Following up on the 2012 CNN "gotcha" debate when Candy Crowley took Barack Obama's side – inaccurately – against Mitt Romney, a CNN team presided over a spectacle Wednesday night that had only a shadow of resemblance to "a contention by words or arguments."
The three-hour ordeal appeared to have but one goal, the disparagement of the entire 11-member GOP slate in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The only way a true winner could have emerged was if they all turned in unison and walked off the stage.
It was a setup from the start, with CNN moderator Jake Tapper asking Carly Fiorina to comment on someone else's statement that Donald Trump shouldn't have his finger on the nuclear button – a throwback to the dark days of the Cold War when contending politicians used the threat of nuclear holocaust to question opponents' mental stability.
Fiorina waded right into the fray, saying “I think Mr. Trump is a wonderful entertainer,” and then ducking the rest of the question, thankfully. Trump actually missed a terrific opportunity to parry Fiorina considering they were standing in front of an Air Force One aircraft that had flown President Reagan to his official duties, and that Reagan was an entertainer before becoming arguably the most beloved president of the modern era.
Trump retorted that he had never attacked Paul's looks, adding, however, “There’s plenty of subject matter right there.”
That basically set the tone for the evening, and believe it or not, it actually went downhill from there, as question after question pitted one candidate against another on a personal rather than policy level, usually spinning off something that someone had said in an interview at some other time.
Otherwise, substantive discussions were at a minimum and usually grew out of frustration from the many candidates who seemed to be all but ignored by the CNN team as the big names on stage engaged in drawn-out thrusts and parries that had virtually nothing to do with the state of the country.
Some of the more enlightening moments came from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee who didn't get to speak much, but when he did it was insightful and direct, hitting for instance on the Iranian deal (treaty), and Planned Parenthood harvesting body parts from living aborted fetuses. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also got in some good points along the way, but like most other participants, they were few and far between.
Right alongside Huckabee, literally and figuratively, was Texas Senator Ted Cruz who also didn't get that much time but nonetheless was right on the money when he did speak. Florida Senator Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also tried to bring the discussion back to real issues and away from personality disputes with only partial success.
One of the more ridiculous moments of the evening came when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush chastised Trump for singling out illegal aliens from Mexico in his immigration discussions, and told him to go out in the audience and apologize to Bush's wife, who was born in Mexico. Trump refused and tried to make the point over Bush's insistent interruptions that he was talking about criminal illegals, not law-abiding Mexicans.
Actually, Trump should have taken Bush up on his challenge. He should have called Mrs. Bush up to the stage, told her he had heard she is a wonderful person and note that his criticisms were of the Mexican government sending criminals of all sorts over the southern US border. Trump could have made his point, looked accommodating to Mrs. Bush, and probably gotten Jeb in trouble with his wife for putting her in the spotlight.
There were times during the three hours when virtually everyone got to make a salient point or two, although they usually had to fight for the time. Trump and Bush got more than double the exposure of some of the other candidates, so those on the short end of the stick had to be somewhat aggressive.
The most aggressive of all was Ohio Gov. John Kasich who at one point looked so angry that I thought his eyes were bloodshot, although that could just have been my TV. Dr. Ben Carson, who many pundits were saying needed a "breakout" night, didn't get it and often found himself on the defensive, such as when he was asked about his opposition to going to war in Afghanistan after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
Carly Fiorina had several good moments including her statement on the Planned Parenthood debacle and certainly showed that she should be on stage. However, she still displayed far too many moments when her infamous "demeanor" was dark and foreboding. She later told a reporter that there are too many serious things at hand to smile about, which may be true, but she could at least look pleasant during the interludes.
All in all the night was an abomination and it did absolutely no good for the Republican Party. GOP National Chairman Reince Priebus might consider holding a meeting with all the candidates prior to the next debate and drum one simple point into their heads.
When you are asked if another candidate's finger should be on the nuclear button, the only response is "Anyone on this stage would be preferable to Hillary Clinton, or any other Democrat candidate." Then get back to the issues and how the GOP will keep the Congress and win the White House in 2016.