHN HARWOOD: —send 11 million people out of the country, cut taxes $10 trillion without increasing the deficit—

DONALD TRUMP: Right.

JOHN HARWOOD: —and make Americans better off because your greatness would replace the stupidity and incompetence of others.

DONALD TRUMP: That’s right.

JOHN HARWOOD: Let’s be honest. Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?

DONALD TRUMP: No, it’s not a comic book, and it’s not a very nicely asked question the way you say that. Larry Kudlow is an example, who I have a lot of respect for, who loves my tax plan. We’re reducing taxes to 15 percent. We’re bringing corporate taxes down, bringing money back in, corporate inversions. We have two-and-a-half trillion dollars outside of the United States which we want to bring back in.

As far as the wall is concerned, we’re going to build a wall. We’re going to create a border. We’re going to let people in, but they’re going to come in legally. They’re going to come in legally. And it’s something that can be done. And I get questioned about that. They built the Great Wall of China. That’s 13,000 miles. Here, we actually need a thousand, because we have natural barriers. So we need a thousand. We can do a wall. We’re going to have a big, fat beautiful door right in the middle of the wall. We’re going to have people come in, but they’re coming in legally. And Mexico is going to pay for the wall, because Mexico—I love the Mexican people; I respect the Mexican leaders, but the leaders are much sharper, smarter and more cunning than our leaders.

BECKY QUICK: Dr. Carson, let’s talk about taxes. You have a flat tax plan of 10 percent flat taxes, and I’ve looked at it, and this is something that is very appealing to a lot of voters, but I’ve had a really tough time trying to make the math work on this. If you were to take a 10 percent tax with the numbers right now in total personal income, you’re going to come in with bringing in one-and-a-half trillion dollars. That is less than half of what we bring in right now. And by the way, it’s going to leave us in a $2 trillion hole. So what analysis got you to the point where you think this will work?

DR. BEN CARSON: Well, first of all, I didn’t say that the rate would be 10 percent. I used the tithing analogy.

BECKY QUICK: I understand that, but if you—

DR. BEN CARSON: OK, but the rate—the rate—

BECKY QUICK: If you look at the numbers, you probably have to get to 28 percent.

DR. BEN CARSON: The rate is going to be much closer to 15 percent.

BECKY QUICK: Fifteen percent still leaves you with a $1.1 trillion hole.

DR. BEN CARSON: Well, let me finish. You also have to get rid of all the deductions and all the loopholes. You also have to do some strategic cutting in several places. Remember, we have 645 federal agencies and sub-agencies. Anybody who tells me that we need every penny and every one of those is in a fantasy world. So, also, we can stimulate the economy. That’s going to be the real growth engine, stimulating the economy, because it’s tethered down right now with so many regulations—

BECKY QUICK: You’d have to cut—you’d have to cut government by about 40 percent to make it work with a $1.1 trillion hole.

DR. BEN CARSON: It’s not true. And when—

BECKY QUICK: It is true. I looked at the numbers.

DR. BEN CARSON: When we put all the facts down, you’ll be able to see that it’s not true, it works out very well.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ben Carson and Donald Trump being questioned by CNBC’s Becky Quick and John Harwood. The Republican debate also saw new fissures between rival candidates struggling to catch up with Carson and Trump, including third- and fourth-place contenders Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. Several candidates also took shots at Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and the news media. Days after her testimony on Benghazi, Marco Rubio called Clinton a “liar” and said the media acts as her super PAC.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: You know, the Democrats have the ultimate super PAC. It’s called the mainstream media, who every single day—and I’ll tell you why. Last week, Hillary Clinton went before a committee. She admitted she had sent emails to her family saying, “Hey, this attack in Benghazi was caused by al-Qaeda-like elements.” She spent over a week telling the families of those victims and the American people that it was because of a video. And yet the mainstream media is going around saying it was the greatest week in Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It was the week she got exposed as a liar.

AMY GOODMAN: In her closing remarks, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina called herself “Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare.”

