Three Quick Observations About Last Night’s Debate

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Fish it.

Observation #1: Candidates Should Be Careful What They Wish For

First things first: I loved last night’s debate.

Indeed, it might be my favorite GOP POTUS-primary debate of all time. And to be clear, I’m not talking about a schadenfreude kind of love here. I’m talking about a turning off the television and being shocked to find myself saying, “man, that was excellent” kind of love. For the past decade (at least), every GOP primary debate I have watched has centered primarily on reaching out to the talk-radio crowd. This meant evenings of candidates casually tossing out red meat with very little concern about the questions they were being asked. Last night, though, just felt different.

Or at least it did to me. Josh Marshall called the whole thing “a mess,” and I’m sure he’s not alone. Josh’s main problem seemed to be that when the candidates clearly had no idea what they were talking about, the moderators didn’t call them on it:

So now we have a debate structured around letting candidates say absolutely anything – because scrutinizing candidates is liberal. This leads to having half the debate framed around how strong financial regulation leads the biggest banks to get bigger and bigger and how we need to put in place new policies to prevent banks from getting this big. And the best place to start is to repeal Dodd-Frank. As David said at one point tonight, it’s impossible to find any way into this conversation because it’s all theology and self-referencing assertions.

For what it’s worth, I actually agree with Josh about the degree to which so many of the candidates seemed to be reveling in some form of either cluelessness or hucksterism. Where he and I part ways, I suppose, is what appears to be Josh’s desire for moderators to point all of this out to their viewers. I tend to believe it’s usually better to let idiots and charlatans tie their own nooses around their own necks.

For example, last night there were a lot — a lot — of examples where candidates would say in one breath that we needed to wipe away any and all government regulation and let the market decide everything. And then in the very next sentence they would insist on some kind of sweeping government regulation that, for example, told banks how they had to spend or invest their money, or how big they were or were not allowed to get.  And they’d just go on and on about how they would force these things on corporations. And then they’d wrap up by saying how much they would never have the government interfere or make regulations.

I’m not sure you need a moderator to point these things out to people. I think people who care enough to watch a debate can, quite likely, actually dress themselves in the morning on their very own, without help from their parents, just like a big kid.

During the CNBC debate, the moderators actually tried to do what Josh proposes. But rather than illuminate the situation, it gave the weaker and less honest candidates cover. Anyone who got a question they didn’t feel like answering got to re-frame that question as “What should the role of a debate moderator be?” In last night’s debate, they had no such safe harbor. Instead, the moderators generally restricted their follow-ups to noting that a candidate hadn’t clearly answered the question, and would they please do so now?

The results, I think, speak for themselves.

Not able to use their time needling the moderators, Trump and Carson especially were forced to actually answer questions, and it made each of them look terrible. They each looked uninformed and over their heads. More importantly, the audience responded as if they were. Given enough rope by the moderators to hang themselves, Trump and Carson were forced to spend the night listening to the audience roar its approval for candidates not named Trump or Carson.

More than anyone else, Trump and Carson have been quite vocal in their calls for debates to be moderated exactly the way they were moderated last night. As someone who thinks them each charlatans, I was glad to see them get what they wanted.

Observation #2: The GOP is Evolving Into a Brand Name — and Little Else

It was hard to shake the impression as I was watching the debate that the GOP doesn’t actually stand for anything anymore. Or, perhaps more accurately, that more and more what they stand for is the proliferation of pre-approved buzz words, but little else.

As best I could tell, there was no common cohesion that comfortably fit the candidates and their positions. Sure, there were words and phrases they all agreed upon. But the definitions being used for any of these words and phrases were so scattershot and so all over the map as to defy actual meaning.

To take one example, everyone on stage was quite vocally in favor of “limited government” — which at first blush makes it sound like we’re starting from some pretty solid common ground. But as the debate went on, it turned out that “limited government” means many, many things to GOP candidates. So many things, in fact, that it really means nothing. Examples of “limited government” are abolishing government bureaucracies, but also building them; dramatically cutting military spending, but also increasing it astronomically; letting businesses grow however the market dictates, but also stepping in and neutering their growth.

In contrast, whenever I hear Democrats debate policy issues there is always some cohesive baseline from which they start. They might debate the degree to which the Department of Education is effective. They might disagree on which tweaks should or shouldn’t be made to improve it. They might even not see eye-to-eye about the extent to which educational policy should be centralized. But they pretty much all agree that public education is important, that tax dollars spent on education are an investment, and that the government is the best vehicle to ensure an educated citizenry. The GOP, on the other hand, seems to favor pretty much anything and everything, from investing public money into primary and secondary education, to using tax dollars to fund vocational schools, to eliminating the very concept of education being paid for by tax dollars altogether. (And, of course, everything in between.)

