Columbia, S.C.—Early last summer my wife and I were having dinner with some friends in Springfield, Virginia. By “dinner” I mean that our hosts made tacos and we stood in the kitchen eating them—the tacos, not my friend and his wife—while drinking beer. Then the men in our group started talking, as Men Do, about work. The man of the house, whose common sense I have never gainsaid, insisted there was no way Donald Trump was serious about running for president. Male heads bobbed in agreement. My wife, the happiest pessimist of my acquaintance, insisted that we were fools.
As usual, her wisdom has been vindicated. If you’re wondering, though, what the 2016 race for the Republican presidential nomination would have looked like if my friend had been right, the 2016 Kemp Foundation Forum on Expanding Opportunity was the campaign equivalent of one of those doorstop-sized novels in which the South wins the Civil War or the atom bomb is never invented.
The Kemp Foundation, which promotes the legacy of the NFL quarterback and Republican congressman, hosts these events annually. Most of the candidates for the GOP nomination attended this year’s forum. A source involved told me that Trump, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul all declined to participate. (Rick Santorum wasn’t there either.) Trump held a rally nearby the night before, from which, he told the world via Twitter, many supporters were denied entrance by order of the fire marshal.
It was not a Trump crowd on Saturday, or even a CPAC one. There were no Uncle Sams on stilts or ISIS target-practice cutouts. No one wore camouflage, and the only boo came when Tim Scott, the co-moderator of the day’s three panels alongside Paul Ryan, reminded the roomful of Cam Newton fans that he was a Cowboys man. The five or six smiling Team Marco students in red pullovers who were standing outside with leaflets when I arrived at 8:00 a.m. were knowledgeable and polite. It is difficult to imagine that they left the forum to do bong hits.
Everything about the proceedings was casual without seeming slapdash. Occasionally one of the cheerful attendees would stroll over into the press filing area, upon which one of the equally cheerful security guards would politely explain that this was a space set aside specifically for journalists, a notion that the former seemed to regard as quaint.
Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Ben Carson appeared on the first panel. All three spoke better than they have at any of this season’s debates. Bush in particular looked more comfortable than he has been at a public appearance in years—which is to say, his sighs were infrequent, and he only played with his thumbs when the camera moved to one of his fellow panelists. This was Jeb’s milieu, of course: calm, relaxed, wonky, reform-minded. That many Americans are (at most) two paychecks away from financial ruin is a point that cannot be made often enough.
Christie was also excellent. I have no idea why he has not talked about doubling the earned income tax credit at any of the debates, nor, indeed, why it is not officially a part of the Republican platform. But he is absolutely right to suggest that the party must focus on lowering the tax burden, not on cutting benefits, and that Republicans trying to expand the party’s base must be genuinely interested in hearing what minorities have to say, not in patronizing them with classical liberal ideology.
The candidate who received the most applause on Saturday was Ben Carson, who was also the least in tune with the spirit of the event. He expressed impatience, which is rare enough for him, and even incomprehension when his fellow panelists talked about refundable tax credits and multi-tiered welfare plans and increased flexibility for Pell Grant funds. “That’s called socialism!” When he talked about welders and the kids in his high school who were on the vocational track, he made me think of my older relatives in Michigan. His lines about farmers taking care of their sick neighbor’s crops and the charitable impulse of 19th-century Americans “if somebody got killed by a grizzly bear” were charming, but reminded me why I think that he should not be running for president.
On domestic issues—though, no longer being a candidate, he was somewhat vague about his plans—Lindsey Graham spoke the most sense of anyone when he said, bluntly, that people in his income bracket would have to accept less from Social Security and Medicare and that young people would simply have to pay extra. “Is it unfair? Yes.”
He was also very witty. “I finally made it to the big stage,” he said upon taking the stage, before suggesting that by now he had surely accrued at least 40 minutes of our time. He also joked that those of us visiting from out of state eager to fight poverty should “spend money while you’re here.” Comparing Tim Scott to Kemp, he made a point of mentioning that, like the forum’s namesake, his Senate colleague had played football. “As you can tell, I did not.” It is interesting to speculate where Graham might be now if he had taken his own campaign a bit more seriously from the beginning and not presented himself as a mere hawkish spoiler to Paul and Cruz.
Though it was hardly beyond the purview of the forum’s topic, immigration was mentioned only once on Saturday. The candidate to whom I was most looking forward to watching, the only one present who seems to have a ghost of a chance in Iowa, Marco Rubio, addressed it, and his hand was more or less forced. The third panel, on which he appeared with John Kasich, was interrupted four times by protestors shouting “Un-DOC-u-MENTED and UN-a-FRAID,” prompting Rubio to say, “I will enforce our immigration laws.” (One of the hecklers who passed by me in the back row while security led him out seemed to take his word for it and then some, looking me in the eye and saying, “Rubio will deport our families!”) Rubio also joked that it might be time to deal with the protestors “the way another candidate does.” Nearly everyone in the audience responded calmly as well. A man ripping a sign out of the hands of a protestor was the roughest thing that happened all day.
Rubio was detailed, specific, but also charismatic and decidedly not low energy. Kasich continued to express himself awkwardly—is “human trafficked,” as in “a woman who had been human trafficked” English? Did he consciously plagiarize his line about when “you get knocked down, you get up again,” which he attributed to his parents, from Chumbawamba?
There are downsides to events like the Kemp Forum. If your gorge rises, as mine does, whenever you hear the phrase “block grant” used as a verb, and you think that alcoholism is not a well-defined concept, much less, as Christie suggested, a “disease” that requires court-mandated and state-financed treatment, parts of the day would have been rough going. Plenty of nonsense was talked about the role of “technology” in the classroom, with Christie bemoaning “outdated books” and insisting that “every student should have an iPad.” It also struck me as somewhat short sighted for panelists to talk about the universally “soul-enhancing” effects of work, as if people mopping floors at Chipotle or doing eight-hour shifts at a call center were doing anything but trying to feed themselves and their families. Some of us are lucky enough to have jobs that we enjoy, most, alas, are not—either way, the soul doesn’t seem to me to enter into it.
When I heard MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, who stopped by at the end of the day, say she had been listening to a Republican party that could win the general election in November 2016, I found myself nodding along. A more interesting question, though, is whether it can win its own voters over the next two months. We’ll see.