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About That Debate

Thanks to the miracle of the internet we were able to see or at least hear almost the entirety of the big Republican presidential debate, either on the Cable News Networks’ spotty web site or a local talk radio station’s somewhat more reliable feed, and we found it most entertaining. Although we’ll leave it to the pollsters to declare who won, our many years in the theater criticism business leave us unable to resist the temptation of writing a review.
Unaccustomed as we are to saying anything nice about CNN, we thought it wasn’t altogether horrible. Moderator Jake Tapper had an annoying habit of interrupting the good stuff about the Obama administration’s failures and indulging all the internecine criticism, and the first-rate conservative radio talker Hugh Hewitt, who has been called “third-rate” by Donald Trump after he flunked the host’s simple quiz about the Middle East’s leadership, only got a couple of questions in, and the time allowed to the overcrowded stage of candidates did seem wildly unequal, but at least there were no out-of-left-field questions about contraception or some other non-issues that were calculated to create a controversy intended to further some Democratic campaign theme. Most of the questions seemed fair enough, and exposed a wider range of opinions than you’ll likely find in the Democratic debates, if they ever get around to having one, and allowed the candidates to demonstrate this is a very deep and talented field that just might include a very good president.
There’s some grousing on the right that the first part of the debate was all about Donald Trump, but at this point there’s no using denying that he’s what the race thus far has been all about, so we see no reason why they shouldn’t get it over with at the beginning. Happily, we can say that Trump didn’t seem to fare well by the attention. He was asked about his habit of making unfavorable and utterly irrelevant comments about peoples’ appearances, and after hearing a disapproving comment by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, whom Trump had already stated shouldn’t be on the same stage with him due to his lower poll numbers, Trump snidely responded that “I never attacked him on his looks, and believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter right there.” This followed Paul’s golden opportunity to worry about entrusting America’s nuclear weaponry to someone whose “visceral response is to attack people’s appearance. Short, tall, fat, ugly. My goodness, that happened in junior high.” More formidable candidates such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and current Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former computer industry executive Carly Fiorina also responded to Trump’s junior high name-calling with an even more effective dignity, and we saw Trump coming off as a small, petty, obnoxious man. His fans no doubt loved it, and apparently rushed to the Drudge Report to record their cheers, but we don’t expect the upcoming polls will reflect that the rest of the post-junior high country was impressed.
Trump did well with his signature issue of illegal immigration, and of course wasn’t shy to take some well-earned credit for broadening the parameters of that debate, but we thought several of his rivals showed equal passion about the issue even as they proposed more moderate solutions. Unless the the Republicans somehow wind up with Bush or Rubio, which seems unlikely, and the self-described socialist yet tough-on-immigration Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders winds up with the Democratic nomination, which no longer seems so unlikely, the Republican will be on the popular side of the illegal immigration debate.
Not to say that she was the “winner,” a title that only more scientific polls than the one at Drudge can confer, but we must note that Fiorina is very, very good at this sort of thing. Throughout the proceedings she exhibited an impressive command of the facts and a logical response to them on a wide range of issues, offered a compelling life story of her rise from secretary in a small business to Chief Executive Officer of a leading high-tech company, a convincing account of her firing from that company and the lay-offs it made during a tech-sector downturn, and made a persuasive case that she’s a person whose intellect and character should be taken seriously. Our study of the classical art of rhetoric introduced us to the concepts of logosethos, and pathos, and Fiorina has achieved the trifecta.
She was especially good on her foreign policy, in regards to both Russia’s adventurism in Ukraine and the rest of the old Soviet Union and the even more rapidly deteriorating situation in the Middle East and the increasingly convoluted relationship between the two, and was impressively blunt and specific and  hawkish about the military spending that will be required to achieve it. We were reminded of the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and we can think of no greater compliment than that. Another high-point of the night was when CNN generously allowed her the opportunity to respond to Trump’s statement about her in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, of all people, in which he said of her, “Look at that face. Why would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that face, the face of our next president? I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not s’posteda say bad things, but really folks, come on. Are we serious?” The question to Fiorina about it conveniently followed one that had Trump doubling-down on his criticism of a obvious misstatement Bush had made about funding women’s health care during an interview about the narrower issue of Planned Parenthood, and after Bush’s apologies and clarifications Trump sneered “I heard what you said,” so Fiorina siezedthe opportunity to note that everyone in America also heard and fully understood what Trump had said about her. After nearly a full moment of deafening applause, Trump was reduced to his previous explanation that by “face” he meant “persona,” and the apologetic addendum that he he thought she had a “lovely face.” Already Fiorina had come out with a compelling campaign advertisement about her face, boasting that it’s 61-years-old and and that she’s “proud of every year and every wrinkle,” and featuring the faces of other women that Donald Trump wouldn’t treat to shrimp cocktails but otherwise deserve the full respect of anyone aspires to the presidency of the United States, and we don’t expect the insult will reap further rewards for Fiorina. Ordinarily we wouldn’t comment on such matters, but given the latest events in the news we’ll admit that to our 56-year-old eyes the 61-year-old Fiorina and her wizened and dignified persona strike us as quite fetching, even if her happily married status and our old-fashioned standards render that entirely moot, and at the risk of sounding junior high we think that the libidinous Trump and his absurd hairdo should thank his lucky stars that he’s so famously rich.