There really is not rhyme or reason as to what makes a GOP position a GOP position today, so long as you attach the phrase “limited government,” “conservative,” or “freedom” to it. It doesn’t even have to be those things. A potential position can curb or grow government. It can be radical or traditional. It doesn’t need to have anything remotely to do with freedom at all. So long as it attaches to itself the pre-selected brand-name descriptors, pretty much anything goes, really.

Seriously, how weird is that?

Observation #3: All Future POTUS Primary Debates, of Each Party and in Every Election Until He Passes Away, Should Be Required to Have John Kasich In Them

He’s never going to get even a whiff of the nomination. He’s not particularly charismatic, and more often than not last night he came off as an exasperated, grumbling, party-pooper. He was, as best I could tell, the only candidate who was roundly booed by the audience.

Still, John Kasich was the best thing about last night’s debate, because he seemed to care less about being elected than about keeping the other candidates honest. In fact, the line that best summed up his role was the one he uttered most frequently: “Think for a moment about what you’re saying.”

When people trumpeted the idea of no-fly zones in Syria, Kasich was the only one to point out that the tough-but-innocuous sounding phrase actually meant shooting down Russian jets, which would likely be perceived as a declaration of war. We can certainly do that, he conceded, but did we really want to?

When people talked about eliminating the Fed, he asked everyone to stop and consider what putting monetary policy and interest rates in the hands of Congress would actually look like.

Most of the candidates promised that, were Bank of America were to go upside down due to risky investments, they would let it fail. Kasich pointed out that while it was easy to let those Wall Street Fat Cats get theirs, there would also be the deposits and retirements of millions of blue collar and middle class Americans at stake — Americans who would likely be both ignorant and innocent of such shenanigans. What, he asked his brethren, did they propose to do about that?

When Jeb Bush dodged the entire bailout crisis by making the absurd promise that, if he were elected, America would never again have another financial crisis ever — an argument by the way which was echoed by every other candidate, if not quite as overtly — it was Kasich who interrupted and pointed out what a patently moronic claim it was to make.

When hardliners talked about deporting eleven million Mexicans, he rightly pointed out that there wasn’t anyone on stage that would actually do that if they were elected.

And he kept this up all night. He kept doing it even after he got booed by an audience that clearly felt uncomfortable having its nice evening of being told what they wanted to hear interrupted. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a candidate in a national debate so obviously say, “Fish it. I don’t even care if I get elected anymore.” I’m not sure if I’ll ever see it again.

But if Kasich were willing to do this at every primary debate, in every election, for every party? Man, I’d pay to watch that.

[Image via Wiki Commons]


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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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41 thoughts on “Three Quick Observations About Last Night’s Debate

  1. He’d have a much harder time finding those points (though not impossible, I suppose) in the other party’s debates.

    No democratic candidate is making any claim anywhere near as nutty as the “sane” GOP candidates promising 4% growth (Jeb!) and revenue-neutral $12T tax cuts (Rubio)

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  2. Well, we agree on one thing, Tod. Kasich was last night’s saving grace. But, to me, there is a GOP philosophy, such as it is, which boils down to (1) cut taxes in ways that favor the wealthy, (2) gut government regulations, and (3) more money for the war machine and more wars. Reagan redux but without the charm.

    And the Fox moderators sucked. They couldn’t even be bothered to ask the obvious follow-up question for fear some candidate’s wittle feewings might get hurt. Debates are all about talking points. It’s the moderator’s job to delve a little deeper.

    My main take away from last night’s debacle–don’t watch without a strong drink at hand.

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    • Four years ago it seemed like only a few candidates had flat-tax proposals, which hovered around 18-20% or so, and they only wanted to eliminate maybe 3 Federal Agencies/Depts. This time around everyone seems to be proposing a flat-tax in the 10-15% range and they want to eliminate up to 5 Agencies.

      Next time around they’re all gonna campaign on a 0% flat-tax plan and eliminating the entirety of government. Except Kasich.

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    • But based on Tod’s commentary, plenty of the candidates were in favour of introducing new regulations. It seems like the GOP’s values don’t involve small government, but rather saying the words “small government”. It’s like lip service is all they have.

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          • Although the combination of a Democratic president and Republican Congress has worked out kind of okay during the Clinton and Obama administrations. I guess two wrongs do make a right. Or a lesser wrong, anyway.

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            • I think it’s more like the GOP puts pressure on the Democrats to get things to balance, but no one puts pressure on the GOP to do so. Unfortunately the narrative that “tax and spend on welfare” is not more irresponsible than “borrow and spend on tax cuts” never took off, and Ds don’t have the street cred to push back on the issue.

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    • I have wondered for a number of years why one party doesn’t just suggest that all income below $50,000 be free from taxation.
      It would definitely alleviate the need for government programs for many, which feeds directly in to the Republican line.
      Additionally, it resolves the issue of dividing the middle class against the poor to prevent effective coalition building.

