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GOP ‘debate’ sinks to mishmash and gibberish

We should stop calling these things “debates.” In a real debate, there is a proposition, and the arguments are pro and con, relative to the proposition.

Sen. Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and Ben Carson during Tuesday night's debate on the Fox Business Network.
REUTERS/Jim Young

First of all, we should stop calling these things “debates.”

In a real debate, there is a proposition, and the arguments are pro and con, relative to the proposition. If it’s a good debate, the longer it goes on, the more you learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the proposition and, at the end, you are in a better-informed position to decide how you feel about the proposition.

In deals like the eight-way would-be-Republican-presidential-nominee mishmash Tuesday night in Milwaukee (and on the Fox Business Network), there is no proposition. Most of what is adduced is neither fact nor argument but occasionally somewhere in-between, also occasionally gibberish.

Different contestants address different questions, at the whim of the moderators. There are no real winners or losers, except maybe a show of hands by a focus group in a back room and then what shows up in the polls a day or two later, which is far from scientific and may or not fluctuate based on anything that happened at the latest mishmash.

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There are also practically no rules, or at least none that are enforced. Each candidate is asked a reasonably specific question, and the questions last night were decent. (I agree with the general consensus that they were an improvement over the previous debate, when the CNBC moderators lost sight of their role.)

If the would-be presidents feel like it, they can spend their time on the assigned topic. If they feel they might gain more advantage talking about something else, that’s fine, or at least there are no consequences.

Keep on talkin’

Time limits on answers are announced, but not enforced. Well, eventually, if you talk long enough past your allotted time, a device will bleat at you to alert you to the fact that you’ve run over. But if you don’t feel like being done talking, you can keep talking. Then, if you don’t stop pretty soon, the device bleats again, amounting to a second suggestion that you shut up now. On several occasions, this led to the same failure to up-shut. If you are really clever, you figure a way to sound as if you just want to complete your last sentence, but when you have done so, if you are obnoxious enough, you start a new one.

The obvious solution to this is to cut off the transgressor’s mike. This was done in precisely zero cases. After a while, you start to look like a sap if you abide by the time limits. Unless you are Ben Carson, in which case it serves as just one more reminder of how polite and mild-mannered you are. I don’t have the actual numbers on this, but Carson undoubtedly got the least air-time Tuesday night. He used his time to make a joke about recent controversy over his autobiography and gave a shout-out to his granddaughter in the audience. The general post-debate impression was that he hadn’t done himself any harm and will likely continue to be one of the poll leaders.

‘Debaters’ on taxes and debt

OK, on to what was proffered by the “debaters.” Taxes are too high and should be dramatically lowered, as well as the tax code dramatically shortened — Carly Fiorina says to three-pages. The deficit and debt are too high and must be reduced. There is some tension between these first two assertions, but it was not explored too seriously (although Ohio Gov. John Kasich claims that his fiscal plan will lead to a balanced budget during his second term in the White House).

A lot of the candidates favor switching to flat (rather than graduated, progressive) income taxes. In general, the candidates oppose an increase in the minimum wage, believing that would cause jobs to disappear or not be created in the first place.

Donald Trump made a weird comment, perhaps a joke, in making a familiar argument (that he’s happy to have Russian President Vladimir Putin sending the Russian military into Syria). He said, as an aside about Putin, that “I got to know him very well because we were both on ‘60 Minutes,’ we were stable mates, and we did very well that night.”

Still, in general, the group generally did not seem as extreme or detached from reality as they have in earlier debates.

Trump’s big idea

There was a substantial back-and-forth among the candidates about the practicality, advisability and morality of Trump’s big idea of rounding up the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now living in the country.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush, for example, who opposes Trump’s idea, said: “Twelve million illegal immigrants, to send them back, 500,000 a month, is just not possible. And it’s not embracing American values. And it would tear communities apart. And it would send a signal that we’re not the kind of country that I know America is.”

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Those who defended the idea gave as good as they got. For example, Sen. Ted Cruz put it this way: “Every sovereign nation secures its borders, and it is not compassionate to say we’re not going to enforce the laws … .”

Ignoring facts

In some cases, if the candidates didn’t like the facts contained in the questions, they just ignored the facts or even stood them on their heads. For example, the first question to Fiorina went like this:

“Ms. Fiorina, while you’ve all pointed out how weak the current recovery has been and how disappointing by any historical standards, in the general election, the Democrats will inevitably ask you and voters to compare the recent presidents’ jobs performance. Now, in seven years under President Obama, the U.S. has added an average of 107,000 jobs a month. Under President Clinton, the economy added about 240,000 jobs a month. Under George W. Bush, it was only 13,000 a month. If you win the nomination, you’ll probably be facing a Democrat named Clinton. How are you going to respond to the claim that Democratic presidents are better at creating jobs than Republicans?”

As the italicized portion above makes clear, the question plainly stated statistics showing a better job creation by the U.S. economy under the two most recent Democratic presidents than under the most recent Republican presidents. But Fiorina replied:

“Yes, problems have gotten much worse under Democrats. But the truth is, this government has been growing bigger and bigger, more corrupt, less effective, crushing the engine of economic growth for a very long time. This isn’t about just replacing a Democrat with a Republican now. It’s about actually challenging the status quo of big government.”

Bush, by the way, was not as awful as in previous debates, but it was my impression (echoed by many of the pundits in the instant analysis) that he hadn’t done much to restore his damaged chances of getting the nomination.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has been moving up in the polls lately, mostly at Bush’s expense, has a gift for making the most of his moments in these debates, for example, gently mocking Trump but also sounding clear-eyed about the Russian president by saying:

“I’ve never met Vladimir Putin, but I know enough about him to know he is a gangster. He is basically an organized crime figure that runs a country, controls a $2 trillion economy. And is using it to build up his military in a rapid way despite the fact his economy is a disaster.”