John Nichols, political writer for The Nation and the author of Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street. His piece for TheNation.com is headlined "Unlike Trump, Rand Paul Actually Made Some Sensible Points During the Debate."
Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter previously with The New York Times. He’s currently a columnist for Al Jazeera America as well as a contributing writer at Newsweek. His latest book is Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality. He has been covering Donald Trump for various publications for decades.
While the Republican candidates appeared unanimous during the second debate on their stances on issues like Planned Parenthood, they fiercely disagreed on the issue of marijuana legalization and the so-called war on drugs. At the center of this debate were Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Paul accused Bush of hypocrisy in his position on marijuana legalization, saying: "If you’re are against letting people use medical marijuana, we’re left to put them in jail. Kids who had privilege, like you do, don’t go to jail, but the poor kids in our inner cities go to jail." Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina also jumped into the back-and-forth to share her own family’s story of losing a step-daughter to drug addition. For more, we’re joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter David Cay Johnston and political writer John Nichols.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to go to another moment, a couple of moments in the debate. This is around the issue of drug policy. A number of the candidates weighed in. The question of medical marijuana was also debated. This is CNN moderator Jake Tapper.
JAKE TAPPER: Senator Paul, Governor Christie recently said, quote, "If you’re getting high in Colorado today," where marijuana has been legalized, "enjoy it until January 2017, because I will enforce the federal laws against marijuana." Will you?
SEN. RAND PAUL: I think one of the great problems, and what the American people don’t like about politics, is hypocrisy, people who have one standard for others and not for them—for themselves. There’s at least one prominent example on the stage of someone who says they smoked pot in high school. And yet, the people who are going to jail for this are poor people, often African Americans and often Hispanics, and yet the rich kids who use drugs aren’t.
I personally think that this is a crime for which the only victim is the individual. And I think that America has to take a different attitude. I’d like to see more rehabilitation and less incarceration. I’m a fan of the drug courts, which try to direct you back towards work and less time in jail.
But the bottom line is the states. We say we like the 10th Amendment—until we start talking about this. And I think the federal government has gone too far. I think that the war on drugs has had a racial outcome and really has been something that’s really damaged our inner cities. Not only do the drugs damage them, we damage them again by incarcerating them and then preventing them from getting employment over time. So, I don’t think that the federal government should override the states. I believe in the 10th Amendment, and I really will say that the states are left to themselves.
JAKE TAPPER: I want to give that—I want to give the person that you called a hypocrite an opportunity to respond. Do you want to identify that person?
SEN. RAND PAUL: Well, I think if we left it open, we could see how many people smoked pot in high school.
JAKE TAPPER: Is there somebody you were specifically thinking of?
SEN. RAND PAUL: Well, you know, the thing is, is that—
JEB BUSH: He was talking about me.
SEN. RAND PAUL: Yeah, I was talking about you. But let me—if I’m going to make the point, let me—
JAKE TAPPER: That’s what I thought, but I wanted him to say it.
JEB BUSH: Well, I wanted to make it easier for him.
JAKE TAPPER: OK.
SEN. RAND PAUL: Yeah.
JEB BUSH: And I just did.
JAKE TAPPER: Governor Bush, please.
JEB BUSH: So, 40 years ago, I smoked marijuana, and I admit it. I’m sure that other people might have done it and may not want to say it in front of 25 million people. My mom’s not happy that I just did. That’s true.
But here’s the deal. Here’s the deal. We have—we have a serious epidemic of drugs that goes way beyond marijuana. What goes on in Colorado, as far as I’m concerned, that should be a state decision. But if you look at the problem of drugs in this—in this society today, it’s a serious problem. Rand, you know this because you’re campaigning in New Hampshire, like all of us, and you see the epidemic of heroin, the overdoses of heroin that’s taking place. People’s families are—are being torn apart. It is appropriate for the government to play a consistent role to be able to provide more treatment, more prevention. We’re the state that has the most drug courts; across every circuit in—in Florida, there are drug courts to give people a second chance. That’s the best way to do this.
