Four Lessons Learned from Last Night’s Debate

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 10.39.00 AMLesson #1: CNBC Journalists are Just God-Awful.

Chances are if you didn’t watch the debate but have read anything about it written by anyone, you have already heard this. But it doesn’t really matter how many times you’ve read it. If you didn’t actually see it, you don’t truly understand the profound level of suckiness they achieved.

I know, I know, I can already hear you saying to yourself,

Hey, I’ve watched some bad moderators in my time, and I know what you’re talking about, because I’ve seen some pretty bad performa-“

— and I’m just going to stop you right there. Trust me, you haven’t seen anything this comically bad.

The worst part wasn’t that their questions were often insipid. (Though they were.)1 Or that CNBC’s version of what issues should be important to American voters was rather bizarrely skewed. (Though it was.)2 It wasn’t even the first question of the debate, where they asked the candidates to tell everyone what their greatest weakness was, then stressed that they were going to hold them to answering the question, and then just sat there watching as each candidate (save Trump) used the question to tell the world how much more awesome than everyone else they were.

No, the worst part was that CNBC had clearly made a decision to go full Candy Crowley, and hold the candidates’ feet to the fire when they answered with false statistics or histories. Which was a noble ambition, and might have led to a truly awesome debate, but for one tiny flaw: The moderators hadn’t taken the time to learn anything about the questions they were asking. When candidates pushed back, the moderators looked lost. When asked, the moderators couldn’t recall where they got their facts. When Becky Quick pushed Trump on a point, and he asked where she was getting her facts, she began shuffling through notes with a confused look on her face, and this exchange actually happened:

Quick: Where did I read this and come up with this?

Trump: I don’t know. You people come up with this stuff.

Oy.

Lesson #2: Jeb is Toast.

This is not surprising, really. But last night did a great job on underlining either just how unprepared Jeb is for the campaign trail, or how little he really wants to be President. There was one time, and one time only, when he looked really comfortable, at ease, and in command of the situation. And it was when he was asked about Fantasy Football.

When the question came, I found myself doing that thing we all do whenever an obvious softball is floated over the plate during a debate: I found myself mentally answering the question. “Take the high road, Jeb!,” I screamed inside my head. “Tell them this is an inappropriate question for a debate of this magnitude, at a time when such trying and difficult issues plague the nation! Then attach whatever talking points you were coached to hit by your staff! Finally, your moment to step up and show the world what kind of leader you can be has arrived!”

He didn’t, of course. He went on to gush about his fantasy football team, and left it to other candidates to do what was going through my head as soon as he was finished — making Jeb look like an unserious, out-of-touch, rich-kid dudebro.

Lesson #3: Trump Isn’t a Politician. He’s a Salesman.

And please understand, I mean “salesman” in the worst and most derogatory way possible.

There’s a kind of Alpha-Male Salesman-type out there that gives salespeople in general a bad name. If you’ve ever had the kind of sales job where your employer sends you to sales seminars run by arrogant douchebags who spend the entire time telling you how awesome they are and how much money they made this past year — which, really, is about 90% of all sales seminars — then you likely know what I’m talking about. And as he showed last night, Trump is one of these Alpha-Male Salesmen.

One of the key things you’re taught at these seminars is the idea that when talking with a prospect, you are supposed to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” What this phrase means, in real terms, is that you say anything you can about your competitors to make prospective buyers have negative feelings about said competitors. It doesn’t matter if what you say is true or not, or even if the client ever discovers that it isn’t true, because that’s not the point. The point is to drop an association that’s outrageously terrible in the subconscious of the buyer, so that when your competitor’s name is brought up there’s a tiny voice inside their head that makes them leery of that person.3

Trump is, first and foremost, an Alpha-Male Salesman. It’s how he made his fortune, how he catapulted himself to national fame. And you just can’t change who you are in your bones, even on the campaign trail.

This became glaringly obvious last night on two instances after Kasich went after him for being a horrific prospect for POTUS. First, Trump responded by telling the audience that Kasich was on the board of Lehman Brothers when the economy collapsed, and suggested that because of this position that he was likely a chief architect of the financial meltdown. Kasich, gobsmacked, immediately pointed out that he has never actually sat on the Lehman’s Board of Directors — but that was entirely beside the point. Trump was likely perfectly aware of this, and likely didn’t care that he would be quickly fact-checked. He was merely “afflicting the comfortable” audience members who had started to think that what Kasich was saying made sense.

He did it again immediately after the debate, when Trump-er Roger Stone tweeted out that Kasich had worked for him on the Reagan campaign, and that Stone had fired Kasich for dealing and stealing drugs. The press sat up and took notice, and then quickly discovered that Kasich had not actually worked for Stone, had not actually been fired from the Reagan campaign, and had not ever been accused of anything drug-related at all. But again, with an Alpha-Male-Salesman-driven campaign, all of that was really beside the point.

Lesson #4: Conservatives and Liberals Aren’t Really on the Opposite Ends of the Spectrum on Government.

Call it if you will, an example of the Errol Flynn Fallacy.4

One of the things that stood out to me was how many of the candidates floated ideas that suggested a high degree of government involvement – peppered throughout statements that the government shouldn’t be allowed to do anything. And the audience seems to like all of these ideas just fine.

One example was from the kid’s table debate, where Bobby Jindal bragged about his record in Louisiana, where he has cut taxes but not really cut government spending. (This has resulted in a rather large deficit.) But, really, most of the “big ideas” floated in the grown-ups’ debate suggested a call to government action — even as they are couched in anti-government rhetoric.