      A 10% flat tax is all about making the poor schmuck making $8000/yr pay a much greater portion of their income in taxes, ensuring dependence on government programs for their very livelihood.
      Wage slavery at the governmental level.

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      • Per the GOP: We can afford — and must have — the world’s most powerful, most modern, military. We cannot afford to pay an EITC that generates a living wage for people who work full time.

        We will, notably, at no time document and compare those two numbers.

        (That no one pointed out the contradiction between making america great again and increasing poverty seems a missed opportunity.)

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        • Also the Gold Standard.

          Seriously, this is getting ridiculous. And it’s spreading. I watched a coworker’s response on Keystone — “Obama’s not letting us move our own oil!”.

          He literally had no idea it was Canadian oil. (He certainly didn’t know that, really, the pipeline could have been built along existing right of ways but some idiot drew a straight line that intersected tribal lands AND aquifers, and the original people screaming were state’s — not the Feds. He also then went on to point out a train that wrecked, spilling oil, before being buried with numbers on the relative safety of trains versus pipelines for oil transport — trains win easily, for very obvious reasons. Like, you know, the difference between a guy dropping a jug of water and your water main bursting.)

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          • ” trains win easily, for very obvious reasons. ”

            That’s not what a cursory search of the internet says. It seems that while pipelines have a bigger risk for large spills, they they have a much smaller risk for going big bada boom and causing immediate human casualties.

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            • Trains wreck more often than pipelines burst (although at least in America, if you take a hard look at train wrecks what you often see is rotting infrastructure, which does not make me happy about pipeline infrastructure). But when pipelines burst, they spill far more oil.

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                • “Generally” is doing a LOT of heavy lifting there. Especially since a quick perusal here has an awful lot of deaths and injuries.

                  And that’s direct deaths, not second or third order effects from oil getting into the water table.

                  And then there’s costs….to be blunt, we don’t consider a human life infinitely valuable when it comes to any other tradeoff decision, so why should we single out oil transport?

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  3. When Jeb Bush dodged the entire bailout crisis by making the absurd promise that, if he were elected, America would never again have another financial crisis ever

    “Promise me you’ll never die.”
    “You know I can’t promise that.”
    “Promise me you’ll never die and I’ll make love to you right now.”
    “I promise I’ll never die.”

    Also, something about a permanent 4% growth rate…

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  4. Well, Kasich was already the Republican I liked best before the debate. Now he’s proven that he really is the only grownup in the room.

    Which, of course, is precisely the reason why he will not garner even a single delegate.

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  5. >>During the CNBC debate, the moderators actually tried to do what Josh proposes. But rather than illuminate the situation, it gave the weaker and less honest candidates cover.

    Yeah, I can’t agree with this enough. Maybe there was a time when moderators could pin a candidate down with a tough question in a way that was revealing (the Kitty Dukakis question? though that really was a stinker). But at this point a “hot seat” question just gives the debaters another way out of answering it.

    >>I think people who care enough to watch a debate can, quite likely, actually dress themselves in the morning on their very own, without help from their parents, just like a big kid.

    But here I’ll push back. There are many instances where the candidates say things that have no internal consistency but which have the appearance of truth. I’ll use myself as an example in that Jeb Bush’s promise of 4% growth, or Ted Cruz’s claim that growth was better under the gold standard did not immediately set off red alarms in my head – even though I now realize that they are howlers. And I consider myself a person who can usually get dressed in the morning. Worse, none of the other candidates are motivated to point out these inconsistencies, since many of them have campaigns built on the same hokum. That leaves only the moderator to point out what ideas I should be suspicious of.

    The good thing is that eventually one of these people will also have to run in the general election, and at that point there will be a Democrat to pounce on this stuff. But do you honestly think that our politics is best served by candidates spending a year selling bullshit in the primary before they get called out on it?

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    • Well it depends. When Gore used to (in his wooden way) point out that George W’s tax proposals didn’t add up Bush would put on his giant grin and drawl “you’re usin funny math” and hand-wave it away. Once there’s a Democratic candidate on the stage saying “You’re proposing to cut taxes by a third of revenue, but you’ve ruled 80% of spending off limits and promised spending increases on some portions of it, so you’re either going to blow up the deficit or you’re lying” they’ll just paste on a grin and invoke fuzzy math.

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  6. trizzlor: The good thing is that eventually one of these people will also have to run in the general election, and at that point there will be a Democrat to pounce on this stuff. But do you honestly think that our politics is best served by candidates spending a year selling bullshit in the primary before they get called out on it?

    It worked well for Obama, criticizing Bush’s policies in the WOT and civil liberties and then continuing most of those same policies.

