Photo courtesy of North Charleston Coliseum & Performing Arts Center
Photo courtesy of North Charleston Coliseum & Performing Arts Center

“Badges…I don’t have to show you no stinkin’ badges”

by / Jan. 18, 2016 3pm EST

(Author’s note: Save for this paragraph, these comments were written and submitted before the Sunday, January 17 debate among Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley in Charleston, South Carolina. The most recent Republican event is described in this article. The Democratic event was very different: It focused on issues and differences in the candidates past positions and current ideas. The questions posed by NBC anchor Lester Holt and Andrea Mitchell went to policy and potential, and the candidates responded in kind. There was, so far as I could tell, no demonizing, outright lying, or wandering into a universe wholly disconnected from fact or possibility.)

What debate?
It wasn’t a debate. It was a Republican campaign event, one in which the “debaters” mostly had at two people who weren’t there—Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—and the “moderators” were really enablers. In the post-debate “Spin Room” session, one of the Fox anchors said, “I’m a Republican; I want the Republicans to win.”

A debate is two sides arguing one another’s positions trying to prove a point. What went on here was seven men on a stage occasionally attacking one another but mostly telling outrageous lies about two people who weren’t there: Clinton and Obama. Normally, in a debate, when someone says something that is mendacious or untenable, the opponent pounces on it next time up; here, the opponents mostly expanded on it. 

What moderators?
In a real debate there is a moderator who does not take sides, who is basically a traffic cop at a busy intersection. 

Fox Business Network anchors Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo were anything but. Many of the questions they posed weren’t questions designed to distinguish positions among the candidates, but rather slow-ball pitches allowing them to have at the Democrats. 

Bartiromo, for example, asked Ben Carson, “And what do you think of the notion that Hillary Clinton is an enabler of sexual misconduct?” Cavuto said, in part of a question to Bush, “For the third time in as many months, the Iranians have provoked us, detaining us, as we’ve been discussing, with these 10 Navy sailors Tehran had said strayed into their waters. The sailors were released, but only after shown on video apologizing for the incident. This occurring only weeks after Iran fired multiple rockets within 1,500 yards of a US aircraft carrier and then continued to test medium range missiles.” And after one of Governor John R. Kasich’s statements, Cavuto said, “Thank you, John.” 

We’re all pals here tonight. 

The two asked very few follow-up questions. One time Baritromo tried to ask one but Cavuto shut her up and changed the subject. When they did ask one (because their original question had been met with a response to a question they hadn’t asked, bombast, or a flat-out lie), they usually got in response another response to a question they hadn’t asked, more bombast, or a reiteration of the lie or a new one, whereupon they would go on to a different subject. 

The candidates
Mostly the candidates—Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Chris Christie, Governor John R. Kasich, former Governor Jeb Bush, and real estate tycoon Donald Trump—scapegoated Obama for things he hadn’t done and dissed “government” (in which four of them now work and another worked in the past). They fell over one another showing which would be better at eliminating gun control, sitting on the Chinese economy, and killing terrorists. 

There were, so far as I could tell, no ideas and no plans for the future. There were a lot of lines on the order of “We’re not going to do it like that,” or, “We’re going to rid the world of the world’s problems.” Those are not ideas or programs; they are assertions and slogans. It was no more substantial than the pig named Pegasus Abbie Hoffman’s Yippie party ran in the 1968 presidential election on a platform of “eternal life, free pay toilets,” and one other thing I can no longer remember. The Yippies knew they were absurd and knew we knew they were absurd; these guys were absurd and hoped we wouldn’t notice. 

Lies, assertions, foolishness, and gibberish
—Bush: “We need to lead a Sunni-led force.” 

—Kasich: “We need to intercept ships from North Korea.” That is an act of war. On what grounds would we undertake this enterprise? What would we do with the ships once we’ve intercepted them?

—Rubio: “The Employment Prevention Agency—the EPA.” Tell that to the folks in Flint, Michigan, who recently learned their drinking water is laced with lead and other toxins and that thousands of children may have been poisoned.

—Cruz: “Abolish the IRS.” He wants a 10-percent flat tax. If we abolish the IRS, Rubio pointed out, who is going to collect it? Who is going to monitor compliance?

—Carson (who always seems medicated and whose eyes shut for curiously long periods, like someone fighting to stay awake or dealing with badly fitted contacts): “Every regulation is a tax.” Like “Speed limit 55”? Or “No smoking in the lavatory”? Or “Fasten your seatbelt and turn off all electronic devices”?

—Rubio: The San Bernardino killer was “posing as fiancée” while an ISIS agent. She was a fiancée and she came here before ISIS existed. 

—Bush: “We should put NSA in charge of the civilian side.” Civilian side of what? Abolish the FBI, state, and local police departments, and turn it over to NSA? NSA is an information agency, not an operations agency. Who is going to issue the parking tickets?

—Rubio: “Our rights don’t come from government; out rights come from God.” Then why does the Supreme Court quote the Constitution rather than the Bible? And even if those rights did come from God, which one? There are a lot of them out there. 

—Cruz: “America will repeal Obamacare, we will defeat terrorism, and we will defend the Constitution.” And what will you replace Obamacare with? Exactly how will you defeat terrorism, which is not a group but a technique in asymmetrical warfare? And what defense will you provide the Constitution that it is not getting now? Cruz didn’t say, and neither Cavuto nor Bartiromo asked.

