Debate Thoughts

I originally meant to post a comment, but I found myself rambling on for too long; so, it’s turned into my first post in a long, long while.


Contrary to the reporting at Vox, I think Fox Business did a masterful job proctoring this debate; they have repeatedly been my favorite debate moderators this cycle. I don’t have the figures in front of me, but they covered the major issues of the news cycle, along with many looming issues, and I think most of the candidates had the opportunity to represent themselves well.


I’ll start with the folks who need to go away at this point before moving onto the Big Three, and each will just be in alphabetical order. Forgive me if I sound a bit like a broken record in my praise of these men.

Ben Carson: Carson is a talented neurosurgeon, and he has a good temperament. It’s been said by others, however, that unless you’re Dwight Eisenhower, the Presidency is not an entry level position, and Carson proves that point. He had good moments; I found his comment about bombing oil tankers amusing, if a bit naïve in practice. We warn our foes repeatedly not to use civilians as human shields. They still do, and they still use it as propaganda against it. His “thanks for letting me talk” comments have worn out their welcome. It’s time for him to close up the book tour and go home; I expect him to punch out after Iowa.

Jeb Bush: Bush was a good governor of Florida. He’s a good guy, a talented guy, a smart guy. His time, however, has passed, and he is outclassed in the debate format by three other candidates. He rarely answers a question without stumbling over his words, and he is not skilled in the attack. His points about Mr Trump’s proposed Muslim Ban and tariffs on China were spot on, but he, as a debater, couldn’t really land punches effectively. He would be far better served using his war chest to help the GOP in the House and the Senate instead of enriching his consultants and media personnel. He should drop out now, as he hasn’t any hope of winning Iowa or New Hampshire, but I expect him to linger through New Hampshire.

Chris Christie: Again, Christie has proven to be an effective governor of New Jersey. To his credit, he put a lot of distance between himself and President Obama this debate, which he has needed to do following the bad optics from the hurricane which struck New Jersey a few years ago; however, his pretense of being the adult in the room who interrupts a substantive debate to give equally empty bromides about governance has gotten old, and I’m long past tired of hearing about his time as a federal prosecutor that antedates his tenure as governor. He needs to win New Hampshire; he won’t. He’ll go away after that.

John Kasich: I like John Kasich when he isn’t being advised by John Weaver. I don’t know what it is about candidates associated with Weaver, but he seems to bring out the worst in them – McCain, Huntsman, and now Kasich. I’m not sure why they hire him, given his background in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but he turns talented Republicans into loathsome presences. Kasich has been either the bitter crank or the nostalgic, rambling grandfather, and occasionally both, in all of the debates. He has been a reasonably good governor of Ohio, though some of his positions on entitlements have annoyed me lately. As with Bush and Christie, there’s a lot to like, but bad branding and haphazard performance have undermined him. Again, he needs to win new Hampshire, and he won’t.

The Big Three

Ted Cruz: There were four or five big moments for Ted Cruz in this debate, most of which involved sparring Marco Rubio or Donald Trump. As has been noted repeatedly, he destroyed Trump on the birther issue with his complete mastery of the facts. Anyone who turned their television off after that moment may be forgiven for thinking Cruz just destroyed the whole debate. His answers on gun control and immigration were solid, as well. He made, however, an unforced error earlier this week by talking about New York values, and while he mitigated some of the damage from it last night, he needs to abandon that talking point roughly three seconds after winning Iowa, and absolutely after South Carolina, if he wins there. Look:  I’m indifferent about New York’s virtues and vices, except for an admitted loathing of the New York Yankees. I lived on 10th Street in Midtown Atlanta for five years. I’m a Braves fan. It can’t be helped. I am, however, sober enough to realize that millions of people live there, and so I don’t go out of my way to antagonize them.

If Cruz wanted to attack New York, the way to do that was through Tammany Hall, through Denkins, through Clinton, whom Trump used to support, through Bloomberg the Nanny-Stater and De Blasio – essentially, through the corrupt political machine there. Attacking the whole city of New York, and by extension, the entire state, was a counter-productive thing to do, especially if the narrative begins to cast Cruz as anti-city. If you’re going to knock a city, New York has immunity for at least another 20 years because of 9/11. Chicago is a riper target, and it dings the real opponents – Clinton and Obama, both of whom have ties to that corrupt cesspool of graft and homicide. The trouble is, Cruz has diminished the potential for that line of attack by carpet bombing, if you’ll pardon the expression, the entire state of New York while trying to ding Trump. It was a bad move. Mind you, I think several of the responses to Cruz’s attack have effectively proven his point —  to include the image of the Statue of Liberty flipping him off. Cruz also sparred a bit with Rubio, and I’ll talk more about that exchange when I get to Rubio next.