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    • Sure, there’s the traditional bullshit of lying about the future. I’m talking about factual claims that are *currently* known to be false, but which no one on the stage is interested in disputing. Or the only people who are interested are people the voters loathe – like Kasich or Paul.

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      • The ongoing story in the GOP is not so much the intent of a candidate to lie, as the disinterest in the truth — a disinterest that seems to be shared by candidates and voters alike.

        (Insert obligatory BSDI example here.)

        To pick one example — imposing a no-fly zone over Syria sounds like a robust, assertive, likley-to-be-effective, and nearly cost-free policy. Bingo. There’s your solution. Governor Kasich showing up and saying, “So that means you’re going to shoot a Russian jet with a Russian pilot out of the sky” demonstrates that there is a massive cost to the policy, to wit, courting a direct overt war with Russia. And thus aggression, for its own sake, suddenly looks unwise.

        The bulk of the guys and the one gal on that stage simply aren’t interested in exploring that policy. It’s box to check off: How to be aggressive in Syria. No-fly zone. Check. Okay, next, trade with the EU: it should be fair and those Euros cheat. Check. And so on. That’s why they haven’t thought it through — they feel no incentive to think it through. All that matters is winning the election.

        The realities of implementing a policy proposal (which may alternatively be called “governing”) simply are not interesting. Governing doesn’t gain us/me votes. Looking robust and strong and aggressive and decisive does. So I’ll do what it takes, say what it takes, to look robust and strong and aggressive and decisive. I’ll figure out what I’m actually going to do about Syria once I’m in office, or more realistically, I’ll appoint someone to figure out what to do about Syria once I’m in office (which will therefore probably be pretty much more of the same thing the last guy was doing, whether that was a good idea or not).

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        • the disinterest in the truth — a disinterest that seems to be shared by candidates and voters alike.

          I think that’s a good point. I mean, it’s sorta trivially obvious on the one hand, but also like a really good, and even explanatory (to some extent) account of conservative politics on the other.

          I think Colbert was right that at this moment in time, reality has a liberal bias. And that’s because reality is complex and currently conservatives seem allergic to recognizing, admitting, and most importantly accepting that the world around them is a complicated place. That’s my two cents anyway.

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          • I think the problem is that there are no conservatives anymore (most have become Democrats). What you have are radicals and reactionaries and revolutionaries.

            Roll back government 150 years isn’t ‘conservative’. Randomly threatening war with everyone isn’t ‘conservative’. There’s no sense of caution, of not fixing what ain’t broke, of keeping the best of what works.

            There’s a screaming desperation to upset the status quo, to return not to a state of 10 or 20 or even 40 years ago — but a century or more back.

            Giant, huge, leaping change. That’s not conservative in any sense.

            They don’t have plans because what you have is more akin to revolution. Come the day of Victory, my brothers, all things shall improve! Details are for later. There’s a bright and glorious new world in the offing, grasp it and jump!

            They’ll work out the details after they’ve hung all the traitors, purged the filth, and completed the revolution.

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        • Ted Cruz threw out some whoppers that the Fox Business folks should have been able to call out pretty easily. The Fed raised rates after the 2008 crisis hit? There were no booms or busts when we were on the gold standard? I felt like I was taking crazy pills.

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        • It’s hard for me to believe that all of these accomplished people are choosing to run through a crappy primary to get a crappy job and yet don’t have an interest in governance. Whether you like them or not, I think it’s pretty clear that Clinton, Obama, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, etc. are (a) either interested in policy generally or at least in a specific policy focus and (b) still say a lot of dumb stuff to get votes. It’s just the way that campaigns are run now are all about being being risk averse. So the point of the campaign is not to go talk to people, discuss your views, and reach some greater truth & understanding. It’s to focus group a stump speech and then insert it into as many media ears as possible. And everybody rewards this attitude. The media rewards it by focusing on goofs and savviness: I’ve read multiple journalists saying that Rubio’s greatest skill is that he knows how to answer questions with pre-written parts of his stump – and then those same journalists crown him the debate champion. The candidates reward it by focusing their attacks on stylistic differences where they’re much less likely to goof up or lose voters who decide they actually *do* like the other guy’s plan. And the voters reward it because they see that everyone else does. At this point, it’s irresponsible for a candidate to run as a wonk when the system is clearly not geared for that.

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  7. One pretty awesome example of Tod’s point about the neutral moderators: During the debate Carson had a typically meandering answer on the middle east where he claimed that China is involved in Syria and that we should re-invade Iraq. People thought it was pretty weird. Today, his business manager doubled down and said that Carson has some secret intelligence that shows China is involved. I think it’s going to sink him, or at least open him to more attacks from the right-wing media. And it’s something that was really only possible because the moderator asked an extremely simple and dispassionate question.

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