Republican Leadership?

Face It, That's an Oxymoron!

Polls suggest America might elect a joke as President

Making fun of the assortment of Republican candidates for President as some sort of clown show is easy enough to do, which is probably one reason so many people do it. But that sort of ridicule is so insubstantial, so irrelevant, that it ends up serving as a form of endorsement of the motley crew, as if, underneath it all, these are actually serious people. This implied endorsement is reinforced by the tepid questions they are asked in conjunction with media coverage of their mostly foolish answers to pointless questions, as if this charade were somehow a meaningful and sober way to choose a leader.

Actually, it’s all a big joke. The participants must know it’s a big joke, but it works for them, it protects them from answering hard questions with possibly dangerous, relevant answers, AND it lets them throw verbal cream pies in each others’ faces – what’s to hate? And the media know it’s all a big joke, which works for them, pandering to ugly prejudices, treating truth and lie as equals, and getting good ratings from pie-in-the-face lovers of almost all opinions.

None of this is a secret. It’s an open conspiracy. Any of the candidates or reporters involved in this campy superficiality could break it down in a moment with consistent focus on what matters rather than just what gets laughter or emotional outburst. Covering the Republican debate of September 16, the New York Times the next day winkingly gave the game away in its print-edition subhead:

“Talk of Ability to Lead Takes a Backseat to Sharp Attacks”  

Then the story’s lede said, confusingly and contradictorily, treating name-calling as if it were a policy statement: “Determined to prove their mettle, several Republican presidential candidates showed new aggressiveness in lacing into Donald J. Trump on Wednesday night, seeking to elevate themselves as leaders of substance….”

Say that again. “Lacing into” Trump is the equivalent of being a “leader of substance?” So says the Times, speaking as the organ of the permanent ruling class. So you’re on notice: it’s not only a joke, there’s not only nothing you can do about it, but you’re expected to accept this absurdist theatre as an affirmation that these people, no matter how silly or petty or nasty or vacant in style, still have the substance to serve honorably and effectively as President of the US.

They don’t. Seriously, they don’t. Is there anything in the full transcript that makes you think any of them does?

Republican policy: expand military, destroy Planned Parenthood? 

The reality of American military might is pretty simple, and has been for decades. The American military is the most powerful and most expensive military in the world. No one else is even close. China, at #2, spends about a third as much as the US spends on its military. The US is alone in the world in spending more than half its discretionary federal budget on its military. Currently that comes to $610 billion a year. That’s more than the combined military budgets of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, United Kingdom, India, and Germany. (A different calculation puts US military spending at $711 billion a year, more than the military budgets of the next thirteen countries’ military budgets combined.)

Looked at another way, the US accounted for 39% of all the world’s military spending in 2012, while the combined military spending of Iran, Syria, and North Korea was less than 1% of the global total.

US military spending has more than doubled since 9/11. During the same period, US military has participated in the longest war in US history and several others (some ongoing), having won none of them and having little prospect of winning any soon. Judging by recent experience, the military option is not only too expensive, but almost entirely ineffective.

And yet Republicans (and many Democrats) want more and more military, and they want it for no articulable purpose, they want it because they want it, and it polls well. (There is also a longstanding, specious argument about military decay due to the decline of military spending as a percentage of GDP, and the like, none of which changes the reality that the military has been expensive and all but useless – unless one argues the likely truth that using the military option has cost more and caused more devastation than just doing nothing would have cost.)

Anyone here against more war? Nope. 

Never mind any of that. The eleven Republicans in the recent debate all spoke up in 60-second soundbite answers to a simpleminded question, saying that they were all for more military, and more military adventurism (though some were somewhat less aggressively adventurous than others). That’s Republican leadership, lockstep for more war, with some difference of opinion on how much more war. Taking the prize for maximum hawk among the lesser hawks was Carly Fiorina (whose looks got almost as much debate time as militarism):

Russia is a bad actor, but Vladimir Putin is someone we should not talk to, because the only way he will stop is to sense strength and resolve on the other side, and we have all of that within our control. We could rebuild the Sixth Fleet. I will. We haven’t. We could rebuild the missile defense program. We haven’t. I will. We could also, to Senator Rubio’s point, give the Egyptians what they’ve asked for, which is intelligence. We could give the Jordanians what they’ve asked for—bombs and materiel. We have not supplied it…. I will. We could arm the Kurds. They’ve been asking us for three years. All of this is within our control.

None of the ten men on the stage with Fiorina took serious issue with any of this. When the moderator asked about the recent Russian increase of its military presence in Syria, he framed it as “a threat to our national security” and he omitted Putin’s call for talks. No one corrected this deceptive spin, much less did anyone suggest that talking to your adversaries was at least as useful as talking to your friends. No one asked how Fiorina planned to pay for this military expansion, nor even how many billions she thought it would cost. And no one pointed out that arming the Kurds, whose diaspora reaches into Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, looked like a really good way to get a much bigger war going in the region, which is maybe her point.

Rand Paul came the closest to sort of opposing more militarism, pointing out that he would talk to Russia and China and Iran. He reminded people that he had opposed the Iraq War and American involvement in Syria’s civil war. Unlike others, Paul said: “I don’t think we need to be reckless.”

