Who won the debate? Does it matter? Trump rationalizes Putin’s killing and arrests of journalists yet polls rise.
More than twenty Americans didn’t view the Republican debate for every one that did–making one wonder whether it made any difference as to who “won.” There are three levels of “winning” a presidential debate: 1) What actually happened? What would a theoretical panel of debate experts say about the various debate performances. This seems to be the least important kind of “winning,” 2) Whom do the media proclaim as the winners and losers? With all of the entrenched interests of the various media outlets, and the use of “talking heads” and “spin doctors,” the second type of “winners” may bear little relationship to those proclaimed by the first. Thus, media crowning, in reality, is relevant only insofar as it plays a part in determining who the “winners” are in the third level, which is whether it produces, 3) actual changes in the polls that may be attributable to 1) or 2).
It’s too early to determine 3), actual poll changes due to the debate. As for the media, # 2) above, there seems to be a consensus among them that a) Trump did little to hurt himself in the debate, b) Cruz bested Rubio in the sub-drama of the debate, c) Bush looked stronger than usual, d) Christie again hit the mark, e) the rest of the field reinforced their status as also rans who will be, or should be, soon-to-exit-the-campaign types.
As for the least important type of “winner,” actually judging the candidates’ performances, once again I thought Trump looked like a bully wielding his club of relative poll standings to bash down any criticism (See below for how he approved of Putin’s bullying behaviors). However, Trump has looked that way to me through all four of the debates, and it hasn’t seemed to hurt him in the least–poll-wise. Contrary to the media analyses, I thought Rubio held his own against Cruz. Bush did appear a bit more, well, manly–something that has been noticeably absent from his earlier performances. Christie did appear in control-even as he used, for the second debate in a row, the tack of belittling the petty bickering of his opponents as irrelevant insofar as meeting the needs of the average American. All to what effect, if any? There was little to differentiate the candidates on policies. They all want us to be tougher on illegal immigration, all want more border control agents, all attack the Obama administration for letting in so many dangerous immigrants–a false premise pointed out by CNN’s “Fact-Checker,” since illegal immigration numbers are actually way down, and the number of border control agents way up, under Obama’s leadership. There was some difference between candidates on immigration reform and paths to citizenship for those law-abiding immigrants who have lived in America a long time. Even then positions were obfuscated by Rubio’s claim and Cruz’s denial of prior positions held by the latter on providing them with a path to citizenship. Zingers seem to be a primary goal of the “debaters.” Bush got one, by telling Trump that he can’t insult his way to the presidency. I’d have thought so as well, but the polls are suggesting that maybe he can. Cruz, like many, called for building a wall along the border with Mexico, but got a chuckle out of the audience by saying that he’d do that and get Trump to pay for it–a clear pun on Trump’s bombastic and ridiculous assertion that he, being the great negotiator that he is, would get Mexico to pay for his wall. Apart from giving the audience a moment of needed levity, Cruz’s jesting assertion, as much as Trump’s, were what P.T. Barnum called ‘hokum,” and had no real meaning whatsoever. On foreign policy, differences did emerge on whether to put significant numbers of American “boots on the ground” in Syria. But all agreed we have to get tougher on ISIS and defeat them, though the discussion was very short of meaningful plans to accomplish that task. Many seemed to be calling for policies that we have already adopted–without a great deal of success. Rand Paul was the exception, as he usually is, and, once again, appeared marginalized. Trump doubled down on his controversial policies of keeping all Muslims out of the country, and in a morning show Friday on MSNBC, showed that his use of the internment camps for Japanese-Americans as support for his draconian proposals to deal with Muslims was no anomaly–he really does admire dictatorial, one might say even fascistic governments. It all came about when Putin praised Donald Trump and Trump returned the good feeling by calling it a “great honor,” and, astonishingly even seemed to look with favor on Putin’s killing of journalists and political dissidents. When asked about those atrocious acts that most Americans appeared to vilify, Trump replied, “I think our country does plenty of killing also. He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.” Other Republican candidates called Putin “a gangster and a thug,” and “our #1 enemy.” 2008 Republican Presidential nominee, John McCain, said that when he looked into Putin’s eyes he “saw three letters: a K, a G and a B,” referring to Putin’s days with the hated Soviet intelligence agency. Sunday, on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd asked Trump if he’d stop his anti-Muslim rhetoric if he knew his words were being used by ISIS to recruit. He replied, “No, because I think that my words represent toughness and strength,” Trump said. “Hillary’s not strong, Hillary’s weak, frankly.” The thought of Trump heading an Putin-like dictatorship here in the U.S. frightens many Americans.
Trump’s embracing of Putin and his authoritarian actions, alone, ordinarily, would be enough to sink his candidacy. But in this election cycle, I’ve been amazed over and over at how supportive Americans, Republicans anyway, are of Trump’s outrageous and, to me, clearly un-American proposals. Perhaps enough Americans are scared enough to embrace a Putin-like dictator here at home. Those who fear a Trump presidency hope is that once his views reach the public more fully, they’ll be turned off by them. Iowa, as the first primary state, pays more attention to current events than states where the election is more removed. A new CBS poll in Iowa, released Sunday, shows Cruz increasing his lead over Trump to 9 percentage points. Yet Trump’s lead in New Hampshire remains high at 32 percent to the field bunched in the 9-14 percent range. It will be interesting to see if he maintains that huge lead as his opponents seek to use Trump’s own words against him. So-called “strongmen” have taken power in times of fear elsewhere. Could it happen here?