By Richard E. Vatz
Here was the question for tonight’s last Republican Debate before the Iowa Caucuses: Will the Fox News Channel debate agenda focus on presidential issues or presidential candidates? There is no reason for the Fox questioners to ask about poll-leader Donald Trump’s absence as a matter of process. Too often such debates concern themselves with the horse race rather than the issues that should determine for whom voters vote. Many journalists are assuming that questions should reference Trump.
That said, Donald Trump’s absence, he claimed, was due to his upset with Fox and Megyn Kelly, whom he petulantly and errantly calls a lightweight, which she simply is not, as she has demonstrated some of the most sophisticated interviewing night after night on Fox News Channel, as well as in the presidential debates. He also claims that she is prejudiced against him, as evidenced by her utterly reasonable questions concerning his hostile statements concerning a variety of women.
There is no precedent on the presidential level for someone to refuse to debate because he or she is offended by the inclusion of one of the questioners. Trump arranged, in place of a debate, a charitable Iowan event for wounded veterans. Ted Cruz, never one to be out-grandstanded, challenged Trump to a 2-man debate at Western Iowa Tech, a Texas Death Match. The other candidates have said that Trump’s withdrawal is evidence that he is unable to deal with conflict.
One question on Trump and then they moved on
Fine. Let’s have one question about the absence of a principal and then get on with an issue-centered debate.
That’s what Fox’s good moderators did.
The first question was to ask Sen. Ted Cruz about his reaction to the l’affaire Trump…first, Cruz pandered to the state of Iowa and then characterized Trump’s absence as salutary, letting the candidates debate the issues. Kelly then followed up by asking Cruz about his change of heart, and he made an atypically responsible appeal for issues and avoiding ad hominem attacks.
For the rest of the debate the questions, it is true, were all over the place, including foreign policy, drug usage, the role of federal government, liberty versus security, entitlement reform, Planned Parenthood, illegal immigration and others. This debate, sans Trump, was also absent the dominant power of charisma that has sucked the air out of substantive differences in past debates. Admittedly, there was not a lot that was new, nor could there be, after so many debates, but there was a debate.
CRUZ: Sen. Ted Cruz was repeatedly accused of vacillating between weakness and strength in foreign affairs. Chris Wallace said Cruz voted against the Defense Authorization Act and asked about his inconsistencies. Cruz said he will utterly destroy ISIS, but he utterly avoids the question. Then says he will rebuild the armed forces.
Asked if he will be daunted if he kills Obamacare and people lose their protections, Cruz outlined a new type of health insurance: personable, portable and affordable. Typical of the lack of organization of this debate, the next question went to Puerto Rico’s status and then to the issues of government and public safety in Flint, Michigan.
No one could follow the debate on consistency in immigration. At one point, Cruz said that Rubio and he both said they would lead the fight against amnesty.
RUBIO: Sen. Marco Rubio was forceful and articulate throughout, especially on highlighting the urgency of defeating ISIS. Rubio emphasized the growth and metastasizing of radical jihadists and promised to maintain the effective Guantanamo prison.
Rubio’s best line, and the best line of the debate, was that he liked Bernie Sanders, and he could be president — the president of Sweden. And, he added, no one who has lied to the families of the victims in Benghazi, referencing Hillary Clinton’s contradictory statements about whether terrorists or videos were responsible for the murders there, should be president of the United States.
CARSON: Ben Carson was always Ben Carson: He was asked about his lack of political experience, and he said he does tell the truth. The rest were generalizations: we need solutions; we need to stop political correctness; and you will get better performance out of veterans groups when the entire country is enabled.
CHRISTIE: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had the rhetorical style of a leader, but he had only one main message: you need a governor, not a senator, who has executive experience to implement solutions, and he is the one to do so, and only a governor can be held accountable for past decisions.
KASICH: Ohio Gov. John Kasich made articulate arguments but no standout statements. He’s been a reformer all of his career. We must lead as a conservative and stop all of the divisions. He is endorsed by most of the New Hampshire newspapers.
PAUL: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul who actually tastelessly gave the finger to CNN at an evening radio interview with ESPN days ago for CNN’s relegating him to an undercard debate, was not asked about it. He will be remembered mostly for strongly supporting liberty in the never-ending liberty vs. security debate.
The most critical remarks of the evening, happily mostly devoid of ugly ad hominem attacks, were laid at Hillary’s door. Christie emphasized that Hillary relies on “convenience” as an explanation for her use of a private server, implying that she superordinates her own ease of communication over national security — good shot.
Overall, a good debate and well superintended, particularly by Kelly and Wallace. The elephant in the room disappeared by the first half hour. No one had a distinctly bad night at all, but in this reviewer’s opinion, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Jeb Bush came across best, in that order.
Professor Vatz teaches political persuasion at Towson University
The best GOP debate so far
By Laslo Boyd
Thursday night’s Republican Presidential Debate was the best so far. More substance, less shouting, actual discussion about policy. The Fox panelists asked a number of good questions, used video of prior statements by the candidates to good effect, and generally controlled the flow of the evening.
The worst moment for any candidate came when Ted Cruz tried to bully his way into extra time and was firmly shut down by Chris Wallace. The second worst was a few minutes later when Cruz starting whining about the questions. Even with Donald Trump missing from the stage, the Texas Senator was definitely not the winner in this debate.
Cruz and Marco Rubio hewed most closely to their scripts from earlier debates. Both continued to try to terrify Americans about terrorists, stressed their commitment to military action in the Middle East, and argued about who was most for border security.
Ben Carson, yet again, was the sleepy, incoherent candidate. He looked like he had not quite awakened from a nap and gave answers that were almost impossible to understand. He may well be the least qualified candidate in a major party debate in modern times.
The four others—Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Rand Paul—all sounded like candidates who might appeal to voters beyond the narrow Republican base. For the most part, they avoided shrill comments, gave thoughtful, non-pandering responses to questions and tried to make the case that experience matters.
My favorite comment on Twitter came from Washington Post columnist E.J, Dionne, who, on hearing Christie promise that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t get within 10 miles of the White House, wondered if she would be stuck in traffic on a bridge.
With all of this said, however, the big question from Thursday night is whether Donald Trump’s decision to boycott the debate will help or hurt him. His absence from the stage led to a less chaotic evening there. A few of the others took swipes at him, but nothing that was really damaging. It’s too early to know whether his gamble will pay off, but you can be sure we’ll all be talking about it between now and Caucus Night on Monday.
Laslo Boyd has held posts in higher education and state government and worked as a political consultant and columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.