By Marc Jampole
CNN structured the second Republican debate to maximize the amount of time the candidates spent sparring with their opponents, as opposed to stating their position on issues. The moderators were looking for zingers that could serve as sound bites and for contentiousness that could animate headlines. They seemed to care more about churning personal disagreements among the candidates than guiding the candidates to explicate their positions.
The CNN strategy relied solely on one rhetorical device: the phrasing of questions. Many if not most of the questions asked candidate A what he or she thought of comments that candidate B had made in the past either about candidate A’s position, experience or character/personality, or sometimes about an issue. Thus every answer started with a defense that almost by definition required the candidate to go after one of the other candidates. This form of questioning tended to fragment the debate. It also enabled Donald Trump to get the most face time, since he has uttered the highest number and the most obnoxious statements about other candidates. The moderators made sure to stoke a number of personal feuds, just as they might do if they were writing—excuse me, scripting—a reality show. Instead of seeing the Kardashian or Braxton sisters bickering, we saw Donald and Carly, Donald and Jeb, Chris and Dr. Ben, Donald and Rand, Donald and Chris, Carly and Scott, Johnny-boy and Ted and various other combinations go at it.
Thus the debate between 11 contenders devolved into a series of often petty duets, or pas de deux. These various twosomes hid the fact that the candidates agreed on almost everything; see yesterday’s OpEdge blog entry for details.
The Donald and Jeb songs were particularly amusing, as they insisted on talking over and interrupting each other. For the most part, both these candidates were polite to everyone else, but when they became involved together in one of the endless twosomes CNN set up, they were like two dogs with a bone, except the bone was the sound system. Except for the “he-said-he-said” squabble about building a gambling casino in Florida, both remained true to form as they spoke at the same time: Jeb stuck mostly to his version of the facts, whereas Trump made outrageous or unsubstantiated statements and hurled insults.
Perhaps the best line of the day came from Scott Walker, who as part of his answer to whether he would feel safe with Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear button, said “Just because he said it, doesn’t make it true.” Unfortunately for the country, Walker’s comment could have applied to any of the candidates, since all told at least one fib.
Some would say that lying is part of the job description for any politician, but some of the whoppers were also hilarious, if absurd.
For example, Fiorina said she would not talk to Putin. Hey Carly, you can’t freeze out a foreign leader like he’s a husband who forgot to take out the garbage.
Ben Carson said that the progressive income tax is socialism, even though socialism is typically defined as an economic system in which the government is the primary or sole employer.
Trump looked like a clown when he said he strengthened the four companies he took into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He forgot to mention that the shareholders and bondholders got screwed because they lost all or part of their investment in the bankruptcies.
Ted Cruz’s zealous attack on Planned Parenthood and the Iran nuclear deal resembled a spoiled and self-centered child in an Our Gang short. If a known comedian had said exactly the same words with the same sky-is-falling tone in a skit, most people would convulse with laughter. But spoken by a serious candidate with tens of millions of dollars in backing, Cruz’s temper tantrum was scary. His peak of stupidity came when he stridently asserted that the Iran nuclear deal would accelerate the time it would take to build a viable nuclear weapon. Cruz’s math skills are so low that he thinks 15+ years is a shorter length of time than 18 months.
Jeb compared himself to a battery brand when asked what his Secret Service code name might be. Trump thought it was such a great line, he tried to high-five Bush, a moment that revealed that on a certain level, Trump considers the debates to be more entertainment than civic affairs.
More revealing of Trump’s mentality was his contention that he could negotiate better deals for the United States than Barack Obama, and by implication both Bushes and Clinton, too. But his assertion that he is the superior negotiator revealed an almost fascist mentality: He assumes that he, Putin, Xi and other world leaders have 100% control of the countries they rule and are free to do whatever they want with their respective country’s assets. He’d negotiate like a chief executive officer in the commercial real estate industry, not like a president.
So much of the stupidity expressed by the Republicans had to do with foreign affairs. Jeb tried to convince us that the Iraq War was won and that country was well under control until Obama pulled out the troops, creating a vacuum for ISIS. It’s a rewriting of history that ignores the thousands of killed and injured Americans, the hundreds of thousands of killed, injured and displaced Iraqis, the trillions of dollars wasted, the decline in America’s stature in the eyes of other nations and the destruction of a natural counterweight to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Whenever a country cobbled together from disparate parts loses its strongman, years of civil war always ensue. Don’t blame Obama for extracting us from the process that we single-handedly created by toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Was Chris Christie being stupid or merely rewriting history when he defended President Bush II’s action after the 9/11 attacks? Bush never caught Osama bin Laden, Obama did. Bush linked Saddam to 9/11, which was wrong, and most certainly a lie. Bush’s Afghanistan expeditions got nowhere. Has Christie forgotten about the torture gulag Bush built?
I’m beginning to think that the candidates had a side bet as to who would make the stupidest statement. My money would always be on Cruz, but really, there were many contenders. It seems, however, as if Donald Trump was lying in the weeds until well into the last third of the debate to drop the ultimate stupid bomb, which was also assuredly a lie. I’m referring to Trump’s statement after moderator Jake Tapper brought up that Trump believes that vaccinations cause autism and Ben Carson, the physician who doesn’t believe in evolution, explained that there is absolutely no link between autism and vaccination. Carson continued with a great explanation of the benefits of vaccination. It was the first time I have ever seen the good doctor express a point using facts.
Trump’s answer: “I am totally in favor of vaccines. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time.” As if Trump has any standing to voice an opinion on a technical matter. We’re not talking about whether or not we build an airplane, but how the exhaust system should be designed. The ultimate in stupid is overruling trained experts on technical matters.
Trump went on to say that he knew a healthy baby who was vaccinated and soon after was diagnosed with autism. It must be a lie, and we know it’s a lie. Polls and voters punished Michele Bachmann for telling the same fib in 2012. But it might just roll off Trump’s back, like rain off a duck’s feathers. Because after all, it did make for a very entertaining moment.