The second major Republican presidential primary debate took place this past week at the Reagan Library in California. After watching the lengthy event and reading just a small amount of the succeeding commentary and analysis, I’d like to share some thoughts about the debate in general and about quite a few of the individual candidates. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by now, but my take on some things was quite different from what I’ve read in various articles the last couple of days. Perhaps I really am in a world of my own, but here are some views from that out-of-step planet.
I understand that it must be very difficult to try to manage a debate such as this, with many participants, high stakes, and lots of attention. Still, some things about the way the event was conducted seemed rather problematic. The allocation of time and questions among the candidates did not seem very fair. It may make sense for the most prominent contenders to have more time than others, but the difference should not have been so vast, with some candidates barely getting a chance to speak. This problem was exacerbated by the extended back and forth exchanges between sets of candidates that were requested by the moderator and by the lack of control the moderator seemed to have over the proceedings. I would think that, in general, one rebuttal and one response per question would be more reasonable in a setting like this, and I did not think that so many interruptions should have been allowed. Perhaps those hosting future debates will have to resort to muting people’s microphones if they persist in talking out of turn or speaking far longer than the allotted time.
Probably even more importantly, though, I thought that issues should have been brought up in a more straightforward way, with candidates having the chance to express their own opinions. Instead, far too often, one candidate was asked either to give an opinion about what the questioner stated to be the position of one of the others, or to react to an opponent’s comments about him or her. Also, in posing these questions and in following up on candidates’ responses, the moderators seemed to feel the need to summarize and interpret for us what the candidates had said, either during the debate we were actually watching or in previous interviews, statements, etc., and I took issue with this for two reasons. First, it did not seem that the third-party portrayals of the candidates’ views and intentions were always correct. Second, this technique seemed to be used more than once in an attempt to bring about more on-stage confrontations when some candidates had tried to be somewhat measured and indirect in speaking about their rivals, and this really seemed unnecessary. (Paraphrased example: Q: Do you think Candidate X is unqualified to be president because of a lack of foreign policy knowledge? A: Well, you should ask Candidate X questions about foreign policy so that the voters can make an informed choice, as it is extremely important a president be prepared in this area. Q: So, Candidate X, Senator Y seems to be saying you don’t have the necessary knowledge to be president. How do you respond?)
Having said all of these things about those conducting the debate, there certainly was plenty of food for thought in what actually happened on the stage over those several hours Wednesday. So, I’ll move on to discussing some impressions related to the candidates themselves.
The Early Debate
The afternoon debate, seemed a bit more organized and balanced, as the four candidates had more of a chance to speak and also seemed more respectful of the parameters, such as time limits. I think many of the things discussed during this session relate to important themes or trends affecting the race as a whole.
I have always been fond of Rick Santorum, and I appreciate the fact that, as he pointed out, he was involved in efforts to actually accomplish things such as welfare reform, confirmation of conservative judges, and passing pro-life legislation during his time in the Senate. As he also mentioned, he differs from many others in the race regarding immigration, favoring more restrictions and opposing amnesty, positions that he says are taken with the intention of protecting American workers. A couple of Santorum’s other points related to this theme, such as support for an increase in the federal minimum wage and his assertion that the Republicans have focussed too much on businesses and business owners, are not personal favorites of mine. However, since many say that populism is one of the things driving the polling success of non-traditional candidates such as Donald Trump, one might think that Santorum’s concern for workers along with his immigration stance would benefit him in the current electoral climate, but he has so far been getting far less support in the polls than in his previous campaign -- is the fact that he actually has government experience just an automatic disqualifier for many voters right now?
