Televised presidential debates are, in the parlance of Daniel J. Boorstin, “pseudo-events” that have very little, if nothing, to do with answering the question, “Which participant is best qualified for the presidency?” Life would be so much easier if the presidency were about who does best “while standing under klieg lights, without notes, to answer in two and a half minutes a question kept secret until that moment, [that has] only the most dubious relevance — if any at all — to his real qualifications to make deliberate Presidential decisions on long-standing public questions after being instructed by a corps of advisers.” It’s not, but these debates, where we’ve shrunk answer times down to 30 seconds, are how we’ve decided to make the important decision of who will lead the country.
Here are just a few of the highlights from a debate that continued the GOP’s streak of surprisingly interesting and informative discussions. The undercard debate, which featured former New York Gov. George Pataki, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, was boring and unnecessary. One of my children asked me which of the four candidates I would prefer, and I told her she’d never asked me such a difficult question. (And she had just asked me a few minutes before if I’d ever been jailed!)
Trump Tones Down
A few hours before the debate, a friend said he’d be “interested to see if Trump stays at maximum levels of Trump or if he would trim his sails just a little bit to try to look presidential.” He toned it down, with a few notable failures, and it worked really well for him. He even managed to restrain himself once or twice when the old Trump would have lost his cool and gone full clown-show.
He continued to respond to tough questions by resorting to big picture answers, a technique that infuriates political professionals but plays fairly well with many voters, and took advantage of opportunities to discuss his thoughts on immigration and its relationship to national security. It’s even stronger ground for him than immigration discussions about the economy, and he was somehow helped, rather than hindered, by having more thoughtful candidates on stage who discussed the issue at a high level. Trump had a string of embarrassing lines about how he’d shut down part of the Internet in his fight against ISIS, but his overall point about fighting terrorist evangelization on the web was conveyed well enough.
His surprising response that he would not run third-party, while as meaningless as any other position he’s taken, was a brilliant tack. The pseudo-event industry will chew on that until the next time Trump feeds them.
But while the media continues to obsess over Trump and be outraged by him, he put in one of his best debate performances yet.
Unleash The Bush!
Jeb Bush might be the candidate most hurt by the manner we choose nominees and elected officials, even if he weren’t related to the people he’s related to. His actual policy ideas are interesting and worthy of a hearing, but he’s an ineffectual debater.
Having said that, he put forth a good performance against Trump, of all people. He said Trump is good with one-liners but he’s a “chaos candidate who would be a chaos president.” Trump fought back a bit but seemed surprised when Bush kept going, saying that Trump can’t insult his way to the presidency. Bush had yet to win an exchange in any debate this year. That he won it against Trump is a noteworthy victory. “I will be commander in chief, not agitator in chief, or divider in chief,” Bush said, drawing a helpful contrast.
A Jeb Bush with nothing left to lose (the voter bang for his donor buck means he needs a strong showing in New Hampshire to continue in this race) is the best version of Jeb Bush yet. Tossing grenades at Trump, even if it’s on his way out, is a good use of his campaign.
Scrappiness In Defense Of Liberty Is No Vice For Rand Paul
Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul had to fight to stay on the debate stage. He showed he deserved to be there, with a strong articulation of constitutional principles and the rule of law. As his bellicose colleagues banged the drums, he probed the weaknesses in their rhetoric, such as calling for the ouster of Bashar al-Assad without a plan for how that wouldn’t make the aftermath scenario even worse. He calmly noted how Trump’s proposals, such as “shutting down the Internet,” can’t be matched with constitutional governance, and why.
