Is There a Gipper in the House?

2016 Presidential Republican opponents for the 2nd debate

Image courtesy of CNN

Is There a Gipper in the House?
| published September 17, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

Oh, how Republicans of a certain generation wish The Gipper could have been in the room on Wednesday night! Indeed, for what, or may not, prove to be a game-changer for the party of Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan’s presence—even if he were sitting quietly on the sidelines—might have mitigated the current conversation of the Grand Old Party.

The immediate media reaction to any major political debate is to score the winners and the losers, quickly. We have become so accustomed to this process that we simply assume that analysts and reporters are keeping a scorecard and will be prepared to declare who is up versus who is down within minutes—sometimes within seconds—of a debate’s conclusion. Barring some unexpected dynamic within the debate format, as was the case with the first GOP debate on Fox News in early August (when the real fireworks turned out to be between moderator Megyn Kelly and candidate Donald Trump), there is a predictable flurry of activity starting the instant a debate ends, and in that moment when the analysis, spin and counter-spin begins.

Social media—especially Facebook, Twitter and other real-time engines of chat—heighten this process and intensify the metrics. If Donald Trump makes a funny face—a grimace, a wince, a roll of squinty eyes—on the split screen while he listens to Rand Paul, everyone in the world watching can weigh-in on what that facial expression portends for either candidate. The social media buzz carries almost as much weight (and some would argue more) as the media discussions.

Analysts for CNN and other news organizations on Wednesday therefore faced a conundrum in the minutes after the latest Republican debate—held in a sprawling two-story complex in the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California—concluded. The more than three-hour forum matched the immensity of the vast room, which features among its many attributes a retired Air Force One Presidential jet, the same one used by Reagan on many of his historic flights to meet with world leaders—Margaret Thatcher, Mikael Gorbachev, Helmut Kohl, scores of others.

That backdrop of majestic history and aerodynamic grace did little to moderate the sandbox playground quality which sometimes dominated the proceedings.

CNN had made no secret coming in to this debate that the crux of the hot-button format would be to highlight differences between the members of this crowded field of candidates. Chief moderator Jake Tapper, along with CNN’s Dana Bash and conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, raised few questions that were not framed in terms of what one Republican candidate had said about another. In fact, by our score, only four questions were presented all night that were not intended to spark a fight, typically a pit bull versus Rottweiler type skirmish. But as our fellow writer Earl Perkins described it, it was more like “a room full of angry Siamese cats.” On those rare occasions when candidates did not take the bait, demurring from yet another staged cockfight, Tapper or Bash would forcibly reboot the question, insisting gratuitously that the floor was still free of fresh blood.

This insistence on scorpion fighting had the perhaps unintended effect of blunting the narrative of the nice people in the room: neither neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson nor former Ohio Governor John Kasich appeared willing to be goaded into direct fights with anyone, most especially Trump. Normally, this caution would be a positive thing.

But Carson, who had gone into the debate amid much discussion of his quiet surge in the polls (Carson has been steadily closing-in on Trump’s once formidable lead among the Republican contenders) seemed muted at times against the backdrop of fists flying and bloodied noses. Carson’s soft-spoken, thoughtful answers were surely his way of appearing to be one of the few adults in the room, but the result instead was a low-key performance which may do little to keep his upward movement alive. Kasich, on the other hand, tried several times to re-center the discussion and keep it focused upbeat themes and Reaganesque leadership, but he too found it difficult to get his message across through the chaos of the most epic food fight since National Lampoon’s Animal House.

Among other post-debate problems faced by the immense crew from CNN: there were no clear knock-out punches, no clear undisputed winners, and certainly no certain clear losers. This made for a lot of uneasy analysis and even more bet-hedging. So it was easier to point out the exciting exchanges and nasty zingers than it was to declare someone the winner by knock-out.

Sure, it’s easy to point to a few great moments to savor:

Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, for example, who delivered some of the night’s best responses to the trap-door questions posed by Jake Tapper and the other moderators. Fiorina was tough as nails at time, almost to the point of being over-the-top with firmness and grit. She also gave the best slam-dunk response yet to the blustery, bullying Trump, when first Trump, then Fiorina, were asked to comment on the businessman’s nasty barbs to Rolling Stone magazine in which he bloviated out loud upon her looks. Trump told Tapper he had been misunderstood; Fiorina said that the women of America knew exactly what he had meant by his lowball comments. Trump’s shallow attempt to make it right be calling Fiorina a “beautiful woman” fell flat with the audience, and with TV viewers, who got to watch Fiorina’s face on the screen as she reacted with an icy stare and volumes of silence.