As I’ve said before, I think that Bobby Jindal deserves more consideration in the race than he seems to be getting, and I liked much of what he said on Wednesday. He defended his comments about Donald Trump not being a serious candidate and articulated criticisms of Democrats in interesting ways (such as pointing out that Barack Obama’s wants to have a war against trans-fats but make a deal with Iran). In addition, Governor Jindal expressed frustrations conservatives have had with things on the Republican side, including judges who “evolve” and make liberal rulings and members of Congress who, even in the majority, seem unwilling to even fight for stated goals. Senator Lindsay Graham, on the other hand, said that many of the things Republicans wish to accomplish cannot be done without also winning the presidency. I think these contrasting attitudes merit some more thought and discussion among Republicans and conservatives, as we do need to avoid unrealistic expectations about what can actually be accomplished under certain circumstances while still striving to make our case to the people, bring about positive changes, and stop negative ones.
Governor Walker did not get that many chances to speak, but I felt that he made full use of the opportunities he did have to make his points and bring up proposals that he has made. I had read that the governor intended to take a “more aggressive” approach in this debate, and I was somewhat worried about what that might mean, but there was no uncharacteristic rude or obnoxious behavior. He just seemed to be trying to get his share of time and to set the record straight. When Donald Trump was criticizing Scott Walker’s record, I especially liked Walker’s response that, “Just because he [Trump] says it, that doesn’t make it true.” Hopefully, people will finally realize that (but I’m not holding my breath.) Governor Walker’s remark that we don’t need another “apprentice” in the White House, made in reference to Trump, was another good line. All in all, I thought this was a much improved performance and a pretty good night for Governor Walker, but I don’t know if it will help him at all in the polls, especially since many seem to disagree with me. Also, although it has been suggested that Walker needs to change to stand out in these debates, it is my opinion that sticking to being the nice guy, can-do Republican would work better for him.
Here again, I was glad that a more forceful approach to the debate did not manifest itself in any drastic ways. Governor Bush did seem more energetic and had some good comebacks to Donald Trump without stooping to a low level, but I remain concerned about the impact this debate might have on his campaign, as he still seemed somewhat tentative in making the case for his candidacy. Of course, that may be somewhat understandable, since he seemed to have to spend most of his time fending off a lot of negative charges thrown his way -- many of them in questions about criticisms made by Donald Trump, who was standing right next to him. I think that Gov. Bush may have been a little unsure what to do when Trump would just make statements or denials that Gov. Bush believed to be plainly untrue.
In relation to some particular exchanges from the debate that perhaps might be problematic for Mr. Bush, I’d make a few suggestions. I would advise him to prepare a solid explanation about the women’s health care comment that supposedly was just so horrible, as it’s pretty ridiculous to hear Donald Trump gleefully harping about it while declaring that he, unlike Bush, respects women!
In an exchange about the nomination of Supreme Court justices, in which Governor Bush’s main point was the good one that presidents should nominate people with proven records of following the Constitution, he also made the statement that John Roberts has done a good job. I think that he may have been thrown off by the way his interaction with Ted Cruz went, but, since he has said he disagrees with the Obamacare decisions, I think that he needed to qualify the compliment to point out that those rulings were incorrect. (I will note that Senators Graham and Santorum did make some positive statements about Justice Roberts earlier in the evening, as well, so perhaps Gov. Bush’s comment won’t be as huge of a problem for him as I thought at first, before I had a chance to watch the afternoon debate.)
Finally, it seems to me that Jeb Bush does not need to be so afraid of being associated with his brother (or his father, for that matter.) After listening for a while to Donald Trump once again bashing President George W. Bush’s administration and blaming him for Obama’s rise, poor Jeb Bush seemed almost like someone forced to do something that might have dire consequences when he finally asserted to Trump that his brother had kept us safe during his presidency. I was glad to hear him say it, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one, but I wonder if Jeb Bush half expected the floor to open up and send him plummeting far away from the debate stage and any political future. Saying something positive about the last President Bush is not an extreme or outrageous act, and I think that his brother will be able to more freely pursue his campaign if he can accept that. Perhaps the fact that Governor Walker responded to Trump’s retort that he doesn’t really feel safe by chiming in to say that that is because of Barack Obama, not George W. Bush, will help in that regard.
