Become an American politics professor, they said. It'll be fun, they said. And now it's 10:30 PM and I just spent three hours I'll never get back watching a bizarre reality show where everyone was sweating and talking about small government in front of a giant government plane. And I didn't eat dinner and now I'm eating peanut butter out of the jar.
But all of that pales in comparison to the level of dysfunction that I'm pretty sure I just saw. The standout themes from tonight's debate boil down, for me, three ideas that folded in on themselves before our very eyes.
Small government: The really key moment here was when the candidates talked about small government, but then also about the extensive monitoring the government will do for anyone who enters this country.
On the other hand, the promise to defund Planned Parenthood has created a nice narrative to tie together social and economic conservatism in a way that was getting pretty strained before. This is also true of the religious freedom question. The question is whether these alignments will work, or be enough to motivate a policy agenda. And that's where this field looks disjunctive to me. The ways in which they are pulling together the disparate strands of ideology lead to fairly minor, and conditional policy stances.
Anti-politics: My favorite exchange of the entire debate was when a sitting governor, Chris Christie, got frustrated with Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina for going on about themselves instead of addressing the problems of working Americans. Christie wasn't wrong - but it sounded exactly like the kind of thing that anti-politicians like Trump and Fiorina accuse professional politicians of doing.
Politics as entertainment: Contrary to popular wisdom, this isn't a terribly new invention. It goes back at least 100 years and probably more. In the modern era, the politics-entertainment nexus has been especially scripted, and unplanned moments - think Howard Dean's infamous 2004 scream - can be disruptive and alarming. I am not sure if some version of that was happening at the beginning of the debate when Trump blurted out that Rand Paul "shouldn't even be on this stage." The minutes after that felt, to me, really uncomfortable and like something weird had just happened. I'm not sure why - Romney and Obama certainly traded jabs like that in 2012. Perhaps I'm not used to seeing it in the same party?
And the candidates kept jogging into new topics without transitions. It was like different actors trying to read off different scripts in the same play. I told the students I was watching with: this is what you sound like when you try to BS your essays and just write everything you remember about the class. Usually these things seem scripted and that's fine, but this time it felt like there were gaps in the script or people going off book or something. Politics as entertainment only works, I think, if everyone agrees about the basic rules of the game - what topics will be covered, what subjects are fair game (like wives), and what the relative balance will be between bluster and actual issue discussion.
Small government, anti-politics, and politics as entertainment - these were not new, but were introduced in fresh and interesting ways c. 1980. Now, as the Republican candidates try to adapt them to thirty-five years later, efforts to reinvigorate them just seem weird.
Who's ready for the next debate?
Some quick thoughts:
The Trump Doctrine: America gets "good deals" with other countries when they respect the president. Elect Trump and world leaders will respect the president more and give in to U.S. demands.
Terrible job, CNN. Half the questions were essentially, "what do you think of this thing that he said about you?" Not policy differences, but personal spats.
Rubio finished strong on global warming, putting Rosa Parks on the $10 bill, and foreign policy. That should keep him in the race for a while. Awkward point: his house is 10-15 feet above sea level.
New Jeb! strategy: "Did I mention my last name?"
My colleagues suggest this debate is purely ephemeral. By itself, yes. But they seem to matter indirectly, in that a good performance attracts voters (at least until the next debate) and, critically, affects the willingness of donors to back a candidate. With that in mind, the next two points guess which candidates will drop out next. Note: the payoff for running depends on a) each candidate's likelihood of winning the nomination and b) the extent to which s/he is running to win vs. just running to talk.
5) Most likely to drop out next: Pataki, Santorum.
6) On deck to exit: Christie, Graham.
The basic dynamic in the Republican field is that no one believes that Trump can win, but positioning oneself as the non-Trump candidate who gets the nomination requires you to do two things that are hard to do simultaneously. First, the field is so large that a candidate needs to stand out from the crowd so that voters and party elites will coordinate on him or her as the main Trump alternative. Second, the candidate needs to look competent at campaigning so that observers will think that he or she will have a good shot at beating the Democrats. The dilemma is that the best way to accomplish the first task is to attack Trump directly, leading to one-on-one exchanges with him and more screen time for you. But that tactic makes it harder to look good.
