I have a confession to make. I am a political junkie of the first order. There was no way I would have missed the first of many Republican debates, if I can use that term.
Dictionary.com defines debate as "a discussion, as of a public question in an assembly, involving opposing viewpoints"; or, "a formal contest in which the affirmative and negative sides of a proposition are advocated by opposing speakers." Merriam-Webster.com defines a debate as "a discussion between people in which they express different opinions about something", and more specifically as "a regulated discussion of a proposition between two matched sides." The program that aired fit none of these definitions.
Political pundits were generally agreed that the venue did not work. The orchestration was too busy, the choreography too crowded. The problem revolved around one unavoidable issue, the number of sides. Per the above definitions, a debate should have two.
Two debates occurred that evening, neither of which had two sides. It could be fairly argued that there were 10, or 7 or 17 sides or, simply, too many. It could be argued equally effectively that there was only one. Well, accounting for the Donald, maybe there were two.
Anyway, it was an interesting first look at all of the candidates. For those of you who missed it, there will be many more opportunities. However, for those of you who watched only the main event, and missed the under-card, you missed one very successful effort. Most talking heads gave Carly Fiorina very high marks. So did I. Fundamentally, she needed to gain exposure more than any of the other candidates. In her words, she was the least well-known, having never run for elected office and not being a celebrity. She was wildly successful.
The following are general observations of the debate participants. Overall, just as all politicians in today’s environment, most skirted direct answers and either stretched the truth or simply misstated facts or figures. To be generous, many answers, while true, were misleading.
In the main event, for which participants were selected and placed on the stage based on their poll standing, ten Presidential wannabees took part. However, I suspect one is running not so much to be President as to improve his brand.
Reality TV star Donald Trump – Nothing new. He was loud, direct and freely used disparaging ad hominem comments. Most felt he came away neither gaining nor losing ground. As expected, he offered no policy specifics and artfully refused to directly answer any question put to him other than saying he could not commit to supporting the eventual nominee unless that was Mr. Trump himself.
Former FL Gov. Jeb Bush – Started slow and finished strong. My wife, an ardent Democrat, felt he looked very Presidential. I agree. I think his absence from politics showed in the early going. He is generally credited with a successful evening.
WI Gov. Scott Walker – Of the front-runners, he was the most disappointing. He did little to differentiate himself from the rest of the crowd. He did not commit any specific gaffes, but, in a crowded field, that alone will not be sufficient.
Former AR Gov. Mike Huckabee – He performed as expected. He used humor well and was generally direct in his answers. And, while I don’t support the Fair Tax, his very brief discussion of it was the only real time that tax policy made its way into the discussion. I wish we had had more. He likely made a strong appeal to faith-based conservatives.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson – Like Ms. Fiorina, he had the most to gain from this debate. Less well known than almost all of his opponents, he is generally viewed as lacking the knowledge and experience to serve as President. He did nothing to fully dispel that concern, but he did come off as thoughtful and intelligent. Further, he may have been the most personable during the debate.
TX Sen. Ted Cruz – He clearly staked out his claim to the conservative high ground. There can be little doubt that his answers were consistent with his conservative philosophy. He was one of the winners as he effectively separated himself from those who also seek the conservative vote from party faithful.
FL Sen. Marco Rubio – The Senator seems to get mixed reviews. Some give him the nod overall while others claim he lost ground. I thought he performed very well. His moment came when he said, “Who is Hillary Clinton to lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck…” And he looked Presidential although young.
KY Sen. Rand Paul – Senator Paul was perhaps the feistiest participant. Of the few actual debate moments (opposing points of view offered on one issue) he was involved in two. He closed, by honestly and correctly pointing out, that he is a different kind of Republican.
NJ Gov. Chris Christie – The often embattled NJ Governor came away with a solid performance. Generally, he gave as good as he got, promoting his executive experience and someone who has prosecuted terrorists.
OH Gov. John Kasich – The home town boy, Gov. Kasich got off to a good start early in the week by welcoming “my fellow debate participants” to Ohio. He likely lost some favor with primary voters with his stance on Medicaid expansion and gay marriage. Grades were mixed.
