Second Republican Debate Sets Up Trump So Others Can Knock Him Down

Republican Debate Getty Images

As if we needed another example that life isn’t fair. Poor George Pataki, New York’s favorite governor (if we exclude all the others), was left off stage for the big GOP debate and had to settle for the second string at 6 p.m., instead of CNN’s main event at 8 o’clock featuring The Donald and all his detractors.

Not even his mentor, Alfonse D’Amato, without whose help none of us would probably have ever heard of the Peekskill Republican, had the decency to support Pataki this time around. D’Amato is pulling for another governor, Ohio’s John Kasich, who barely held his own at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Even pseudo-moderates have a tough row to hoe in this very conservative field.

Pataki’s absence reminded me of a New Yorker cartoon showing our governor campaigning for president in the Iowa primary four years ago, earnestly introducing himself to a disinterested cow chewing a stalk of grass beside a barnyard fence. No other species in sight. Last night, he might as well have been talking to himself since he’s just not a household name west of the Hudson, yet he was the governor of New York for a dozen years.

How many voters tuned in early to hear Pataki denounce Trump, the only New Yorker to make the first string, who happens to be leading in the polls?

“Donald Trump is unfit to be president of the United States or the Republican Party’s nominee,” said our ex-governor. Probably one of the truest statements uttered the whole night. You can be sure that Pataki won’t be invited to Trump’s next wedding.

Democrats I know watched the prime-time proceedings with a mix of horror and fascination. The CNN stage set, with Reagan’s shiny Air Force One jet as backdrop, could be mistaken for a Boeing ad at first glance. The producers made sure that Trump had center-stage so the camera wouldn’t have to move every time he butted in.

On one side of him was Ben Carson, the only African American included, who happens to be a brain surgeon. Carson, whose bumper stickers I’ve seen around LI, once made the assertion that “Obamacare is really, I think, the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” It sounds like Carson skipped one too many American history classes in college while studying for his MCATS. Certainly, the good doctor doesn’t have to worry about his own health insurance. Despite all the other nutty things Carson has said recently, his measured demeanor and eloquence must have resonated along the way because he went into the debate just trailing Trump in the GOP surveys.

On the other side of The Donald was his purported Republican establishment candidate, Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who took a lot of shots defending his brother’s war record. Unlike W, this Bush doesn’t have the same folksy style, nor does he mince words or mangle the English language, except when explaining why he’s fluent in Spanish and why his wife’s being from Mexico doesn’t disqualify her as a patriotic American.

And that brings us to one of the more ominous themes of the evening. Of all the Republicans running for president in 2016, only Jeb Bush seemed willing to rationally criticize Trump’s outrageous claim that he would round up 14 million “illegal” immigrants and deport them. Bush actually raised the specter of families and communities being ripped apart, evoking, without saying it directly, the scenes of our country’s shame from World War II when tens of thousands of loyal Japanese Americans were put in camps where the guards pointed the guns at them. And those folks were citizens.

How would treating undocumented workers harshly not put us on a slippery slope to becoming just like the enemies we defeated in the Great War? We might as well melt down the Statue of Liberty and sell it for scrap metal. Nevertheless, the candidates apparently like the idea of building a wall around the United States as tall as possible. Wonder who will get that juicy government contract?

One highlight, such as it was, came when the two business moguls, Trump and Carly Fiorina, dressed in blue not Republican red, clashed over their business prowess. The former CEO of Hewlett-Packard brought up Trump’s bankruptcies, adding them up on camera: “not once, not twice, not three times but a record four times.” The Donald’s face grew crimson with suppressed rage. He had already had to defuse the recent attack he’d made on Fiorina’s appearance in a Rolling Stone interview, when he said, “Look at that face!”

She has turned the personal attack into a compelling fund-raising ad, saying that she’s earned “every line” on her 61-year-old countenance. At this debate he denied that he had ever called her ugly. Last night, he said she had a beautiful face. She retorted, “I think women all over the country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”

Trump, not to be undone, attacked Fiorina’s leadership at Hewlett-Packard, saying it was so bad that’s why she was fired. Indeed, despite laying off tens of thousands of workers, her company was failing fast and she was canned—but not without being given a multi-million-dollar golden parachute. That’s the way they do it at the top. To counter Trump, she claimed that she was very successful, a great executive, in fact, and that the guy who got of rid of her has since recanted.

Gov. Chris Christie, leaning heavily on his podium at the end of the stage, saw his opening and took it, however illogically, to wage his version of class warfare.

“You’re both successful people. Congratulations,” he said. “The middle class in this country who’s getting plowed under by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, let’s start talking about those issues tonight and stop this childish back-and-forth between the two of you.”

No one else thought to bring up Christie’s dismal economic record in New Jersey. The state lost 14,000 jobs in July, more than 26,000 since June, prompting the Asbury Park Press to editorialize recently that “Christie wants to brag about a job recovery under his leadership that isn’t even close to so many other states, including some of our closest neighbors, like New York and Pennsylvania…”

There were many strange moments, like the candidates speculating on what their Secret Service code names might be, or whether their moms belong on the 10-dollar bill, but one of the weirdest—or at least the most ballsy—had to be when Christie turned to the camera and said, “The question is, who’s going to prosecute Hillary Clinton?” He wants the Justice Department to investigate the former Secretary of State, who happens to be the leading Democrat running for president, for the way she handled her emails while in office.

But Christie is already under federal investigation for abusing power as epitomized by the Bridgegate Scandal, when his underlings shut down the George Washington Bridge to penalize the mayor of Fort Lee. Weeks ago, as a result of the ongoing inquiry into this blatant act of political payback, it was revealed that Christie’s hand-picked choice to be the Port Authority Chairman, David Samson, who resigned in 2014, had forced United Airways to set up a direct route from Newark so he could spend weekends at his family’s place in South Carolina.

For his role in this special flyway, the CEO of United resigned last week. Samson hasn’t been indicted—yet. But a federal prosecutor is still probing Christie’s cronies, and a grand jury has indicted three of his key appointees: David Wildstein, a high school buddy of his (until Christie said he hardly knew him); Bill Baroni, another Port Authority patronage worker; and his former top aide, Bridget Anne Kelly, who took the fall for her boss when her name showed up on a revealing email that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

Well, Christie will never get elected president, let alone get the Republican nomination, because, let’s face it, he’s from Jersey, but more important to us New Yorkers, he still can do mischief to our commute.

As for the Republican frontrunners, at least we can admire their hubris. But if one of them ends up taking the Oath of Office in 2017, it would be a disaster.

Too bad Pataki’s time—and his party—have left him far behind.