More than one candidate talked about the need for the country to invest in specific, targeted alternative energy sources. Another popular “thinking outside the box” idea was to take the top four diseases in terms of cost-of-treatment, and make it the mission of the country to find cures for them as a way to cut healthcare costs. There were others, too, and all of them left the obvious question dangling in the flatulent wind:

Who exactly did they think was going to lead these charges if they were to ascend to the White House, if not… well, them? And their office? And the various government agencies under their control?

Are the candidates (and their audience) under the mistaken assumption that private research and pharmaceutical companies simply haven’t considered the idea that they might make money if they found a cure for cancer? Do they believe no one in the private engineering, chemical, or energy industries has ever tried to come up with cost-effective energy sources? Do they all think that once a Real Conservative is in the White House and says, “Hey guys, you should try curing diabetes..,” that private investors and innovators will suddenly slap their foreheads and wonder why they never thought of that themselves?

At one point, showing unusual fortitude, one of the CNBC moderators asked the candidates who exactly they meant when they talked about “the country investing” in one of these projects. And when the audience loudly booed at the audacity that a conservative candidate might be asked such a potentially illusion-shattering question, the moderator shut up and no one ever brought it up again. Because, you know, they were friggin’ CNBC moderators.

All in all, it was a pretty good example of how the rhetoric of the GOP and the Democrats in this country is largely symbolic rather than substantive.

 

[Image: Screenshot from Youtube.]

  1. Fantasy Football, anyone? []
  2. My favorite example is the one on where the candidates stood on personal helicopter regulation. []
  3. I should probably note that all academic study of this sales technique shows that it is ineffective, and is more likely to backfire than work in your favor. In fact, the only time it is likely to work at all is in those situations where all of the salespeople competing for the client’s business are employing the exact same technique. Despite this, it’s still incredibly popular and gets employed all the time. Mostly, as best I can tell, because the sales field tends to draw the kind of people that like employing it. []
  4. I know, I know. I still have to come up with a new name for this. []

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Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular contributor for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter. ...more →

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139 thoughts on “Four Lessons Learned from Last Night’s Debate

  1. The moderators were tougher and better than Fox and CNN. Quick’s point was correct – she got the fact from Trump’s own website. He just flat out denied it, wrongly, leaving her flabbergasted. The debate is not the place for moderators to get into a fact fight with candidates, so she wisely let it go, knowing the blogosphere would bear her out as correct. Same with Harwood and Rubio – Harwood’s question was legitimate and his facts were correct. Rubio simply did not want to admit his own published tax policy gives more to the top 10% and the top 1% than most of the rest of the population, on a percentage basis. Moderators can only ask questions, they cannot force candidates to tell the truth or answer them. The issue lies more with the quality and attitude of these atrocious candidates than with the moderators.

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    • Bingo.

      I missed this earlier, but you can see what happens when the moderators follow Tod’s strategy in the exchange with Carson on his bogus health schemes:

      Moderator asks Carson about his involvement with a shady company; Carson lies that he’s not involved with them (while also admitting that he’s a paid spokesperson, but whatevs)

      Moderator follows-up by saying that Carson is in the promotional materials; Carson pretends like he has no idea how that happened

      Exasperated Moderator follows-up again by asking if not knowing is maybe an indication that Carson’s not vetting his business partners; and Carson doesn’t even get to respond because *the crowd shouts the moderator down*.

      This was a pretty text-book demonstration of “going full Candy Crowley” (especially having a response ready to the “I don’t know how it happened” line), and not only is it ineffective, but the conservative voters actively protested it.

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    • “The issue lies more with the quality and attitude of these atrocious candidates…”

      No, I think we need to be more clear. It wasn’t the candidates who shouted down the moderator for asking questions. It was the audience, the base supporters who vehemently didn’t want to hear any uncomfortable questions.

      If Trump/ Carson didn’t exist, the Republican base would have to invent them.

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  2. I think you should continue calling it the Errol Flynn fallacy. And actually, I think you should forcefully and loudly continue to assert that Errol Flynn is in fact, very short, that way if people adopt your terminology, you’re sort of proving its underlying point. Sort of.

    In any case, I think someone should write about China.

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        • Its now a two child policy and my prediction is that the change in policy is not going to work in the way the CCP wants. Its a lot easier to create policies that lower birthrates than raise them. China’s birthrate is probably going to stay bellow the transfer replacement rate.

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          • ts a lot easier to create policies that lower birthrates than raise them.

            I don’t think that’s true, I think that if you want to raise the birth rates through policy the way to do it is provide affordable housing for middle class (see America in the 50s and 60s as an example).

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            • American birth rates peaked in the late 50s and fell from then on; in other words, they fell when birth control pills became commonly available.

              A combination of prosperity, access to birth control, and educational and career opportunities for women, is invariably going to lead to lower birth rates because there’s a not-insignificant population of women who decide they’d rather not spent their lives looking after kids when they have alternatives. There are likely some people in the US who put off having kids due to financial challenges, but I’d bet there’s a lot more who refrain from having kids because they don’t want them.

              You want a high birth rate? Have a socially conservative, agrarian country; for even better results, keep that country poor.

              If you’re worried about an aging population is a prosperous country, don’t bother trying to increase the birth rate; increase immigration. There’s a ton of people in Syria who would love to come.

              As regards China specifically: it’s undergone a transition from a poor, largely rural country to a more prosperous (though still with a lot of poor people), majority urban one. No policy is going to undo the effects that shift has on decreasing the birth rate.

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              • China is still a majority rule country. Its just that that when you have around 1.3 billion people, your urban minority can exceed the population of even the most populous countries in the world. I think they have around 500 million urban dwellers and the rest are still in rural areas.

