By Richard E. Vatz
All presidential debates are about agenda and spin, but first and foremost about agenda, what issues gain a foothold and who gains and who loses from that agenda.
In the Second Republican Debate Wednesday nigth, hosted by CNN under the auspices of the Ronald Reagan Library, there are CNN and other pundits abounding.
Some of those journalists do not know that there are environmental changes in this election campaign favoring outsiders that have never been so previously influential. Some don’t know that they contribute to the centrality of outsiders by favoring them in their coverage.
Pundits who are as sure of their grounding as ever are misleading themselves; due to enhanced outsiders’ status. Personal attacks no longer have predictable consequences.
The clearest victory in Wednesday’s first debate was New York Gov. George Pataki’s insistence of law over individual flouting of law in denying the right of gay marriage. Rand Paul is in over his head constitutionally.
But repeatedly the CNN topic agenda referenced Donald Trump’s positions, and it worsened horribly in all but the final stages of the second debate.
Who in that first debate first ignored that pushed agenda? South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, referencing foreign policy and articulating policy against ISIS and the credentials of this battle-sophisticated leader. His observations were referenced at the end of the second debate.
In another valuable non-Trump sally, Rick Santorum argued — in a point almost unnoticed, and certainly unratified — that the Republican Party needs to show that in fights between business owners and workers, the party cannot be seen as completely unconcerned about the American worker.
There are agendas that benefit Donald Trump, and there are agendas which benefit other contenders. There are agenda items which benefit the Republicans going forward against the Democrats, such as foreign policy, the nominal topic of this debate, and honesty and scandal in government which may redound to the disadvantage of Hillary Clinton.
One should begin with some realism: the following candidates will under no circumstances be the Republican nominee: Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, George Pataki, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal and, unfortunately, in the eyes of this pundit, Lindsey Graham.
So that leaves for practical matters seven prospects for whom these debates are more than an academic matter.
In the major Republican debate of the night, again Anderson Cooper tried to serve up the issue of Donald Trump. It is almost comical the consistent insistence of the Trump-relevance by all CNN regulars.
Watching, this pundit wonders if the debate principals will fall into the Trump-agenda trap.
Question after question after question after question referenced Donald Trump’s positions on issues. By the rules of the debate, this gave Trump the right to intone on virtually every point at issue.
Watching with my wife, I joked after each question, “This has to be the last Trump-referenced question.” It never was, until the debate’s last stage. CNN’s Dana Bash did the same, although she asked fewer question.
Lots of interesting topics, but for God’s sake, let the candidates declaim on the issues with some equality of time.
Marco Rubio, every time he spoke, which wasn’t a lot, was strong and eloquent, whether on illegal immigration, the importance of a more aggressive foreign policy (an under-addressed topic), meritocracy in immigration. His final remarks about what an America would look like under his presidency were truly eloquent and moving.
Substantively, the most information-filled candidates were Rubio, Fiorina, Bush, and Kasich. The best judgment was displayed by those and Christie and Carson. Can anyone listen to Carson and not admire and really just like him? Huckabee and Kasich ought to sue Tapper for non-support.
Finally, in the last half hour not every question used Donald Trump as a touchstone.
There were some great, thoughtful exchanges, such as Fiorina’s discussion in response to Paul of her child who died from illegal drugs and who was encouraged by the now disputed gateway drug, marijuana.
Rubio’s clarity on the fact that he wasn’t disputing global warming, but only whether pinprick solutions would do more harm than good.
I loved the suggestions regarding what woman, if any, should be on a $10 or $20 bill…my favorite answer was Margaret Thatcher.
Debates over an hour are too long, and this one was way too long, but another incongruity of this debate season is that some of the most interesting exchanges came at the end. Perhaps that was due to the final lack of emphasis on Trump.
As a pundit in this unique political environment, I cannot say what the polling result will be, but if the prominence given to Trump by the irresponsible moderation by CNN enhances his support, shame on their unprofessionalism. If the articulate responses of several Republican principals are more dispositive, CNN should be forgiven.
Professor Rick Vatz teaches political persuasion at Towson University.