Last night, Jeb Bush succeeded at getting attention, but failed at looking impressive. Jeb challenged Trump head-to-head multiple times, especially at the beginning when I presume viewers were paying the closest attention. Jeb seemed to get a lot of screen time. But I don't think he came across as that skilled a candidate. When challenging Trump, he let himself get bogged down in petty personal back and forth insults, and seemed to get frustrated with Trump. This is the problem of Bush's entire campaign in a nutshell. He has attracted a lot of donors and seems to have the potential to get party endorsements (i.e., many Republicans seem willing to coordinate on him as the establishment candidate), but so far a large percentage of endorsers have waited on the sidelines. Jeb could reassure Republican elites and get more endorsements if he appeared more skilled in media interviews and debates. Jeb's failure to lock up endorsements opens the possibility of the party coordinating on another candidate and for that candidate taking off quickly once the primaries start (like John Kerry did in 2004 after Iowa, when anti-Howard Dean Democrats coordinated on him).
I don't know if that will happen. But Bush needs to appear more impressive on the campaign trail to lock up more endorsements. For now, a path to the nomination is still open for candidates like Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, who didn't get a lot of screen time but appeared competent when they were on camera, and who avoided letting Trump get under their skin the way Jeb did.
I thought one of the more compelling and useful moments of the debate was the exchange between Rand Paul and Chris Christie over marijuana legalization. This nicely highlighted an important rift within the Republican Party between, basically, freedom and order. Paul emphasized personal freedom and state's rights, claiming that the only victim of marijuana use is the user, and defended Colorado's decision to legalize it. Christie pushed back, basically saying the law is the law, and if you want to change the law, change it, but don't encourage lawlessness. Carly Fiorina came in with an interesting personal touch, noting that she lost a child to drug addiction, basically saying that we shouldn't be enabling further drug use. This exchange also resulted in Jeb Bush's admission that he'd used marijuana 40 years earlier, although Fiorina noted that the stuff he'd smoked back then was far weaker than that which people have access to today.
Unlike basically the first hour of the debate, which was mainly candidates talking about Donald Trump and Trump talking about himself, the marijuana exchange was about specific policy. It also showed eloquent discussions on both sides of the issue, and gave us a good idea about how some candidates would approach issues of personal freedom more generally.
Politics is usually politics as usual.
We at MoF have a dim view of the "outsiders" in the race. Not only do we not think they can win, we don't think they'd be very good presidents. The debate suggests why.
The outsiders' arguments boil down to a protest against "politics as usual." Trump says he can do for government what he has done for business. Carson says politicians just "put their finger in the air" and do what is "politically expedient." Fiorina says politicians are like fish. They've been in the water (politics as usual) so much that don't even know it's water.
But it is water. The other term for "politically expedient" is politically savvy. Accomplishing things in government requires negotiating with other politicians. It requires negotiating with world leaders. It requires politics. The other term for "finding out what way the wind blows" is representation. You can't represent a country whose opinions you ignore. Political science research actually suggests that politicians do not pander to public opinion. They do tend to represent their districts, but they also lead and shape public opinion.
Since the outsiders don't really know what it takes to do politics, they are a distraction from those who do. I thought the debate got really good about 45 minutes in, when the politicians on the stage starting talking about disagreements about Iran, about China, about religious freedom, about Planned Parenthood. That was also the part of the debate when the outsiders were mostly quiet. When Carson and especially Trump got back in front of the camera, the debate got silly again. (Fiorina, by contrast, did have some useful things to say, although not always factually accurate ones. She's not alone there.)
Politics is water, and politicians are fish. Fiorina, Trump and Carson are not fish. Put them in government, they drown.
As a game theorist, I tuned in for the final hour, figuring or hoping that the field would be pared down. I think the real angle on this debate is that there is no political angle. Fittingly, given Trump's position relative to his competitors, this is more about reality TV. I don't think that's a bad thing---there are issues being (occasionally) discussed. That said, the couple of "hits" I heard in the debate were mostly about pot, vaccines, and the $10 bill. At this point, strategically, the only thing a campaign is really trying to do is stay in the news cycle. On a purely observational note, I thought Carson missed an opportunity. Bringing up the fact that he was a "radical Democrat" prior to Reagan is admirable, but probably poorly chosen. It also led me to wonder what makes him think of his views at the time as being radical. That was 1979/80 after all.
In the end, Fiorina was the focal point other than Trump, given her new place on the stage. Evaluating her performance, given the scattershot, free-for-all "format" required in this setting is nearly impossible. I will point out, however, that the fact that "getting mentioned by name" by another candidate gave one a presumptive right to speak is an intriguing (and highly manipulable) kink in the process. When asked who's going to win, I say "it depends first on who doesn't make an absolute mess in the next 8 months, and then we'll see who the remaining candidates are." If you don't know what I mean, ask Gary Hart or John Edwards how things can play out.
Debates have become one of the circuses of American politics. They're superficial, theatrical, and bear little relationship to reality. Occasionally, there are moments of substance, but inevitably one has to embrace the show business aspects of the event.
