Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Fight for the White House: Getting Started


Yesterday we had the first Republican debate.

Well, actually, we didn't. It wasn't a real debate; instead it was a forum. At St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, 11 Republican candidates gathered on the stage (with three others joining via an internet link) to introduce themselves; they were then in turn asked a few questions by the moderator and quickly ushered away. 

No actual discussion took place; instead, it was more of a prologue to what will follow, starting with the first real debate later this week.

As such, though, it is as good a place as any to provide a few opening comments on what will no doubt prove to be a long, often dull and occasionally spectacular show: the Republican fight for the Presidential nomination.

So, what did we learn?

Cartoon by Ron Rogers (c) 2015
Well, firstly, it might be worthwhile to point out what we didn't learn. We didn't learn much about any of the candidates' prowess in the debating arena; the format used just didn't allow for that opportunity. We didn't really learn anything about which candidate is quick on his feet and which may stumble and fall flat on his face ("Oops", anyone?). We didn't learn anything about how good or bad Donald Trump will prove to be, once he's on stage and confronted by  his Republican opponents; he, along with Mike Huckabee and Jim Gilmore, wasn't in attendance.

Nevertheless, it was an interesting first step.

We learned , for example, that Things Aren't Right in America. Now, if you have been following the news for the last few years or so, you might be forgiven for thinking that things are actually looking up. The economy is growing, more people are back at work,  and a more or less universal health care system now offers insurance for hundreds of thousands of people who could never afford insurance before. America's participation in the Iraq and Afghanistan has long since been ended; Osama Bin Laden is no more.

If, however, you were thinking that things aren't all that bad, you have not been listening to the Republican candidates. Each and everyone of them will be quick to tell you that things are actually awful in America; their existence as candidates is, it would seem from yesterday's forum, to a large extent based on that assumption. 

So the first thing that struck me listening to what these guys (and one girl, Carly Fiorina) had to say was how their message (and how the validity of their message) was mired in negativity. That alone seems to me a bit of a problem. After all, it's just not that appealing. And it might prove even less appealing if a large proportion of the electorate simply doesn't agree with such a gloomy approach.

Part of the problem here is, perhaps, that these candidates are all talking to (one might say pandering to) a section of the population that is in itself becoming a minority. For example, you don't need to be a Nostradamus to predict that if the majority of Americans support gay marriage today, that majority will only grow as time moves on.  In ten or fifteen years time, I'm pretty sure we will have reached a point where we look back and simply shake our heads in bafflement at how the idea was once considered controversial. This is simply the way the world evolves; fighting it might at this point in time might seem to be advantageous for a little while, but will quickly prove insignificant and even a little petulant. And what is true for gay marriage is also true, in varying degrees, for other social issues. Indeed, I would suspect it to be true of religion in general. Talking almost resentfully against such changes will ultimately not help these candidates. Still, that is, to be sure, some ways off yet.

The second thing that struck me was how most of the candidates seemed intent on pointing out the existence of a Great Enemy (and then proposing that America unleash some sort of hell and damnation in its general direction). Iraq and Afghanistan might be behind us, but we still have ISIS, and these candidates all seemed fairly convinced that ISIS is not some rather regional and indeed insular movement (however radical it is), but rather a force that is directly threatening the very existence of the USA and therefore must be Stamped Out ASAP. The motto here seems to be: "if your enemy doesn't exist, it is necessary to invent him." 

I point to Jeb Bush especially on this issue (although he certainly wasn't alone in expressing this view). When he talked yesterday about "a war against Western civilisation", he probably couldn't be more wrong. ISIS, and the fight against that group's preposterous views, represent a struggle indeed, but it is essentially an Arab, or, if you like, a Muslim struggle. The USA and other Western countries may do well to get involved in some manner or another (and indeed, they may have little choice), but it is to my mind clearly inaccurate (and dangerous) to presume that ISIS's predominant target is the West.  

Why is this important? Well, if a country like the USA cannot live without having to invent and then fight its Great Enemies, it will simply be lurching from war to war. It will shamble from struggle to struggle, continually alienating others against it. It will foster ongoing resentment and ongoing animosity. The war in Iraq was an example of this; why on earth would anyone want to resurrect a new version of that debacle with ISIS?

The third thing that caught my attention was the relative weakness of a fair number of candidates. Given the restrictions of the format you really can't draw any conclusions, but it did seem to me that quite a few simply came across as, well, insignificant. Those would include Santorum, Perry, Graham, Jindal, Kasich, Pataki, Carson and Fiorina. I should perhaps add to this that Kasich at least showed a bit of heart, whilst Fiorina seemed more or less sincere (Carson, on the other hand, just seemed daft, which might lead to some fun later on).

That would leave just Bush, Walker, Rubio, Cruz and (surprise!) Christie as having passed their grades.  In Bush's case, this wasn't really due to anything he said (and what he said was delivered quite haltingly). It's just because he's a Bush; as such, the grade he had to meet wasn't all that high. As for the others, I felt that Rubio did better than I expected, and I'd say the same for Christie. I fear, however, that the presence of Bush will simply leave Rubio too little room to breathe, whilst Christie, perhaps oddly, seems to have been pretty much brought down by Bridgegate.

Both Cruz and Walker also did fairly well, the difference being that Cruz is at heart a radical conservative and therefore doesn't seem a viable candidate in the long run, whilst Walker might very well prove a formidable contestant. He does perhaps have a problem, though: to put it simply, he doesn't seem to be very nice.

Did I forget anyone? Yes, I did. After all, there's Rand Paul, too. Of all the candidates, only he faced some difficult questions. It seemed the moderator had somehow set him apart from the rest, and perhaps that's understandable. Like his father before him, he appears at once quite likeable and  decidedly odd. He's at once too far to the right, too far to the left, and altogether too goofy.

So, an interesting introduction. The stage has been set. Let the debates begin!

No comments: