Within the first moments of Tuesday night’s prime time debate, Donald Trump had established his superiority.
Not as a candidate whose viewpoint had validity because polling- a very constrained measure at best- suggest his message resonates with voters, but as a Stalin-esque dictator whose premier standing in the race made him final arbiter of all related matters.
As he belittled Rand Paul in the very first exchange of the evening, Trump’s tone made one thing very clear- the force of his great personality should be the arbiter of all political matters.
This tone, which carried throughout the evening in puerile squabblings between candidates that had nothing to do with overarching political ideology and everything to do with the petty points that could be gained in personal attacks, was carried over from the first debate.
Throughout the course of the “JV” debate, the candidates were asked about their positions through a frame of the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with statements made by their fellow running mates:
Rick Santorum was asked to outline his strategy for dealing with ISIS, not directly, but indirectly through a question asking whether he agreed with the number of ground troops Lindsey Graham has stated he wants to deploy in Iraq and Syria.
George Pataki, one of the few candidates to actually present a comprehensive plan for overhauling the tax code, was asked about it, not directly, but indirectly through a question asking whether he supported Jeb Bush’s stated intent to raise taxes on hedge fund managers.
In the prime time debate, Jeb Bush was asked about his foreign policy through the lens of his brother’s actions.
And, by the number of times Ronald Reagan’s name and actions were invoked, one might think 2016 was to be a third term of his administration.
All this adds up to one thing: a modern GOP that is rooted in personality and not philosophy. Candidates have no real root; they stand for nothing, except in contrast to what an opponent says. And then it is not so much the substance in differing opinions that matters so much as the actual difference.
In fact, according to FiveThirtyEight, only 60% of the comments in the first hour of the varsity debate responded to questions. 20% was frittered away in interruptions and the remaining 20% was side-talking as a result of attacks, meaning, of course, it involved squabbling.
As a result, not only is substance completely thrust out of the election, consensus is falsely promoted as the currency of political bargaining, thus further promoting personality over fact.
Anytime numbers were cited they were used as an ad hominem attack on another candidate. During the first debate, Santorum cited legislation dealing with immigration reform he authored and presented during his tenure in the Senate. Lindsey Graham, who moments earlier claimed ignorance of the bill, incessantly interrupted, hurling barbs claiming Santorum’s effort failed because it did not have bipartisan support.
And therein lies the problem: the party has become a living entity that must be defended. Its status has supplanted the need for philosophy-driven politicking. As a result, candidates think name-dropping of influential figures and personal attacks are the key to victory. But it is really the reason they continue to lose.