Ahead of tonight’s latest Republican debate, Sean Davis gives insight into the impact a single, pivotal moment can have on a candidate, especially among undecided voters.
One of the very first U.S. political debates on record was in a senate race between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln and this only happened because Lincoln followed Douglas around on the campaign trail and heckled him from the crowd. Finally, Douglas agreed to a series of debates throughout seven of the nine congressional districts in Illinois. In this debate they had no moderator but spoke about equal rights for all men and the immoral nature of slavery. In 1948, Republican presidential contenders Dewey and Stassen had up to 80 million radio listeners as they argued about outlawing communism in the U.S. The first debate that was televised had a calm and collected Jack Kennedy against a sweaty Nixon with a five o’clock shadow and this helped the younger underdog beat the more experienced Nixon. In 1976, while debating the then-obscure Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford told the world, “There is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe.” This of course was news to people living in East Germany as well as the people in the U.S. Ford lost support soon after.
This year, fifteen minutes into the third official Republican debate the pale and doughy faced junior Senator from Texas and Canadian-born U.S. presidential hopeful had run out of patience with the questions from the three moderators. Instead of answering a focused and topical question on the U.S. debt limit, he took his opportunity to chide the moderators, “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media.” He was on a roll, so he kept going, “This is not a cage match. And you look at the questions—‘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 people care about?”
“I asked you about the debt limit and I got no answer,” moderator Carl Quintanilla said.
The crowd went wild and whole-heartedly agreed with Ted Cruz’s outrage and indignation over these supposed experts soiling the hallowed institution of the United States political system. Ted Cruz, the man who rose to fame by reading Green Eggs and Ham on the floor of the Senate while on a filibuster that was not technically a filibuster. On September 24th, 2013, at 2:41 p.m., he began railing against the Affordable Care Act even though a vote was already scheduled for the following Wednesday, meaning it was too late to filibuster. He said he would fight against the evils of Obamacare “until he was physically unable to stand.” A little over five hours later, he read the Dr. Seuss book to an empty chamber into the C-SPAN cameras and then went home.
The Republican National Committee agreed that the debate was filled with “gotcha” questions and even met to draft a letter to the Chairman of NBC News stating, “CNBC billed the debate as one that would focus on ‘the key issues that matter to all voters—job growth, taxes, technology, retirement and the health of our national economy.’ That was not the case.”
So, what questions did the moderators of CNBC ask that sent the Republicans into a frenzy? Is Trump a comic-book villain? Maybe bombastic, but nowhere near asking how he would react if his wife was raped and murdered. They asked if Carson can do math. Well, this debate was called “Your Money, Your Vote” and his proposed budget fell short of funding the government by trillions of dollars. Will Kasich insult people? He had said Trump and Carson lived in a fantasy world with their immigration and budget plans. It wasn’t as insulting as it was true. They asked if Rubio would resign after a prominent newspaper, that had at one time endorsed him from the state he represents, reported he missed more votes than any other senator running for president and he stated he was done after his first term in office. Another so-called “gotcha” question was when they asked Carly Fiorina how can she say she’s qualified to run for the nation’s highest office because she was a successful CEO of a major tech company who was fired and in her time as head of Hewlett-Packard the stocks dropped by half. Are these “gotcha” questions designed to sabotage the candidates, or are they meant to catch them off guard so we can see what these people are made of?
In 1988, journalist Bernard Shaw asked then Democratic Nominee Michael Dukakis the first question of the debate and many see his answer responsible for knocking him out of the race. The question: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” People couldn’t believe that Shaw asked the longest sitting governor of Massachusetts if he would change his stance on capital punishment if his wife of twenty-five years was raped and brutally killed, and he did this to start the debate, without prior notice, in front of the entire world on national television. Dukakis’s answer was seen as emotionless and his numbers began to drop that night.
George H.W. Bush checked his watch during a town hall question causing him to lose support. During the presidential debate in 2000, Al Gore’s contemptuous sighing was made fun of by all the late night shows and may well have lost him any chance of winning that year. Rick Perry couldn’t name the three agencies of government he would do away with on his first day as president. Although, he could remember that the Department of Education was the first agency he’d cut.
The fact is debates are important for the voters, especially the undecideds. People who haven’t chosen a candidate watch how each of the presidential hopefuls act under pressure, how intelligent they are, and the public persona they project (or, as Trump would say, their brand). We see who the candidate is under pressure and how they react to tough questions. Feigning to be the victim is just another way for the voters to see what type of president they can expect.
“Those who cannot understand how to put their thoughts on ice should not enter into the heat of debate.” —Friedrich Nietzsche