First things first…
The Blueprint team has followed this year’s presidential debates, Republican and Democratic alike, with great interest and, more importantly, with a singular goal: tracking the reasoning flaws lurking within the candidates’ arguments. In an age of sound bites and endless, empty commentary on the so-called horserace, we believe it’s important to expose the reasoning or lack thereof displayed by those who aspire to be the next leader of the free world.
However, since we can’t help but be passive viewers of the spectacle, it’s up to the moderators to shape the raw material we work with. For the second time in a row last night, the moderators fell down on the job. In the CNBC debate last month, which left the candidates and the Republican Party in general crying foul, the moderators asked snide, substance-free questions (“Mr. Trump, is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?”), allowing the candidates to turn the tables on the questioners in supremely predictable acts of debate jiu jitsu.
The Fox Business Channel moderators last night were just as bad, but for the opposite reason. They lobbed the softest of softball questions, and failed to follow up when candidates didn’t respond completely. Early on in the debate, Ben Carson responded to a question about the doubts swirling around claims he’s made about his past by thanking the moderators for not asking about what he said in tenth grade. Moderator Neil Cavuto said – and this is true; just read the transcript – “I’ll just forget that follow-up there.” And forget he did. When Ben Carson ignored the question and launched an ad hominem attack on Hillary Clinton instead, Mr. Cavuto’s follow-up was, “Thank you, Dr. Carson.”
A good moderator exposes the reasoning flaws for us and/or corners the candidate with questions that leave no room for obfuscation, following up when necessary. To put it mildly, last night’s display of fawning, fan boy moderation failed to meet that standard. Were we to have the gumption to create fallacies out of thin air, we’d create (and copyright) the brand new, debate-specific fallacy, Failure to Moderate. Given that this happened all night, our methodology would put the moderators in last place. C’est la vie.
Now, on to the candidates…
Since we’ve had a chance to watch the candidates perform on four occasions now, their patterns of flawed reasoning have become familiar.
Frontrunner Donald Trump, although subdued in the last few debates in comparison with his fiery performances in the first two debates, continued to engage in ad hominem attacks, fall back on hyperbole, and rest his arguments on questionable assumptions. In response to an attack by Ohio Governor John Kasich over the feasibility of a plan to deport eleven million undocumented immigrants in this country, all Trump had to say was, “I built an unbelievable company worth billions and billions of dollars. I don’t have to hear from this man, believe me.” That’s ad hominem if we ever saw it. Mr. Trump also relied repeatedly on his ability to negotiate in lieu of articulating sound policy. It’s questionable at best to assume that Mr. Trump can negotiate deals with hostile world powers, and it’s also a flawed analogy to compare business negotiations to international diplomacy.
Neurosurgeon Ben Carson, hot on The Donald’s heels in poll after poll, turned in yet another performance that was both somnolent and strange. Dr. Carson asserted that China is participating in the Syrian civil war (news to us), and then pivoted to saying that we could take “an energy field…fairly easily” and make ISIS look like “losers.” In the most questionable of assumptions, Dr. Carson assumed that this would destroy ISIS. One last thing on Dr. Carson… he gave us the best sound bite of the night, bar none, when he said, “I hope I get a question about how do we get the economy moving. There will be a lot more opportunities for poor people not to be poor people because this is America.” LOL forever, Ben.
Marco Rubio, the junior senator from Florida, continued to employ vaguely annoying appeals to emotion by nattering endlessly about his parents’ personal history. We get it. While the number of flaws he committed was on par with previous performances and those of others’ during last night’s debate, the flaws he committed were particularly egregious in scope. Sen. Rubio actually said, “[W]e have regulations that continue to grow by the billions every single week.” Say what? Hyperbole doesn’t even begin to cover that. He also gave us a false dichotomy when discussing education, saying that we should have less philosophers and more welders. We can have both, senator.
Freshman Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who scored a rhetorical coup in October’s debate with an attack on the moderators that was at once ad hominem, obfuscatory, and a stunning amalgam of straw men, continued to be combative and hard to pin down. Our favorite flaw was a false analogy between the tax code and the Bible. The problem with the tax code, according to Sen. Cruz, is apparently the fact that it’s wordier than The Holy Scriptures. Well, Sen. Cruz, all we have to say about that is that you ought to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.
In a surprisingly strong and active performance, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul kept the fallacies to a minimum and, in a tack the moderators should have taken, pointed out a serious flaw in Donald Trump’s reasoning: In talking about the recently negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership, Mr. Trump engaged in the questionable – and actually downright false – assumption that China was a party to the agreement. Although his argumentation was mostly sound, Sen. Paul did construct a well-stuffed straw man, indicating that his approach to ISIS would be to not arm them. Yes, nobody wants that.
John Kasich, governor of Ohio and the iconoclast of each debate, continued to trash his standing with Republican voters by saying things that Republican voters despise. The audience booed loudly when he asserted that we should determine which depositors in failed banks to compensate from a limited pool of funds by paying out the poorest first. Back to the fallacies, although Kasich tends to be direct unlike salty, seasoned debaters such as Ted Cruz who bob and weave, Kasich’s reasoning was still flawed on a number of occasions. After tossing off an obligatory appeal to emotion, citing his grandfather’s death from black lung, Gov. Kasich assumed that cutting taxes would cause revenue to go up. We’ve heard this before – it even has a name, the Laffer Curve – but it’s never really panned out, not to mention the fact that it’s counterintuitive.
Carly Fiorina, ex-CEO of Hewlett Packard and the lone woman in the GOP field, gave us retreads of the same attacks she’s used in the past. She is fiercely anti-Hillary Clinton, using the vast majority of her closing statement to issue a string of ad hominem attacks on the Democratic frontrunner. Like so many of her associates on the stage, Ms. Fiorina started off with an appeal to emotion, mentioning an unnamed mother she’d met on the campaign trail who goes to bed every night afraid for her children’s future. Ms. Fiorina turned in a rarer fallacy, treating an incomplete solution as a complete solution when she characterized allowing states to manage high-risk insurance pools as an alternative to Obamacare that would keep people insured.
Then there’s Florida’s erstwhile governor, Jeb Bush. His strong showing in our rankings is an indicator that what we do here at Blueprint is to keep candidates honest rather than subjectively grade their performances. Nobody swooned at Gov. Bush’s words, and most of the punditocracy has written off his candidacy wholesale, but the simple fact is that his argumentation was relatively fallacy-free. However, in disagreeing with Donald Trump’s assertion that Russia will do much of the work fighting ISIS for us, Gov. Bush compared Trump’s strategy to the board game Monopoly. The whole idea that this is like a board game is preposterous, but at least give us chess or Risk or something that remotely resembles international strategy.
All in all, this debate was not as memorable as it might’ve been. There are more debates to come, however, and we’ll keep on keeping the candidates honest. Thanks for reading.