He played the role of spoiler for Gov. John Kasich, Gov. Chris Christie, and, to a lesser extent, for Sen. Marco Rubio. When Kasich said his big government tendencies just meant he had a big heart, Paul noted that charity isn’t about giving away other people’s money, but your own. He emphasized fiscal responsibility and the problems posed by growth of the state. Christie was primed to have a huge night on the basis of his experience going after terrorists while in the Justice Department and his experience as an executive. He said he’d institute a no-fly zone to deal with ISIS and would shoot down any plane that entered. Paul said that we’ve allowed other countries to fly planes there for years and that his recklessness could lead to World War III. And when Rubio tried to hit Cruz on immigration, Paul said Rubio was trying to have it both ways by claiming to be a hawk while failing to protect border security. Whether these solid hits will lead to an uptick in his poll numbers is another thing entirely, but he helped facilitate some of the most interesting discussions of the evening.
Moderators Still Struggle A Bit
It appears that the media have finally gotten the message that a debate with nothing but craptastic questions chock full of contentious assumptions will no longer be permitted in GOP debates. Democratic debates, where the candidates’ politics closely match many journalists’, don’t have the same problem. But there are still some problems with the format. CNN, with partner Facebook tried to pump up the debate by having questions from random Americans. But they were all very young, and one of the questions was something along the lines of “If the Bible clearly states that we need to embrace those in need and not fear, how can we justify not accepting refugees?”
Now first off, please let me know the last time any Democratic candidate was asked a question along the lines of “If the Bible clearly states that marriage is defined as the union of one man and one woman, how can you justify destroying the institution?” or “If the Bible clearly says that it’s wrong to take the life of innocents, how can you justify abortion on demand through all nine months of pregnancy?” It will never happen because the media are incapable of such questions.
But the question-begging in that question is just ridiculous (some of which I got into here and some of which the Rev. Hans Fiene got into here) and tiresome. As were the questions (one of which came rather surprisingly from conservative moderator Hugh Hewitt) about five-year-olds. Carson was asked whether he was totally cool with killing kids. And Wolf posed a question about Syrian refugees, and specifically about “orphans under the age of five” or something like that. It’s fine, but it’s worth noting that just a few weeks ago, Democrats and their allies in the media were talking about why the GOP was so scared of women and children who were Syrian refugees. They immediately dropped the “women” portion of that question in the aftermath of a female immigrant slaughtering 14 Americans in the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, but apparently they’re keeping the “you’re scared of children” suggestion.
Bernie Sanders tweeted that he was really upset that there were no questions about income inequality. Apparently he was confused about the focus of the debate: national security. (Of course, he’s also a bit confused about what constitutes national security.) Still the debate was unduly focused on ISIS at the expense of other serious threats to national security throughout the world. It’s not that there were no questions about Russia, the South China Sea, or cybersecurity, but there weren’t enough.
Trump And Cruz Communicate Around The Media Better
If there is one good thing to come out of the 2015 Republican primary, it should be the knowledge that the media are not quite as powerful at dictating the contours of the debate as they have been. Political journalists gave it their best this past week when it came to hosting a fight between Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Trump. Cruz had been busted talking smack about Trump’s judgment and Trump called Cruz a maniac or something. Cruz, who knows that public spats with Trump do not serve his interests at all, declined to get a feud going. Trump tried, and it backfired miserably. So when the moderators posed questions to them about the spat, Trump dismissed it with a wave of his hand and Cruz filibustered his tougher questions. They were very different responses, but they took control of the difficult situation in a way that served them both well.
Other candidates have picked up on this as well (in fact, Rand Paul did this brilliantly early on in his campaign when reporters tried to play gotcha on abortion questions) and every GOP candidate in the country should be taking notes. They might not all have the communication skills or command of a Trump, but there is simply no reason to continue to pretend the media are objective arbiters of discussion. They’re not and they shouldn’t be treated as such, even as they need to be dealt with to get messages out.
No Single Winner, But Movement
Every candidate had at least one good moment in the debate. Businesswoman Carly Fiorina emphasized how the federal government’s incompetence and corruption has gotten to the point where it’s quite dangerous. Cruz scored some solid hits against Rubio’s immigration views, and Rubio returned the favor. Even neurosurgeon Ben Carson had some good lines, even if this debate seemed more like an exit ramp from the race rather than a path to a return to greatness.