Election 2016

GOP Debate: Somewhere in That Blob of Candidates Beats a Libertarian Heart

Nobody went full libertarian, but belief in limited government started to show around the edges.


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.

Urban Institute

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.

NEXT: Reason Tweets the GOP Debates

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  1. Jacob Sullum says Trump was calling for full legalization of all drugs and prostitution as recently as 2011. Obviously he isn’t going to campaign on that to win the GOP nomination. The “Libertarian Moment” may not have been smothered in its crib after all.

    1. Other than Nick (who seems to have his head up his proverbial butt) came from the ever-thoughtful, ever wise, Krystall Ball (former MSNBC anchor/show stopper). Who indignantly tweeted that “who the hell are these moderator complainers, since Rick Santelli “started” the Tea Party”.

      Santelli didn’t moderate.

  2. “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.”

    That’s just mental.

    1. Asking a candidate for office “what are your greatest weaknesses” is not legitimate. It is stupid. And certainly not a question they would have asked Obama. They asked Obama and now Hillary “why did the Republicans unfairly attack you on X”?

      Also not legitimate: “Why are your poll numbers fading?” This is a question for campaign strategists, not for candidates.

      Questions for candidates include things about their political philosophy, policy positions and governing style. One area that never gets mentioned but is of great importance when talking to a potential chief executive – “What is your management style?” How will this person assemble and lead their team? Nobody asked Obama any of this… and he brought in a team almost exclusively composed of Wall Street veterans. Not surprisingly, the first thing he did after being elected was to funnel a trillion dollars to the financial industry. That would have been something worth knowing before the election.

      Having a candidate answer “when did you stop beating your wife” questions so that you can get a nice clip for the opposition talking points is not a legitimate line of inquiry. It is bush league even for student council elections. If you can’t beat this band of idiots on substance, you don’t deserve to win.

    2. It really is completely fucking batshit, especially in the context of the debates in general, in which Democrats are fawned over and fed softballs, and the Republicans are drilled as though they were one step above child molesters.

      If the Democrat debates went down in similar fashion, with openly combative moderators and generally antagonistic lines of questioning, I would have very little to say about the format or quality of questions last night. But as long as one ideology is handled with kid gloves and the other is treated like a plot being hatched by cartoon supervillains, the criticism stands.

      The fact that Gillespie can’t (or won’t) recognize the distinction is deeply disturbing.

    3. Th point wasn’t (mostly) that the questions weren’t legitimate.

      Its that they were very, very different than the questions the Dems were getting.

      And it was so blatant that even the audience and some mainstream/DemOp commentators agreed with the Repubs.

  3. “Somewhere in That Blob of Candidates Beats a Libertarian Heart”

    I heard of no evidence of this.

    1. I envision Mr. Gillespie holding his fourth glass of scotch in a death grip while typing furiously as the Jacket whispers sweet, nonsensical nothings in his ear in a futile attempt to place the customary small (L) spin into his article about the absolutely irredeemable Republican party line of statism.

      Go drunk Nick, you’re home.

      1. statements like “… senator starts yapping…” and curse words should be in the title or opening lines for attention grabbing effects, however when they are in the body of the article it only detracts. When there are more statements like (I’m paraphrasing b/c this is a hastily written comment) “I remember when someone said…” it lets you know there is another “element” to this writing. I thinking he was several past the forth glass.

    2. I guess faith is more fun than reason.

      1. Well in the context of “funhouse”, it kind of is!

  4. i disagree. i didn’t watch, but i’ve been catching up on the debate since it ended, so maybe i’ll still my mind, but it seemed to me that cnbc was horrible. i agree their worst sin was giving cruz, etc a chance to pretend like they want a fair, aggressive media presence in politics, but they still made fox’s first debate look like an inquisition by comparison. i really wish i had placed money on rubio earlier in the process, because i keep getting more and more convinced that he comes out of the primaries as the nominee. rubio and bush were inevitably going to go after one another because they occupy much of the same space. sorry to hear about paul’s performance…i now completely buy the idea that he’s just not totally invested in running.

    1. **correction**

      “…so maybe i’ll still change my mind…”

      1. -1 broken shift key

  5. There was a point where I said if I could take a little bit of what these various idiots were saying and combine them, you’d have an actual libertarian candidate I could vote for. But then they’d all go say something so ridiculous and contradictory to that I could never pull the lever.

    That said, I find the defending of CNBC’s questions ridiculous. The start was brutal. When Think Progress is critical of the conduct of these hacks, it’s not just rightwing nuts buying it. “That wasn’t really because of the candidates, though ? it was because of the moderators. For the first hour, CNBC moderators Becky Quick, John Harwood, and Carl Quintanilla didn’t let candidates interact with each other, resulting in multiple moments of incomprehensible yelling.”

