In Burnt Norton, the first of his Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot opens the fifth section of the poem with an amusing evocation of occult practices, from the activities of the haruspex to palm reading, by which the credulous seek to achieve some knowledge of the future. Reading the tea leaves, interpreting signs or portents, mucking about with the guts of birds or beasts, “all these,” says Eliot, “are usual / Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press.”
“And how, Tom!” I thought to myself as I digested the reaction to last night’s debate. Presidential debates are like beaters at a shoot, flushing out the birds of supposed certainty that take sudden flight only — bang! bang! bang! — to brake midair and plummet, a dead weight, to the ground.
I was having lunch with a friend yesterday, a Kasich man by habit, who put in a good word ’round the edges for his chap but who also acknowledged that Marco Rubio was proceeding close-hauled with full sails. Jeb was finished. Carly didn’t matter. Trump was impossible. And Cruz was unelectable. (Carson, though riding high, didn’t really come into the conversation, nor did Rand Paul.)
I think that’s pretty accurate, except for the bit about Ted Cruz.
As one haruspex to another, this is how I see the entrails: I think Cruz won the night. There are more words in the IRS code than the Bible; why is it “anti-immigrant” to insist that immigration be conducted legally? You think it is expensive to defend America: try not defending it. We’re all the children of people who risked everything for freedom. And so on.
Whether it was the economy or national security, Hillary Clinton (the epitome, he rightly said, of crony capitalism) or the burden of regulation, Cruz was crisp, clear, and in command of the relevant facts.
Rubio also shone, and was especially good on the prosperity-blighting enormity that is Dodd-Frank, the threat of militant Islam (Cruz got some licks in there as well), and the way in which Obama treats the ayatollahs in Iran with more respect than he does Netanyahu. I especially liked his observations about the dignity of vocational education: channeling his inner Charles Murray (see Murray’s Real Education), he pointed out that the country needs more welders than philosophers. And his mot that the most important job any of us will ever have is that of parent. Yep.
For his part, John Kasich early on waded into the weeds and pretty much stayed there. Wall Street, he informed us, was “greedy” (yawn). Asked whether, in the event of another financial crisis, he would bail out the banks, he floundered. I think we can cross him off the list. Ditto Jeb, who appeared like a Jeep whose tires some prankster had partially deflated. It was not so much that he was “low energy” (as Donald Trump might have put it) as that he lumbered over the terrain in a squishy, blinking manner. No gaffes, just no moxie.
Carson, Carly, and even Rand Paul had their moments. Carson was out of his depth on the question of what to do about the big banks, but good on what to do about global jihadists: destroy them. Just what the doctor ordered, Ben! He was also spot on in reminding us that Hillary admitted privately that the Banghazi massacre was a terrorist attack even as she was dispensing for public consumption the fairytale about its being the result of a silly anti-Mohammed internet video.
Carly had several good moments. She hauled out a point she has made several times before: that socialism starts when government first creates a problem and then calls itself in to address (I won’t say “fix”) it. She was also stalwart about dealing with Russia — Putin can’t tell us where to fly our planes — and got in a nice little dig against Trump, who recalled being in a green room with Putin before they both appeared on a TV show. Carly recalled her own face-to-face meeting where she talked policy, not pop popularity. It was a subtle, or perhaps not-so-subtle, way to underscore Trump’s essential lack of seriousness.
I felt a little sorry for Carly last night. Almost all of her answers were spot-on, but there was something pinched and straining about her performance. The overall effect was almost Bushlike in its wonkiness. There is a lot to admire about Carly Fiorina: she has swotted up all the facts and figures like the star pupil at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, nevertheless — you heard it here, folks — she will not be the candidate.
Rand Paul will not be the candidate, either, though he had a few excellent moments last night. He is certainly correct that we have ceded too much power to the executive, and any true conservative cannot but applaud his ambition to shrink the size of government. He also had a couple of nice zingers, pointing out to Donald Trump, for example, that China isn’t part of the new trade deal, so blustering on about our relations with China when discussing the deal is (this is my contribution) pointless, misleading, ignorant, or all three.
And what about Donald Trump? He was there in all his Donaldness, but I suspect he got his tires from the same emporium that furnished Jeb. This was in many ways the most serious debate yet and so it underscored the fact that serious is not what Donald Trump does. You could practically hear the air going out of his campaign.
I thought the biggest losers last night were Jeb and Kasich. Carson, despite some good lines, continued to exhibit a troublesome porousness. Carly and Rand Paul treaded water. Ditto Trump. The clear winners were Rubio and Cruz, or perhaps it was Cruz and Rubio. A lot of the smart money is coalescing around Rubio. I confess I discern a certain oleaginous quality about him that is off-putting. Perhaps it is simply the callowness of youth. Or maybe it is the callowness of being in the pocket of the sugar industry.
Smart people tell me that Ted Cruz cannot win. But then a lot of smart people told us Reagan couldn’t win, either, and for similar reasons: he was too extreme, too right wing, couldn’t get on with the Republican establishment, etc.
There limits to the analogy between Cruz and Reagan, just as there are limits to any comparison between 1980 and 2016. But this much is clear: the next election is a battle for the soul of America. Will we emerge with our founding principles of limited government and individual liberty intact? Or will we travel further down the road to socialist dependency and cronyism? Chris Christie, the star of the undercard debate last night, admonished his fellow panelists to keep their eye on the ball: they should not be the target of the collective Republican argument, Hillary Clinton should. He got that right, in principle.
I say “in principle” because I continue to believe that Hillary will not be the candidate. Perhaps she will withdraw for “health” reasons as the FBI investigation turns up more and more evidence of her felonious negligence on the matter of running the State Department from a closet in her house in Chappaqua. Or perhaps Benghazi will come back to haunt her. There are many, so many possibilities. How, for example, do you spell “Clinton Foundation”? Donald Trump is right about one thing: Hillary is desperate to be president not least because it may be the only way to avoid an indictment. Anyway, although almost everyone assumes she will be the candidate, I have a box of cigars resting on the contention that she won’t. We’ll see.
I thought Mitt Romney was going to be president in 2012. I got that one badly wrong (but so, I’m told, did Mitt). The signs and portents are a little ambiguous. I see two men emerging from the shadows. One is called Biden — but he is not running, you say. I reply, he is not running now. And the other? Dark hair. Medium height. Someone calls him “Senator.” But is it Marco or is it Ted? My crystal ball is not perspicacious enough to see.
The one thing I can tell is that when I am invited back to the White House in 2017, my host will be called Ted or Marco.