Politics

I Can’t Believe I Watched the Whole Thing

Feature: What I saw at CNN’s Reagan Library Debate

GOP 2016 Debate
The candidates stand behind their podiums during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum / AP

SIMI VALLEY, Calif.—There are many things that only someone who made the trip to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley for the second round of 2016 Republican presidential debates could tell you about. I could tell you about the teenager holding a "KANYE FOR PREZ" sign or the line of people chanting anti-Planned Parenthood slogans or the shirtless kids who threw their Oakland Raiders banner over the window of the press shuttle at the foot of the hill leading up to the library. I could tell you how, unless you ignored the directions emailed to members of the press, which took me and my Uber driver to a strip mall miles away from the spot where I eventually picked up my press credentials, it was very difficult to get in to the library and nearly impossible to get out.

I could tell you about the Little Gipper, the baby elephant-shaped shrub sitting under the sign at the library’s main entrance, and the complimentary Reagan-branded Jelly Bellies that come in what looks very much like an old-fashioned pack of Chesterfields. I could tell you—though you would probably stop reading—about the sunset view of the valley I took in during the last commercial break of the evening and the eerily beautiful E.T.-like orange glow cast over the endless little ’70s-era stucco ranch homes, one of the most sublime cigarette interludes of my life. I could tell you about the snipers on the roof or the fact that for some reason the only potato chips available outside the spin room were Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion. I could tell you about the right-wing grandees choking with laughter as they congratulated themselves on how sophisticated their responses to the night’s proceedings were vis-à-vis the rubes at home, and even the name of the moderately famous person shouting "We are elites!" on the very late shuttle back to the West Lot at the end of the night.

Instead I am going to tell you something that should have been obvious to anyone who watched the debate on TV or on CNN.com’s "record traffic" livestream.

The first debate at 4:00 p.m. PST with the JV team was going to be excruciating no matter what. It was a mercy that Jim Gilmore’s participation was limited to live-tweeting the event ("If Santorum wants to be president he will have to obey the law to [sic]") along with Bernie Sanders and Ice-T and goodness knows who else.

First Jake Tapper asked the candidates to introduce themselves. "Keep it short," he said, narrowly preempting what would no doubt have been a recitation of George Pataki’s C.V. from the governorship of New York to the state senate and the assembly all the way back to his mayorship of Peekskill and his chairmanship of the Conservative Party in the Yale Political Union. Pataki was, far and away, the worst thing going on Wednesday. His painful attempts at sounding conciliatory toward social conservatives, his vague references to "experience," all fell flat. If we take his debate performance at face value, it’s safe to assume that he thinks he can do in 2016 what Rudy Giuliani couldn’t manage in 2008, which is to say, run on having been in office on September 11, 2001. If it didn’t work then for America’s Mayor when Osama bin Laden was still at large, it won’t work now for a moderate governor who has been out of office for a decade. Someone should let him know.

If Pataki should have remained on the bench, Lindsey Graham was the star. Witty, self-deprecating, verbally dextrous, he was a model of Southern charm. In fact, he was far and away the most Reaganesque figure in either debate, if by that somewhat tired adjective we mean "reminiscent of America’s beloved 40th president." Everyone in these debates reaches for the red cloak of the Gipper, but all of them—Ted Cruz is the worst offender—forget that Reagan was charming, likeable, not frenetic, often if not always vague about policy, a good one-liner always at the ready. Anyway, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in politics getting away with a sex joke about Strom Thurmond, much less bringing down the house with one. It’s unlikely that Graham, who is languishing at around five percent in the polls in his home state of South Carolina, will ever make it to the main stage in these events. This is too bad.

The others were somewhere in between. Jindal was excellent on Planned Parenthood and abortion, topics he railroaded into the debate, but his budget-busting talk belies his unpopularity in Louisiana with people who agree with him about social issues but whose minds have not been shaped by the Club for Growth. Santorum reminded us that he has perhaps the most interesting platform—traditionalist, protectionist, skeptical of immigration and even of unfettered capitalism, pro-safety net and entitlements, fearless in the face of both the left’s antinomianism about gay marriage and the right’s at-all-costs fetishism of markets—but no skill whatever at outlining it.

Has anyone noticed, by the way, that the candidates don’t know how to look at each other? There is something straitened and affectless in Jindal’s face as he tries to make eye contact with Santorum that reminds me of the actors in the Star Wars prequels mouthing platitudes and abstractions in front of green screens. All of them have bad posture, too, and not just in the grandmotherly "Stop slouching" sense. They seem to have no idea what to do with their arms when talking to other human beings as opposed to crowds or cameras.

The specter haunting the first debate was Donald Trump. It began with Tapper telling Jindal, who had other things on his mind, "We’ll get to those," by which he meant, the economy, foreign policy, immigration, health care, entitlements, etc.

When the time came for the main event and Trump arrived, the best that one can say is that he was Trump. Did he disappoint his fans? Only once. Even the most stalwart Trump supporter would admit, I think, that Carly Fiorina got to him. It was nice to see him genuinely flustered, red faced, stumbling, having to ask not to be interrupted. It is high time someone pointed out that his position on immigration is, practically speaking, indistinguishable from the old Gang of Eight comprehensive line. Like many of his fellows, he obsesses over the mostly procedural issue of "illegal" immigration, when the question to be answered one way or the other is about immigration, legal or no, and its economic and cultural implications. Why go to the expense of deporting 11 million people and letting "the good ones" return when you could just deport criminals and grant amnesty to everyone else?