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              • I could not agree more KatherineMW. The poor Chinese had it wrong, alas. They were worried about their population growth? They should have taught all their girls to read. Birth rates would have declined. Still worried about population growth? Let the girls work jobs of their own outside the home. Birth rates would have plummeted. Guaranteed access to reproductive health? Give them civil rights equal to men(even the piss poor civil rights Chinese men have)? They’d be begging the gals to have a few kids in no time.

                There’s no moral quandary in population growth, no hard trade offs, no ambiguity. Treat women like people globe wide and you’ll have Ross Douthats in five hundred different languages groaning about declining populations in every flagship national paper within a generation or two.

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            • I am not sure that affordable housing had anything to do with the massive baby boom that occurred between 1945 and 1964. It was an international baby boom. This includes countries with much less pleasant or affordable housing. My guess is that the optimism of the post-War world and the rising affluence gave people the confidence to have kids after the international Great Depression of the 1930s.

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            • , you have to trust me on this but China’s Family Planning Policy is not cheap. It involved many forced abortion, forced sterilizations, mandatory IUD insertions, and gynecological check ups three times a year for hundreds of millions of women. All of these things cost money and lots of it. The indirect costs of China’s Family Planning Policy are also very expensive.

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              • With as many people as the Chinese have, Lee, getting them to do anything is not cheap in absolute dollars.
                As I recall it’s estimated that the entire Chinese Family Restriction program prevented the creation of some 400 million Chinese babies. I guarantee if they tried to spent the exact same amount of money over the same time to promote child birth they’d get a hell of a lot less than 400 extra Chinese babies.

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  3. Hmm, my Todd, I read your last sentence then I look at the two latest debates the Dems and the GOP have held and I wonder if it’s entirely fair. Maybe it’s just observer bias but I felt like the Democratic debate was considerably more realistic, policy driven and was considerably lighter on the flat out reality denying than the GOP one. This is a spongy position so I’m open to being proven wrong and Lord(Lady?) knows I’m biased on the subject.

    But when I watched the GOP debate, other than wincing over Rubio, I felt pretty smirky and I’m pretty sure Hillary would have the same reaction.

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    • I will leave a more substantive answer to some lawyer who isn’t Burt (sabbatical!), but slander/libel is very hard to prove in most instances where public figures are involved, and all-but impossible to prove in political campaigns.

      Based on previous cases I’ve seen, the worst that would happen would be, after a prolonged legal falderal, Stone would be forced to take down his tweet. And even this would likely not happen until either Kasich or Trump were out of the race.

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      • Matters of law aside, the fact that Stone/Trump do not pay a much steeper penalty for making claims of this type may tell us something about the state of our society and politics. Once upon a time, a duel would have been in order. It might have been assumed up until relatively recently that anyone making such charges would be exiled from polite – and politically eligible – society, at least on as high a level as presidential politics.

        Apparently not. Cynicism about political discourse goes in hand in hand with a greater sense of “political license,” in turn both feeding and justifying such cynicism, the falcon cannot hear the falconer, and so on.

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        • I have seen people on the right-wing say they like Trump as a “middle finger” to the “establishment.” Can we say establishment=polite society? I think if this is the core of his appeal, facts don’t matter. His base hates “polite society.”

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          • SaulDegraw: His base hates “polite society.”

            You might want to look to your left for another base that also doesn’t seem to have much interest in the standards of former “polite society” – though they do express very strong interest in a different type of regulation of speech. Imagine the harm it would do Bernie Sanders’ campaign if he were caught habitually employing gender-related default assumptions in his table talk, or the scandal if HRC employed a slightly out-of-date term for an important Democratic Party constituency.

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            • You might want to look to your left for another base that also doesn’t seem to have much interest in the standards of former “polite society” – though they do express very strong interest in a different type of regulation of speech.

              …he says without much evidence at all.

              When was the last time any moderately-important Dem politician just flat out lied?

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          • I guess you dropped out of that thread early. I believe I was the only one examining your view on Fiorina’s controversial statements from the other side. Tod presents the Stone/Trump accusations against Kasich as being false in a way beyond possible controversy – as simply and demonstrably false. I sought to examine Ross Douthat’s argument that Fiorina’s critics had not established their claims in that way, and perhaps could not.

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              • Anyone who wishes to take up this topic again can return to the thread, review all of the discussion, and respond to its elements substantively and in detail – and also explain to Burt Likko why it’s worth re-opening. Otherwise, merely re-asserting your position on Fiorina is disrespectful.

                If you wish to re-open a larger inquiry into the nature and treatment of truth claims in political and other discussion, with or without specific reference to Fiorina, we can try that. Maybe you’d like to author a guest post to get us started.

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                  • Have no idea what that’s supposed to mean. You apparently have certain standards about certain words and their implications that you presume I ought to know about. The other day, the word “evoke” got you started. I have no idea why. Now, “disrespectful” is causing you problems. Maybe try saying what you mean instead of expressing how dumbstruck you are?

                    Disrespectful: Disrespectful to Burt and to your fellow discussants, especially any who chose to accede to Burt’s request, made apparently out of concern for the tenor of the conversation, when for their own purposes they might otherwise have chosen to take things further. When someone devotes hours to arguing a position, and someone else returns to the matter as though none of that discussion had taken place, that is disrespectful and unfriendly. It may reinforce suspicions on the part of the former that discussion with the latter is pointless.

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                      • I was prepared to drop the matter, but, since you want to take it further, here is my response. I’m not sure whether you are aware of any of what I am about to describe.

