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GOP candidates mostly debate moderators, not opponents’ policies

This isn’t how it would work in the imagined society of substance-oriented citizens, but we get what we got.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson during Wednesday night's debate on CNBC.
REUTERS/Rick Wilking

So I watched the Republican debate Wednesday night and this here is my half-observed, half-imagined report.

I’m imagining a society of substance-oriented citizens who have organized themselves into a democracy for the purpose of what we, in this world, sometimes call self-government.

So that requires elections, which (if we’re really going to call it self-government) requires those seeking top leadership positions to go on TV and describe the ideas and policies that they would pursue if they were elected to the highest office.

(In the imaginary best-case, this probably wouldn’t involve television, which is full of stupid visual distractions. Ideally, it would all be done in writing, but then that requires reading and also deprives us of the pleasure of psychoanalyzing the candidates and deciding how much we would like to be friends with them based on their body language and facial expressions.)

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So OK, we can work with television. For purposes of my daydream, even though it was on television and even though the World Series was on another channel (not to mention old movies and porn and perpetual reruns of “Cheers” and “Friends” and etc.), the denizens of my democracy would sit and watch and listen and learn and evaluate and, at the end, realize that they needed to study up on how Social Security and Medicare and government revenue and spending really work before they could make up their minds whose ideas and policies made the most sense.

OK, enough with my imaginary exercise. What we get is what we got. And it was a not-so-very-illuminating two hours. (Donald Trump, by the way, claims to have negotiated it down from three, and said so on the air. Seriously. And I think he might be right, although the chief moderator, John Harwood of CNBC, said it was always going to be two hours.)

At the moment, I’m not inclined to blame the wasted opportunity on the candidates. They came. They talked about their positions, although how well could we really expect the positions to be litigated within the time limits imposed — yes, by the organizers — based on the understanding of the average attention span of the audience? And the candidates constantly talked beyond the time allowed, even though the audience could hear the moderators trying to shut them up in the interest of time management. And, of course, they bickered with each other a tad, although nearly not as much as expected nor, it seems, as much as the moderators wanted.

Bar fight

So, yes, I think I’m going to go with the blame-theory offered by the candidates themselves, who complained early and often that the moderators were promoting a bar fight, while the cowboys (and one cowgirl, Carly Fiorina) just wanted to have a friendly exchange of tax plans.

And every time the combatants complained about the questions, the studio audience erupted into applause, which must surely have dampened the determination of the interrogators. And then there were at least five or six occasions when the questionee rejected the factual basis of the question and — pending the findings of high-priced fact-checkers at the big media organizations — this seemed to have an intimidating effect on the questioners.

The ideological/partisan take on that bad dynamic, delivered from the stage most vociferously by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, is that those asking the questions, being members of the media, were biased, hostile and unfair because the questionees were Republicans. I’m not buying that one, pending further review. I think the CNBC panelists were trying to be tough but fair but mostly tough. Still, the questioners’ pose of objectivity did seem to have let them down on several occasions and the audience turned into something of a lynch mob after a while.

The most amazing example was Harwood’s first question for Trump, which (I am not making this up) went thus:

Harwood: Mr. Trump, you’ve done very well in this campaign so far by promising to build a wall and make another country pay for it. Send 11 million people out of the country. Cut taxes $10 trillion without increasing the deficit. And make Americans better off because your greatness would replace the stupidity and incompetence of others.

Trump: That’s right.

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Hardwood: Let’s be honest. Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?

Trump pointed out that the question was rude but, defying all reasonable expectations, was polite all evening.

My own expectation, at which I hinted Wednesday, was that the debate would be largely about the new pecking order in recent polls, which indicated that since Dr. Ben Carson had pulled ahead of Trump in the most recent polls, they would have to deal with one another in some way that would sort out exactly who was the frontrunner. Pretty much nothing like that happened.

When asked about them, Carson discussed some of his fairly radical views, such as going to a flat 10-percent tax on all income to replace the graduated income tax. He said this would, by some magic, replace all of the revenue produced by the current system. He denied that he was proposing 10 percent as the single tax rate, saying it would be more like 15. (He originally said it would be 10 percent, and in between he said that it would probably have to start out at 15 but then could be reduced to 10.)

Carson also previously suggested that Medicare and Medicaid should be replaced by a voucher system, but Carson now says his idea would not lead to the abolition of Medicare, merely to the creation of a new family-based voucher-ish option that most people would end up preferring and which would cost much less.

Carson was not asked about some of his other notable views, such as his belief that biblical story of the creation of the earth in six days by God is literally true.

But my main point here is that Trump, who insulted Carson’s religion a few days ago, did nothing to criticize his co-frontrunner. Carson was given nothing like frontrunner treatment and was less noticeable than several of his rivals. He observed the time limits and never interrupted to steal extra attention or kept talking after the moderators called time, as most of the others did. As a result, Carson got less airtime than most of the others.

Bush and Rubio

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush did try to go after his former protégé, Sen. Marco Rubio, for neglecting his Senate duties in order to run for president, but Bush makes a poor attack dog and the drama fizzled. The general consensus seemed to be that Rubio had a good night and Bush a bad one. Personally, I agree, but I suppose if the next round of polling doesn’t confirm that, the conventional wisdom will change.

Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich has recently been criticizing the two frontrunners in blunt terms. Harwood did invite Kasich to repeat those criticisms. Kasich, without mentioning any names, referred to some of the proposals of his rivals as “fantasy — like getting rid of Medicare and Medicaid.” But then he trailed off and never really went on the attack.

Cruz created the most dramatic moment of the night when he decided to confront the moderators with what he alleged were (and I am in no way disagreeing with this assessment) a series of hostile questions (although I am much more skeptical of Cruz’s other assertion that the questions were motivated by liberal bias). Here is what Cruz said (and he delivered this with considerable aplomb):

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You know, let me say something at the outset. The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. This is not a cage match. Look at the questions: “Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain?” “Ben Carson, can you do math?” “John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?” “Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?” “Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?” How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?

The contrast with the Democratic debate, where every fawning question from the media was, “Which of you is more handsome and why?”

Here’s an annotated transcript of the debate from the Washington Post for those who truly don’t want to be distracted by the facial expressions.

I’m sure there are various assessment of who did well. Here’s the lede (first paragraph) from the New York Daily News story, filed immediately after the debate concluded:

Marco Rubio shined, John Kasich punched, Donald Trump bullied and Jeb Bush fizzled in a debate Wednesday where the Republican candidates spent more time beating up on the media than each other.