Tonight's GOP Debate at the Reagan Library

by Michael Sean Winters

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Tonight, the GOP road show, actually the Trump road show that happens to be occurring in the middle of a GOP presidential nominating process, comes to the Reagan Library in California for a debate sponsored by CNN. A team of horses couldn’t pull me away from the television: what could be better than first class entertainment combined with third rate politics?

The key actors in tonight’s drama will not be the candidates at the podiums but the questioners at the table. In the first debate, the Fox News panel that did the questioning got high marks for tough questions, but there was never any follow-up. Tonight, the questions have to be framed in such a way that the candidates have a tough time evading a substantive answer and the questioners should not be afraid to ask follow-ups when it is obvious the candidate is spinning his or her wheels.

This is especially true of Donald Trump. One of the questioners tonight will be Hugh Hewitt, the conservative radio talk show host. When Trump appeared on his show earlier this month, Hewitt asked him about the Quds forces in Iran and a clearly stumped Trump got out of his jam but saying he thought Hewitt had asked about the Kurds, not the Quds. But, if that was the case, if this was merely an instance of not hearing the word correctly, then the conversation made no sense. Hewitt did not point it out at the time. He needs to do so tonight. If Trump tries to get out of a jam by saying something that simply does not make sense, the American people need to see that. Unfortunately, with eleven candidates on the stage, there may not be time allotted to show how ill-informed Trump is. The dividing line between the top tier candidates and the kids table should not have been an arbitrary number, but an equal division of all candidates, drawn by lot, or at least a fifty-fifty split between the top of the heap and the bottom.

Trump will be Trump tonight. Why should he change? It’s working. His mix of nativism with anti-elite diatribes speaks to a large segment of GOP voters, the ones who still think Obama was born in Kenya. The questioners should try and draw him out and show the evident racism at the root of Trump’s appeal. He says he wants to make America great again, but listening to him night after night, looking at the audiences to which he is speaking and gauging their responses, what he really wants to do is make America white again. It is appalling, but it is working.

Since the last debate, Ben Carson has surged in the polls. He like Trump has never run for office before. He, like Trump, speaks in generalities and banalities about complex issues. Unlike Trump, he does not come across as angry and self-important, but I wonder if he grasps the dynamics of any issues facing the nation. He has demonstrated on more than one occasion that his understanding of the relationship of church and state, and more broadly of religion and politics, is a relatively recent understanding, first articulated in the pulpit of Thomas Road Baptist Church by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. It is uncomplicated and absolutely certain. It is false, but people who are unsure about so much crave certainty, even when it comes in the form of a ridiculous caricature of American history. I suspect the biggest challenge, and the biggest asset, for the soft-spoken doctor is that the debate format does not suit his speaking style. He does not jab well. He does not draw clear distinctions. He may benefit, however, if everyone around him is fighting, he keeps his cool, and sticks to his bromides. The questioners should try and smoke him out too.

I am almost beginning to feel sorry for Jeb Bush. I am also admitting a mea culpa. Back in 1999, many people, including myself, thought that the GOP was going with the wrong Bush, putting forward George W. from Texas rather than Jeb from Florida. Every time George W. made one of his many verbal gaffes, we cringed and thought, why didn’t they run Jeb, the smarter, more thoughtful one. Now we know. George W. connected with people. Jeb seems more like John Kerry than his own brother. Kerry was, and is, a decent man who cares about important things, but he often gave the appearance that what he really cared about was getting the right table at Le Cirque. Jeb needs to use something deeply personal, like his family life, to confront Trump’s anti-immigrant nativism, and go on to draw clear distinctions between his truly conservative record in Florida with Trump’s non-record, flip-flops, and vague prescriptions. At some point, Bush must confront Trump, why mot tonight?

Sen. Ted Cruz likes playing Robin to Trump’s Batman. It is a smart strategy. Yes, when the two of the appeared jointly at a small rally in Washington to protest the Iran nuke deal, Trump stole all the thunder. But, at least Cruz got his picture in the frame. The other candidates were unmentioned on the news that night. Besides, if people begin to tire of Trump, or Trump begins to tire of the people, Cruz is better placed than any other candidate to inherit the pitchfork right brigades.

Carly Fiorina needs to hope that lightning strikes twice. She had a breakout performance last round, but she was at the kid’s table. This time, she will be on the main stage. She has not been afraid to challenge Trump on the stump, and I hope she will do so on the stage tonight. She has little to lose, and if Trump attacks her too viciously, it might not play well. People don’t like bullies, especially men who bully women. If she does go after Trump, he is well advised to wait until the morning shows to push back. In the end, Fiorina has a spotty record of accomplishment and has never shown herself to be a great candidate. Her advancement from the lower tier is a storyline and she needs to perform well enough tonight to keep that storyline going.

As for the also-rans, who knows and, increasingly, who cares? The Summer of Trump has been unkind to the likes of Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Rand Paul. They can’t find any traction or footing with Trump not only sucking all the oxygen out of the room, but creating a news vacuum around everyone except himself. I am appalled at the network’s complicity in Trump’s vanity, airing his speeches uninterrupted for up to half of an hour at a time. If I am appalled, what do the campaign managers for Walker and Rubio and Paul and Christie feel? The only other person on the stage who could have a really significant night is Gov. John Kasich who has as much authenticity as anyone on the stage but lacks the nastiness and brings some substantive policy chops.

The location of tonight’s debate suggests a possible line of questioning. I would be tempted to read a comment, not tell the candidates the source of the quote, and ask them to respond. Each of the quotes would be from Ronald Reagan and each would show that for all of his deep conservatism, Reagan cut deals and reached compromises all the time. The responses, I suspect, would demonstrate just how far to the right the GOP has been dragged in recent years. In any event, it will be fun to watch. So, get the popcorn ready. Prep the margarita mix. We may not learn anything about our nation’s foreign policy options or economic policies, but it is going to be one hell of a show.



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