When All Else Fails, Attack the Messenger: Thoughts on the Third GOP Debate

After I took a week off last week, the third debate for the Republican Party snuck up on me. That week spent away from a computer left me with little debate preparation that would have given me some insight into what might be the major themes of Wednesday night’s soiree in Colorado, but that sometimes isn’t a bad thing. The ability to go in fresh sometimes will allow you to view things in a different light and present some new insights that you might not have previously considered. Unfortunately, the overall performance of the GOP in last night’s debate – and at the same time the presenter of the debate, the cable network CNBC – left me feeling nothing.

I should have known from the start of the debate that it was going to be a massive train wreck (and an apology to comedian Amy Schumer for using the title of her movie in that manner). Lead moderator Carl Quintanilla, a respected investigative reporter who has traversed the world (and an alumni of where the debate was held, the University of Colorado at Boulder, for trivia’s sake), opened the proceedings with one of those “eye roll” questions that occur far too often. Likening the debates to a “job interview,” Quintanilla asked the GOP candidates what was their biggest weakness (one of those bullshit psychological questions that come up sometimes in employment interviews). After getting several milquetoast responses from pretty much the entirety of the ten-person stage, the debate careened off the tracks.

At no point in the debate did it seem that Quintanilla had any control over what was going on in the event. Quintanilla allowed the candidates – ALL of them, not just a couple – to run roughshod over his direction of the event. I lost count of the number of times that there was little to no response to a question from the candidates and he often let the candidates interject at times when, according to the rules of the debate, they didn’t have a horse in the race (Carly Fiorina was particularly irritating in this account). His co-moderators – fellow CNBC journalists Becky Quick and John Harwood – weren’t much better with their questions and also were ridden like Grand Canyon mules over the span of the debate.

There was also no reason to have more than these three people asking questions of the candidates. I could have done without watching snake oil salesman Jim Cramer pushing his mug across the screen – even if it only was a couple of questions – and Sharon Epperson’s appearance wasn’t necessary either. In fact, if Cramer and Epperson’s raison d’etre was to give some more prep time to the triumvirate of Quintanilla, Quick and Harwood (who all seemed very unprepared for the event), they failed miserably.

With this said, there was no reason for the reaction from the GOP candidates to some legitimate questions that came up during the debate on Wednesday. It was a case of those under questioning shooting the messenger rather than answering the questions – regardless of their difficulty – presented to them.

One of the most popular methods of anyone under fire – whether they are in politics, entertainment or even the media itself – is to attack the person who is presenting the challenge to them. This is well-known in the debate world as an ad hominem attack and is recognized as a logical fallacy that allows for those under fire to sometimes escape the flames by turning the attack back on the questioner (the “messenger”). It is a tactic that has been well practiced by those in the GOP, railing against the “mainstream media” while at the same time avoiding queries about questions surrounding their past and/or their policies.

Give it to the men and Fiorina on the stage, they were quick learners during the debate last night. After the crowd expressed their displeasure with a line of questioning put towards former Governor Mike Huckabee about Donald Trump’s “moral purity” (a completely correct displeasure, by the way), the others seemed to grasp onto the “red meat” of attacking the media for the line of questioning would give them the desired response from the Republicans in attendance.

Dr. Ben Carson grasped onto that tactic next when questioned over his involvement with a nutritional supplement company called Mannatech. After stating that he had no connection with the company, Carson was challenged by Quintanilla regarding the usage of his image on their website, among other things. After Carson shot a shit-eating grin over his face following the umbrage of the audience to Quintanilla’s questions, he deftly was able to avoid the question.

The problem? The line of questioning was a viable one. The company in question, Mannatech, and Carson have had a relationship for the past decade. Carson shot many videos promoting the company and gave several paid speeches. The company has previously been sued by the state of Texas, resulting in a settlement with then-Attorney General (and current Governor) Greg Abbott for $5 million and the banishment of founder Samuel Caster from having any job with the company. The company has also settled a lawsuit with the Securities and Exchange Commission and still faces issues regarding the claims of cures their “dietary supplements” provide.