I thought that Senator Rubio generally presented himself well and gave many good answers last Wednesday, but I did think there were a few things that made this debate a bit less successful for him than the first one. Later in the evening, he seemed to be a little less smooth when delivering some responses. Also, towards the end of the debate, I found myself thinking that he’d seemed pretty stern and serious much of the night, which is understandable, considering the gravity of the issues being discussed. However, the Senator has expressed the intention to present an optimistic view in his campaign, and I think that that positivity, along with the good humor and winning smile he possesses, is an important part of his potential appeal to voters.
For me, there was one especially weak spot for Marco Rubio during the debate. Donald Trump took a shot at Rubio’s Senate record, and I’m afraid that I didn’t think the Senator’s response was strong. He seemed a little flustered to me, and I actually wasn’t really sure what reasons he was trying to articulate for having missed Senate votes, but I thought that he might be saying that he’d realized that Congress wasn’t really going to be able to accomplish what is necessary to help people, so he was leaving to run for president instead. Based on an e-mail I received from his campaign the next day (in which they actually cited this part of the debate as one of their favorite moments, confirming, I suppose, how out of step I must be,) I guess that I did have the general idea correct, but I think that it is really quite sad. Here we have a talented, conservative young member of the Senate apparently giving up on the institution after less than one term -- if he doesn’t think it’s even worth trying to improve the way things work in Congress, who will? Besides, in any case, being a Senator is still his job right now, so I’m not sure how much of a justification his upcoming departure over a year from now provides for any lack of commitment to current job obligations. He very well may have an explanation that, expressed more clearly, would defuse the issue, and, if so, I hope that he’ll provide it the next time he’s asked.
Those things being said, I do like Senator Rubio and think that he is a very strong candidate for the nomination. Since a top-notch performance in the first debate didn’t seem to help him in the polls, I hope that this somewhat less successful one will not hurt him.
As I expected, Senator Cruz gave some strong answers during the debate -- when he was given a chance to speak, which did not seem to be all that often. I’m not sure why, but I was a little surprised that he didn’t add his comments on a couple of extra occasions once it became clear that some candidates were being allowed to force their way into the conversation. Of course, when he tried to ask for the opportunity to weigh in as a climate change skeptic, he was dismissed by the moderator, so maybe he should have just started talking instead of trying to be acknowledged.
I did have a bit of a problem with the way Senator Cruz handled his exchange with Jeb Bush about Supreme Court nominees. I think it’s great that Cruz intends to nominate the people he believes to be the best and most reliable choices and to fight to get them confirmed. When it came to discussing John Roberts, though, I thought that Senator Cruz should have acknowledged from the beginning, once Jeb Bush mentioned it the first time, that he had supported Roberts after he was nominated, even though he now feels it was a mistake. Waiting until Governor Bush had repeated the point might have made the exchange less than helpful for both of them -- Cruz might be seen to have been less than straightforward in his comments about the issue, and, until the end, people might have been wondering whether Bush was not telling the truth about Cruz.
It’s a small observation, but Senator Cruz seemed to often have a very formal way of presenting his answers, delivering them as mini speeches directly to the close-up camera. I wonder if that manner of speaking might not particularly connect with TV viewers, but I think people should pay much more attention to substance than to matters of style, as Ted Cruz is another very capable presidential candidate.
Dr. Carson still seems like a very nice guy, but he did not help himself with me in this debate -- quite the opposite, actually. I’ve said before that I don’t think a candidate without previous experience in office should get the nomination, but I now also have serious questions about the types of policies Dr. Carson might adopt. I was especially concerned to hear that he did not even think that we should have gone after the terrorists in Afghanistan after 9/11 and that he thought we could have achieved what we wanted through some intellectual plan. Also, even though he had very recently outlined a sort of “path to legal status for those people already here once the border is secure” type of immigration plan in an interview, when he was asked in the debate about Donald Trump’s expressed deportation approach, he just said he’d be willing to listen to different alternatives. Has he not yet decided what he thinks would be the best approach, even with the prominence of the issue in this campaign? Dr. Carson also seemed quite eager to point out that he, like Donald Trump, had opposed the Iraq war, and he also was on the same page with Trump’s comments about “special interest” contributions. He may sincerely hold these latter views and still be open to persuasion about the best way to handle immigration, but it almost seemed like he might have been specifically trying to identify himself with Trump and/or his type of candidacy, possibly in the hopes of winning over some of Trump’s supporters. Even if this was not his intention, let’s just say that demonstrating agreement with Donald Trump on more issues is not going to move someone up on my list of preferred candidates.