    An interviewer has an excuse for being hostile. A debate moderator? Ask god damn questions and let the candidates actually debate. Don’t frame a question like this:
    Congressional Republicans, Democrats and the White House are about to strike a compromise that would raise the debt limit, prevent a government shutdown, and calm financial markets of the fear that a Washington crisis is on the way. Does your opposition to it show you’re not the kind of problem-solver that American voters want?

    This is inserting your opinion and framing it as a question.

    1. So who ARE you going to vote for? Hillary?

      Or are you just going to stay home in principled protest of the fact that the perfect libertarian George Washington has yet to arrive and convert the entire nation to pure academic libertarianism? I mean, do you just abstain from political participation until you get exactly what you want? Because if so, you’re in for nothing but disappointment, forever.

      If you can’t bring yourself to vote for Republican based on policy, then ask yourself this: who would you prefer chooses the next FOUR supreme court justices? Because that’s going to fall on the next president. Four justices.

      You may not like any of the Republican candidates, but at least they have some pretense of respect for the constitution and will at least TRY to put justices on the court who will interpret it reasonably. As opposed to Hillary/Bernie who have long given up on even pretending the constitution matters to them, and will choose justices based purely on social justice credentials.

      Do you want another possible Scalia or another four guaranteed Sotomayor? Now multiply that by four.

      That’s the question EVERY libertarian should be asking themselves right now.

      1. Hmmmm. Socialist statist society or Theocratic totalitarianism society. Tough call.

        1. Where the fuck are you people getting ‘theocratic totalitarianism’ from?

          Seriously, which Republican candidate do you see ushering in this new theocracy? Because if this is your concern, you’re fucking delusional, and looking for bogeymen in anyone who doesn’t conform to your perfect vision of libertarianism.

          The Democrats are OPENLY SOCIALIST. This is a real thing. They’re not even concealing it. The country is already 3/4 of the way there. And yet you’re worried about Republicans instituting a theocracy out of nowhere.

          What the fuck.

          1. Sotomayor, believe it or not, isn’t that terrible on criminal justice issues. If all SCOTUS Democrat picks were like her, I’d hate it, but it’d be livable. I think it comes from actually having done CJ work as a prosecutor (’cause there ain’t no way in hell these days a full member of the criminal defense bar would stand a chance of making it to a high appellate position). She’s at least familiar with the things that cops, DAs, crooks, and judges do, and I don’t see any “new professionalism” howlers ever coming from one of her opinions.

            Kagan, OTOH, is a complete travesty.

            I think I see the legitimacy of comments like ‘theocratic totalitarianism’ when discussing a potential President Huckabee or Santorum. Or Carson, if we look at what he’s actually been saying. But how is that true for a Paul, Cruz, Trump, or Rubio?

            1. President Huckabee or Santorum. Or Carson, if we look at what he’s actually been saying. But how is that true for a Paul, Cruz, Trump, or Rubio?

              I would be comfortable enough with a Paul presidency; Cruz, I think would be amenable, based on his upbringing, so he’s out for me; Trump? He’s a waffle, so if he saw profit in leaning hard right, I don’t think he’d stand in the way, but overall disqualified on other grounds in my mind; Rubio? Unknown, but probably one of the most benign (with Paul) for an atheist like me. Not mind you, that I like any of these choices.

          2. The Democrats are OPENLY SOCIALIST. This is a real thing. They’re not even concealing it. The country is already 3/4 of the way there. And yet you’re worried about Republicans instituting a theocracy out of nowhere.

            Yes, I agree and I will resist socialism too. I can also be concerned about the potential for the appointment to SCOTUS of sky fairy believers that could decide law based on their “divine guidance”. I am also concerned about a president who is unable to maintain a separation of church and state. I fully understand that whatever superstition politicians believe in will affect their decisions, therefore, the only way I have to resist being affected by the force their decisions will bring against me is to try and minimize the effect religion can have on politics.

            You see, it’s also a matter of perspective. I am atheist, lesbian, libertarian and trans, so I have a different set of priorities than you do. I have to wonder why topics like this incense some people such that they immediately turn to insult and hyperbole. I resist SJW bullshit just as much as I fight the SoCon crap, so don’t bother telling me I’m delusional and need to play team. I’ve thought for myself my entire life and I’m not ready to give up yet.

            1. Spot on, Mulch! I’ve heard more and more folks recently say the same things I’ve been saying since the Last Presidential Election…. The Republican candidates for nomination might be good for the country, but only if ONE of them were president and ALL the rest were in the Prez’ Cabinet.

              Same this time, too.

