March 7, 2016

RUBASHKIN | GOPlease Stop the Madness

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Thursday night’s GOP fiasco began with Donald Trump trumpeting the size of his trumpet and concluded with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus and the rest of the party establishment committing ritual suicide on the debate stage.  It was perhaps the best encapsulation of the primary to date, and it made me want to take a shower afterwards. To quote moderator Chris Wallace, “Gentlemen, you’ve got to do better than this.”

After two hours of watching E Street Band rejects “Big Donald,” “Little Marco” and “Lyin’ Ted” battle it out in Motor City, it is safe to say that the modicum of faith I had left in the primary process (and in particular the debates) had been bludgeoned out of existence. More time was spent on Mr. Trump’s hands and Mr. Rubio’s sweat glands than on anything remotely related to policy or vision. The result was a poorly produced political-themed Kardashians spinoff that would probably get canceled after its first season on E! or Bravo. At the beginning of primary season, some people thought it necessary to pregame the Republican debates; seven months in, the debates themselves leave viewers feeling just as intoxicated and disoriented as any pregame.

Debates are an important part of the primary process. Unlike meticulously planned campaign events and scripted stump speeches, debates leave candidates vulnerable to attack, and they challenge the candidates to effectively convey and, more importantly, defend, their message under pressure. What we are seeing today are not debates, and the Republican Party owes it to the American people to change that. This leaves us with one question: what is to be done?

For what it’s worth, Fox News did their best to curate a meaningful debate experience. The moderators were well prepared and did not hesitate to use graphics and video clips as addendums to their questions and follow ups. This tactic seems to have backfired though; the more they pushed against Mr. Trump with pesky “facts,” the more defensive he got, and the more defensive he got, the more we heard about Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) thoughts on men with small hands. It was a valiant effort on the part of the moderators, and it continued to showcase Mr. Trump’s utter illiteracy on all matters presidential, but it proved to be in vain. Luckily, there are several other options for improving the debates in the coming years.

The most obvious choice is that we just scrap the Republican debates entirely, and only have the Democrats debate. Anyone who has been keeping track of both parties’ primaries is well aware that the Democratic debates are so much more advanced in every substantive way that it is difficult to compare the two at all. Let’s say the two parties’ debates have been racing cross-country from San Francisco to Washington D.C. The Democratic car is currently zipping through the Ohio countryside, top down and bumping “Hail to the Chief” on the radio. The Republican car was last seen careening off the Golden Gate Bridge, its tires blown out and its engine on fire. The Democratic debates, barring the occasional interjection from Jim “I killed a man and laughed about it” Webb and Martin “Who?” O’Malley, concerned themselves with real questions about policy proposals, executive priorities, the future of our nation and absolutely no phallic punchlines.

That being said, the GOP may not be so partial to that option. To be fair, they could still have televised events, but they would have to drop the pretense of being debates. They could do tournament-style arm wrestling or play round robins of mercy. Most of us haven’t played mercy since we stopped having recess, but it’s not like the conversation at any of the so-called “debates” has risen beyond a fourth-grade level. Or perhaps the party should place all the candidates in the Jersey Shore house and follow their daily routines with hidden cameras. Each week, the candidate who got the fewest votes in the latest round of primaries would be voted out of the house. Such a setup would, in all likelihood, better illustrate the fundamental differences between each candidate far more effectively than any two-hour debate. Or maybe, just maybe, there is a sensible and feasible solution to the debate problem that doesn’t turn one party’s candidates into an episode of Big Brother.

When Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) was still running for president, one of his most effective applause lines went something along the lines of “I am the last person Hillary Clinton wants to see on the debate stage.” The governor makes a good point. He is a skilled former prosecutor whose debating prowess may prove to have dealt an irreparable blow to the Rubio campaign shortly before the New Hampshire primary. Unfortunately, we will never get to see Christie and Clinton clash mano a mano. But what if we could?