Once again, Mr. Trump spent much of his time insulting his opponents and making goofy faces, which some people may still find entertaining, but I think is quite tiresome. During one of his first chances to answer a question, what was the point of gratuitously attacking Rand Paul for just being there, when he didn’t even have anything to do with the topic? Mr. Trump did seem to at least attempt to answer more questions this time, so, who knows, he might have actually come across Wednesday more as a rather unprepared and rude political candidate than as some random guy who crashed the debate.
While Donald Trump has criticized other people for speaking Spanish during their campaigns, I think it’s interesting to note that others basically had to translate some of Trump’s points (attempted in English) during the debate. Specifically, Senator Paul had to be the one to articulate why some scholars would believe that “birthright citizenship” for children of people not here legally has not been definitively ruled to be required by the 14th Amendment, and the moderator had to point out that, when Trump had said that Marco Rubio had the worst voting record in the Senate, he was referring to the Senator being absent during votes.
I’ve read some debate commentary expressing the opinion that Donald Trump’s remarks about vaccines could be particularly harmful to him, but I’m not so sure. Dr. Carson had stated that no link has been demonstrated between vaccines and autism, and I would agree that it seemed rather awkward to hear Mr. Trump follow that immediately with an anecdote suggesting that a child he knew had become autistic after receiving a vaccine. If the discussion of the issue had ended there, I’d say that more people might see it as putting Mr. Trump in a bad light. However, afterward, both Dr. Carson and Senator Paul (also a doctor) essentially said that what Trump actually suggested should be done -- administering vaccines in smaller amounts at a time -- was a good idea! So, I can see people, particularly those who already support him, responding to the exchange, “See, Trump was right again!”
I have no idea if anything that happened on Wednesday will affect Donald Trump’s standing in the race at all, as those who support him seem committed to doing so no matter what. The way things have been going, since this debate performance might have been a little less terrible than the first one, he may even increase his lead.
Plenty has been said about Carly Fiorina since Wednesday’s debate, so I’ll just make a couple of comments. Ms. Fiorina definitely presented herself confidently and seemed to hold her own in exchanges with Donald Trump. Her willingness to go into detail about the sorts of things revealed in the Planned Parenthood videos was noteworthy and welcome. How can Democrats insist on funding an organization capable of such gruesome actions?
I must say, though, that by the end of the debate, I was a little perturbed by Ms. Fiorina’s behavior, as she repeatedly forced her way into the conversation when she hadn’t been addressed and continued speaking well past the allotted response times. A little of this might be acceptable, and I understand that she was doing what she could to get her views heard by the public. However, other candidates deserved the chance to speak, too, and I felt she overdid it.
In addition, now that Ms. Fiorina is getting more attention in the race and rising in the polls, I would like to hear more specifics about the policies and actions she would intend to pursue should she be elected.
This is probably a backhanded compliment, but I’ve found listening to what Governor Christie had to say in both debates much less annoying than I might have expected based on what little I’d heard about him before. Perhaps the presence of certain other personalities in the race has made him seem more reasonable in comparison.
The CNN Republican debate gave us the chance to hear and compare many of the candidates once again, but they did not all have equal opportunities to share their views. It will be interesting to see how polling and media coverage develop in the coming weeks. Hopefully, through other debates, interviews, speeches, and other means, the voting public will be able to get a more comprehensive understanding of the qualifications, proposals, strengths, and weaknesses of all of the candidates and make the best possible decision about the person who should ultimately win the nomination. It seems the current wave of public sentiment is against me, but I am still hoping a solid and experienced member of the field will eventually be able to rise to the top.