              I’m ‘only’ an atheist libertarian, but NONE of the Republican candidates, imnsho, are anything BUT repackaged conservatives who would love theocracy of THEIR flavor in the WH, Senate and Supreme Court rather than anything really resembling libertarianism. Yes, even Paul. Scratch the surface and they ALL look to their god (or JC in particular) for their guidance, morality and rules, and (“god forbid”) you suggest that anyone can be moral and/or ethical who has not been Born Again recently.

              Total bullshit, but as the audience cheered and applauded during the “Debate” there was LOTS of agreement when those principles were voiced by the candidates.


              1. continued…

                Yep, Democrats/Liberals == Socialists like Hillary and Bernie, but Republicans/Conservatives ALL seem to have their moral grounding in The One Bible and JC, and that combination pretty much wipes out any hope I have for a pleasant future in the US.

                And EACH side considers themselves Perfect AND considers the Other Side to be The Devil’s Own Spawn. Cognitive dissonance, denial, or anything else like that going on here? Bet on it.

                Sounds like two groups of psychotics arguing of which one of their ‘realities’ is The Real One, when the Real Answer is “Neither’s.”

                I turn 70 in just a few weeks, and part of me is a little bit happy that I won’t have to watch this shit go down for very much longer. Sympathies to you youngsters and your offspring (and my step-grandkids)….

  6. Yes, I’m going to respond to myself. Moreover – would Democrats ever allow Rush Limbaugh to conduct their debate? Obviously hell no. But the Republicans let a hack like Harwood do it. The dude would get down on his knees and such all day if Obama commanded it. Frankly, they might as well just stick to Fox.

  7. 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.

    So, you were offended to the point of nausea that the audience at a Republican debate was hostile to moderators who were hostile to Republicans.

    Gee, Nick, I don’t have any idea why anyone might think you lean progressive.

    1. Considering Nick seemed to be advocating taxing “the rich” more during the Democrat debate, I have no idea why this dude is the leading voice of Reason.

      By the way, my sister in law and her husband got a delicious awakening when they found their taxes going through the roof when they both got full time jobs. With no kids between them, they didn’t think it fair they have to cover the costs for those with entitlements.

      Completely lost on them was that continuing to vote Democrat may not be in their best interest.

      1. Of course, voting GOP wouldn’t help them much either, but at least they occasionally talk the talk.

      2. He’s not – he’s gunning for that Senior-Senior-Senior Editor position over at “Salon”, now that Joanie Walsh is moving on to “The Nation”.

        Actually, Kevin D. Williamson would be a much better Reason editor and all-around poobah than any of the current line-up progressive ninnies.

        As would Charles Cooke.

        Imagine that – real libertarians editing a libertarian magazine!

    2. “I just about wanted to puke” sounds like something from a Piers Morgan diatribe.

  8. i find it offensive that he called republicans “nuts”

    I, as a libertarian, take pride in the fact that I’m supposed to be the one who is “nuts”

    1. The party that believes that vaccines cause autism and that if you believe in Jeebus and hate negroes you’ll go to heaven isn’t nuts?

      You are right, that term is faaaar too nice.

    2. I, as a libertarian, take pride in the fact that I’m supposed to be the one who is “nuts”

      At least you can still feel good about the fact that Christie think the way you think is dangerous.

      *cue spy movie music*

      1. *thinks*

      2. Ah, reminding me of Christie… he sounded like a libertarian when he was first running for governor. Now he’s sounding mostly Conservative, like the others.

        But I noticed ONE thing that interested me… Christie was Most Often the One Candidate that spoke Directly To
        “the viewing audience” by looking Right At The Camera with the red light on and addressing the Viewers, not the moderators or other panelists.

        I saw that as excellent coaching, acting, and handling by whoever was advising him. If he was doing that on his own, I will give him the highest ratings for being a Communicator, rather than a “my mom and dad…” storyteller like all the others.

        Same as I noticed that when Carly got amped up, at least in the prior debate, her eyes never looked at the camera, moderators or other panelists, but always looked downward and darted (shall I say, ‘furtively’?) from side to side as she spoke.

        I’d love to hear what a psychologist or psychologist might comment on that…

  9. Meh, had a World Series to watch. Despite some of these people occaisionally saying something not brain dead, look at DC, team red crony fucks helped team blue crony fucks revive the ex/im bank. If they can’t cut something with no real significance how will they ever be fiscally responsible. They won’t.

    Anymore I just root for different teams controlling Congress and the White House, they do less damage that way. That said, the Hildebeest appointing Supremes is frightening. She might outdo Obozo there.

  10. So has Gillespie been stealing from Agile Cyborg’s stash again?

  11. Look Nick, I agree with your “a pox on both your houses” stance. I also didn’t hear much from the candidates that gave me hope of turning the ship in the right direction (toward liberty).