Instead of pitting candidates against only members of their own party, why not have candidates from both parties debate each other during the primary? The reasoning is simple; too often the Republican debates devolve into chaos because their race is not one of policy or position, but one of character. All of the remaining candidates (with the exception, perhaps, of Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio)) have roughly the same stances on most issues. As a candidate, the only way to stand out amongst such similar offerings is to convince the voters that your competition doesn’t really believe what they are saying. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) never challenges the positions Trump or Rubio assert to have. Instead he makes character attacks in an attempt to prove that those assertions are inherently false, and that his competitors are only saying them to pander to voters. The same is true for the behavior of Mr. Trump and Senator Rubio. They are too similar on paper to have a debate on anything other than hand size.

No one, however, doubts that they are different from the Democrats. With all six major party candidates on one stage, there would be a true diversity of ideas present. Instead of taking potshots at the other party to garner applause, candidates from opposing parties would be forced to discuss and debate face-to-face. It is much easier to spew vitriol into a camera than into the face of a living, breathing person. It is also much easier to display your presidential poise and temperament when confronted with issues of substance rather than the frivolities that have dominated the Republican debate scene. In this case, the Democrats would keep the Republicans grounded. Perhaps sometime in the future it will be necessary for the Republicans to keep the Democrats grounded. While it may be too late to save Big Donald, Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted, there is still hope for the next crop of candidates. Bipartisan debates are what this country needs to re-legitimize the campaign process and inject a bit of civilization into primary season. Then again, I’m totally down for the Jersey Shore idea too, if anyone wants to try it.

Jacob Rubashkin is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at The Jacobin appears alternate Mondays this semester.

  • Abe ’14

    I take huge, HUGE issue with your assertion that Ted Cruz relies on character attacks and never attacks positions. This may be true of Rubio and it is certainly true of Trump, but Cruz ABSOLUTELY attacks positions. He challenges Trump on his inconsistencies, including his plan to build a wall and his plan to cut “waste and abuse.” He goes, line by line, through Trump’s various claims, asks Trump to confirm that he has made the statements, and then illustrates where Trump has contradicted himself.

    You either haven’t been paying attention or you’ve been reading the New York Times.

  • Geoff

    To add to the post by Abe, I hope Mr. Rubashkin will read this piece by what he would consider the “other side”:

    That is what Cruz does in the debates. He prosecutes. He dissects. And he stays on message. Do not forget that Cruz was an unbelievably successful litigator, arguing many cases before the Supreme Court. He knows how to argue the facts, and he knows how to counter punch without getting personal.

  • Sophomore

    I hope you’re not a Government major, because you don’t seem to have a good grasp of the political process or the current state of the GOP field.

    The biggest issue is: “They are too similar on paper to have a debate on anything.” Not only is this assertion false, it’s a lazy and transparent fallacy meant to fit your “Democrats are superior” narrative. Everything in this race can be explained by the “Trump effect.” Trump is the only candidate without a clear grasp of the issues or in-depth policy proposals. While Cruz and Rubio in particular are similar, Trump is in fact the exact opposite of a typical Republican if you look at his past statements. He has expressed support for partial birth abortion, single payer healthcare, and trade restrictions. I’m sure you think Trump’s stance on illegal immigration is right in line with the GOP (it’s not, but I’ll let you have your stereotypes), but even that is something that Trump doesn’t have clear views on. It’s virtually impossible to have a civil debate when Trump is in the mix. He dominates the conversation and the media eats it up. Without Trump, on the other hand, the decorum and substance is in line with your beloved Democratic debates. For evidence of this, perhaps go back and watch the debate in which Trump refused to participate (as opposed to making hasty generalizations).

    Sadly, Marco Rubio and John Kasich are the only two who haven’t enabled Trump this entire campaign, choosing to focus on the issues instead of giving him legitimacy, and they’ve gotten absolutely nowhere.

    Overall, stop making blanket statements about the GOP. Trump has been a Republican for about five minutes.

    • Abe ’14

      Yeah, Rubio hasn’t enabled Trump at all. Except the whole “little hands” and the “peeing his pants” thing. Rubio is the worst offender of that which you speak. That’s why his poll numbers go down while Kasich and Cruz rise.

      • Soph

        I don’t think you read the rest of my post. Sticking to the issues have gotten them nowhere. And there’s no evidence Rubio’s jokes on the stump had any effect because he exceeded his polling in almost every state on Super Tuesday. There are about a thousand factors involved which still doesn’t change the fact that Trump is sucking up all of the air.