A similar situation arose in what many recognized as a “big” moment during the night’s debate. Senator Ted Cruz fed the lions of the right by rattling off the list of “insulting questions” asked by the CNBC panel. “This is not a cage match,” Cruz began (and you got the feeling this is one of those prepped answers he had been waiting to use). “Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen? How about talking about the substantive issues?”

The problem was is that Cruz’s attack on the moderators was in response to, once again, legitimate questions from the panel. The Trump question was why his policies – including deporting 11 million people, building a nearly 2000 mile long wall along our border with Mexico and forcing them to pay for it and his handling of Russia and the Middle East – “sound like a comic book version of a presidential campaign?” Needless to say, Trump did not answer the question, instead replying to the Mexico situation by saying, “A politician cannot get them to pay…I can,” a non-answer if there is one.

Carson’s question was on how his flat tax plan – similar to that of tithing to a church (someone has to remind the GOP there is a SEPARATION between church and state) – wouldn’t leave the U. S. with a huge budget deficit. Instead of pointing out what cuts would be made or other tactics necessary, Carson instead responded by saying, “That’s not true,” and never answered the question.

Cruz himself dodged a legitimate question. When asked about why he opposed the recent deal in the U. S. Congress that would set the U. S. budget for the next two years, Cruz instead railed about how the moderators wouldn’t ask anything substantive and didn’t actually get around to answering the question presented to him.

And let’s not even get into Trump’s convoluted stance regarding guns…

When you have no defense for the positions you’ve taken, when you have no knowledge beyond the bare-boned rhetoric that has been presented, the only other course of action is to attack the messenger. The GOP seems to have done that pretty well – and not without some truly atrocious questioning by the CNBC moderators to bring it on – in avoiding being held responsible for their proposals and actions.

With this situation taken care of, there were some takeaways from last night’s debate. The one thing I consistently kept wondering about was what the candidates meant when they complained about how government doesn’t do anything. My knowledge of history looks at things like FDR’s “New Deal,” which helped to get the U. S. out of the Great Depression (along with World War II), how government investment in medical research found cures for major diseases such as polio and smallpox, investment in education (especially college educations) has allowed for the baby boomers to be the most educated generation in history and investment in sciences that led to NASA and our exploration of space (and this is just a small sampling). Instead of consistently railing about the “evils” of government, try to admit that sometimes things wouldn’t get done unless there was government intervention.

Secondly, I saw a bunch of candidates complain about Washington seven ways to Sunday as if it were a bastard stepchild. The takeaway I had with was “Why do any of these people want to do something that A) they aren’t going to invest in (in reply to my above thoughts) and B) they despise to the point that they do?” Out-and-out hatred of an institution isn’t exactly going to be something that makes those there welcome you to the table and it isn’t going to inspire confidence in how you will “change” it. Instead of “making America great again” (which is about as asinine a statement there is; our country is already great and it hasn’t gone anywhere except for those nimrods who see boogeymen around every corner), how about we “improve on the United States we have?”

As to the candidates, it was Rubio’s best debate to date and sets himself up well for a future run (perhaps 2020) for the nomination (I don’t see him getting it this year really, but it wouldn’t be a surprise). Chris Christie found his groove (too little, too late) and Kasich was pretty good about presenting a moderate Republican stance. I don’t like to say someone was a “loser” in the debate, but the “Fat Lady” is warming up in the wings for Bush. Rubio flicked aside Bush’s attack on his Senatorial attendance and voting record without breaking a sweat and Bush spent the remainder of the night awkwardly trying to regain his footing.

There’s less than two weeks to the next GOP debate (November 10), so some of the things I’d like to see done won’t come true. I’d like to see the “kiddie table” debate dropped (hey, if you haven’t dug yourself over the 2% mark by this point, you don’t have any viability in the race) and perhaps see a couple of those candidates that were on the “main stage” step aside. Perhaps a little contraction in the GOP race – say eight candidates instead of 14 – would allow some people to truly put their support behind someone with a realistic shot at winning the nomination. It won’t stop, however, the “red meat” rhetoric out of the GOP regarding their “persecution” by the “mainstream media.”

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