Blog No. 85 After Paris and Between Debates: Whither the GOP?

If anyone here remembers the Fourth GOP Debate with Fox Business News on November 10, please raise your hand.  Ah, that’s what we thought.

Given the passage of time, the intervening events of Islamic terrorism in Paris and Mali, the debate over refugees and the almost daily embarrassments from Donald Trump, it was inevitable the Fourth Debate would not have a lengthy shelf-life. Nevertheless, the issues raised at the debate, and the candidates’ approaches to them will continue to hover over the campaign. So perhaps it is useful to refresh some recollections to better appreciate the next debate (scheduled for December 15 in Las Vegas and to be sponsored by CNN and Salem Radio).

The fourth debate drew better reviews from the participants and observers than had the previous exercise run by CNBC. But that was a low bar.  Charles Krauthammer, for example, observed that while the CNBC affair had been a “contrived food-fight,” he saw the Fox version as “a meaty debate during which a tomato or two was occasionally tossed.” Well, perhaps, although we thought that the fourth debate also left plenty of room for improvement.

In our view, the discussion remained largely superficial, with the moderators missing many opportunities to ask follow-up questions. They also maintained such loose control over the proceedings that the participants felt encouraged, or perhaps compelled, to interrupt and talk over one another. John Kasich, for one, was criticized for interruptions, but the responsibility lay at least equally with the moderators. In a recent blog, we suggested a radical change in format, but here is a more modest suggestion. Why not have a rule that participants may speak only when recognized by the moderators and must address comments to them rather than directly to other participants (as is the practice under Robert’s Rules of Order). Not as exciting to watch, perhaps, but surely more coherent.  Another possible change would be to allocate to each participant an equal number of minutes for the entire debate. With that limitation, each candidate would be able to weigh in on as many questions as he or she wished but would know that too many or too lengthy interventions would run the risk of silencing him or her for the rest of the session.

Turning back to the last debate, and judging on style points (which may be the only relevant criterion) the consensus was that Senators Rubio and Cruz had the most successful evenings. Kasich was faulted not only for too many interruptions but coming across as “irritable.” (Why Kasich is chastised for appearing irritable while Donald Trump is allowed and expected by the media to have tantrums is one of the mysteries of the political landscape that we cannot quite fathom.) Jeb Bush was considered to have had a solid performance but not one strong enough to lift him from the doldrums in which he has been languishing. Neither of the two leaders in the polls, Trump and Ben Carson were particularly impressive, but no one seemed to expect that to have a significant impact on their standing. Indeed, a front page article in The Washington Post on November 13 was headlined “Time for GOP panic? Establishment worried Carson or Trump might win.”

As the Post article explained, party leaders feared that with either Trump or Carson at the head of the ticket, the party might suffer an election disaster comparable to those wrought by Barry Goldwater and George McGovern: Republicans would lose not only the Presidency and control of the Senate but many seats in the House. And for some, the fear ran even beyond the fortunes of the party. As one unnamed strategist lamented:

We’re potentially careening down this road of nominating somebody who frankly isn’t fit to be president in terms of the basic ability and temperament to do the job. It’s not just that it could be somebody Hillary could destroy electorally, but what if Hillary hits a banana peel and this person becomes president?”

That is a fear with which we were in full sympathy and which has not lessened in the past two weeks. There had been some thought that the terrorism in Paris might bring a demand for wiser and more experienced leadership than Trump has to offer, but there is little evidence of such a reaction in the most recent polls. Indeed, they seem to indicate that Trump’s stranglehold over a sizable fraction of the Republican base is as strong as ever.

Dr. Carson has at times reminded us of the character, Chauncey Gardiner, played by the late Peter Sellers in Being There. Unlike Chauncey, a humble gardener, Carson was, to be sure, a brilliant neurosurgeon. Yet he shares with Gardiner an ability to make vacuous pronouncements in a soothing voice that are somehow taken to be profound insights. Trump is another matter, a specimen that defies comparison. From the standpoint of the Republican Party, he is more dangerous than Carson.

For example, while Carson’s views on immigration, as on other issues, are not particularly clear, Trump’s are all too clear. He has tapped deeply into the nativist segment of the Party, not only drawing strength from it, but enabling and empowering their voice. If Trump were to drop out of the Party tomorrow, he would still have left an indelible stain upon it. Senator Cruz appears to have views similar to Trump, expressed somewhat more elegantly and hence not quite as as memorably. At the debate, both John Kasich and Jeb Bush, to their credit, took issue with the immigration stances of Trump and Cruz, attempting to pour well-deserved scorn on them. It did not appear, however, that they made much headway with the party faithful. Unfortunately, the voice of Senator Rubio was conspicuously silent.