                        Burt made a request to drop the Fiorina discussion a few weeks ago. Stillwater was still an active participant in the thread when Burt made that request. In case Stillwater did not recall the request or the exchanges that led to it, I provided links.

                        If you care to review the discussion that preceded Burt’s intervention, you’ll note that, in addition to leaving aspects of the argument of further interest to me unexplored, my choosing to break off, as Burt perhaps reasonably preferred, meant leaving unanswered diverse statements made against me personally, including by “masthead writers” at this site. So be it. I’ve undergone much worse. It doesn’t matter.

                        Nevermoor, who may not have been aware of the direction that that discussion took, has returned to it. Stillwater, who has reason to know better – on another point he himself later referred to my having apparently been “hounded off the site” – has also re-started the discussion without taking any apparent cognizance at all either of the substance of that discussion or of the way in which it was aborted.

                        In the light of a request from a leading member of the site who takes responsibility for community harmony, one may respect the request or not. Not to respect the request and instead actively to defy it, and without taking its substance or motivations into account, shows disrespect both for the request itself and for the person who made it. I’m not saying Burt was right. I’m not saying he was wrong. I am saying that, unless I was prepared to hash it out with him, too, I was left like everyone else with the choice of either respecting or disrespecting him, his authority, and the request itself.

                        Furthermore, as regards Stillwater, I have already indicated the type of conduct that in my view would show respect of a different type: to a discussion as a discussion and to fellow discussants. Though I often do not approve of Stillwater’s tactics in argument, as noted above, at least he does not in my observation make a habit of stooping to personal attacks. So I also described how I thought Stillwater might pursue the underlying matter further if he felt inclined to do so, in a way that I would consider actually respectful in other ways – for instance by writing a guest post.

                        He finds this “line of argument” “strange,” “low,” and “weird.” I think what I have described is part of any authentically respectful approach to discussion of difficult topics at a site like this one.

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                        • I believe he (and I, frankly) find it strange because you’re making it a line of argument. There’s a world of difference between “hey, we agreed to let this drop” and “making those claims is disrespectful (and thus implicitly wrong on some level)”.

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                          • Guy, I don’t really have much to add to what I’ve already said about Stillwater’s and my exchanges. Stillwater and now you take exception to my use of the word “disrespectful.” I didn’t call Stillwater names. I didn’t attack his character. I asked him to consider what he was doing and to think about how to do it. I explained and re-explained why I did so at what seems to me, by now, to be approaching ridiculous length.

                            Moreover, I didn’t suggest that Stillwater’s statement is “implicitly wrong on some level.” I explicitly stated why I thought Stillwater’s comments, and his follow-up, are wrong in very specific ways. You and and especially he seem to have in mind some Marquis de Queensbury rule of blog discussion where use of the word “disrespectful” is venturing somewhere completely out of bounds. “You didn’t really just go there, did you?” asks Stillwater. I don’t know why you find the word such a trigger, and I don’t in fact see a “world of difference” between “hey, we agreed…” and “making those claims… is wrong”- although I didn’t say anything about “making… claims” (about Fiorina, about her statements, about abortion, about the Planned Parenthood videos? – what claims am I supposed to ruling inherently un-makeable?). I referred to a specific context or set of contexts and what I thought would be a better – in multiple ways more respectful – way of re-introducing a very particular, already extensively and finally disruptively discussed, for some apparently quite sensitive matter.

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                        • CK, I disagree with your views on this. All of your views on, well, all the relevant stuff. I’m happy to talk more about those first-order issues, but I’ma stay away from all the meta-analysis of meta-analytical stuff.

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              • HP and Compaq were not part of the discussion being referenced, though some believe her apparent inability to do anything with the attention she got, and her return to the 5% range in the polls, had something to do with her vulnerabilities on that part of her resume. I’m not actually following the whole thing very closely, but I wouldn’t be surprised if “briefly talked about as potential VP candidate!” turned out to be the high point of her campaign – either that or “subject of contentious discussion at Ordinary Times!”

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              • First off “revenues” and “profit” are not the same thing. That distinction is really important when discussing her term at HP. Because “doubled revenues” sounds pretty awesome, but not if “And profits dropped” is the other half of the shoe. (I can’t recall exactly how profits did during her tenure, except that it was below the tech industry average. I do know that the ‘revenues’ thing her favorite dodge, because it reads to the average person as ‘profit’).

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        • It seems like it would go without saying that presidential candidates are public figures. And if “blatantly lying about your opponent in order to beat them in a political campaign” doesn’t constitute malice, what does? (I’m interpreting malice here as meaning, essentially, “intent to harm”. Clearly the purpose of Trump’s statement was to harm Kasich by costing him voter support.)

          This debate makes me happy for Canadian politics, where “inexperienced” (or “not a leader”, or “spent the last 20 years outside of the country”) is fightin’ words.

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          • Actually, I believe “reckless conduct” counts as “actual malice.”
            I seem to remember that from Calder v. Jones (the Partridge Family vs. the National Enquirer case– it’s actually cited more as a personal jurisdiction issue because the matter of defamation was so clear-cut).

            Yet you bring up another exception– support of a presidential candidate. That one is statutory, not common law.

            re: Canadian politics:
            I seem to remember some guy running for office, or maybe for re-election, who was busted at the border trying to smuggle American whiskey into Canada!?!?!?!
            Talk about unfit for office . . .

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      • That and he’d have to deal with months of news articles containing his name and all of the negative stuff Trump wanted to attach to his name while it made its way through the courts.

        Do you want to repeatedly announce in the news that, “I , am not a child molester, no matter what my opponent says,” or do you just want to let the matter quietly disappear? Since the news is all about how opinions on the matter differ, I’d probably let it slide.

