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Democracy Is Being Dismantled Before Our Eyes: Bob Herbert on Sheldon Adelson-Backed GOP Debate

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Tuesday’s debate was held in Las Vegas at the Venetian casino, owned by Republican billionaire backer Sheldon Adelson. Adelson and fellow billionaire Donald Trump held a private meeting before the event. We speak to former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, distinguished senior fellow with Demos, on the state of the Republican race.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read the first paragraph of a piece by Ed Kilgore in New York magazine. He writes, “If the Republican presidential contest was an act of dramatic fiction rather than a lurid [and] sometimes horrifying reality show, tonight’s candidate debate at the Venetian in Las Vegas would end with the proprietor of that gilded palace of sin, Sheldon Adelson, coming onstage to name a victor, who would be awarded with a personal endorsement and a super-pac check for $500 million. Why mess with snap polls and focus groups when a real player in the process can put his money where his mouth is?”

Well, to talk more about Tuesday’s debate, we’re going to bring others into our discussion right now. Bob Herbert is a distinguished senior fellow with Demos. From ’93 to [ 2011 ], he was op-ed columnist for The New York Times. Also with us is Zaid Jilani, staff reporter at The Intercept. His new piece is called “Ted Cruz Under Attack in Iowa for Bucking Ethanol Lobby.” And still with us, Arun Kundnani, author of The Muslims Are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror, adjunct professor at New York University.

Bob Herbert, the gilded palace where these two debates took place last night, Sheldon Adelson’s casino, with a little private meeting between the billionaires right before—that was Donald Trump and Sheldon Adelson.

BOB HERBERT: Right. So we’re watching our democracy being dismantled right before our very eyes. This has been going on for a long time. So, this was a Sheldon Adelson-CNN debate. It wasn’t just a CNN-sponsored debate. You have the leading Republican candidate is a billionaire, Donald Trump; all the Republican candidates willing to genuflect before Sheldon Adelson, you know. And I just think that it’s—someone—in the press, in the media and in the public—needs to wake up to this. What are we debating? We’re debating how we can erode our democracy further; how we can give up our civil liberties and our civil rights; how we can prevent people, on the basis of their religion, from even entering the country, certainly from participating in our daily lives and that sort of thing. We’ve seen—I know we’re not talking about the economy, but all of this is together—we’ve seen what’s happened in the way that the economy has been hijacked to be in the services of the very wealthy. And I think it’s potentially catastrophic. I mean, we are losing the United States as we had come to know it or as we were taught growing up in civics lessons and history books were the things that made the United States special.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Bob, I wanted to ask you about the role of the media—specifically, in this case, CNN—in framing the discussion, because I was stunned—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that over an hour was spent just discussing ISIS and what—it was almost as if CNN had decided that fear and the fight against terrorism was now the main discussion that had to occur, because, for instance, in discussing foreign policy, there was no mention of Israel and Palestine—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —no discussion of Latin America—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —or President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba. There was even scant discussion of the situation with Russia and the Ukraine. It was all focused on the Middle East and on ISIS, it seemed.

BOB HERBERT: It was all about ISIS and terror and fear, and the subtext—I don’t even think it’s a subtext; I mean, it’s right out there—and fear of Muslims. So, I thought it was crazy. And not only was the entire—almost the entire debate focused on ISIS, I thought they didn’t do even a good job of interviewing the candidates about ISIS. So you didn’t have follow-up questions to try—the whole thing was incoherent, so you didn’t have follow-up questions to try and pin these fellows down. So you have these candidates up there: “Well, I’m going to destroy ISIS. If I’m president, I’m going to destroy ISIS, and Americans are not going to have to be afraid anymore.” OK, how are you going to do that? Are you going to wage a serious war against ISIS? Are you going to build up the American military and invade the Middle East again? And by the way, how are we going to pay for it, because are we going to have tax cuts at the same time that we’re conducting a war, like we did the last time with disastrous results? We didn’t get any kind of follow-up questions last night from these interviewers.

And then, one thing that was like astounding to me: Trump is the leading GOP contender at this point; he doesn’t even know what the nuclear triad is. This is the guy that’s going to be our commander-in-chief. So when he flubbed that question and made it clear that he didn’t know what the questioner was talking about, was there some kind of follow-up to spotlight for the American people that the fellow that claims to be the strongest on foreign policy and warfare and fighting terror doesn’t even understand what America’s nuclear capabilities are?

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