America’s war on drugs creates more Republican ambivalence

Rand Paul expressed outright opposition to the war on drugs, as he has for some time, pointing out that the war on drugs is effectively a war on poor people and a war on people of color. He argued that the federal government should have no role in drug law enforcement, that under the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution that role properly belongs to the states, leaving them free to experiment as Colorado is doing (under the shadow of federal intervention). Paul also nailed Jeb Bush, who admits to smoking marijuana, as one of those privileged white kids who never had to worry about going to jail (any more than his drug-using brother George did).

Fiorina supported Paul on the drug war. Last May, in a conference call with reporters promoting her book, she said: “Drug addiction shouldn’t be criminalized.” But she said saying that smoking marijuana was like drinking a beer was a bad message, and that marijuana now was not the same as it was 40 years ago, which drew strong laughter from the California audience. Fiorina referred to the story of her step-daughter in her book, where she spoke of not seeing the signs of the step-daughter’s addiction until it killed her at age 34. Fiorina did not make any connection to her step-daughter’s going into rehab three times and working in a pharmaceutical sales job. Nor did she make any connection between her step-daughter’s situation and her never being arrested or jailed.

When it came to the war on Planned Parenthood, the other half of the Republicans’ two-point consensus, Fiorina was on the front line, firing wildly. She was not alone, Planned Parenthood was named 23 times in all by her and others. She linked attacking Planned Parenthood to attacking Iran, the first as a defense of national character, the second as a defense of national security. Then she cited a controversial, spurious videotape and demagogued it shamelessly, reaping sustained applause:

As regards Planned Parenthood, anyone who has watched this videotape – I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain. This is about the character of our nation, and if we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us.

No one at the debate pointed out that the videotape in question was attached to a faked tape indicting Planned Parenthood falsely. No one pointed out that no one knows where the video with the fetus came from or what it actually shows or who is speaking on it. And no one pointed out that Planned Parenthood has adamantly denied the accusations of harvesting. So Fiorina was demonstrating her presidential ability to attack with as much solid evidence as George Bush used to go to war on Iraq.

Republican candidates: is there any there there? 

Given the conventional wisdom about Donald Trump being a showman without qualification to be President, even though he’s the leading candidate in the polls by far, one might have expected at least one of the other Republicans to try a more substantial tactic, like appearing to be the grown-up in the room. Maybe some did try, but none succeeded, since being the grown-up requires the willingness to confront reality honestly and that was rare in this debate.

Perhaps the most hilarious detachment from reality was when Jeb Bush said of his brother the former President: “He kept us safe.” Hello, Jeb? Your brother was in charge when 9/11 happened, your brother chose to take no action when briefed of the imminence of an attack on the US, your brother didn’t keep us safe before 9/11 (when the information needs was available but unconnected), and your brother has hardly made us more safe since 9/11. George Bush squandered thousands of innocent lives and trillions of tax dollars for the sake of strutting puffed up on an aircraft carrier. George Bush took a budget surplus and turned it into a series of devastating deficits that have ballooned the national debt to the point where a former chairman if the joint chiefs of staff called it “the most significant threat to our national security.”

He did not keep us safe, ever.

In a far less serious moment, Fiorina and Trump exchanged accusations that the other was an atrocious business person and a bad manager. No factual basis was introduced to measure the insults. The likelihood seems to be that they were both right.

The absence of any sensible, engaged discussion of what to do about climate change (not all the candidates are outright deniers) provoked some funny comments on the twitternet. One featured Marco Rubio’s comment, “America is not a planet.”

For all their faults, and their absence of strengths, none of the candidates was as baldly unwilling to treat the selection of the next President seriously as CNN. There is no excuse for CNN asking silly, irrelevant, insubstantial questions. There is no excuse for CNN not asking questions about the important priorities of our time. And in this day and age, there is no excuse for CNN not fact-checking in real time, and holding the candidates to account (they don’t all tell the truth all the time). Maybe media responsibility would make no difference, but we can’t know till it’s tried.

Meanwhile, early, unofficial, and unscientific returns after the debate show Trump farther in the lead than ever. The almost instant Drudge poll results put Trump at 53%, followed by Fiorina at 21%. Way behind them at 6% are Ted Cruz and Rubio, then Rand Paul and Ben Carson at 4%. At the bottom, with 1% or less, are Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Scott Walker, and Mike Huckabee.

Another unreliable real world indicator, the tweet count, also shows Trump with an overwhelming overall lead by one measure. An assessment of the debate in Forbes finds Fiorina and Ben Carson in a virtual twitter tie, with Trump a distant third and the rest much farther back. International Business Times also scored it for Fiorina, with John Kasich second.

Some of this is the result of self-fulfilling prophecy, as CNN managed to give Trump the frontrunner more time than anyone else. Surely there’s good reason and many methods for CNN to give the impression of fairness and neutrality by giving candidates close to equal time.

About an hour into the debate, Bernie Sanders tweeted: “War, war, war. When do we get to their other major priority: tax breaks for billionaires?” Hillary Clinton tweeted in Spanish about the right to speak any language in the US.

This debate didn’t get to tax breaks for billionaires, and there was no question about that issue, so people could be left with the impression that these Republicans might at least be willing to let the rich suffer in their present condition. And if the majority of Americans end up believing enough things that are not true, the Republicans will win the presidency in a walk.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll (2019) is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.