Where Else Wednesday's #GOPDebate Fell Short

An Editorial by Erik.

I don't normally watch debates. I'm generally much more interested in the records and experience of the candidates. While working Wednesday night on tidying up citations for Wedged, I decided to turn on the GOP debate, in part so I could at least claim I'd watched one this year before writing off the rest. (A few friends have been giving me a hard time about this the way Bush gives Rubio a hard time about his voting truancy.)

For those of you that watched Wednesday's debate, you got a roller-coaster ride. There was some early sniping at the top 3 candidates (Trump, Carson, and Rubio), but the tone quickly changed as Rubio, Cruz, and Christie led a charge against the CNBC moderators and the media in general. 

Ted Cruz got the biggest hit with a pretty creative version of, "how about talking about the substantive issues Americans care about?" That united the field against the moderators and kept them from taking shots at each other (mostly) for the rest of the event.

Well and good: for his own brand of assuming leadership in the room, Cruz is largely hailed as having "won" the debate. Rubio scores well, as well--after firing his own attacks on the media.

My opinions on such short, orchestrated events having such a major impact on public opinion aside, I was inspired by Cruz's statement to think about where this debate could have improved. A lot of folks agree that it was weak on substance--but what is that substantive stuff that Americans really care about, that Cruz mentioned?

Gallup polls Americans to answer what they believe is the "most important problem" facing the country. Since the summer, it's been "dissatisfaction with government." So we can probably safely say that's the most substantial issue, and this makes sense: it's the problem that needs to get solved before all the others get solved. 

What's causing this dissatisfaction? Gridlock, of course.

President Obama came into office in 2008 with grand plans, many of which were frustrated to some degree by Congressional gridlock. GOP leaders put forward many of their own proposals that got so little traction, most people don't know they ever existed. It's a tough time to be President or Speaker. 

("What made it so tough?" You ask--stay tuned for our book Wedged for a whole lot more on that.)

So on stage we had 10 candidates with some ambitious plans, but there's a really hard question that I think wasn't asked, that needs to be one of the first things dealt with in each debate series: "How are you going to be the leader that can bridge the partisan divide and get Congress working together?"

The best Presidential ideas will fall flat if they can't get parts of both parties on board. (Unless, of course, one party achieves total Congressional dominance, but there's no sign of that happening any time soon.) The capacity to reach across the aisle and cultivate cooperation (and, of course, go beyond compromise) is, I think, skill number one for any candidate that we elect.

But the question didn't get asked, and nobody (but Pataki, in the earlier happy hour debate) volunteered an intent to work with the other party (unless Bush's promise to kiss Democrats that cut spending counts). 

I can't say for certain if that challenge hasn't been thrown out at other debates this year, but I can't find any evidence of it. Some of the candidates at the No Labels #ProblemSolver convention spoke to this (Kasich, Graham, O'Malley, Trump, Pataki all touted their records of getting either different parties or different uncooperative groups working together better), but on prime time it's been pretty absent. 

Readers: any thoughts on why? Is it just that the party loyalists don't want to believe such cross-party work is necessary, or maybe they think it's unacceptable? Is it assumed a great leader will just make it happen?  Something else? Looking forward to your comments.

(Also, this experience didn't convince me that watching the debates is going to teach me what I want to know about presidential candidates.)

Alright: back to editing.



Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.