The “other” debate, called the “under-card”, the “happy hour”, the “junior varsity” or even the “kid’s table”, included seven participants. Among them was the star of the entire evening. Hindsight suggests the Republicans should have had Ms. Fiorina on the top card.
Former TX Gov. Rick Perry – Like Bush, Gov. Perry got off to a slow start. Although he recovered, his answers were generally overshadowed by the more conservative participants, and by the looming presence of Trump.
Former PA Sen. Rick Santorum – Santorum also worked hard to establish himself as the best choice for social conservatives. He went so far as to argue that SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage is not “settled law.”
LA Gov. Bobby Jindal – The first Indian American to be elected governor in the U.S., the Gov. suffered from on-air comments that polling shows he would lose his home state to Ms. Clinton in the general election. Like several of the republican candidates, Gov. Jindal is the son of relatively recent immigrants. And, unlike many of his opponents, his view on immigration is focused on “after.” He said, “Immigration without assimilation is an invasion.”
Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina – She won on so many fronts. She was the most poised, and offered the clearest answers. She had “it.” If I were among the chosen 10, I might be looking over my shoulder this morning. Most importantly, she gained significant recognition, both of her name and her stature.
SC Sen. Lindsey Graham – Offered little to move him up in the standing. He is, and based on his performance, likely will remain an also-ran.
Former NY Gov. George Pataki – The former governor of New York, who held that position on 9 11, worked to restate and reassert his political leadership. It did not resonate.
Former VA Gov. Jim Gilmore – The once Governor of VA was almost an afterthought. His one attempt to magnify his experience was to state that he sat on a committee that provided early warning for the September 11 attacks.
Much has been made of the race thus far regarding Trump’s outspoken language. He himself stylizes his rhetoric as 'saying it like it is.' During the debate, he said the problem in America is too much political correctness. He said he does not have time for that, nor “time for tone.”
But his characterization of his comments is also misleading. He is simply a verbal bully and has been for most of his public life. More to the point, he is merely insulting. Some pundits, even some of his opponents, argue that he has “touched a chord” in American politics. They suggest he has tapped into a reservoir of discontent. I think it is something else.
Many decry the rudeness, the discourtesy that has permeated American culture, manifesting itself in our dialogue. Many also claim that the anonymity of the internet and social media have magnified this phenomena. I agree with both of those assertions. And, I believe what the Donald is tapping into is that coarseness.
Applying pejorative words to a class of people isn’t avoiding political correctness. It is just being obnoxious. There were two very good examples of avoiding political correctness last night. Gov. Huckabee described the need for the military saying “the military is not a social experiment...The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things.” Today, one can’t get less politically correct than to say “kill people.” But he was spot on!
A second example was offered by Dr. Ben Carson when asked why he didn’t talk about race. In today’s politically correct, politically spun world view, he would have said something like “I do talk about race but my remarks aren’t often reported.” Or some such blather. What he did say was, “I[m] actually operate[ing] on the thing that makes them who they are. The skin doesn’t make them who they are… and it is time for to us move beyond that…” Talk about politically incorrect.
There are those who would have America believe race, particularly skin color, is the only thing that matters. He likely offended many on the left when he also said, “…purveyors of hatred, who take every single incident between people of two races and try to make a race war out of it…and we shouldn’t let them do it.”
We should be clear, calling a woman a ‘fat pig’, or a ‘dog’ or a ‘disgusting animal’—or saying to a woman ‘it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees’—calling those with different views "stupid"—has nothing to do with political correctness or the lack of. It has everything to do with the identification of a rude narcissist who only cares about himself.
In summary, one only has to Google the name of every participant to find one or more writers asserting that this or that candidate “won.” Conversely, it is equally easy to find a like number of critics who argue the opposite, that the person in question lost. Regardless, I agree with Julian Zelizer who wrote, “Who was the biggest loser? American democracy. This is no way to pick who will run for president. Democracy deserves a more serious conversation.”
I’ll drink to that!