There was no clear winner of tonight's GOP presidential debate, but there were some definite losers: The CNBC moderators mostly, who pissed off the audience and the occasional candidate with questions that I thought were all legitimate and at times pleasantly hostile. When Ted Cruz laid into them and won loud cheering from the crowd, I just about wanted to puke. Does anyone other than the few dwindling Republican faithful really fall for that sort of guaranteed-applause-getter lines from pols? When Ted Cruz demands that the press talk about "substantive issues," you almost forget that he himself is the sort of guy who rails about lists of communists at Harvard, birthright citizenship, non-abortion funding for Planned Parenthood, and other third-tier issues.
Marco Rubio doesn't like it when his personal finances get fisked on basic cable? I can understand that but then again, I get kind of annoyed when the Florida senator starts yapping about how you better not even think about cutting his mother's Medicare. She's the immigrant mom of a son who made a million bucks! So why the hell am I—and you, too, gentle reader!—paying taxes to support her retirement and health care? What good is family if they can't take people off the taxpayer-financed gravy train?
It was Rand Paul, who barely got a word in edgewise (and that's on him, not CNBC or the other candidates) who returned several times to the sheer unsustainability of old-age entitlements and that's a point that can't be stressed enought: Social Security and Medicare cannot continue the way they are. As the chart below shows, Social Security punishes those of us not yet retired with effectively negative returns even as Medicare pays out more to everyone than anyone pays in.
Chris Christie, Paul's sparring partner from previous debates, noted that a large and growing majority of federal spending in for entitlements and other "mandatory" programs. That's the problem right there, and it speaks to a decades-long clusterfuck in the making. Congress and presidents don't want to be responsible for any decision any more. They can't even get a budget together with regularity. So shove it all into mandatory spending that's on auto-pilot and then, when people ask what the hell is going on, shrug and go into a "I don't know, I just work here" routine.
Tonight's debate was supposed to focus on economic and fiscal policy issues and the question of old-age entitlements helped clarify the two types of Republicans on the stage. Most of them recognized that Social Security and Medicare programs aren't simply in need of minor tweaks but are fundamentally broken. But then characters such as Mike Huckabee and even Donald Trump insisted that no, the programs must or will be preserved. Huckabee, as a southern-style populist conservative, kept talking about plain folks rely on them. Trump insisted that he'd bring enough economic growth to America that nobody would ever have to see a tax hike or a benefit cut. And Ben Carson, who went into the night leading the polls in Iowa? He looked pretty lost on stage, Admiral Stockdale without the battle fatigue. If Carson's numbers continue to rise, it's a pretty open admission that Republicans really are nuts.
The sad fact is, though, that none of the candidates really scored big tonight. I mean that not in the vulgar sense of wiping the floor with opponents. No, nobody really offered up a big-picture vision that was both coherent and captivating. Instead, what we got were small moments, spread across the stage , of compelling limited-government sensibilities. After Jeb Bush played cute about his own goddamn fantasy football team en route to saying betting on fake sports was bad, Chris Christie bellowed that such an issue is not worth considering given more pressing problems. Carly Fiorina slammed crony capitalism and forcefully said that it's not the government's job to make sure all companies offered 401(k) accounts. Someone else—it really doesn't matter who—argued that government involvement rarely makes an industry better or more accountable.
Somewhere within that blob of candidates beats at least the memory of libertarian themes of free markets, if not quite free minds. John Kasich parried the night's one question about legalizing pot (it could happen in Ohio as early as next week) and started talking about something else, probably about how great he's made Ohio again. Although several of the candidates have serious tax-reform plans floating around out there, they provided precious little detail on what spending they would cut and with how large a cleaver. That might have been a place for libertarianish Rand Paul to get in his colleagues' grill—to offer an alternative POV on pot legalization as an actually legitimate policy and to talk about holding spending constant until balance is tenable. But such moments came and went without providing much in the way of memories.
The long and short of it is that there are still too many people on the stage to have anything resembling an interesting conversation, much less an electrifying discussion of America's future. However distasteful it might be to have the candidates attack each other (Trump at one point laid into Kasich's stint at Lehman Brothers), it's even worse when they spend time congratulating themselves for being more substantive and thoughtful than the Democrats. "Kumbaya" is a terrible tune regardless of who's humming it.
At least two things became visible tonight. First, there are serious characters on the stage. Ben Carson looked lost and Jeb Bush kept shrinking throughout the night (as did Mike Huckabee), but among the cast of thousands standing up there tonight were people with experience and thoughtfulness. Second, the Republicans clearly have no standard bearer worth a damn, at least not one who can articulate a vision of limited government and a future that's really worth waiting around for. The general lack of energy, clarity, and passion on display was more depressing than any particular sentence uttered.
That doesn't bode well for the GOP as it seeks to recapture the White House (the Dems are just as played out in their own way). Far more important, especially to those of us who have no idea for whom we'll be voting next November, it doesn't bode well for a country that's been sliding sideways now for going on 15 years.