Like many of you, we tuned into this evening’s Republican Presidential Debate eagerly expecting a saloon brawl. And like many of you, we were a bit disappointed. Have you noticed that you’re differently disposed toward the two parties’ debates? You watch the Democratic debates drinking coffee, assiduously taking notes, and feeling as if you’re doing your civic duty. But for the Republican debates, you have a viewing party with drinking games for every time Trump insults someone or Ben Carson compares something to slavery or the Holocaust. You watch the Democratic debates to see who wins, but you watch the Republican debates to see who loses. We look for spectacle in the Republican debates, and with Donald Trump and Ben Carson, we’re rarely disappointed.
Except for tonight.
Don’t get us wrong; no one is going to confuse tonight’s debate with the Constitutional Convention of 1787, but neither could it be mistaken for an episode of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. It was almost as if the candidates came to a détente backstage, realizing that they each looked worse when they attacked each other.
But because their Democratic opponents apparently weren’t villainous enough, the candidates attacked the press with vigor.
Remember how awkward it was when Jim Webb complained he didn’t get enough time during the Democratic debate? That was a spilled cup of water compared to the typhoon levied against the moderators and press generally tonight. After Ted Cruz — who conceded he wasn’t the sort of fellow with whom you might have a beer — lambasted CNBC moderator Carlos Quintanilla for asking unfair questions, he offered to buy the Latino moderator a shot of Tequila. The gaffe seemed to go unnoticed after Cruz quickly increased his offer to a Colorado pot brownie.
As expected, the candidates committed certain fallacies repeatedly. Though more controlled, Donald Trump was still eager for unnecessary ad hominem attacks. Ben Carson obfuscated by uttering false statements with seeming impunity (most notably that taking everything from the top 1% of wealthy Americans wouldn’t even put a dent in our budget deficit, when in fact the richest 1% of the US owns 40% of our domestic wealth). Marco Rubio dodged questions about his personal finances and his poor attendance in the Senate. The candidates vilified the Democratic Party, as one would expect (as the Democrats have vilified the Republicans).
But two themes emerged as common to all the Republican candidates.
The first was a characteristically Republican, but seemingly more intense, distrust of government. Carly Fiorina claimed that nearly everything the government touched became a problem that cost voters’ money to fix. Rand Paul said he wanted a federal government so small he couldn’t even see it. Republicans characteristically prefer smaller central government and more states’ rights, but the intensity of the candidates’ statements tonight resembled the manner in which the rebel alliance spoke about the Empire in Star Wars. The irony, of course, is that the Republican candidates are all vying for the opportunity to run the federal government they appear to disdain.
The second theme was the striking appeal to populist emotion made by most of the candidates. Some of this is expected in these debates, but the images of small businesses being crushed by massive government, people too poor to buy hamburger at the grocery store, and police afraid to get out of their cars because of a rioting public left us wondering what country these candidates were actually talking about. Hyperbolic appeals often form a foundation that enables otherwise implausible policies to seem sensible (e.g. you might be tempted to agree that we need a 100 foot wall across 2000 miles of our southern border if you believe that every day thousands of murderers and rapists are coming to steal our jobs and burn down our cities).
For our part, we are saddened that John Kasich and Rand Paul, the two candidates who answered questions in the most forthright manner, seem to have faded into obscurity. When asked why Social Security would soon be insolvent, Rand Paul replied that, over a lifetime, the average citizen will put $100k into the fund but take $300k out, and, due to the size of the baby-boomer generation, the population’s increasing life-span, and our decreasing tax base, we have fewer people contributing and more people withdrawing funds. For this explanation he received no applause. When he added that the only sensible fix was to increase the retirement age (even though this too would be a partial solution), he again received no applause. But when Mike Huckabee blustered that the wasteful Democrats had stolen hard-working Americans’ retirement money, the audience broke out in cheers.
For us, the disturbing part was not so much that Republican candidates were incapable of making reasonable arguments, as that their voter-base seemed not to be looking for them.
What did you think?
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