- - Wednesday, December 16, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Each of the Republican presidential candidates brings something good to the race for the GOP nomination and some things not so good. In the fifth and final GOP debate of the year, the candidates on the main stage, and even a few on the “undercard,” presented ideas and positions that many Republican voters would consider far better than those of the president we have now.

Donald Trump continued to channel Republican voter anger on several issues, including the feeling that the United States is no longer “great,” a word Mr. Trump does not define, but which resonates with the foam finger “we’re No. 1” crowd. Terrorism and illegal immigration are Mr. Trump’s other main issues and he hit them hard Tuesday night.

In some ways, Mr. Trump is President Obama’s flip side. Mr. Trump believes he has the personality to force his largely undeveloped ideas on the country and that no one — not the courts, Congress or the U.S. Constitution can stop him.

Jeb Bush fought back, but seemed overwhelmed at times by Mr. Trump’s verbal fire. Mr. Bush’s best line to Mr. Trump was “you can’t insult your way to the presidency.” No one else dared to take on Mr. Trump.

Marco Rubio was and has been throughout these debates the most skilled and polished debater, a white-collar man, up against blue-collar brawlers like Mr. Trump and Chris Christie. Mr. Rubio is cool, calm and projects a Kennedy-esque image of youthful energy and competence. Whether voters will take a chance on another one-term senator whose previous experience, like Mr. Obama, was in state legislature is, itself, a matter up for debate that won’t be settled until the first votes are cast.

Ditto for Sen. Ted Cruz, who now leads Mr. Trump in Iowa polls. Like Mr. Trump and Mr. Christie, Mr. Cruz is a fighter, but Mr. Rubio landed a punch when he criticized Mr. Cruz for voting to end the government’s collection of metadata information, which Mr. Rubio believes is essential to protecting the United States from terror attacks.

The problem with the argument over metadata is not that the government lacks information about terrorists, but that it is often constrained from using it by laws, court decisions and boneheaded policies, as illustrated in the Department of Homeland Security’s “Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Training Do’s and Don’ts” manual. In that document, trainees are told, “Don’t use training that equates radical thought, religious expression, freedom to protest, or other constitutionally-protected activity, with criminal activity. One can have radical thoughts/ideas, including disliking the U.S. government, without being violent; for example, trainers who equate the desire for Shariah law with criminal activity violate basic tenets of the First Amendment.”

So if it walks like a duck, etc., it’s not a duck?

The public does not get the answers it needs from these debates for several reasons. First, there are still too many people on the stage. Only three, possibly four, have any real chance of becoming president. For the good of the country those single-digit candidates should drop out after Iowa and New Hampshire and certainly by the South Carolina primary, if they fail to finish strong.

Details on how the candidates would actually reach their stated goals — making America great again, protecting the country, reducing the debt, creating jobs, health care, fixing the tax code, fighting wars — are addressed only in sound bites because there isn’t enough time to discuss details. Yes, the candidates have websites and there are other sources where those details are available, but how many voters in the TV age will take the time to search for them?

The real winner in these debates is Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. Little attention is being paid to her, though the FBI continues with its investigation into whether she broke the law by receiving and sending classified information on her private email server. In the still-unlikely event she is indicted, all bets are off and the chances of a Republican victory next November would be all but assured. The question is, which Republican?

Too bad we can’t elect a composite president.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist. His latest book is “What Works: Common Sense Solutions for a Stronger America” (Zondervan, 2014).

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