Who were the winners and who were the losers in the August 6 Republican presidential debates? Normally I wouldn’t presume to address national political issues from this platform. What reporting have I done on those issues?
But given the extraordinary degree of showmanship — rather than statesmanship — that was displayed at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, we are all pretty much qualified to comment. Having watched all three-plus hours of it — both the “happy hour” debate and the main event, I feel compelled to present a scorecard.
#b#Big loser.#/b# Donald Trump, of course, in part because he had the most to lose but also because he played his cards wrong. My guess is that his top ranking in the pre-debate polls was only partly due to his celebrity status and corresponding name recognition. It was also due to his status as a political outsider. The golden opportunity was to appear as both an outsider and a presidential contender.
Trump kept the outsider image intact, but failed miserably on the presidential scale. Forget the interchange with Fox News correspondent Megyn Kelly. Think instead of the response to the question about an important policy issue that any future president will have to address — Chris Wallace’s question about immigration and Trump’s specific assertion that the Mexican government is sending criminals across the border. What’s the evidence? Wallace wanted to know.
Trump’s answer: “Border Patrol, I was at the border last week . . they say this is what’s happening. Because our leaders are stupid. Our politicians are stupid. And the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning. And they send the bad ones over because they don’t want to pay for them. . . . Why should they when the stupid leaders of the United States will do it for them?”
Sorry, Donald, but the “stupid” argument works well in elementary school. At the presidential level the argument has to be a little more nuanced. When the debate was over, Fox News introduced a pollster who had been watching with a focus group. The big take-away from that group was the erosion of support for Trump during the course of the debate.
So who then could simultaneously present the image of both a political outsider and a politically savvy person who could use their expertise to solve the problems that the political regulars have failed to solve? Hmmm. Who was that person who made so much sense in the “happy hour” debate?
#b#Big winner.#/b# Carly Fiorina, who gave simple and direct and — wow! — informed answers in the 5 p.m. debate, struck me (and most of the professional commentators) as the winner of that debate.
So who is Carly Fiorina? The 60-year-old daughter of a law school professor and federal judge, and an artist mother, Fiorina had dreams of being a classical pianist. She earned a degree in philosophy and medieval history from Stanford in 1976 and later received an MBA from Maryland and a masters in management from MIT.
In the 1980s Fiorina rose through the ranks to become an executive at AT&T and its spinoff, Lucent. As chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard (HP) from 1999 to 2005, she was the first woman to lead one of the top 20 U.S. companies. In 2002 Fiorina engineered a merger with rival computer company Compaq and later laid off thousands of employees. The merger was not celebrated by Wall Street, the company was hammered during the 2008 recessions, and eventually Fiorina was forced to resign as CEO.
She was an adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and ran for the U.S. Senate in California in 2010, but lost to incumbent Barbara Boxer. Fiorina is one of those women who comes on as assertive but not aggressive (that’s PC talk for saying that she cannot be dismissed as a bitch).
#b#Media winner.#/b# Megyn Kelly and, yes, she owes it all to Donald Trump and his unrelenting, unapologetic, personal attacks on her. Megyn, more than a pretty face, has a degree in political science from Syracuse and a law degree from Albany Law School in 1995.
She has proved before that she can ask tough questions — even of the Republicans who are cozy with her Fox employers. On election night, 2012, Republican operative Karl Rove became apoplectic when Fox News projected that Obama would win a second term. Rove marched into the network’s data center to challenge the analysts, Kelly followed him, and asked: “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better? Or is this real?”
All that journalistic swagger notwithstanding, Kelly’s place in the Trump spotlight is now the most important line item on her resume. She’s become a star in this sitcom, better for ratings than a foreign policy scoop or an expose of fraudulent welfare claims. And ratings are the currency in the news business these days.
#b#Missed opportunity.#/b# Rand Paul. One of the few moments of real debate between the candidates was Rand Paul taking on Chris Christie on the issue of wiretapping as an anti-terrorist tool. Paul gave Christie a stern lecture on the difference between Christie’s criminal investigations of terrorists and the government’s warrant-less wiretaps. He capped it off by reminding the 24 million viewers that Christie was the turncoat who hugged the anti-Christ, Barack Obama, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Then Paul did one little thing that, for me, ruined his chances: He smirked. Sorry, Rand, I said to myself, you’re fired. (Christie, incidentally, by my scorecard neither won nor lost.`)
#b#Question I wished had been answered by all candidates.#/b# The most off-the-wall question did not come from the cutthroat panel, but from a Facebook participant who posted this question: “I want to know if any of them have received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first.”
Ted Cruz and Scott Walker danced delicately around this one. “I am blessed to receive a word from God every day in receiving the scriptures. And God speaks through the Bible,” said Cruz, the son of a drunk who later became a preacher.
“I’m certainly an imperfect man,” said Walker. “And it’s only by the blood of Jesus Christ that I’ve been redeemed from my sins. So I know that God doesn’t call me to do a specific thing, God hasn’t given me a list, a Ten Commandments, if you will, of things to act on the first day. What God calls us to do is follow his will. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
But then the discussion drifted in other directions. God was not on my side at that moment.
#b#Line of questioning I wished had been asked of all candidates.#/b# This one is inspired by a press release from Tom H. Hastings of Portland State University, the founding director of PeaceVoice. Which Middle Eastern country had democratically elected leaders overthrown by a CIA-supported operation? Which country once held 52 American hostages, but released all of them unharmed? Which country had zero citizens involved in the 9/11 attacks?
The answer is Iran, but the most we heard in the debate about Iran was that it is evil and that any Iran nuclear agreement will be torn up on the first day of the next presidency. Fiorina was asked about Iran and said it is as “the heart of evil,” and then deftly switched the subject to the Islamic State.
#b#Final question for us in the audience.#/b# If we have a sense that Iran and ISIS and ISIS and Iraq are all different and require some critical thinking to understand, does that make us winners compared to the candidates? Or, given the office to which they aspire, does that make us losers?