—Trump said we got the 10 sailors back because we paid Iraq $150 billion. No: We got the 10 sailors back because of quiet negotiation by Obama’s State Department and because the Iranians gave them and their two boats back 11 hours after they were picked up for illegally being in Iranian waters. 

—Christie said Common Core had been eliminated in New Jersey. He also said: “So let’s set the facts straight. First of all, I didn’t support Sonia Sotomayor. Secondly, I never wrote a check to Planned Parenthood.” Common Core is alive and well in New Jersey; Christie previously crowed that he contributed personal funds to Planned Parenthood, and that he endorsed Sotomayor. 

—Trump: “When I look at the migration, I looked at the line, I said it actually on your show recently, where are the women? It looked like very few women. Very few children. Strong, powerful men, young and people are looking at that and they’re saying what’s going on?” According to the State Department, the great majority of refugees are women and children. Only two percent of the refugees in the US are men of combat age; 2.5 percent are adults over 60.

—Trump denied having told the New York Times he wanted a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports. “They’re wrong. They’re always wrong.” The next day, the Times produced a recording of him saying exactly that. 

(Trump’s color kept changing. When he was on camera alone, his skin looked normal, but when he was alongside someone else, his orange tanning lotion looked grotesque. I assume the Fox cameras adjusted for normal face tones in the solo shots but the corrective program was inoperative when someone with a normal face tone was also in the shot. It was freaky and disconcerting: Sometimes he was pink, sometimes orange, and always there was that absurd comb-over. Someone later posted on Facebook what at first glance looked like a cover of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, but it had Trump’s face and the German letters spelled Mein Coif.)

—Cruz: “And I give you my word, if I am elected president, no service man or service woman will be forced to be on their knees, and any nation that captures our fighting men will feel the full force and fury of the United States of America.” How, exactly, will he prevent that the world round? And does that mean his response to the Iranian detention of the American sailors illegally cruising their waters would have been a military attack, which would have gotten a lot of people killed, rather than quiet diplomacy that ended the incident in 11 hours?

—Rubio: “Barack Obama does not believe that America is a great global power. Barack Obama believes that America is a arrogant global power that needs to be cut down to size. And that’s how you get a foreign policy where we cut deals with our enemies like Iran and we betray our allies like Israel and we gut our military and we go around the world like he has done on 10 separate occasions and apologized for America.

“He doesn’t understand the threat in ISIS…When I’m president of the United States, we are going to win this war on ISIS. The most powerful intelligence agency in the world is going to tell us where they are, the most powerful military in the world is going to destroy them. And if we capture any of them alive, they are getting a one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and we are going to find out everything they know.” No one on stage contradicted him on any of this foolishness and no follow-up question—something simple, like, “What’s your evidence for what you just said about Obama?”—was asked. Nor did anyone ask if his last sentence meant that he intends to reintroduce torture. 

—Rubio:We elected a president that doesn’t believe in the Constitution. He undermines it. We elected a president that is weakening America on the global stage. We elected a president that doesn’t believe in the free enterprise system…When I become president of the United States, on my first day in office we are going to repeal every single one of his unconstitutional executive orders.” Obama taught Constitutional law at University of Chicago; Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe said Obama was one of the best students he’d ever had in his Constitutional law class. No one on the stage contradicted Rubio or asked him to prove those wild assertions. Nor did anyone point out that no court had found any of Obama’s 147 executive orders illegal or that he has issued fewer of them than Nixon (346), Ford (169), Carter (320), Reagan (381), Bush I (166), Clinton (364), and Bush 2 (291). The only response was Bartiromo saying, “Thank you, Senator.”

—Rubio said: “This president every chance he has ever gotten has tried to undermine the Second Amendment.”

—Cruz: “Eric Holder said he viewed his mission as brainwashing the American people against guns. He appointed Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, someone who has been a radical against the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.” When and where, exactly, did Attorney General Eric Holder say that? In what country does the Attorney General have the power to appoint anyone to the Supreme Court? 

This fall
When it comes to the actual election campaign, this kind of foolishness won’t work. Whether the Democratic candidate is Clinton or Senator Bernie Sanders, comments like outright lies and untenable assertions will not go unchallenged. Moreover, the Democrat candidates will have these off-the-wall statements to throw back at the Republican nominee. This stuff may play well in front of an audience of the converted, as in South Carolina; it will play differently when the audience is composed of a full spectrum of the potential electorate, people who are really thinking about issues, rather than getting cranked up in a frenzy about boogeymen. 

When it was over, both the debate and the “Spin Room” banter, I found myself thinking not of politics but of my second favorite scene in John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre.*  The blustery, mendacious Mexican bandit leader Gold Hat (played by Alfonso Bedoya) tells the characters portrayed by Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt that he and his men are federales, government police. 

Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) says, “If you’re the police, where are your badges?

Gold Hat responds, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

Substitute the word “truth” or “facts” for “badges” and you’ve got a perfect summary of the Republic/Fox raree-show last Thursday night. 

It wasn’t, as I said, a debate; it was a Republican campaign dog-and-pony show. And the Fox Business Network anchors were neither moderators nor journalists; they were pimps. What else would you expect from Fox? What else would you expect from the Republican party now?

*My favorite scene in Treasure of the Sierra Madre is the one in which Walter Huston’s toothless character discovers gold dust blown down from the mountain and he tells the other two what idiots they are.

Bruce Jackson has written on political and social issues for the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, The New Republic, and other publications. He is editor-at large of The Public and on the faculty of University at Buffalo.