They may not compare to the Lincoln-Douglas debates - I didn't attend and Fox didn't carry them - but the 2016 Republican presidential debates will certainly be remembered as a classic in American political history. Some thoughts:
Republicans have completely captured the political discussion. Past televised presidential debates have drawn an audiences of 5 to 8 million viewers; these have drawn an average of 17.4 million for the Republicans; the Democrats have been about half of that. The swing state of Iowa presented good evidence that the interest can translate into votes - the 2008 caucuses drew 220,000 Democratic voters and 119,000 Republican voters; in 2016 the Democrats were down 50,000 and the Republicans were up 65,000. Similarly in New Hampshire, the Republican turnout was up 18% from 2008 while the Democratic turnout was down 12%. The Democrats, who had originally tried to downplay head-to-head confrontations have decided to add four more of their own.
The surfeit of candidates has actually been a blessing, maintaining viewers for the extended process. The Democrats have Hillary and Bernie - first avoiding any controversy, and then throwing well-worn barbs with little "new news" or suspense. With the Republican "undercard" there has been the ongoing question of who would be thrown off of the island; what would the Donald do if he showed up; would those falling behind in the polls attack strategic opponents; would a gaffe knock out a contender as with Rick Perry in 2012? With Trump blowing away political correctness, tough subjects actually get discussed. It is made for the times - a blend of "Survivor" and "The Apprentice" - and only for one season.
The debates have also been good for serious observers.
- Those who began with a generic preference for governors over senators and amateurs are now getting beyond the polish of the orators. In talking about medical care for veterans, some of the candidates talk about having met wounded warriors at town hall meetings; the governors talk about what they have done in their states to establish meaningful programs. Bush and Christie can talk about their experience with natural disasters. The governors can explain why they accepted or rejected Obama's Medicaid expansion. The discussion gets beyond how much taxes have been lowered and how many jobs were created to examples of what governors actually do.
- After two months the public has become accustomed to seeing two Cubans and an African American doctor argue about things which have little to do with being Cuban or African American. They are just Republicans who have risen to the upper tier of their party. The subtle implication for Mexicans, Guatemalans, Puerto Ricans and African Americans has to change their view of the party. A bit of this happened with Bobby Jindal for awhile; also a bit with Carly Fiorina. On the Republican side young viewers see a range of ages; on the Democratic side they see their grandparents. At the top level, the Republicans are the party of diversity.
- The Democratic meme that the Republicans have no ideas is dead. Everything is on the table, and the nuances of differences are argued in detail. Candidates like Bush and Cruz have detailed proposals for just about everything, and several candidates are learning to give brief answers with referrals to their web sites. Admittedly, the Donald is weak on details, but the winner will have heard every argument battle tested and will know the logical and polling strengths and weaknesses of each.
-- The immigration debate begins with "secure the border" and ends with a path to legal status, with flavors of removal and return.
-- The ISIS argument - one of Hillary's great "experience" exposures - includes a consensus for greater engagement and a stronger military, different views on Saudi Arabia and the Kurds, the limits of air power, and the importance of Sunni allies.
-- Positions on abortion range from the purist "life begins at conception"; to exceptions for rape and incest; to protection in the third trimester; to a unilateral decision by the woman. Handled properly, most Americans would not agree with the extremist "partial birth abortion" position that Planned Parenthood and the Democratic candidate will espouse. The issue will e used or not as the candidate sees best.
-- There is enough discussion of taxes, the Iran nuclear deal, climate change, Obamacare, and any other issue to satisfy the greatest policy wonk. Most try to draw contrasts with Obama and his third term as Hillary; as Bernie Sanders rises and Hillary tacks left, the contrast gets even better.
- Among the most striking results - Ted Cruz was able to win in Iowa after opposing the federal mandate to include ethanol in gasoline. A political profile in courage - at least with staunch, unyielding conservatives.
The Christie - Rubio dust-up about whether President Obama is ideologically misdirected or just incompetent will be remembered for Rubio's robotic repetition of his talking point and it has certainly stopped his path to consolidating the moderate voters. Both are right, but Christie's debating skills are superior and he has the obvious examples of the Veterans Administration, Fast and Furious, the Stimulus Plan, the roll out of Obamacare, Syria, Libya, and on and on. It would have been nice if this had been a theme for more discussions. Some of us think that we are lucky that the ideological Obama was incompetent.
The Donald has certainly tapped into a mood of discontent after seven years of the domestic and international failures of the Obama administration. To the extent that his presence has contributed to the unprecedented opportunity to expose the American public to Republican ideas and the diversity of the party's leadership, Reince Priebus owes him a debt of gratitude. On the other hand, he might not have broken upon the scene if not for the free opportunity to speak directly with millions. Whether we can avoid having him as the spokesman remains to be seen.
This week we have Chris Christie's last hurrah which ended Marco Rubio's consolidation of the moderate segment of Republican voters.
bill bowen - 2/10/2016