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      • Yes, it’s very difficult to prove slander or libel if you’re a public figure. You have to prove that the publisher knew that the statement was false yet published it anyway and did so with malicious intent toward the celebrity. Stone could simply claim that he remembered firing Kasich and it would be hard to prove otherwise.

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        • Hey, it’s ! Good to see you!

          Isn’t this one of those examples that makes you shake your head in dismay that the legal standard is drawn that way? Kasich gets to bear the brunt of an outright lie, and seems to have no real remedy at all. Yes, I realize why the rule is the way it is, and really, Kasich’s gripe isn’t against the publisher but against Stone. But still, it’s easy to see the temptation to want to carve out at least some way he could demand a retraction.

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  4. I think my big takeaway is that conservatism really does suffer from epistemic closure. And I don’t mean that in the technical sense, but rather that their worldviews really are debilitatingly circumscribed by a lack of connection to reality. I mean, I get that conservatives think gummint has gotten too big, but their proposed solutions to THAT problem are unrealistic politically, practically, pragmatically, potentially, possible-ility, …

    I tend to think that they think it’s just a matter of will to MAKE IT REAL (much like Cheney’s views of success in Iraq!), and those damn spineless liberals keep getting in the way. Unfortunately, there’s a whole world of people, institutions, cultures large and small, inertia, facts!, etc., that seems to be consistently left outa their policy positions. And I think it’s matter of will that they do so: willful ignorance.

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  5. “Conservatives and Liberals Aren’t Really on the Opposite Ends of the Spectrum on Government.”

    Really Tod, this is news? This has been the case for decades. They are all statists. They just differ on what they think the gov’t should make you do in some minor ways form the “other side”.

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  6. I largely agree with the posts. The media seems to think the GOP proposals were largely in la-la land but that doesn’t matter.

    As of know, lots of people eat up Trump but it his negatives were also high.

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  7. Tod said:

    If you’ve ever had the kind of sales job where your employer sends you to sales seminars run by arrogant douchebags who spend the entire time telling you how awesome they are and how much money they made this past year — which, really, is about 90% of all sales seminars — then you likely know what I’m talking about.

    I haven’t had this kind of sales job. But I have seen Glengarry Glen Ross

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  8. I hold both positions in regards to how CNBC handled this debate:

    1. Many of the questions seemed pointless and were only intended to have the candidate squirm for a bit, but eventually went nowhere. They should have known this would be lacking in substance and completely uninteresting for a voter.

    2. The moaning and crying from the Republicans on stage to every question made me think these men are some of the biggest wussies I have ever seen. Clearly, Republicans loved the bickering between moderators and candidates, but I found it utterly baffling. This is what people want from their standard-bearer?

    Ugh. The whole thing was terrible.

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  9. I think another lesson is that the adversarial style of debate isn’t working for Republican primaries. Republican viewers just don’t like seeing their candidates hit with leading questions, and they’re perfectly happy to see the candidate hit back at the moderator and dodge the question entirely. You’ll note that Ted Cruz’s massive applause line about “no substance” came in response to a normally substantive question about the budget deal. A quick search of The Federalist for “Candy Crowley” will also reveal to you that Republican pundits did not see that moment as Romney being grossly unprepared and dispassionate about hitting Obama on Benghazi, they remember it thusly:

    “Trust in the media’s impartiality, however, had vanished long before “moderator” Candy Crowley helped Barack Obama sustain a lie in 2012’s second presidential debate by instantly and counterfactually “fact checking” Mitt Romney.”

    “Anybody remember moderator Candy Crowley weighing in on Barack Obama’s side during one of the debates with Mitt Romney in 2012?”

    See, she was “fact checking” Romney, not fact checking him (apparently she’s not even considered a moderator without scare quotes). I’m starting to agree more and more with Jonathan Bernstein’s theory that debates should just be about getting the candidates to go on the record as much as possible, not about catching them in logic pretzels. That means asking them specific questions about their policy and sitting back. The moderators should leave it to the other candidates on the stage to find the leaps of logic. And if the other candidates don’t do it – well, fuck ’em – that just softens up the nominee for the general debates.

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    • @trizzlor: “You’ll note that Ted Cruz’s massive applause line about “no substance” came in response to a normally substantive question about the budget deal.”

      There a bit in a SNL debate sketch from roughly one billion years ago, during the Bush-Dukakis debate.

      In the sketch, the moderator asks Bush to clarify his position on something (can’t remember what), and Dana Carvey’s Bush gives a few say-nothing comments, and then says he’d be more specific but he wants to respect the time limit. The moderator says, “You still have a minute and a half, Mr. Vice President.” And so Bush says another non-statement, and the moderator says, “you still have more minute.” And so on and so on.

      Cruz’s response to the budget deal question reminded me of that sketch.

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    • I don’t see Crowley saying she’s wrong, do you?

      For whatever reason, Romney decided to hit Obama on using the term “act of terror” instead of “terrorist act”. Fine, not what I would have chosen to focus on, but okay. But once you decide to go that route, the key thing – and this is really important – is to make sure you bring up the thing Obama *didn’t say* (terrorist act) and not the thing he *did say* (act of terror). Here’s the whole exchange:

      Obama: “The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened — that this was an act of terror — and I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime.”

      Romney: “I think interesting the president just said something, which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.”

      Obama: “That’s what I said.”

      Romney: “You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you’re saying?”

      Obama: “Please proceed, governor.”

      Romney: “I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.”

      Obama: “Get the transcript.”

