A CNN poll taken after last week’s debate on CNN showed the three top spots held by candidates who have never held elective office: Donald Trump (24% ), Carly Fiorina (15%), and Ben Carson (14%). An NBC poll had similar results with Trump (29%) leading Carson (14%) and Fiorina (11%). Although that development may have come as a surprise to some, it was consistent with a Washington Post/ABC poll taken earlier this month that found 58 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of conservative Republicans want the next president to be an Outsider, “someone from outside the existing political establishment.” For our own part, we are hopeful that the romantic attraction with Outsiders will pass and that cooler heads will prevail. As a general proposition, we believe that a true conservative should regard significant experience in elective office as a qualification—and not a disqualification—for presidential candidates. More specifically, Ms Fiorina might make an effective candidate for Vice President but, in our view, does not belong at the head of the ticket. We are doubtful that Dr. Carson should have any place on the ticket and certain that Donald Trump does not.
In addition to the charm associated with being an Outsider, the poll results suggest that respondents were influenced by perceptions of how well the candidates appeared to perform in the cut and thrust of the debate. The NBC poll specifically asked who performed best at the debate and Fiorina led with 36%, followed by Trump at 21% and the other participants in single digits. That, in turn suggests that much of the public, like the media, judged the participants more on style than on substance.
Preoccupation with style may have been unavoidable in light of how the event was conducted. The remarkable length of the second debate, three hours, should have been sufficient for all or most major issues to be raised and explored in some depth. But that did not prove to be the case. Responsibility for the vacuity of the occasion must be be shared by all participants—not only the candidates but their interlocutors, whose primary interest often seemed to be in provoking verbal food fights. We were struck by the observation of John McLaughlin, who observed on the broadcast of “The McLaughlin Group” that the debate was designed to copy the format of the Bravo Television Networks, “Real Housewives”:
And Bravo, the “Real Housewives” series, one housewife confronts all those about something, another housewife is saying about them, usually behind their back…. The hit reality series has plenty of fireworks, and CNN deliberately copied Bravo “Real Housewives” formula. From the first question, CNN employed the Bravo technique by prefacing each question with a statement another candidate had made about the candidate being questioned.
While we admit to never having watched “Real Housewives,” we will take McLaughlin’s description of that show to be as accurate as it was for the CNN debate.
For their part, the candidates seemed largely satisfied to deal in dueling soundbites, but arguably their opportunities to go further were limited. In any case, major topics such as the refugee crisis in Europe, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, income inequality, tax reform, racial conflict in the United States and criminal justice reform all received little or no attention.
The candidates spent considerable time in attempting to outdo each other in pummeling Planned Parenthood and urging that it be defunded. As readers of this space know, we have a very different view, but we will not reprise that argument here. We will simply suggest that, as a practical political matter, the emphasis devoted to that subject is not likely to be rewarded in the general election. According to an August poll, taken after most of the controversial Planned Parenthood videos had been released, a substantial majority of the public favored continued funding of Planned Parenthood, and a more recent poll showed overwhelming opposition to a government shutdown in aid of defunding the organization.
Other subjects that received considerable attention included immigration, Syria and the war against ISIS. As to immigration, we were disappointed that even candidates who appeared to disagree with Trump’s proposal for mass deportations did not reject it in more forceful and unequivocal terms. With respect to Syria and ISIS, the candidates were predictably (and, in our view, justifiably) critical of Obama’s record, but were less specific as to what their own path forward would be. In the earlier debate of the day, Senator Graham called for the deployment of 10,000 ground troops in Iraq and the same number in Syria. Our reaction remains much as we put it in Blog No. 75 on August 8, “[W]e are sympathetic to Graham’s argument that it is necessary to deploy American troops to Iraq and Syria, but would not do so unless and until there is a carefully developed military strategy that is persuasive as to how many troops would be required and what they could reasonably be expected to accomplish.”