    But that doesn’t mean that I can’t simultaneously agree with their criticism of the debate moderators. All of the GOP debates have been worthy of criticism, even the much-praised FOX debate. Did anyone ask Hillary if she talks to God? What about some tough questions for the Democrat field about supporting partial birth abortion, or other gotcha questions on issues that are of little or no relevance to the chief executive job? The stark difference is certainly worth of criticism.

    1. So far the only comparable interview question I’ve seen for the Democrats was when Jimmy Kimmel asked Sanders about being “a cultural Jew”, which implies that he might just be an atheist, something that he’s never embraced publicly. Atheists lauded the question and celebrated the non-answer as a turning point in national politics, where an atheist can be “out” and still be a serious candidate.

      It really is a sad state of affairs when the best questioning of a candidate comes in response to a “gotcha” question designed to paint the Republican field into a conservative Christian corner…. and it is delivered by a late-night comedian. I suppose the fact that nobody has followed up on that line of questioning means that nobody really takes Sanders seriously as a candidate. Kinda like nobody follows up on what Lindsey Graham has to say.

    2. “What about some tough questions for the Democrat field about supporting partial birth abortion”

      Can you imagine the glare Hillary would give, being forced to answer if she thinks it’s OK for PP to make money by selling the body parts of aborted fetuses to scientific research?

      1. .. and if I were the moderator who asked that question, I would stay away from parks at night.

        My basic thought is that Team Red sucks, but Team Blue SUCKS!!!, and ‘Hillary!’ is among the suckiest of the sucky.

        Also, if the R’s win, there will be a hostile opposition and a hostile media to keep the R’s worst instincts in check. The media and the entire elitist society would spend the entire time cheering ‘Hillary!’ on to greater and more rabid marxism.

        1. and the audiences for Colbert’s show cheered and roared approval at everything Bernie and Hillary said in terms of ‘stupid economic policies’ they professed.

          It’s not the Candidates, it’s the fucking Electorate that’s The Problem in this country, and everyone sits around bitching about the Government.

          As I’ve tried to point out about a jillion times, When Congress gets an Approval Rating circulating around 10% but 90-95% of them Keep Getting Re-Elected, CONGRESS IS NOT THE PROBLEM!

  12. I didn’t watch the debate, so I can’t speak to Nick’s general complaint about the candidates griping about the questions they were asked. But I did just watch the exchange where Cruz gets the “Why do you suck so bad?” debt limit question and uses it to object to the tenor of the questioning. I am not a big Cruz fan, but I found it refreshing. It was such a stilted, loaded question coming from someone who is supposed to be a neutral moderator, and it deserved to be slapped down. It would have been easy to simply ask “Why do you object to the recent deal on the debt limit?”

  13. Jeezus – you’re just as blatantly biased as I had always thought. After your drooling about how “libertarianish” the Democrats have become, you write a hit piece on the Republicans.

    Nick – quit pretending to be a libertarian. You’re drooling for that primo Salon job – and it shows.

  14. Correction Nick, not funding murder is sorta important.

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    1. Shit.. another fucking troll….


  16. None of the Republican candidates for President favor individual person freedom to take care of yourself in everything that matters. All of them want a “big government” that will make actions that neither harm or endanger anyone into crimes. All support the “War on Drugs” that costs us as much as a hundred billion dollars in total costs. All support intrusive government (Big Nanny) over more and more of our lives. Increasing regulation over every facet of our lives.

    Hillary Clinton supports pretty much the same ideas. Not much different.

    I’d love to see a Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders debate. That would be fun to watch! Neither one of course is likely to be elected, but at least they add a “bit” to these otherwise boring debates.

  17. …And then the Repubs get into power and prove that they are no different than the Demos.

  18. The main reason that the GOP will not regain the White House is that the Underclass votes with the party who promise them they never will have to work and give them free stuff.

  19. The American People will never elect a “full Libertarian”;
    they’ve had the chance, and repeatedly decline the opportunity.
    A hidden heart-beat is the best you can expect.
    Get over it!

  20. Live Free[er]?

    Dear Reason reader,

    one of the most personal freedom- damaging beliefs you can have [one of many :-)] , is the belief in the necessity of political involvement – to supposedly “improve” your life via the political process.

    Fact: as an individual you will _never_ enjoy a freer life for yourself until you completely reject the “drug”, “religion” [ or whatever else you want to call it] known as “political activism” or “involvement”, in its entirety.

    It is nothing more than a trap- a dead end that ultimately _decreases_ your chances for more personal freedom and happiness in this world.

    Regards, onebornfree.
    Personal Freedom Consulting:

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