      Honestly, if I had seen it in a movie I wouldn’t have believed it. Obama’s “please proceed”! Romney’s continued use of the *wrong phrase*! I can just imagine poor Mitt sitting in the green room before the debate and coaching himself – “terrorist act, NOT act of terror / terrorist act, NOT act of terror” – and then just plain flubbing it.

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        • Hell, ‘terrorism’ is *wrong*. So is ‘act of terror’.

          What happened was an ‘act of terrorism’, if you want the strictly 100%-correct answer. Acts of terrorism are used (duh) in the tactic(1) of terrorism.

          Sadly for Republican technical points, ‘act of terror’ is probably more accurate than the ‘terrorism’. Assuming we read that as ‘act of terror-causing’ (Instead of ‘act of terror-having’), it is correct. (Of course, we could read it other ways, and it would be wrong.)

          Meanwhile, the attack was not the *tactic* of terrorism (?!), it was an instance of someone *using* that tactic.

          Of course, here in reality where we speak English cobbled together in back alleys, both those are basically shorthand for the correct term ‘acts of terrorism’, and *everyone know what they mean*.

          Supposedly, Romney was *intending* to say, basically, ‘How dare you use one shorthand for this instead of another?’, which is one of the more oddball lines of political attack I’d ever seen.

          And it was made absurdly obvious how stupid that line of attack was when, apparently, ‘terrorism’ and ‘act of terror’ were so close to synonyms in Romney’s mind that he swapped them around!

          1) Please, no one try to argue tactic vs strategy here, this is already dumb enough. Terrorism really is a tactic, the *strategy* is generally making the public unwilling to continue policies, aka, victory by public pressure.

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          • Oh, and while we’re at it, the extremely common ‘terrorist attack’ is wrong, too. Very very wrong.

            A terrorist is a *person*. A terrorist attack would be that person attacking anyone *via any means*, for any purpose. (Or, alternately, it would be attacking *them*!)

            A terrorist mugs you? It’s a terrorist attack.

            A group of terrorists invade an American military base in order to free one of their fellow terrorists? Another ‘terrorist attack’.

            Terrorists get tied of being droned and start shooting drones out of the sky? Yup, a ‘terrorist attack’. They’re terrorists, and they attacked something.

            Granted, maybe this vagueness is what certain people *want*, but it’s not a very good way to distinguish things.

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              • No.

                The adjective ‘sneak’ there is not the same as the noun ‘sneak’. It is merely a different and someone archaic form of the adjective ‘sneaky’. Sneak attacks are sneaky attacks. Sneak peeks are sneaky peeks. (Or to put it another way, ‘sneak’ used to be a verb, an noun, and an adjective. The adjective form *mostly* changed to sneaky, except in some weird expressions.)

                ‘Terrorist’, OTOH, *is* a noun. In ‘terrorist attack’, it’s a noun used as an adjective.

                And it either describes the people *doing* the attack as terrorists, or possibly describes the attack *itself* as committing acts of terror. (Which is not really something that makes sense so we automatically exclude it from our minds.)

                For an adjective form of terrorism, you’d need something like ‘terroristic’. Which is not a word.

                The difference between ‘terrorist attacks’ and ‘terroristic attacks’ is the same as the difference between ‘artist drawings’, aka, drawings by artists(1), and ‘artistic drawings’, which are drawings that have art in them. (Or possibly drawings that can *do* art.)

                Or, alternately, instead of making up a word, we could just use the *correct* noun as a adjective.

                A terrorist is a *person*. What the attack is about is the *feeling*, and that word is ‘terror’.

                I.e., it’s a ‘terror attack’.

                Alternately, you could say ‘terrorism attack’, meaning, it is an attack that follows the tactic of terrorism.

                1) Or, oddly, ‘artist drawings’ can be drawings *of* artists, just like ‘terrorist attack’ can, technically, mean someone *attacking some terrorists*.

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                  • Oh, for Pete’s sake. A ‘monster’ in that sense is not a person:

                    noun: monster; plural noun: monsters
                    a) an imaginary creature that is typically large, ugly, and frightening.
                    b) an inhumanly cruel or wicked person.
                    c) a person, typically a child, who is rude or badly behaved.
                    d) a thing or animal that is excessively or dauntingly large.
                    e) a congenitally malformed or mutant animal or plant.

                    A monster home run is an excessively large home run. (Although it’s a bit metaphorical there…home runs are not actually ‘things’, and have distance, not ‘size’.)

                    So I stand by my point: When you say [noun meaning a type of person] [noun describing an action], you are saying that the first noun *did* the second thing: ‘a writer strike’. ‘an employee retreat’.

                    …except for those times where the first noun is actually the object of the action, like ‘worker death’. Like I said, it’s possible to read ‘terrorist attack’ as *terrorists* were attacked. But that’s not relevant here.

                    Either way, the first noun is somehow involved in the action being describes, or you wouldn’t have frickin used the first noun as an adjective on the second! When you use a ‘person noun’ as an adjective to an action, you are claiming that person was involved in the action, just like if you use the word ‘blue’, you’re claiming that color was involved somehow. That is how adjectives *work*. Not sure why I have to explain this so specifically.

                    What’s going with what I complained about is that, basically, people are just sorta pick the action that the first noun *does* and decide instead of the ‘noun adjective’ used, they’re taking that as an adverb, and mentally rewriting the sentence. It’s like deciding that ‘a firefighter auction’ must have involved stopping a fire at an auction, or ‘an actor commentary’ must involve acting.

                    Neither of those are true, and likewise, in a grammarical sense, ‘a terrorist attack’ does not technically require acts of terrorism….just that the people involved *are* terrorists.