Another Fiorina triumph came toward the end of the evening, when the moderator asked an admittedly frivolous question about which woman should take the place of Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill. A couple of the candidates persuasively argued that the former-slave-holding and Indian-oppressing Democratic hero President Andrew Jackson should be nudged aside from the $20 bill to make room for a woman, but all were willing to name some woman another who deserved the honor. Some suggested their wives or mother, others preferred Rosa Parks or Susan B. Anthony or various other politically correct heroines of recent decades, but the only woman on the stage felt free to say that both the $10 and $20 bills should stay the same. She dismissed the issue as mere symbolism and pandering to women as a special interest, when now constitute a majority of the electorate and have the same interest in men in sensible policies and sound leadership, and we note that the supposedly sexist audience at a Republican presidential debate gave her another prolonged applause.
The rest of the cast was pretty good, too, although only to an extent that’s not likely to change those upcoming polls. We though Bush as pretty combative, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seemed to enjoy an outsized role in the production, at which point you can insert your own fat joke, but we’ve never figured either will play any role in the race. Bush has committed to positions on illegal immigration and the Common Core curriculum that the middle-of-the-country Republican electorate will never support, no matter how sincere or well-stated his arguments might be, and being from New Jersey Christie has similar heresies to overcome. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was strong, but has the same illegal immigration problem as Bush and wasn’t nearly strong enough to overcome it. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was good, as the veteran television presence always is, and we loved his defiance of the same-sex marriage ruling and the rest of his evangelical furor as much as the next Republican, but he doesn’t seem the right guy to deal with that $18 trillion deficit and the steady growth in government, and we don’t expect his performance will move him up in the polls. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who convincingly claimed that he could deliver his bellwether state to the Republicans, also drifted too far afield from Republican orthodoxy to hope for any improvement in his standing. The other non-politician that has been polling well in this anti-politics year is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, whose low-key and soft-spoken and humble persona contrasts nicely with the garish and bombastic and braggadocios Trump, was a little too low-key and soft-spoken and humble to stand out in the debate, and had a few awkward moments explain his past opposition to fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
We’re still tentatively rooting for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, due to the three impressive electoral wins he pulled off while fighting tooth-and-nail against the combined national might of the public sector unions in a most righteous attempt to reform his long misguided state, somehow pulling off the God-given right-to-work in the process, and on the whole we thought he did all right. He didn’t command the stage nearly so much as we might have hoped, and we fear he might have even gone largely unnoticed, but at least there were no memorable gaffes. The somehow anti-establishmrny Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is another candidate we’re liking, and he also did well, but his performance likely did nothing to change his standing.
We also like the performances of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has already dropped out of the race, and whiz-kid Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who lingers so far back in the polls he was relegated to the not-ready-for-primetime debate, which we admit we did not watch, so that’s how reliable a barometer our opinions are. Still, the evening’s entertainment left us with a hopeful feeling. At some point in the debate the charming Huckabee noted that no one seeking the Republican nomination is a self-described socialist or being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for using a private e-mail server for official business, and that he would have no hesitancy to to vote any of them against the possible Democratic nominees. This is one of those rare occasions when we agree with Huckabee, although we have to admit there would be some nose-holding involved in at least one case, and again we say that we enjoyed the show.
The Democratic episodes should be entertaining, too, if they ever get around to one. At the moment that Sanders guy seems the craziest of the competitors, and therefore the most likely to win, but Clinton still has all that money, and Vice President Joe Biden could conceivably inherit President Barack Obama’s die-hard fans and simultaneously capitalize on the anti-status quo sentiment that Sanders is currently riding, but we have no idea how that might turn out. If it turns out to be Fiorina and Clinton standing next to another on a debate stage, though, we think Fiorina would romp like that Ronda Rousey in the “mixed martial arts” game taking on Beth Correia.
No votes have yet been cast, and won’t be until next year, which we like to think is still a ways off, so we won’t reach any conclusion except that it was a good show.

— Bud Norman

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