It was a long slog of a debate -- three hours, coming after an hour at the kids' table. Several candidates are at a point where their supporters must wonder if it's worthwhile to stick with them, given disappointing fundraising, poll numbers, and endorsements. So many of the eleven Republicans had something to prove.
Given the sheer length of the debate and the large number of candidates, it was often difficult for anyone to stand out. But there were at least a couple of clear winners. Carly Fiorina got off the Trump-killing quip we've all been expecting, and she performed consistently at a strong level. (Many of her responses turned out to be untrue, but that shouldn't hurt her inside the GOP). Given that her views are far more conventional than Trump's, will some Republican insiders give her a look? It's only the second debate and we've gotten used to Marco Rubio's debating prowess, especially on foreign policy. Can he ever make the leap from "everyone's second choice" to a top-tier candidate? Jeb Bush probably had the most to prove, and his low-energy first half must have had some of his big moneymen exploring other options. But he came back roaring later in the debate, and probably calmed some nerves on Wall Street.
Donald Trump was Donald Trump again, but his schtick feels old, the other candidates were better able to engage him than before, and he fell out of the debate as questions got more substantive in the second half. (Could cable news please quit its Trump obsession -- even the kid's table debate started with a Trump question). I have no idea if this debate will bring down his poll numbers, but Republican insiders must feel better about their ability to block his path to the nomination. Ted Cruz did a better job than did Mike Huckabee in pandering to social conservatives. Chris Christie was lively, but his campaign is probably too far gone to be saved. Rand Paul seemed to be doubling down on playing to his father's loyalists, especially on issues like foreign policy and marijuana, where he is distant from most Republicans. That might be a good path to finishing fourth in Iowa, but not the nomination. John Kasich turned in another serviceable performance that seemed aimed at independent voters in New Hampshire. I don't "get" Ben Carson, but he frequently seemed out of his depth to me. Scott Walker was entirely forgettable, which bodes poorly for a once-promising campaign that is now gasping for oxygen.
It's somewhat amazing that an event that precedes a national election by 14 months receives so much attention and analysis. There is still a lot of game to be played; however, the Republican field is so broad that these events have the effect of thinning the herd for two reasons.
First, some candidates slip-up, make mistakes, or otherwise underperform in ways that cause them to lose the attention of elites (who are the only ones paying attention at this stage). In this way, debates are more of an opportunity to lose, than an opportunity to win.
Second, debates are an opportunity for zingers. "Zinger" is an official political science term for a memorable quip that brings the speaker attention. When candidates use their debate appearance to deliver memorable lines (e.g., "I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said" - Carly Fiorina) they bring attention to themselves and their campaigns, which can translate into money or--more importantly - endorsements.
On these two scores, the debate provided some small movement in the field. While Donald Trump had the most speaking time, he didn't seem to have as many zingers as the first debate and in the most substantive portions of the debate he fell silent. Substance is not his strong suite, and he even said so himself in the debate. I suspect that we have reached peak-Trump in this campaign and we will start to observe his slide in polls over coming weeks. The question, of course, is which candidate(s) will replace him at the top?
We really shouldn't talk too much about debate performance, who won, or who lost, but since we're going to anyway here are some observations that could be reflected in polling over the next few weeks. I don't have comments on everyone because A.) there were too many of them, and B.) I'm not sure that John Kasich was even there.
Fiornia: She did an effective job neutralizing one of the main criticisms that gets thrown at her: her leadership at HP. Her comeback line, and stone-faced, unflinching staredown to the Trump criticism of her face, was classic. That will become a debate moment that gets replayed for years. I'm sure it's a gif already.
Rubio: He showed expertise and skill. He came across as earnest and polished, even if sometimes a bit too high pitched, which reduces his credibility. He demonstrated a command of foreign policy and showed principle.
Carson: Came across a boring. Had a real opportunity to slam Donald Trump on vaccines and completely missed (maybe on purpose, but I don't think so). He was not as compelling tonight as he was in Cleveland.
Trump: Did his normal schtick, and it's starting to wear.
Bush: Notable for how consistently he seems to underperform. He doesn't shine, he doesn't flail. He's not particularly memorable. If that's his strategy it may not be bad one, for now, but you can't play that strategy for too long. I'm also astounded that he still doesn't have a clear, consistent answer for the question about his brother's presidency. The Bush presidency presents a problem for all Republicans, a little bit, but it certainly affects Jeb more than any other. Jeb's claim that his brother "kept us safe" won't stick once people remember who was president on 9/11.
There were no game changers, no gaffes, the election is still 417 days away, and political junkies are the only ones paying attention right now. The debates may not be very predictive of the ultimate outcome, but they sure are fun to watch and tweet.