                    And I rather expect this sort of doublespeak is on purpose, with the idea that once a group of people have been declared as ‘terrorists’ (Which itself is rather random.), that *any* fighting on their part is illegitimate.

                    I notice people keep talking about the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing as a ‘terrorist attack’, and I wonder if this is exactly the logic they’re using. It’s a terrorist attack because it was done by (maybe?) people are terrorists….and let’s ignore the fact that, as a military target, it was not *actually* terrorism. But we can doublespeak about how it’s a ‘terrorist attack’.

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  10. An excellent description of how the GOP candidates and debate moderators were a bunch of gibbering loons…but then this bit:

    “it was a pretty good example of how the rhetoric of the GOP and the Democrats in this country is largely symbolic ”

    Wait, WHAT??

    A bunch of Republican liars fling their poo onstage, and it somehow shows how the rhetoric of the Democrats is largely symbolic?

    How did that slip in there?

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    • I think you and are reading me wrong. You seem to be wondering why i am launching salvos at both parties. In fact I’m not actually launching salvos at either.

      What I mean is, each party has a Narrative about what they stand for, and how the other party stands for the Anti-Narrative. But if you tear down the rhetoric, strip away the political context, and talk to people one on one, you’ll see that they’re not opposites. In fact, you’ll find that they’re really not all that far apart.

      Take government regulations. Throw out the phrase “government regulations” in a political race/debate/discussion/blog and here is generally what will happen:

      Government regulations will largely be damned and crucified by conservatives. And it won’t really matter how demonstrable it is that regulation X actually helps, because government regulations are Evil and if you support them you want the Destroy Freedom.

      At the same time, government regulations will largely be defended any Democrats. And it won’t really matter how demonstrable it is that regulation Y is clearly cumbersome and doing more harm than good, because government regulations are Good and if oppose them you support Bigotry and FYIGM.

      But strip away all the political context, and you’ll find that most people, R or D, are actually on the pretty much the same page about government regulation. I have yet to meet an R that, outside of a political discussion, isn’t very clear that not only isn’t regulation necessary, there is quite a bit that doesn’t exist that should. And I have yet to meet a D that, outside of a political discussion, isn’t very clear that a lot of government regulation is terrible needs need to be taken outside behind the barn and put down. In fact, more often that not they aren’t very far apart on what things work and which are terrible — unless they’re in a political discussion, that is, at which point what is important is the symbolism of government regulation.

      That’s what I mean when I say that the political rhetoric in this country is more symbolic than substantive.

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      • That’s what I mean when I say that the political rhetoric in this country is more symbolic than substantive.

        The totemic significance of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which in the grand scheme of things was simply not that important, is good evidence for this proposition.

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      • But if you tear down the rhetoric, strip away the political context, and talk to people one on one, you’ll see that they’re not opposites. In fact, you’ll find that they’re really not all that far apart.

        So, if you ignore politicians and the political sphere entirely, people are generally agreeable. And therefore we should not ascribe a narrative to politicians and the political sphere?

        Look, Mrs. N grew up in OKC so I have a lot of Fox News watchin’ dead-red conservative in-laws. And they are great human beings (despite that!). None of them want to, for example, kill poor people. BUT, the GOP has engaged in a systematic effort to prevent poor people from getting medicaid with the OBVIOUS consequence that some of those people would die from preventable diseases. Why doesn’t the Democratic Party get to legitimately use the narrative that they want the ACA to be fully implemented in every state so that poor people get good medical care, while the GOP stands for the opposite of that? Why is the fact that my conservative in-laws don’t get a secret thrill from stories like the one posted recently relevant in any way? Also, how is your point any different from Bobo’s latest laugher?

        Look. Politics is interesting because it actually matters. Not because it’s some esoteric philosophical debate or because it allows us to make fun of half the country. And just because something is a narrative (or, for bonus above-the-fray-detachment points, a “Narrative”) doesn’t make it wrong.

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          • I take a different view of this. (No surprise, right?) I think nevrmoor’s comment is an argument against a view you made. Seems to me what you’re saying up there is that if you strip away the symoblic rhetoric, you find that people basically agree – and so there isn’t that big a difference between them. But I would say (and I think this is what nevermoor is saying) that what you identify as the residue after symobic language is stripped is merely a platitude: that the vast majority of people agree with the claim that regulation is necessary but we need to do it better. But that’s a contentless claim, seems to me, one which liberals, conservatives, socialists and libertarians would agree with.

            I think you’re right that symbolic language pollutes political discourse, but I don’t think that political discourse is or ought to be defined by that type of language. There are real, substantive issues in play, and radically different conceptions of “good smart regulation” being advocated by members of each party. As one example nevermoor will probably agree with: the type of soicalism Sander’s advocates imposes a type of regulation on market-capitalism that he (nevermoor) finds odious. And to further highlight the difference: compare Sander views on regulation to those offered by the Tea Partyites.

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          • You are arguing that political rhetoric is symbolic. I’m opposing (or, at least, think I am) despite the fact that non-politicians may be largely tribally motivated. And the parties actually do stand for different, and opposed, things. Denying that because non-politicians aren’t as crazy as Rubio’s policies is attempting to hide the ball.

            So I guess either I don’t understand your point or I don’t understand your two-sentence objection.

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        • Yes, if you speak to people individually, their views are usually more moderated than their chosen political candidates.

          But I don’t see this as a sign of their superior wisdom, so much as their political ignorance and naivete.

          Because most people, liberal and conservative, are often filled with wildly contradictory thoughts and ideas, whereas a candidate has to present at least some semblance of a coherent idea.

          People, generally speaking, want a massive military and balanced budget. They want to have tremendous influence over global affairs without meddling in other countries, or providing foreign aid. A social safety net that doesn’t encourage loafing. Free trade that doesn’t ship jobs to other countries.