In what may have been the greatest out-of-the-starting-gate blindside, Trump dove into the first question by offering the complaint that Kentucky Senator Rand Paul should not have even been invited to be on the stage. Trump may have been referring to CNN’s final adjustments, made last week, in which the top tier was recalibrated from 10 to 11, in essence a nod to Fiorina’s emergence in the polls as a genuine challenger to the other favorites. Trump has made no secret that he dislikes Paul, and had intoned previously that if CNN were to allow Fiorina in, they must also push Paul out—forcing the Senator to join the second tier debate.

The Trump versus Paul dynamic never left the room after that point, with each one goading the other. When Paul suggested that Trump’s habit of impugning another person’s looks or hair or eye color was sophomoric and childish—not to mention un-Presidential, Trump not only took the bait, but raised the stakes by instantly calling into question Rand Paul’s appearance. Had it been part of an SNL sketch it would have been funny. But Trump’s unwarranted zinger must have had some form of impact, as Senator Paul remained in a dour and sour place for the rest of the night.

That Trump was headlined to be the main attraction was no secret. And that close challengers Carson and Fiorina would be the potential “breakout” performers was also part of what was widely planned and scripted.

What was not scripted, and what took almost everyone by surprise, was how silent Trump became when the waters near his face were not being chummed with red meat. Indeed, after an hour of Tapper’s leading questions—many of them framed in terms like “Mr. Trump said this about you” or “you called Mr. Trump a so-and-so”—the personal contrasts gave way to policy talk. And when it comes to policy and detail work, Trump, it turns out, stops yammering and turns to stone. 2016 Presidential Republican opponents for the 2nd debate

Image courtesy of CNN

Most notable were the long stretches of debate time given to the complexities of foreign policy. On these points—ranging from the Islamic State to Afghanistan to Hezbollah, from Russia to China to Iran—ten candidates weighed-in with well thought but sometimes sharply differing opinions and policy proposals. All, it seemed, had done their homework, even when it was clear that Senator Ted Cruz view of the Iran nuclear deal is in sharp contrast with the views of John Kasich and Rand Paul. But Trump had not only failed to do his homework, he didn’t particularly care that there had even been a homework assignment. He remained mostly mute on foreign policy and international military matters, and when he did interject an opinion, it was only long enough to brag about his business acumen and his negotiating cajones. His proposal for all foreign policy matters: we’ll make America great again by making them fear us. Not exactly a careful paraphrase of Ronald Reagan’s famous mission statement on international relations.

In response to a question on how he, Mr. Trump, would dislodge Russia from its new involvement in the Syrian civil war, Trump offered only that he “would get along with a lot of world leaders that this country is not getting along with.”

And after the initial rounds of cat-fighting finally ran their course, Trump was also strangely subdued on domestic policy specifics, often shrugging, and meekly entering the conversation with only minimal bluster. A very un-Trump performance.

Jeb Bush, on the other hand—once the GOP establishment’s top guy and a one-time presumed front-runner—landed several well-timed blows to Trump’s jaw. It was not elegant to watch, with Bush on the verge of stammering each time he tried to fight his way into Trump’s space, and Trump battering back hard—but the exchanges forced Bush out of his previous defensive game and put him back at the center of the conversation.

This too, was no surprise. Word had come from the Bush camp as early as last week that the former Florida Governor intended to land enough punches to send Trump reeling, and if possible, bloody his nose. Trump in turn had said he would accept no trash talk from Bush. Indeed, the intense back-and-forth bickering between Trump and Bush at times verged on tiresome, and even spiraled so far out of control that it was difficult for Tapper to reclaim the floor. To some viewers it seemed that Bush and Trump were close to throwing actual punches when the issue of casino gambling in Florida slipped strangely into the conversation, with Bush claiming that he had rallied Florida legislators to keep Trump’s casinos out of the Sunshine State, and Trump declaring immodestly that if he had wanted to build a casino there it would have happened, with or without Bush’s approval.

The exchange foreshadowed other intense rounds of sparring between Bush and Trump, including a particularly nasty exchange about Bush’s wife (in which Bush invited Trump to apologize to her in person, and in which Trump refused) in a conversation about immigration, and an emotional spark over remarks made about Jeb’s brother George W., and the legacy he left behind in America. Coupled with comments about Bush’s mom, his father (President George W. Bush), and his brothers, the sometimes uncomfortable issue for Republicans of Bush’s dynastic aspirations seemed unnecessary and even inappropriate.