SEN. RAND PAUL: But let me respond. The thing is, is that in Florida, Governor Bush campaigned against medical marijuana. That means that a small child like Morgan Hintz that has 500 seizures a day, is failing on nontraditional medications, is not allowed to use cannabis oil, and that if they attempt to do that in Florida, they will take the child away, they will put the parents in jail. And that’s what that means. If you’re against allowing people to use medical marijuana, you’ll actually put them in jail.
JEB BUSH: No, you’re wrong. You’re wrong about this.
SEN. RAND PAUL: And actually, under the current circumstances, kids who had privilege, like you do, don’t go to jail, but the poor kids in our inner cities go to jail. I don’t think that’s fair, and I think that we need to acknowledge it. And it is hypocritical to still want to put poor people in jail, and yet—
JEB BUSH: I don’t want to put poor people in jail, Rand. And my—here’s the deal—
SEN. RAND PAUL: Well, you vote—you oppose medical marijuana. You’re opposed—
JEB BUSH: No, I did not oppose when the Legislature passed the bill to deal with that very issue. That’s the way to solve this problem. Medical marijuana on the ballot was opened up, it was a—there was a huge loophole, and it was the first step towards getting to a Colorado place. And as a citizen of Florida, I voted no.
CARLY FIORINA: Jake?
SEN. RAND PAUL: But that means you’ll put people in jail [inaudible]—
JEB BUSH: No, [inaudible] put people in jail.
JAKE TAPPER: I want to—I want to go right now—I want...
CARLY FIORINA: I very much hope that I am the only person on this stage who can say this, but I know there are millions of Americans out there who will say the same thing. My husband Frank and I buried a child to drug addiction.
So, we must invest more in the treatment of drugs. I agree with Senator Paul. I agree with states’ rights. But we are misleading young people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer. It’s not. And the marijuana that kids are smoking today is not the same as the marijuana that Jeb Bush smoked 40 years ago. We do—sorry, Barbara. We do need—we do need criminal justice reform. We have the highest incarceration rates in the world. Two-thirds of the people in our prisons are there for nonviolent offenses, mostly drug-related. It’s clearly not working. But we need to tell young people the truth. Drug addiction is an epidemic, and it is taking too many of our young people. I know this, sadly, from personal experience.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Republican presidential candidate, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Before that, Jeb Bush and Senator Rand Paul. John Nichols, weigh in.
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I thought that was a striking exchange and actually one of the more useful ones that I’ve seen in a presidential debate. And again, here you had a situation where Rand Paul was clearly standing aside from the other candidates. Now, it may be that his campaign has gone so poorly and he’s so low in the polls, that he finally feels he doesn’t have a lot to lose so he’s speaking more of what he believes. But it was incredibly useful, especially that intervention with Jeb Bush where he talked about the difference between people who come from privileged families and people who come from low-income families, from inner-city families, and how we clearly have a criminal justice system that is not equal and that is not functional. And you’ll notice that Paul came back to that again and again. Now, I want to emphasize here, there’s a ton of issues on which I disagree with Rand Paul. I don’t think he’s got the answers on especially a lot of economic concerns. But if you are to have a debate of a major party, you need to have differences of opinion. And what Paul did last night was offer some genuine alternatives.
One of the challenges also that I was struck by in this debate was the—it wasn’t just these ones that you saw there, you also saw Chris Christie come in. And even though you have people who are now talking a little bit about dialing down some of the worst abuses of our criminal justice system and a little bit about acknowledging the racial and economic injustices of the drug war, they still default to extreme statements and to a position that ultimately, I don’t think, is going the right direction. I do think this debate started to open some stuff up on these issues, however.
And finally, the last point I’ll make is, I give credit to the moderator, Jake Tapper, I think, there, for going to Paul repeatedly. He was asked seven direct questions in this debate, I think in an effort to insert a little bit of debate. Because when you saw that horrible moment—I don’t know if we’ll look at it later—between Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina arguing about who was the worst CEO or who was the worst businessperson, I mean, it was just tragic, you know, and empty.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, it was also interesting, because you had—
JOHN NICHOLS: Here you actually saw some discourse on an issue that matters.
AMY GOODMAN: It was interesting because Donald Trump basically started out the whole debate by saying there’s one person who doesn’t belong here, it’s the 11th one on the end, it’s Rand Paul.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, during the presidential debate—
JOHN NICHOLS: And he was the one who actually contributed something. Yeah, yeah. What’s that?