          And the biggest one, is that they want policies that are fair and humane, which don’t cost them anything.

          But of course, as this post over at Balloon Juice shows, whether you vote Republican or Democrat in the next election in Kentucky will mean, literally life or death for thousands of people.
          Tens of thousands in Kentucky will either keep health insurance, or be thrown off, depending on the election. Thousands will either live or die.

          This isn’t defending symbolism or attacking tribal totems. And it is utter falsehood to say that the two parties are equal in this regard.

          Your example of regulation is really just a BDSI trope. It assumes that one side claims to want to deeply reduce regulation, but would settle for a slight reduction, while the other side wants zero cuts at all, but would settle for a slight reduction, so the wisdom of the folk would suggest that the answer is… a slight reduction.

          Except that loads the dice, assuming that this process has not already been done, and done again and again for the past 40 years. It assumes that there is a vast swath of unnecessary regulations and spending which can be cut without affecting the core mission of the social safety net.

          Further you are assuming that both sides agree on the overall goal of the safety net, just quibble over the best way to achieve it.

          We don’t, not even close!

          The Republican base may privately acknowledge the need for the safety net as you suggest, but they are perfectly happy to see it shredded if it conflicts with their other priorities.
          They really do see the world in Darwinian terms, and really do want to preserve the hierarchy of the deserving and undeserving.

          The fact that this can’t be placed into an acceptable sounding narrative doesn’t change the fact that it exists, it only leads to code-speaking and incoherence such as we saw on stage, where Carson could toss out a proposal that makes absolutely no sense to anyone over the age of 12, yet the crowd got angry when he was pressed on it.
          They know what his proposal is meant to do, but don’t want to be reminded of it.
          Their message is really just “We can cut spending by some insane amount and no one will suffer! Lalalala all of them, Katie, we don’t want any gotcha questions!”

          This is the difference between the parties.

          The Democrats are open and proud of their goals, the Republicans are not.

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          • The Democrats are open and proud of their goals, the Republicans are not.

            Not *quite*. ‘Goals’ is not the word you mean there. Maybe ‘the results of their goals’?

            The Republicans will talk about their ‘goals’ in the abstract sense, and they’re *really* happy about them, with freedom exploding all over the place. In fact, their Goals often deserve capital letters and are worshiped as ends unto themselves.

            What they refuse to talk about is what reaching those goals will cause to happen.

            I mean, look at pro-life people. Their goal is to outlaw abortion, but can’t deal with people pointing out *either* possible outcome of that. First, they ignore the point that there will be a lot of illegal abortions, but, uh, they get equally annoyed when you talk about forcing women to give birth, despite that *literally* being what they are trying to accomplish by law.

            I mean, denying bad side effects is one thing, but Republicans have moved past that into denying that a political goal will accomplish the exact thing it’s trying to do! (1)

            Of course, if it’s possible to deny outcomes, they will cling to that as long as possible…look at zombie supply-side economics theory, still hanging in there after decades of evidence to the contrary. But, heck, if that actually *is* ever somehow magically disproved to Republican satisfaction….Republicans will still push it, and just refuse to talk about reduced tax revenue as a result.

            So, first step is denying what their goals will result in, second step is, uh, just not talking about the results of their goals at all.

            This is because what they want to happen are often *completely* idiotic or obviously contrary to good policy, but as long as they can phrase it as a conservative Goal, they’re good. Get conservative voter’s focus on the target, perhaps they won’t notice it’s attached to a dunk tank they’re sitting in.

            Democrats, OTOH, push things generally because they think the *result* of what they’re doing is good, not because it’s some magical liberal Goal.(2) Sometimes they’re wrong and it won’t result in that outcome, but they’re open about where they are trying to end up.

            1) Probably because that is rather fascist sounding. It’s a modification of the old joke. ‘Doctor, Doctor, whenever I propose fascist-sounding proposals like forcing women to give birth against their will the voters don’t like that.’ ‘Well, then…stop doing that!’

            2) There *are* exceptions to that.

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            • Good point.

              Which is the main difference, that the Democratic goals such as ACA had outcomes that were popular, and had actual numbers that made sense, and have largely come true.

              The Republican goal of a balanced budget (by whatever budget numbers you care to pick) would require outcomes that would be either massively unpopular like cutting Defense or Medicaid, or just a suspension of the laws of mathematics. So they have to code-speak and use symbolic language.

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  11. The main problem with the GOP debates is that there’s too many fishin people on stage. Even Lincoln would have had a problem with a ten person scrum, and he was pretty good at pith. But I agree on all 4 points above.

    My inner conspiracist says that, as the most right wing of the NBC news constellation, CNBC deliberately tanked the debate to allow the GOP a news cycle to unambiguously kevetch about the librulmedia.

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  12. All in all, it was a pretty good example of how the rhetoric of the GOP and the Democrats in this country is largely symbolic rather than substantive.

    Concluding a piece that literally hasn’t mentioned Democrats (much less provided any specifics about their rhetoric or its referents) is an intentional parody of BSDI. I mean, it must be. Right?

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  13. “The point is to drop an association that’s outrageously terrible in the subconscious of the buyer, so that when your competitor’s name is brought up there’s a tiny voice inside their head that makes them leery of that person.”

    This actually works, if you’re dropping the association into the person’s subconscious. I’ve got the polling numbers to back it up, too. (9/11 imagery was used, and even after I mention that, you’ll have no clue what ad I’m talking about, because… subconscious).

    Of course, you need to actually get your facts right to have a decent ad in the first place.

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