The candidates were unanimous in rejecting the proposed nuclear deal with Iran, but divided as to whether they would “tear it up on the first day.” As to that issue, we thought that Governor Kasich’s comments were the closest to being on target:
Well, let me just say this. First of all, I think it’s a bad agreement, I would never have done it. But, you know, a lot of our problems in the world today is that we don’t have the relationship with our allies. If we want to go everywhere alone, we will not have the strength as if we could rebuild with our allies.
Now, this agreement, we don’t know what’s going to happen in 18 months. I served on the Defense Committee for 18 years. I’ve seen lots of issues in foreign affairs, and foreign – in terms of global politics, you have to be steady.
Now, here’s the – if they cheat, we slap the sanctions back on. If they help Hamas, and Hezbollah, we slap the sanctions back on. And, if we find out that they may be developing a nuclear weapon, then the military option is on the table. We are stronger when we work with the Western civilization, our friends in Europe, and just doing it on our own I don’t think is the right policy.
Kasich might have sharpened his comments by pointing out that, if the United States abandoned the agreement at this late date, the rest of the countries in the P5+1 group (China, Russia, United Kingdom, France and Germany) who negotiated the agreement would be unlikely to reimpose sanctions, let alone strengthen them. And the diluted sanctions imposed unilaterally by the United States would be unlikely to deter Iran from anything.
Climate change was raised only toward the end of the debate and then with seeming reluctance by Moderator Jake Tappert who described it as a question prompted by social media. None of the candidates who responded, Rubio, Christie, and Walker denied the existence of climate change, but appeared to put aside the notion that it justified any action by the federal government. We thought that Tappert could have probed further and we believe that in future debates, and in the general election campaign Republicans will be pressed to come up with a more thoughtful response. We are open to the argument that the specific actions taken by the Obama Administration impose too great an economic cost for too little benefit, but that is a position that must be supported by detailed analysis. Moreover, even if it is sustained, it does not follow that the government should do nothing whatever to provide an “insurance policy” against climate change as recommended by George Schultz, one of the most distinguished public servants–and Republicans–of the last half century (See, A Reagan approach to climate change”)
With that background, we will offer some brief comments on the Outsiders but also on the experienced candidates for whom we remain most hopeful.
Donald Trump. From the outset, we have considered Trump to be unfit for the presidency by experience, intellect and temperament, and that view was only strengthened by the second debate. The fact that a significant fraction of Republican voters apparently disagree, we find as mystifying as it is depressing.
It is not surprising that columnist David Brooks would find Trump unattractive but his language (which we heartily endorse) was uncharacteristically biting:
Donald Trump has emerged as the prankster narcissus. It doesn’t matter that he might not be able to find Syria on a map; he offers America hair, boasting, misogyny and insult. There’s no woman who can’t be reduced to a physical object. The socially insecure rise and applaud as he insults the people they’d never have the guts to take on themselves.
Brooks, however, seemed to see some reason for optimism:
The outsiders are about to slide. Trump’s Don Rickles act wears thin. His ego may be galaxy-sized, but his policy ignorance is a void that overspills the known universe. He’s the Wizard of Oz. When the bluster curtain falls down, what’s left is pathetic.
Carly Fiorina. Last week, Ms. Fiorina built on her performance in the August debate. She was widely regarded in the media as the winner of the September event, and that view has been confirmed by subsequent polls. She was articulate and well-prepared and deftly administered a put-down to Donald Trump. We congratulate Ms. Fiorina, but still have considerable reservations as to her candidacy, believing as we have previously noted, that her past record of achievement provides a slender qualification for the presidency. Her record at Hewlett-Packard, which culminated in her dismissal, had pluses and minuses, but in the end remains highly debatable at best. And her only previous venture into elective politics was an ineffective campaign for the Senate against Barbara Boxer (an incumbent who many felt should have been vulnerable even in the blue state of California). Even at the most recent debate, Fiorina’s performance was not flawless. She spoke passionately about Planned Parenthood but made a curious misstatement about the controversial videos, and her prescription for dealing with Vladimir Putin (“I wouldn’t talk to him at all”) seems to us dangerously misguided. Nevertheless, we believe that her debating skills might well earn her a nomination as Vice President.