On the whole, Bush rose to the occasion and performed reasonably well, though there was a sense that because of his rushed style of delivery he was on the verge on stumbling over his own tongue at any moment.

What defined the debate more than anything else was the shrill insistence that each candidate projected when they sought—sometimes all at once—to draw the cameras, and because of the way CNN had framed the questions in your-opponent-said-this-about-you-there-other-day testosterone challenges, the debate format made it seem that everyone on that stage (save for Trump) was in a desperate battle to be heard over the noise. Indeed, the not-so-subtle secret of this debate is that it may force a few people from the race. At risk are all members of the second tier group (Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Jim Gilmore, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham), along with perhaps two to three members of the top tier.

Presumably at risk going into this debate were Rand Paul and Chris Christie, each hanging on—barely—to a place in the contest. But it will not be easy to score either one the loser since they each used their limited on-air time to their best advantage (though, by my reckoning, Paul seemed glum to the point of open frustration at times). Chris Christie performed well, jousting effectively with Trump, with Cruz, with Paul, and even with Fiorina; after a long, excruciating pissing match between Fiorina and Trump over bankruptcies and resumes, the New Jersey Governor grabbed the high ground, even excoriating the former HP CEO for her constant interruptions.

“While I'm as entertained as anyone by this personal back-and-forth about the history of Donald and Carly's career,” Christie said, “for the 55-year-old construction worker out in that audience tonight who doesn't have a job, who can't fund his child's education, I've got to tell you the truth; they could care less about your careers, they care about theirs."

Score one for Chris Christie. But score one as well for Fiorina, since by implication it was Fiorina up to that point controlling of the room and guiding the conversation.

In point of fact, the constant interruptions—though annoying for that first hour—began to grow on me as I watched. In stark contrast to the first debate in which all the energy flowed toward Trump, and all candidates played defense to Trump’s offense, the CNN debate showed that many of those same candidates were more determined than ever to re-channel that voltage back toward themselves. There was a visceral, survival of the fittest quality to the content as the pressure increased. Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio all had reason to take command of the floor and show that their conservative credentials carry more weight than the latest shoot-from-the-hip outbursts of Trump. Jeb Bush had arguably the most compelling reason to regain his status as a top-tier contender; Bush’s early blueprints surely envisioned his most fierce competition coming from Scott Walker and Chris Christie, not from Trump and Carson. As of last week, Bush was in fourth place and sinking slowly. Even Huckabee and Cruz, once darlings of the evangelical conservatives and the Tea Party respectively, must now fight to reclaim a spot near the center of the stage.

Spurring the pressure is the harshest of reality checks in politics: cash, or the lack thereof. Rick Perry’s demise last week came as a result of his campaign operating, literally, on fumes. Republican donors will begin to lose patience with the crowded field, and money will begin to flow only toward those candidates who look like winners in a race against Hillary Clinton. For some candidates, money will begin to quickly dry up. Lindsey Graham and Bobby Jindal are driving across Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in cars owned by volunteers, and gas tanks filled by using the candidate’s personal Texaco and Shell cards. New York’s George Pataki has his own wealth, but how far will his vanity campaign go if he has no traction on social media and he never gets invited to the grown-up debate.

In truth, Trump may have conceded his own weakness immediately after the debate ended, when—in a brief one-on-one with CNN’s Chris Cuomo—Trump sounded genuinely tired and exasperated, worn down by the monumental three-hour format. Not once, not twice, but three times in that brief post-debate exchange did the haggard Trump comment, apropos of nothing, that three hours was a long time to stand in one spot and talk policy.

In short: all candidates, with the exception of Trump, did best when the subject matter rolled over into the substance of governance and the wonky business of policy. Why? Because such talk left Trump slumped over his podium, offering only the occasional nod or wink, not the usual explosions of raw bombast. Trump did best what he normally does best, but even his boisterous, unfiltered theatrics tapered off when the talk turned to hard policy.

Imagine that Jeb and Scott: if all it took was to make the Donald stand in one spot and talk governance, legislative policy, and pothole-filling, you’d be the front-runners even now.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Trump Disses Perry as Texan Exits 2016 Race; Thursday Review; September 13, 2015.

Trump Lobs Insults at Fiorina; Thursday Review; September 10, 2015.