Though the CNN town hall in Milwaukee on Tuesday night, held in the historic Riverside Theater, was organized rather suddenly (I was notified of it the previous Friday and given only until 5:00 PM to apply for tickets and submit questions), organizers were nonetheless able to fill about half the theater’s seats. This comes to well over a thousand people, surely indicative of the unusual importance of this year’s primary election in Wisconsin. (And also of the seriousness with which Wisconsinites take their politics.)
Little fresh information emerged from the candidates’ presentations. Each candidate was given an hour with Anderson Cooper as the moderator, and audience members’ submitted questions were presented to them.
Both Ted Cruz and John Kasich had a good night.
Both sounded intelligent, informed, and level-headed while presenting policy suggestions — once they were allowed to move past the fluff of the social media “wives” fight and the charging of Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s troglodytic campaign manager, for assaulting reporter Michelle Fields at a primary night speech this month.
Astroturf Leftist “protesters” (it was widely reported that solicitations on Craigslist and similar sites offered them $15/hour) appeared outside the venue, but according to policemen with whom I spoke after the event, no more than a few dozen showed, and all left within the first hour.
One notable development stood out from the evening: “the pledge” to support the eventual GOP candidate — which all GOP candidates took earlier in the race — is officially dead. None of the three were still willing to say they will support another victor, full stop. Each answered in his own way, but the responses were both unequivocal about their meaning and their cause: Donald Trump’s toxic tactics of insult, innuendo, and the lowest sort of gossip have changed the game.
The Donald was there too, and he didn’t have a good night.
Both Cruz’s and Kasich’s presentations were greeted at times with enthusiastic cheering and applause. An especially poignant moment came when Senator Cruz was confronted by Mark Sandusky, the father of a Marine veteran who had died from an overdose of opiate painkillers, which were scandalously overprescribed by the Tomah VA. (The story dominated Wisconsin media last summer.) Sandusky was seeking support for a bipartisan bill in Congress named after his son, which would establish tight controls on opiate prescriptions for vulnerable vets at the VA and for the general public. Cruz acknowledged the terrible sacrifice of Jason Sandusky’s tragic life, and told his father that they were both members of a horrible club: Cruz’s sister Miriam also died of a drug overdose after a long struggle with addiction, which began with painkillers after an accident. It was the most genuinely moving moment of the evening.
Trump was the only candidate who inspired not only cheers and applause — there were plenty of Trump supporters in the theater — but also boos as he continued his tasteless attacks. Among other lowlights of the presentation, Trump claimed to be willing to put the “wife-war” behind him, but insisted on defending his offensive retweet of the Heidi Cruz/Melania Trump photos on the grounds that “Cruz started it.” This, despite Cruz’s unequivocal denunciation of the nude photo of Melania sent to Utah voters, and the super PAC which sent it being both unaffiliated with the Cruz campaign and supportive of Marco Rubio until he dropped out. Anderson Cooper correctly and immediately characterized Trump’s answer as the emotional response of a five-year-old.
Both Cruz and Kasich mentioned that if Lewandowski held a post in either of their campaigns, he’d have been fired for his actions which had prompted his arrest and charging. Trump continued to defend those actions, characterizing the entire incident as a political hit job, and insinuating that he might sue Michelle Fields. (He ludicrously suggested that she might have been assaulting him by trying to ask questions after his press conference was over, and by claiming that her pen might have been a weapon).
Trump continued his pattern of mendacity by again repeating long-discredited lies about Scott Walker’s record as governor of Wisconsin. Among other things, Trump said that instead of passing Act 10, Walker’s signature legislation which prompted the nationally televised Madison riots, he mischaracterized a reported projected budget shortfall as a $2.2B deficit. Through judicious management, that has been averted. This attack was no way to win friends and influence people in Wisconsin, certainly not in that theater. At one point, Trump alleged that the theater was packed with Cruz supporters.
Perhaps Trump’s most poignant moment came during a question: An audience member said that her 93-year-old father found Trump’s children to be admirable, and asked why their father wouldn’t learn something about dignity and presidential deportment from them.
And this question came from a Trump supporter. Indeed.