Last night’s main stage GOP debate did not need to go beyond the first five minutes. The opening statements of each candidate served as an abstract for the talking points that would be elaborated over the next few hours’ discourse.
Each candidate was a variation on a theme, both at an individual epistemological level and at a GOP level. Essentially, the contenders all gushed talking points about American exceptionalism and national security, emphasizing different facets of the issue as dictated by their pet causes.
Rand Paul went after the front runners, setting up his Constitution-centered vision of American values against the statist surveillance policies of Donal Trump and Marco Rubio, ultimately twisting their words into a dystopian straw man.
John Kasich fell back on his crutch of his family, talking about how his daughter does not like politics because its loud and divisive and therefore ultimately will not solve any issue. Ironic from a man who bullied a critic of his Medicaid expansion policy by invoking St. Peter.
Chris Christie talked about terror, evoking the shut down of the Los Angeles school systems and the fear stirred in the hearts of parents and children. Much like Herman Cain who in 2008 managed to work his 9-9-9 tax plan into every public statement, Christie once again cited his credentials as a federal prosecutor in the wake of 9/11.
Carly Fiorina sounded decidedly like President Obama during 2008 when he promised to heal the planet and stop the rising seas as she stated in a strangely emotional whisper-y tone “All of our problems can be solved; all of our wounds can be healed.” She spoke of suffering as a woman, a mother and a professional, a rationale that seems more at homes on the lips of Hillary Clinton.
Jeb Bush spoke almost entirely in poorly-articulated bromides centered around : serious times require strong leadership, defense and America’s waning moral leadership, an unmemorable spiel almost entirely mimicked by fellow Floridian politician Marco Rubio who was able to spice up his love of American exceptionalism by invoking his parents’ immigration.
Ted Cruz said much the same, stating he understood, unlike Obama, that the commander in chief’s first obligation is to keep America safe. Sounding alarmingly Orwellian, Cruz said he would stop terrorist attacks before they occur.
Carson had perhaps the oddest moment of the night, asking the audience to join him in a moment of silence for the victims of San Bernadino. This was followed up with a poorly-constructed metaphor about having to consult with other neurosurgeons in making life-or-death decisions. America, Carson stated, is the patient, but unfortunately did not extend the metaphor to international cooperation in dealing with terror.
Laslty, Donald Trump babbled in semantically null sentences about the focus of his campaign and how it “opened up a very big discussion that needed to be opened up.”
The same statements could be lifted from the opening debate, inserted into questions asked later and would make contextual sense. The debate was simply that venial.
There are really two ways to look at this kind of superficiality. One, it is alarming. Politicians spew trite platitudes about working together and ending divisiveness, but multi-person debates reveal that doing so means sacrificing substance for civility. And, in many cases, this cannot even be accomplished, which raises the question- what is the point of structured debate if no one actually engages in detailed analysis?
The answer is identity, and there is something to be said for this. While there is not much of real thought in the positions briefly articulated by each candidate there is enough to make each identifiable. It grafts identity into each politician. There is a benefit to this; it helps organize the messy world of politics, connecting voters to a candidate whose views in some way mirror their own. But this comes at the cost of in-depth politics. Whether this is a reasonable price is something only the American voter can decide.