Republicans' High School Cafeteria Debate
A lot of people have come up with metaphors for the drubbing Donald Trump took at last night’s debate: Frazier v. Ali, for example, or a Rubiobot set to “kill” rather than “stun.” Here’s one that kept occurring to me as I watched Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz take turns reducing Donald Trump to a petulant, stammering mess: the eighth-grade loudmouth who graduates to high school and gets ripped to shreds by a couple of juniors.
The remarkable thing about Donald Trump’s stunts has always been just how juvenile they were. His taunts were, basically, unimaginative variants on such middle school classics as:
“I know you are but what am I?”
“You’re a loser!”
“[Insert wildly incorrect “fact” made up on the spot]”
“Lalalalalalala I can’t hear you”
Trump succeeded with these tactics not so much because they were devastating, but because no one else on stage could believe that an adult was acting this way -- and when they finally did believe it, no one else wanted to join Trump in his second puberty.
The only person who seems not to have realized what was going on was Donald Trump. And when the tables were turned on him by people who adopted the same level of verbal aggressiveness, with a higher level of intelligence, he didn’t know how to respond.
The worst moment, as many have noted, was the back-and-forth on health care. This was bad not because Donald Trump’s health-care policy is woefully incomplete; policy doesn’t matter that much at this stage of the election. (More on this later.) It was bad because, just as loudmouth eighth-graders often do, Trump was basically talking about something he didn’t understand: the idea that we should allow health insurance to be sold across state lines. This is a perfectly fine idea that wouldn’t make much difference to health-care costs, but again, that’s not why it hurt Trump. It hurt Trump because, just like those eighth graders often do, he screwed it up.
“What we need -- look, the insurance companies take care of the politicians. The insurance companies get what they want. We should have gotten rid of the lines around each state so we can have real competition.”
This formulation was very strange. I presume that Trump is not, in fact, suggesting that we should eliminate the state lines, so that New York and New Jersey blend as seamlessly into each other as the colors of the rainbow. Rubio started pummeling him on it, at which point it became clear that:
- Donald Trump could not remember the correct phrase
- He also couldn’t remember what the phrase stood for, so he could not explain it in other words. He just stood there helplessly repeating “get rid of the lines around states,” which must have seemed rather Delphic and strange even to voters who don’t pay a lot of attention to health care policy.
That was when Rubio made a mild joke at his own expense, saying of Trump, “He’s repeating himself.” And when Trump shot back, "I watched him repeat himself five times four weeks ago," when Chris Christie went after him, Rubio brought the house down by saying “I just watched you repeat yourself five times five seconds ago.” And he smirked, the way juniors do, when they put the freshman loudmouth in his place.
Pundits cheered, particularly conservative ones. Having made no secret of my dislike for Trump, I will probably not surprise you by saying that I was among them. Rubio, and also Ted Cruz, who attacked him very successfully on electability, showed Donald Trump some things I’m not sure he realized: that bullies can be bullied; that being the front-runner means everyone’s going to come at you; and that there is a reason that those boring, low-energy experienced politicians take care not to say things that they will have to answer for in the media, or which can be used against them in attack ads. (Highlights from Trump’s lengthy remarks include praising Muammar Qaddafi, who accepted Libya’s responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing that killed almost 200 Americans; explaining his reluctance to release his tax returns on the grounds that he gets audited all the time; and saying that he hired foreign workers for his Palm Beach club because Americans won’t do those jobs. If these are not soon running in a continuous loop on every television screen in a primary state, then the Republican Party is fielding presidential candidates too stupid to govern.
And yet as bracing as it was to see Trump knocked back on his heels, at the end of the day, I can’t be too happy about it. We saw the eighth-grade bully put down, yes -- but by reducing the entire debate stage to the level of a high school put-down contest.
Policy was basically nowhere, except for the early round on immigration. The rest of the debate was a festival of interpersonal verbal aggression, in which what mattered was not how you would govern, or even what you believed, but who could most effectively interrupt, harass and sneer. I cheered, so that I would not weep for my country.
And yet, this is just a reflection of something I already knew: Policy just doesn’t matter that much in presidential debates, or for that matter, in presidential elections. Elections that feature an incumbent may be some sort of broad referendum, thumbs up or thumbs down, on how the incumbent has done. Yet even this is just as likely to focus on something they can’t really control (the state of the economy) as it is on decisions they made (like, I dunno, getting us into a massively destabilizing war in the Middle East).
Even things that are ostensibly about policy often really aren’t. When Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debate Wall Street regulation, neither of them puts forth the kind of detailed framework that you’d actually need to know who was going to be better on the issue. There’s good reason for this: developing such a plan would take a lot of time and expensive expertise. Then no one would read it, including the candidates themselves. And the candidates wouldn’t be able to explain it even if they did read it.
What they’re really arguing about is not how these folks will regulate Wall Street, but who hates banks more, who is angrier at them, who will be meaner to them when the time comes to build that sort of framework. Such policies as they suggest are crafted less with an eye toward effectiveness than toward “sounding mean.” For politicians, policy plans are the semaphore flag by which they send signals; they are rarely the message themselves.
This is the part where I am supposed to lament how terrible this is, how our widening deficit in Gross National Seriousness threatens to ruin the country. Part of me does think this. But then the other part -- the part that is semi-firmly tethered to the real world -- says “How could it be otherwise?”
For starters, you cannot say much of anything worth saying about policy in 90 seconds, or even five minutes. Policy is complicated. Explaining what problem it is supposed to fix, why this solution is preferable to other ideas, and what the major effects are expected to be -- that takes time. This does not work on a debate stage, or in an ad, or in a campaign speech. There is no place for serious policy in a modern campaign.
Sure, you can put white papers up on your website, but most voters won’t read them. And if they are good, serious white papers that grapple with some difficult problem, most voters wouldn’t be able to understand them even if they did. They wouldn’t have the background to assess whether your reading of the problem was fair, whether your solution was likely to work, or what kinds of objections might be made that your pet analyst has thoughtfully omitted from the discussion. Sure, an ordinary voter might be up on one or two of the issues. But no one is going to have enough expertise to assess a candidate’s whole platform -- unless we’re talking about a single-issue candidate who probably shouldn’t get anyone’s vote, anyway.
I include myself in this. There are areas, like foreign policy, that I mostly stay away from because I don’t know enough to form an opinion. The modern world is probably not really more complicated than the world was two centuries ago. But modern government certainly is. It has taken on too many tasks for anyone -- even the candidate -- to form a good opinion across the whole range.
Even when the candidate does have strong views, and you’re qualified to assess them, there’s a good chance that something will happen to change their mind. Remember when candidate George W. Bush was criticizing President Bill Clinton for his military interventions abroad?
So instead elections focus on things that average voters are qualified to assess. What is this candidate’s character? What are their ideological commitments? Who are their political allies? What groups are they likely to listen to when in office? What are their instincts about responding to threats?
I might think that in an ideal world, everyone would be like me, spending their days marinating in policy panels and white papers and government reports. But then I remember that I’d be sitting in an unheated, unlit house, gnawing on one of the four cucumbers I managed to grow in my front yard last year, with no clothes, electronic devices, or … well, you get the idea. Modern policy is necessarily the obsession of a few. And this is necessarily upsetting to the many, who simultaneously resent the intrusions of self-appointed experts, and decline to put in the hours necessary to become expert themselves.
I still mourn the tone of last night’s debate, and hope that my country will soon, once again, be capable of adult discourse. But that discourse is still not going to be aimed at me. It’s going to be aimed at the millions of voters who spend their days doing the stuff that’s necessary to keep the wonks fed, clothed and housed.
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