Ben Carson. Dr. Carson presents a unique problem for the GOP. He is likeable and he has a compelling personal story culminating in a career as a brilliant neurosurgeon. He also expresses ideas that resonate with some of the more conservative members of the Republican Party. And, not the least, as an African American, Carson represents a group that is sadly under-represented in the party. Thus, he is someone whom rival candidates are reluctant to attack (although he did draw fire from some for his comment this week that a Muslim would not be fit for the presidency). Nevertheless, we believe that Dr. Carson has had very little experience that would qualify him to meet the demands of the presidency. Moreover, Carson has in the past made a number of comments that, while delivered in his soft-spoken manner, compare with some of Trump’s in being problematic (rejecting evolution, comparing Obamacare to slavery, asserting that homosexuality is a choice). As a leader in the polls, Carson will inevitably receive heightened scrutiny and we doubt that his candidacy will survive it.
Marco Rubio. Senator Rubio gave a strong performance in the debate that was reflected in the subsequent polls. Although both Rubio and Bush trailed the Outsiders, they led the other experienced candidates with Rubio close to or ahead of Bush. The CNN poll had him leading Bush 11% to 9% and the NBC poll virtually tied with Bush, trailing 8% to 7%. Bush’s and Rubio’s positions on the issues are similar and both have the potential to at least mitigate the damage to the Republican Party in the Latino community caused by Trump and others of similar mind. Rubio, however, has greater skills as a communicator and does not carry the baggage of the Bush family name. As Matthew Yglesias, writing for Vox, put it, “Bush is also literally the only person on the planet earth who will be utterly incapable of tapping into a sense that Hillary Clinton’s campaign is a bit of a tired retread.”
Jeb Bush. We expressed early support for Bush, extending what we termed a “tentative endorsement.” Since that time we have admittedly been disappointed, as have many of his supporters, in his performance. We are among those who feel that his campaign has lacked energy, a perception that cannot be erased by his nimble quip at the debate that his Secret Service code name would be Eveready (“It’s very high energy, Donald”). Bush’s performance at the debate was one that would have been quite adequate if he occupied the front runner status that he no doubt expected to be enjoying by now. He does not have that status, however, and he will have to find a way to raise his game if he is not only to survive the Outsiders but to surpass Rubio. Still we believe that he approaches issues in a constructive way. For example, one may agree or find fault with aspects of his tax reform proposal, but it is a serious and thoughtful contribution to a difficult and important issue. On balance, we remain unwilling to offer a firm endorsement of Bush, but we believe that it would be premature to withdraw our support of him in favor of Rubio or anyone else.
John Kasich. We were enthusiastic about Governor Kasich’s entry into the race, impressed by his experience in both legislative and executive offices and a record of achievement unmatched by any other candidate. We were also drawn by his pragmatic instincts and his recognition that cooperation with the opposition party is an essential aspect of successful governing. We remain impressed by those qualities in Kasich as well as a persona that seems remarkably free of artifice. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that his campaign has not exactly caught fire. He mustered enough support in the polls to qualify for the first tier debate in both August and September—but just barely. Neither debate improved his standing as Kasich chose to emphasize his strong resume rather than attempting to articulate a clear vision on the issues.
In televised interviews since the last debate, Kasich has insisted that he is untroubled by his low standing in national polls. In Kasich’s view, it is more important to concentrate on the early primary states. He has in fact focused on New Hampshire with some success, the most recent poll showing him in third place behind Trump and Carson. Kasich’s strategy is plausible but with a caveat: If he fails to gain any traction in the national polls, he may find it increasingly difficult to persuade voters in New Hampshire and other early primary states to take his candidacy seriously. In any case, he must soon get beyond the stage of brandishing his resume despite the strengths of the record it reflects.
Along the way we will have something to say about the other experienced candidates, but we will leave that for another day.