CARLY FIORINA: I may not be your dream candidate just yet, but I can assure you I am Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare. And in your heart of hearts, you cannot wait to see a debate between Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina. I will tell you this: I will beat Hillary Clinton. And with your votes and your support and your prayers, I will lead, with the citizens of this great nation, the resurgence of this great nation.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the Republican debate, we host a roundtable with four guests. In Washington, Imani Gandy is with us, senior legal analyst at RH Reality Check and co-host of the podcast, This Week in Blackness Prime. Her most recent piece at RH Reality Check is headlined “Ben Carson Is Saying Stupid Things About Abortion—Again.”

John Nichols is a political writer for The Nation. His latest piece is “A GOP Debate Without a Winner—Or Much of a Point.”

Jamil Smith is with us in New York, senior editor at The New Republic. He’s also the host of Intersection, a podcast about race, gender and identity. His most recent piece at The New Republic is headlined “Ben Carson Is Saying All the Right Things.”

And David Cay Johnston also joins us in New York in our studio, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Previously with The New York Times, he’s currently a columnist for Al Jazeera America as well as contributing writer at Newsweek. He has covered Donald Trump at various publications for decades.

Well, Jamil Smith, let’s begin with you. Your assessment of the third Republican presidential debate held in Boulder, Colorado, the first time the debate was held when Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon, is ahead in national polls of the Republican contenders?

JAMIL SMITH: Indeed. And I thought that it was interesting that he wasn’t actually the focus of the debate, given that he surged to the lead in a national poll just this week and is certainly far out ahead of Donald Trump in Iowa. That said, I think it speaks to the fragility of success in the Iowa caucuses for Republicans. I mean, the last two winners were Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, neither of whom sniffed the nomination. So I feel like, you know, what we saw last night is a candidate who, frankly, almost admitted that he’s not really up to running for president, doesn’t really—didn’t really see himself as president. And frankly, he just gave a bunch of answers that weren’t very substantive, that dodged the issue, and specifically on the tax point actually were untruthful. And I think, you know, when people call the Republicans, including Carson, on those policies, they’re not unfair questions, they’re simply substantive questions.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, David Cay Johnston, you’ve covered Trump for decades. How would you evaluate his performance last night?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, Donald was very subdued. Donald has a real problem: What’s he going to do as he slowly fades? Presumably, he’s going to end up with a TV contract at the end of this, but he has to find a way to exit. But he did say something astonishing. He talked about the wall in China being 13,000 miles—that’s halfway around the planet. And he continues this assertion that Mexico is going to happily pay for this wall he wants to build, which, of course, will do nothing to stop the immigration, which is currently flowing in the other direction.

AMY GOODMAN: He said the wall on the Mexico border would be, what, a thousand.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Thousand miles.

AMY GOODMAN: As compared to 13,000—

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Thousand.

AMY GOODMAN: —of the wall of China, which is actually 1,300.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Hundred.

AMY GOODMAN: Imani Gandy, your overall reaction to last night’s debate?

IMANI GANDY: I was disturbed that there were no questions about either reproductive rights and women’s health, about fair pay, and particularly about Black Lives Matter. It seems to me that in this current environment with the attacks on Planned Parenthood and the ongoing uprising, I think you could say, of black people in this country demanding that their lives matter, I think it’s pretty shocking that those questions were not addressed at the debate last night.

AMY GOODMAN: Although Planned Parenthood was mentioned, though far less than it was in the previous debates, and we will get to that. John Nichols, your overall assessment?

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, I think it was a pretty bizarre debate. I’ve covered hundreds of debates. I’ve even moderated a few at lower levels on the political food chain. And I was struck by the fact that—I thought the moderators confused interview questions and debate questions. And some of the candidates were getting very precise questions about their political experience or their personal experience about companies that they are pitchmen for, as Carson got one. Other candidates were getting broad-sweep questions. And I think it made the debate a little incoherent.

What that resulted in was a situation where people took away kind of sound bites or applause lines. And by that standard, Marco Rubio did very well, because every time he was hit with a legitimate question, he went for a—usually, an attack-the-media applause line. Now, that was very effective in the room. But as you know, most people don’t watch the entire debate. Most people see the sound bites and the clips the next day. And I would suggest that that clip you played from John Kasich criticizing the rest of the field may be the takeaway clip, not just for the broad mass of Americans, but actually for a good number of Republicans.

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