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Guest MINDSETTER™ Dr. David Schaefer: How the Republican Debate Could Affect Candidates’ Standing

Thursday, September 17, 2015


The following assessment is based not on a calculation of how far the participants will wind up rising or dropping in the polls, something I am ill-equipped to forecast, but on how I think their performances ought to affect their standing.

First, the 800-pound gorilla (and I mean that term almost literally), Donald Trump, further fortified his already substantial record of bombast, egotism, and obvious lack of relevant knowledge – even if he went a little softer in the insult department this time (aside from a random comment on Rand Paul’s looks). He described himself as “far and away a businessman,” and identified THAT as the chief qualification for being President. (I can recall when a member of Eisenhower’s cabinet was pilloried in the press for equating the good of America with the prosperity of his former corporation – even though that wasn’t quite what he meant.) Unlike numerous other candidates he demonstrated a total ignorance of facts relevant to American foreign and military policy – just promised that he had “teams” who would address such issues once he was elected. He again boasted of his ability to “buy” politicians – responding to Jeb Bush’s report that he failed in an effort to induce Bush to approve casino gambling in Florida by saying “If I wanted a casino I would have got it” because “I know my people.” Even while ridiculously mocking Bush for answering a Latino youth’s question that was posed in Spanish in the same language, Trump again displayed his own limited familiarity with English by calling himself “very militaristic.”

As for his foreign policy Trump simply promised that he would “get along with everybody,” including Putin and the leaders of Mexico and China, despite his putative readiness to stand up to all three, his offensive remarks about Mexican immigrants, and his populist bashing of China for so-called currency manipulation. (So far as I can recall he never addressed the real Chinese threats of cyberwarfare and military expansion in the South China Sea.) He again boasted of his business success, as demonstrated by his ability to pull out of the casino he had constructed in Atlantic City shortly before it went bankrupt, exhibiting his “great timing” and claiming it earned him lots of admiration. Despite having had his companies declare bankruptcy four times, he mocked Carly Fiorina’s supposed lack of executive competence. Worst of all, however, was Trump’s ridiculous, scientifically ungrounded, repetition of the long-refuted claim that autism is caused by vaccinations. He not only didn’t know what he was talking about; he may have cost thousands of lives by deterring more parents from having their kids vaccinated – or persuading them to “space out” their kids’ vaccinations, based on no scientific knowledge whatsoever.

At the opposite end of the scale: I think the biggest winner from the evening is or should be Fiorina – the sole new entry to the “top tier” debate. As in the preliminary round to the first debate, she showed herself to be highly articulate, principled, well-informed, forceful, yet likable. When it came to verbal combat, she gave as good as she got – or better - from Trump. She gave more detail on what is needed to improve America’s military preparedness than any other candidate, pointing for instance to the need to restart missile defense and to improve the sharing of military intelligence with Egypt. She was particularly eloquent on the subjects of Iran and the need to defund Planned Parenthood. She clearly came to this debate well-prepared, as she had in the first round. And should Hillary Clinton somehow manage to capture the Democratic nomination, Fiorina would in all likelihood be her most formidable opponent.

Also performing well in a way that should raise his poll standing was Marco Rubio. As always, he was eloquent and principled in his stands on foreign policy, likable and full of youthful energy. Ted

Cruz was bold, forceful, and eloquent on the themes of Iran and Planned Parenthood – but his forcefulness may be harder for moderate voters to take than Rubio’s milder self-presentation. Chris Christie, too, came on strong in the late rounds, thanks to his principled eloquence on the theme of foreign policy and defense. (But he of course remains hampered by the latest Port Authority scandal, a subject that fortunately for him never came up.) And although Mike Huckabee was a more marginal figure in the debate, he too displayed considerable toughness and eloquence on Iran, as well as on the defense of the rights of conscience when it comes to respecting the rights of individuals who object to offering support to gay marriage (although it was another speaker who offered the reasonable compromise that instead of having a public official jailed for refusing to issue licenses for gay marriages, a judge should simply have directed her deputies to do so assuming they had no conscientious objection, and prevented their boss from interfering.)

Jeb Bush once again showed himself to be sober, likable, and well-informed, with a significant track record of accomplishment in Florida – just as Scott Walker could do with respect to Wisconsin. But despite Bush’s qualifications (and impressive fund-raising record) it wasn’t clear that he had done much to elevate himself in the polls, considering Republican voters’ current demand for “pizzazz.” (Walker may have done somewhat better in that respect.)

John Kasich, though rightly boasting of his considerable experience working in the White House, Congress, and the Ohio governorship, offered only a wishy-washy approach to dealing with America’s foreign enemies, repeatedly stressing the need to coordinate our policies with our “allies” (thus giving them a veto power over our actions abroad – a bit reminiscent of Obama’s policy of “leading from behind”). He did not stand out in a way likely to gain him a major increase in support.

Although Rand Paul was the only candidate who showed legal acumen on the issue of birthright citizenship, his qualifications for the Presidency must be called into question on account of his simplistic approach to the Middle East, pretending that if only we hadn’t sent military forces there, nothing bad would have happened to us (9/11 notwithstanding). As a libertarian, he remains a fringe candidate.

Finally, the biggest disappointment of the night, considering his recent rise in the polls, and the favorable impression he made in the first debate, was the eminently likable and non-bombastic Ben Carson, whose lack of substance when it came to political issues both domestic and international was surpassed only by Trump’s – reflecting his career as a neurosurgeon and the limitations of an “outsider” to public life. (Fiorina, despite not having held political office, has served on Federal boards dealing with international affairs and intelligence.) Unlike most conservatives, he favored indexing the minimum wage to inflation, oblivious to its effect in reducing employment (qualifying the proposal only with the sensible addendum of a lower minimum for new, young workers). He curiously boasted of having opposed military action in Afghanistan, while wanting to have it both ways on Iraq. He offered the foolish remedy of “petroleum independence” to deal with our Middle East problems – oblivious to the fact that America already enjoys such independence thanks to new drilling techniques, and that Afghanistan, for one, is not an oil-producing state (nor is Syria to any significant extent) – while the Saudis and Gulf oil sheikhdoms, along with Egypt, remain our firmest allies (after Israel) in that region. Most astonishingly, for a distinguished physician, he was unwilling to reject outright Trump’s proposal for “spacing” vaccinations. This reticence seemed due rather to a wish to avoid offending the tycoon, or to Carson’s overall geniality, than to any likely agreement with Trump’s judgment on the medical facts. But it was regrettable.

Overall, the debate showed the Republicans to have numerous strong contenders both for winning a Presidential campaign and for governing effectively. The question remains whether this embarrassment of riches will be undone by the abominable Mr. Trump, whether by winning the nomination or by running (contrary to his promise) as an independent, thus playing the 2016 version of Ross Perot.

Dr. David Schaefer is a professor of Political Science at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.


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