Day-after thoughts about the third Republican debate, on CNBC:
1) Twenty seconds of greatness from Ted Cruz. In one little bravura passage, Ted Cruz showed how he could have become a collegiate debate champion, gone from Princeton to Harvard Law School, been a Supreme Court clerk and argued cases there, etc.
What usually rings phony about Cruz’s manner, in my “according to me” personal view, is that he is so transparently talking down. He is posturing about things he obviously knows aren’t really true: that Chuck Hagel might be an agent of the North Koreans, that it makes sense to shut down the government, whatever else he is saying now. In this latest debate, he came out for the gold standard! The chance that a Princeton/Harvard graduate in his 40s, whose spouse is a managing partner at Goldman Sachs (on leave), actually believes in a (ruinous) return to the gold standard, is zero.
But in these 20 seconds, Cruz is talking up. He is wittily and precisely distilling the conventional press wisdom about each candidate. From time :30 to :50 of the video below, he is a different person from the one he usually allows us to see.
Suppose he let us see this person more often ...
2) Jeb. Poor Jeb.
I do not recall ever seeing someone who is so un-joyful a campaigner, so manifestly not up for the battle, as poor Jeb Bush. Closest competitors would be the objectively heroic Admiral James Bond Stockdale. (“Who am I? Why am I here?” in 1992.) Or Fred Thompson, sort of the Jeb of the 2008 campaign: expected to cruise through easily, losing heart when he encountered the inevitable rough patches. Running for president is a thousand times harder than most voters can imagine. And a thousand times harder than that. You have to really, really believe, really want it for yourself (and not, say, your family, which includes a father who happens to have been president and an older brother who happens to have been president too).
Poor Jeb. In politics anything can happen, but a comeback at this point would rival the 2004 Red Sox when they were down 3-0 to the Yankees. Can’t figure out who is the Yankees in this comparison.
3) Falsehoods. I can remember back to the antique days when politicians avoided saying things that were, you know, provably false.
Ah, yesteryear. Carly Fiorina barged right ahead saying that 92 percent of the job losses during Obama’s first term involved women. By common sense that cannot possibly be true, and it isn’t. But she said it anyway, and no one cared.
Ben Carson said it was “total propaganda” to say that he was in any way involved with the aloe vera-based nutrition company Mannatech, and in the next sentence mentioned that he gave paid speeches for them, appeared on their web site, and used their products. Let’s not get into the various promises to abolish the Fed and the IRS or Mike Huckabee’s remark that solving the medical-spending issue was easy. “Why don’t we say, ‘Let’s cure the four big cost-driving diseases: diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s?”
Good question. Why hasn’t anyone else thought of that? Again the point is, it was just one more “why bother with the facts?” moment of the debate. (See Mike Lofgren on this point.)
4) The press. Even Ted Cruz’s marvelous 20 seconds of bravura involved some fakery. The question he had been asked actually was substantive. Cruz’s huffy outrage was not properly aimed at the man addressing him, Carl Quintanilla.
But overall, most questions from most journalists/moderators through all the debates have been what Cruz accurately described as “cage match” questions:
Cage-match question: Person X says this bad thing about you. What do you say back? Or: You once said this. Now you say that. Gotcha! (This latter version was the bad side of the late Tim Russert’s influence on the business.)
How will you do the job question: What would you do about income inequality? What would you do about political paralysis? What would you do about ISIS (or Russia or China or whatever)?
Cruz complained at the wrong time, but about the right thing.
For later discussion: the way that sounding hostile has taken the place, in these debates and Q&A generally, for being tough in an intellectual or consecutive-questioning way. The recent great example is the interview that (our friend and partner) Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace did earlier this month with Ben Carson. Kai Ryssdal could not have been more polite or respectful, but with insistent questioning he revealed that Carson simply had no grasp of the basics of how public finance worked. Comparison that might resonate with Carson: It would be like a polite but insistent series of questions revealing that someone did not understand how nerves worked, or what anesthesia was.
Here endeth your latest debate analysis. Many more are ahead.