Having so many presidential debates in this election cycle makes them seem kind of like smaller episodes in the season of a show. Each one has its own unique tone, revolving cast of characters, and take-away theme. From a political science perspective, I love it. I love looking at the general trends and the nuanced differences, seeing how the race evolves over time, and observing how the candidates change along with it. Given how important and powerful the office of the presidency is, having a dozen or so debates seems entirely justified, even required. How can we truly understand where candidates stand on issues, how they change pragmatically or remain consistent over time how they respond to moments of crisis and pressure, if we don’t get to know them beyond the superficial thirty and sixty second campaign advertisements designed to sell their best attributes? Debates involve a level of superficiality and artificial circumstances to be sure, but the atmosphere remains more realistic than heavily-edited ad buys or perfectly crafted speeches pinned by an idealistic recent college grad.
For Episode 5, Season 2016, the tone was undeniably somber. Like the last episode of the show’s partisan counterpart, the Democratic debates, the air was heavy with anger and aggression aimed at ISIS and terrorism in general. The Paris attacks occurred the night before the last Democratic debate and the first 30-45 minutes were slow and somber, in a grave contrast to the previous debates. Republicans have waited for an entire month to debate about these issues, though in the time since, the San Bernardino tragedy occurred. Not surprising, issues about national security and individual liberty were paramount throughout the evening’s discussions.
(If you missed the debate, you can watch it below with closed captioning.)
Rubio and Cruz went head-to-head in national security, government surveillance, immigration, and military intervention, offering more concrete ideological differences between the two Senators than usually occurs in two- and three-hour debate with eight candidates. Both candidates did well in challenging and then responding to each other, which neither coming out from the sparing as either a clear victor or loser. One telling point, though, was Rubio pressing Cruz on his immigration stance as a Senator, resulting in Cruz’ ultimate proclamation that he was not for legalizing the process. The Texas senator has astutely avoided claiming a specific preference and the ambiguity was likely helpful as a “non” stance to keep from isolating voters. Still, Cruz performed well. Given his higher polling numbers, a Cruz-Trump match-up would have been interesting, but the two leaders generally avoided sparing with each other and the moderators likewise did not facilitate such a pairing.
Instead, Trump and Bush challenged each other, in a long-brewing feud that began as uneasy frienemies and has seen evolved into unapologetic animosity. Trump looked his trademark confident and gave what can best be described as a “safe” performance. As the leader, he ultimately has the target on his back but besides a few moments in which he was engaged with Bush, he did not stumble.
(Necessary sidebar: yes, he did suggest he would close of parts of the internet among his other implausible claims, but given that it is this type of rhetoric and presentation that Trump supporters unabashedly admire, I would not consider any of those points to be losing ones for him. In fact, the data seems to suggest the opposite. A losing moment is one that yields a loss in voters support and every poll I have seen thus far shows him maintaining support.)
Among the best moments of the evening, and undoubtedly one of the best for Bush, was when, after being provoked by Trump that “we need a strong leader” with the very overt implication that Bush was not one, the former Florida governor retaliated: “you can’t insult your way to the presidency.” The Trump campaign has commoditized, in some ways, that very ideal and it has obviously struck a chord with a segment of Americans. Bush’s point, however, remains one of the most accurate and scathing blows the businessman has incurred thus far in the race.
Paul, Christie, Kasich, Carson, and Fiorina (whew! Still a long list of names) were all present but played smaller roles. Paul intervened in the Cruz-Rubio mini debate at various points, particularly on the topic of the NSA and its legality. Always the defender of the Constitution, Paul gave one of his best performances at the debate, proving that he is a serious candidate despite dismally low polling numbers that almost prevented him from making the 8th person cut on the stage. His positions and rhetoric are stable, but his libertarian ideologicy will be a tough sell to the more hawkish-Republican base who prefers government involvement in some cases (first and foremost: international affairs.)
Kasich and Christie spared at different points and also touted their role as governors as a superior position of experience compared to the senators seeking the nomination. Anytime this point is mentioned in a debate (far too infrequently, in my opinion), it is enjoyable to listen to the validation of one office’s virtues over another. To truly determine which position is more directly related to the presidency, we would ideally ask a former president who served in both which he felt was best, and then it would be ideal to have multiple presidents with similar reactions to control for time, personal preference, and other invariably influential factors. Until then…it is fun to hear candidates argue over it.
Carson and Fiorina were present but gave the worst performances of the evening. Both were far from charismatic on stage (a requirement to stand-out in a still crowded race with competition in the double-digits) and both experienced policy flops. For Carson, knowing he was weak on foreign policy and having the larger reputation of such should have motivated him to stand out in this way but he failed to do so. His explanations were painfully ambiguous when they should not have been.
Fiorina seemed mechanical and was not as strong or as comfortable as she had been in previous debates. Though her line about women being doers and men being thinkers was a nice nod to female voters, the stereotype reduction that men are not effective leaders is one that will fall flat with feminists and the party base alike (and few things fit into that combination on a Venn diagram). Occasionally candidates say things like this to appeal to a core demographic segment of support but these always feel disingenuous as they are flatly untrue and look like overt pandering. Are men wholly ineffective in public office? No. Are women always the most productive in public office? No Does reviving dated and inaccurate stereotypes provide a realistic portrayal of the political challenges candidates will face? Absolutley not.
I appreciate that Fiorina was trying to recognize women’s contributions and I am glad that we have women running for the highest national office from both main political parties. Stronger performances and more robust policy proposals from all candidates are more important than 30-second-prepared statements or clever zingers in response to an antagonistic remark, or impressive catch phrases. Voters must remember this because, without a public demand for the more complicated but realistic details that make politics what it is, candidates will orchestrate campaigns that emphasize the simple and the easy. While I love campaign season and the debates, the ads, and everything else it incorporates, oversimplifying complicated and controversial topics ultimately harms the voters in making the best decisions and the candidates in providing the best information to the voters.
Bush’ retort to Trump, that he cannot “insult his way through the presidency” is sage advice for all of us, participating and observing the campaigns as they unfold in the next few months. It is easy to catch quick synopses about a critical political event replayed the next day on the news or retweet a few 140-character responses about an important political figure and then carry on with the day. Politics is my love and my life, I realize not everyone feels that way and that is fine. But we all need to be better educated and take more civic responsibility in following what is occurring in our communities and getting involved in the change to make them better. The election is (only) 10 ½ months away. If you haven’t considered what issues matter, which candidates are appealing, and what outcome you want to see…now is a good time to start. :)