No. 9 (Bad) Dream

The Republican presidential candidates had their ninth debate last night, in Greenville, South Carolina.  It was a train wreck.

Donald Trump dominated because he was willing to be even more rude and bombastic and bizarre than he has even been before.  He was like Trump, squared.  With his florid face neatly matching the red backdrop, Trump routinely interrupted and talked over other candidates, called people liars, made sophomoric snide remarks, and actually voiced the paranoid theory that the administration of George W. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in order to engineer the Iraq War.  Trump’s inability to give any specifics on what he would do to deal with any policy issue — other than hire “top men,” build a wall, and engage in trade wars — was more exposed than it has ever been before.

Republican U.S. presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Republican U.S. presidential candidates debate sponsored by CBS News and the Republican National Committee in GreenvilleI wonder when, or whether, Trump voters will awaken from their dream and realize that this ill-mannered, poorly informed, red-faced yeller is not suited to be our President and represent our nation in communicating with foreign leaders.  Last night Trump displayed, over and over again, a temperament that is unfit for high office, but his supporters have given his antics a pass before.  Perhaps the best evidence of how angry and marginalized Trump voters are is that they are willing to support Trump even after he obviously embarrasses himself.

Among the rest of the candidates there was a whiff of desperation in the air.  Campaign money has been spent down, and candidates feel that now is the time to step out and make their mark.  After South Carolina the field is likely to be winnowed further, and the logical person to go is Dr. Ben Carson, who really should have been winnowed out already. Carson is more well-mannered than Trump — of course, a caveman would be more well-mannered than Trump — but he appears to have only a tenuous grasp on some issues and seems to be wholly ill-suited, by training and knowledge, to serve as President.

I thought Marco Rubio won last night’s bad dream of a debate, by staying above the fray on the Trump sniping and giving thoughtful, cogent answers to a number of questions.  I thought the brouhaha about Rubio repeating himself in the last debate was overblown by the media — every politician up there repeats the same lines, routinely — but in any case last night’s performance should lay to rest the silly notion that Rubio is some programmed robot.  I thought Ted Cruz fared poorly, and Jeb Bush and John Kasich had their moments.  Kasich is still trying to follow the “Kasich lane” and is relentlessly staying on message as the positive candidate, while occasionally throwing in classic Midwestern phrases like “jeez o pete” and “dollars to doughnuts.”  It’s not clear whether that will sell south of the Mason-Dixon line, but Kasich has, at least, been very effective in staking out his own, unique persona among the remaining candidates.

We get to take a break until the next debate, which will be held on February 25 in Houston, Texas.  That’s good, because we need one.

Jeb! Jeb!!! Jeb?

It hasn’t been a strong 2015 for Jeb Bush.  In fact, it’s been pretty dismal.

At the beginning of the year Bush had raised a lot of money and was the presumed, faraway front-runner among the punditry, but since then he’s seen Donald Trump steal his thunder, and his less-than-optimal debate performances have left him staggering and declining steadily in the opinion polls.  You now see stories about how Bush is trying to “reenergize” and “rebrand” his campaign, which usually happens only a few weeks before a failed campaign finally clanks to a halt.  Bush’s decline is probably the reason for the Washington Post story today that the “GOP Establishment” — whatever that is — is panicking that either Donald Trump or Ben Carson might actually win the nomination.

And then there’s his campaign logo:  Jeb!  He had the same logo with the exclamation point when he ran for Governor in Florida, but now it looks sort of desperate and needy.  If he’s trying to reenergize his campaign, you wonder if he’s going to add a few more exclamation points to make his name look even more exciting!

I don’t know what Jeb Bush’s campaign style was like when he won the races in Florida, but in this cycle — so far, at least — he comes across as a kind of gray, distracted figure who likes to talk about policy issues.  If he were your neighbor, you feel like you’d see him wearing a button-up sweater and raking leaves every weekend, and you’d just give him a wave and try to avoid getting into a conversation because you’d spend 15 deadly minutes listening him talk earnestly about some arcane issue the zoning board decided.

Jeb Bush would be a fine candidate if candidates just took a closed-book test on their knowledge of the issues — but of course they don’t.  A big part of campaigns is getting out, connecting with the people, and charging them up about why electing the candidate is essential to the future of the Republic.  Can Jeb Bush do that, with or without the exclamation point?  He sure hasn’t shown it to date, and his failure to knock Trump or Carson out of the race and show them up as know-nothing amateurs has got to be a source of concern for his advisors and supporters. If he can’t make Donald Trump look out of his depth, how would he fare against the Democratic nominee?

So Jeb Bush is left with money, and an exclamation point.  But political punctuation can only take you so far.

Surprising Shrinkage

The Republican field in the presidential sweepstakes is shrinking.  Yesterday Scott Walker made a surprisingly quick exit from the race, following Rick Perry’s departure a few days earlier.

Walker’s exit was apparently due to the modern political trifecta of failure:  lack of money, falling poll numbers, and perceived gaffes.  Walker got into the race with high hopes, as a successful governor in a purple state whose budget and tax cutting efforts were applauded by many conservatives.  He did well for a while, but never really seemed to get much traction, his numbers fell as new candidates entered the race, and although he was in both of the “top half” Republican candidate debates he didn’t make much of an impression.  He left the race with a call for Republicans to back a candidate with an optimistic approach to the issues.

It’s hard to imagine that politics could get more front-loaded than it has been over the past few election cycles, but it evidently has.  This year we’re seeing serious candidates drop out after only a few glitzy debates, months before any actual voter has a say in a caucus or primary.  It seems crazy — but it just reaffirms the power of TV, polls, and campaign contributions.

The departure of Walker and Perry may say something about the mood of the electorate as well as the new reality of the political process.  Both Perry and Walker were successful governors of significant states.  Right now, however, voters seem taken with the non-politicians, with Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Dr. Ben Carson leading the way.  If voters aren’t interested in electing someone with experience in governing, that’s not good news for John Kasich, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal — or Jeb Bush.

Did Walker panic, or simply make a wise decision to pull the plug on a campaign that turned out to be a dud . . . or does it mean something more?  In any case, if this trend keeps up we’ll soon be able to squeeze all of the remaining Republican candidates into one debate.