David Brooks, in a November 13 column, “The G.O.P. At an Immigration Crossroads” put the matter rather apocalyptically, “It’s no exaggeration to say that the next six months will determine the viability of the Republican Party.” After analyzing various Republican attitudes, Brooks concluded, “Immigration is the key issue around which Republicans will determine the course of their party. It’ll be fascinating to see which way they go.” While we might not put it in terms quite so stark, we think that Brooks is not far off the mark.

On the matter of taxes and tax reform, all of the candidates were predictably in favor of lower tax rates. If there are persuasive arguments as to how that is to be accomplished without increasing the deficit, the format of the debate gave little opportunity for their presentation. In general, we are not inclined to take too seriously anything that any candidate, Republican or Democrat, has to say about his or her tax proposal, or the proposals of other candidates. Fix the Debt is a private, bipartisan organization that is a lineal descendant of the Simpson-Bowles Commission and is dedicated to reducing the federal debt. Its observations on the debate included the following:

The Republican candidates continued their race to the bottom on tax cuts, with each trying to go lower than the other. Discussion of how candidates would offset the costs was extremely limited. This Limbo dance puts our future in limbo as these tax plans would add trillions to the debt….Many candidates claim that their tax plans will accelerate economic growth. While smart tax reform can definitely promote growth, the growth effects of tax reform may not be as pronounced as some claim. And the evidence does not back up the claim that tax cuts pay for themselves.

As it had in previous debates, the issue of climate change made only a cameo appearance.  Maria Bartiromo noted that Senator Paul had been one of15 Senate Republicans who had voted for an amendment stating that “human activity contributed to climate change,” and that President Obama had “announced an aggressive plan to cut carbon emissions.” She asked Paul if the nation’s energy boom could continue while “pursuing a meaningful climate change program.” Paul responded:

The first thing I would do as president is repeal the regulations that are hampering our energy that the President has put in place.

(APPLAUSE)

PAUL: Including the Clean Power Act. While I do think that man may have a role in our climate, I think nature also has a role. The planet’s 4.5 billion years old, we’ve been through geologic age after geologic age. We’ve had times when the temperatures been warmer, we’ve had times when the temperatures been colder. We’ve had times when the carbon in the atmosphere’s been higher. So, I think before we — we need to look before we leap.

President’s often fond of saying he wants a balanced solution, but, really we do need to balance both keeping the environment clean, and we will have some rules for that. We got to balance that with the economy.

Notwithstanding the applause, we believe that Senator Paul’s answer was relatively weak. [His reference to the “Clean Power Act” should have been to the “Clean Power Plan,” regulations ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency.] It was however, less objectionable, than some Republicans, including Trump, who insist that climate change is a hoax. We are hopeful that Republicans candidates will move toward a more responsible position on climate that does not require endorsing the Clean Power Plan but moves well beyond denialism to seek alternative solutions. As Kenneth P. Cohen, an Exxon Mobil Vice President put it in a November 23 letter to the Wall Street Journal, ” We believe the risks of climate change are serious and warrant thoughtful action.”

On the financial side, a number of the candidates were critical of the Federal Reserve. We have had our own reservations about quantitative easing and the policy of holding interest rates at an abnormally low level for a prolonged period. But we think that whatever the merits of the argument, it is unlikely to be an effective tack in the general election. A relatively small portion of the electorate will have a grasp of the role of the Fed, and those that do, are unlikely to be enthusiastic about having it become a political football.

On another financial issue, several candidates urged repeal of Dodd-Frank, the act passed in the wake of the 2009 crash, but their criticism was for the most part, not adequately focused. We think that there are clearly aspects of the Act that should be repealed or reformed, including for example, some of the burdens placed on community banks. But we do not think that a generalized call to repeal Dodd-Frank (or as Democrats will put it, “to de-regulate Wall Street”) will have broad appeal. Much of the electorate, we think, will believe that Wall Street does indeed need regulation, so the question here as elsewhere, is what regulation makes sense and what does not.

Although the debate took place three days before the attacks in Paris, all the candidates with the exception of Paul and Trump called for a more robust foreign policy generally and with respect to ISIS in particular. That discussion was overtaken by Paris, and in Blog 84 we took a first look at the Post-Paris world, so we will pass up a critique of the candidates’ comments at the debate.