Republicans stand apart from public, not each other

Donald Trump speaks as, from left, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz listen during the first Republican presidential debate in Cleveland on Thursday.
Donald Trump speaks as, from left, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz listen during the first Republican presidential debate in Cleveland on Thursday. The Associated Press

After the 2012 election, the GOP vowed to remake itself into a more inclusive and tolerant party, reaching out to women and gay Americans and supporting real immigration reform.

So much for that campaign promise.

The first Republican presidential debate on Thursday, while entertaining, not only showed how out of step most of the candidates are – or are pretending to be – with most of the American public, but also raised questions about the party’s general election prospects.

In both the undercard with seven candidates and the main event with the top 10 in the polls, the candidates took potshots at Planned Parenthood and vowed to limit abortion rights, though only 44 percent of Americans identify as “pro-life.” In an increasingly Latino nation, they talked tough on strengthening the border with Mexico. In more than three hours on stage, the candidates barely mentioned one of the overarching issues of our time – climate change.

In comparison to the other contenders, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio sounded reasonable. He accepted gay marriage, explained why accepting Obamacare money improved health care in his state and spoke passionately about economic growth lifting all Americans.

Many of the contenders vowed to overturn President Barack Obama’s executive orders on their first day in office; former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas said he’d take a bottle of Wite-Out with him, though that probably confused younger voters who hit the delete key on their smartphones instead. But that ignores the fact that voters twice elected Obama, who made no secret of what he planned to do.

One of the sharpest and most interesting exchanges was between Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky over the National Security Agency’s surveillance of Americans. The debate needed more of that.

Front-runner Donald Trump was … well, Donald Trump.

Question after question, he unapologetically repeated his name-calling and hyperbole without actually detailing what he would do as president. When challenged, he resorted to attacking the particular questioner and the media in general. That continued after the debate with his attacks on Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly, who rightly pressed Trump on his disparaging comments about women.

He was the only candidate who refused to pledge to support the Republican nominee and to rule out a third-party campaign. That only feeds suspicions that he’s in this race for himself above all, even if he helps Democrats.

Trump, however, certainly has his following and as long as the other top-tier candidates treat him with kid gloves, he will be the big elephant in the room.

No one completely embarrassed themselves in the debate, but no one stood head and shoulders above the other candidates, either. Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin – who are supposedly in the top tier – had their moments but didn’t dominate.

In the preliminary bout, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina got good reviews. She gave polished answers and appeared to be a better candidate than she was in her dismal 2010 U.S. Senate race in California. Her prize is perhaps a place in the main debate Sept. 16, but also more scrutiny of her checkered record and thin political résumé.

The clearest winner may have been Fox News, which drew strong ratings (the audience was three times higher than any Republican debate during the 2012 campaign) and managed to squeeze in a lucrative number of ads.

This first debate will not be long remembered. To break from the pack and overtake Trump, the other candidates will have to do far better next time at laying out their vision. And the Republican Party has some work to do if it thinks this field represents a 21st-century America.

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