If anyone had a standout performance in the second debate, it was Fiorina, who spoke well throughout in precise, clipped, detailed sentences. The single best moment of the night was her indictment—I don’t think the word is too strong—of a nation in which infanticide for profit is not only tolerated but federally subsidized. If she were somehow to combine her foreign-policy professionalism and commonsense views about education with a broadly reforming agenda, it would be time to stop talking about her as a potential number-two and give her consideration for the real thing.

An exhaustive account of how all the other candidates performed would be of epic length, if only because there is so much folly to report. Here, in order of their polling averages going to the debate, were my impressions:

1) Jeb Bush was a bit more human than usual but he still seems bloodless, which, I suppose, is my polite way of saying "low-energy." With his timid hand gestures, he reminded me of a dull, slightly chubby parish priest from my youth who every Sunday gave homilies full of jokes that he knew were bad. But he made one of the most important points of the evening when he talked about rebuilding our intelligence services. It is worth remembering that the "old gang" advising him is made up of people who made sure that there are no nuclear weapons in Uzbekistan, won the Gulf War in just under seven months, and, as Jeb himself, amid the loudest applause of the evening, pointed out, made sure that September 11 was not repeated.

2) Scott Walker, when he had a chance to speak, vexed me to no end. Here is a man who presumably could square the populist circle and win the general election by carrying Ohio, Wisconsin, and perhaps even Michigan, yet insists on playing the part of a two-bit CPAC panelist. When he railed against "the talking points of the Democrats," I was reminded of something a colleague of mine said earlier this year when Ted Cruz congratulated the audience at CPAC for not allowing any Democrats into their midst: "Too bad they’re half the country."

3) Ben Carson is a very nice man who shouldn’t have been on the stage. I say this not because of his background outside politics but because he didn’t seem interested in disagreeing with anyone all night. The others felt the same way about him. His sheepishly respectful responses to everything asked of him confirmed my view that he belongs on the speaking circuit, where he is far less awkward.

4) Ted Cruz spoke very little. The only thing in my notes about him reads "Cruz: Silly about Roberts. Wouldn’t have nominated Alito?" I do not think he is well suited to this format. He has a nimble, prosecutorial mind, but he was longwinded and vague all night, and Tapper was right to cut him off each time he did so.

5) Marco Rubio was also out of the fray. When he did speak, however, he was precise and fluid. His answers were substantive. There was nothing cloying in his story about his grandfather, and his point about wanting to address Spanish speakers in his own words rather than through the filter of Univision was subtle. It is easy to imagine him shining even more when half these people have dropped out and he is not fighting for time.

6) Huckabee was, well, Huckabee. He is a likeable man in the sense that William Jennings Bryan was a likeable man, except that, unlike Bryan, Huckabee is also funny. He deserves more plaudits than he tends to get for his tough-mindedness about Social Security, which many Tea Partiers would like to see phased out, but the nomination will never be his.

7) Rand Paul’s poindexterish responses to Trump made we wonder whether he really is any more charismatic than his famously awkward father. His delivery of the already dorky "I spend my days" line made him sound like a hippie gardener or an artisan quilt technician. I also found myself wishing that someone would quote actual statistics about the number of persons imprisoned for possession of marijuana in this country. On foreign policy he has "triangulated" so much that I admit to having zoned out the one or two times he spoke on the subject.

8) John Kasich has all of Jeb’s problems and many of his good points. There is something refreshingly adult about him. In a smaller, perhaps Trump-less field, he, like Rubio, could be formidable.

9) Chris Christie was oleaginous. Like Rick Perry, whose absence made the second-tier debate even duller than it might have been, Christie has a decent record in his home state and would have been very nice against Obama in 2012.

Fiorina aside, none of these candidates can speak English very well, though to Graham’s credit, he acknowledged as much himself in the first debate. Are complete, grammatically sound, syntactically balanced sentences really so much to ask for? Trump is far and away the worst offender here, but when he showers us with gibberish about how "We are 19 trillion, 19 trillion," never specifying what we were 19 trillion of or in, he gets away with it because it is at least confidently spoken gibberish. Thanks to the affectless delivery, some of what I heard from the others made me think of dialogue from a bad kung-fu movie. "He was a great one," Kasich said of Reagan. "I learned much from watching him."

Which brings me back to what I promised I would tell you, something you should know already, namely, that these debates are not debates. Lincoln and Douglas had debates. Reagan and Jimmy Carter debated. Christopher and Peter Hitchens’ tête-à-têtes about Iraq and God were debates, and very enjoyable ones. What we saw Thursday night was bad late-night television: a talk show with an absurd set and too many guests. (I hope I’m not in the minority when I say that none of the responses to Tapper’s idiotic question about codenames—at a site dedicated to the memory of a president whose life was saved by the Secret Service—were funny.) This explains, more than anything else, why Trump, an old Letterman hand, is doing as well as he is.

Imagine what it would be like if we had real debates, where people spoke for more than 30 seconds at a time and pared down their arguments in response to timed rebuttals and faced planted hecklers. Santorum and Rubio could go head to head on the subject of immigration, with Santorum making the restrictionist case, citing evidence of lower wages and increasing unemployment, and Rubio taking the Reaganite line about aspiration and perhaps, à la Bush and Kasich, throwing in a line about Christian charity. Paul and Huckabee on drugs or Fiorina and Jeb on defense or Trump and anybody on any subject under the sun: all of these would be edifying and enjoyable. Would Cruz, the former national debate champion, shine through in a way that we haven’t seen? Would Carson simply refuse all comers out of politeness?

For a whole host of reasons, personal, logistical, financial, tactical, all of them intertwined and most of them silly, these questions are likely to remain unanswered. What a pity. Middle-school kids do this stuff. Why not the future president?