Marco Rubio:  I may have an idiosyncratic view of Rubio’s performance last night. I found his demeanor urgent bordering on desperate most of the debate. He talked faster and louder than usual, and he repeatedly tried to reset the narrative of the debate away from deep discussion of issues and back to more comfortable territory. His dodge on immigration was transparent, and he must be trying not to tack too far right on the issue before the General Election. Finally, the folks at NRO loved his “powerful attack on Ted Cruz.” It was not powerful. It was a juvenile high school debate tactic that does not work in successive debates. The tactic is simple. You bombard your opponent with mostly specious attacks that you know your opponent won’t have time to address in full, and then you sit back and wait to crown yourself the winner when the opponent fails to address them fully. In fairness, Cruz’ response that half of those were outright lies was a little weak; that can be parsed to suggest that the other half of them are true. In sum, I was not all that impressed with Rubio this time. He’s still in the top three, but I’m starting to find his sunny charm a bit shallow, his inability to handle serious scrutiny on immigration tiresome, and his debate tactics to be juvenile at best.

Donald Trump: Look. Anyone with an ounce of objectivity and a teaspoon of critical thinking knows Trump is completely out of his depth on the specifics of almost any issue – even his pet issue, immigration, and that he is wont to say incredibly foolish things. We have large military bases in Muslim countries that are ostensibly our allies, and he wants to ban all Muslim immigrants. We are trying to foster good will with countries with large Muslim populations, and he wants to ban all Muslim immigrants. Even our European allies have sizable Muslim populations that may want to immigrate here for any number of reasons. I realize he may be doing his Art of the Deal jujutsu where he asks for three times more than he actually wants. That may work with discrete negotiating partners, but it doesn’t work on the international level where every country sees every stage of the negotiation. Trump has never had to negotiate publically, and I have seen no evidence whatsoever that he would be good at it.

We must, however, lay a great deal of objectivity and logic aside; Trump taps into deep seated, irrational passions in a way that few public figures can. Thus, he received cheers for his absurd position on Muslim immigration. Thus, he receives cheers for an immigration platform that has roughly a snowball’s chance in hell of passing through Congress, which would fund the apparatus necessary to enforce it. Thus, he renders Cruz’s clumsy attack on New York City moot by lowering his head and his voice and speaking solemnly about 9/11. Clinton tried that tactic a few debates ago, and it was clumsily done. Trump used basically the same tactic, and (New York based) NRO fell all over itself congratulating him for countering Cruz. Cruz’ attack was a mistake, plain and simple, but only because 9/11 inoculates NYC from any sort of criticism for the time being, and only because huge swathes of people are vulnerable to the pathos Trump channeled. How well Trump did last night depends on how much someone values the content of what he said vs. the emotional content of the delivery, and in particular, what emotional resonance Cruz’s attack on NYC and Trump’s defense of it stirs in the hearer.

My daughter is presently hooked on the Disney movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks. There’s a song which David Tomlinson sings that reminds me deeply of Mr. Trump. One verse goes:

“I’m a fraud, a hoke, a charlatan, a joke,
But they love me … everywhere.
For it really doesn’t matter what I do, what I do
As long as I do it with a flair.”

Or I might recall the song Hook, by Blues Traveler:

“It doesn’t matter what I say
So long as I sing with inflection
That makes you feel I’ll convey
Some inner truth or vast reflection,
But I’ve said nothing so far,
And I can keep it up for as long as it takes.”

Given how little of Trump’s platform is likely to be enacted, I can only judge him by the sort of conduct he’s displayed outside of it before he decided to run for President. He’s reflexively authoritarian, morally indifferent, thin-skinned, and a narcissist. We see these traits by the way he sells himself, by the way he uses the levers of power to advance his own agendas (see: eminent domain), and the way he describes his own moral worldview. Does that sound like any President we’ve had recently? It should.

Self-disclosure: I was a senior in high school on 9/11, and I have recently returned from a deployment to Afghanistan. The media and politicians have drawn emotional warm fuzzies from me and everyone about 9/11 for the past 15 years, and folks, I’m sorry. My well hath run dry from a decade and a half of emotional exploitation. I will never forget that day, but I am done being manipulated by others who invoke it somberly, tearfully, and endlessly for their own political ends.

Conclusion: As should be clear, I am sharply critical of all three of the winners of the debate, whether due to unforced errors, juvenile debate strategy, or utter lack of substance hidden with bluster and style. To be clear, I’d happily support Cruz or Rubio over Clinton or Sanders. If the nominee is Trump, I’m not sure what I will do, except focus all the more on state and local issues.