The GOP debate is all about winning the news cycle, not the voters

It’s a crowded field in a crowded news cycle.

Jan 28, 2021, 12:22 am*

Internet Culture

 

Matthew Rozsa

As the candidates prepare for the eighth Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday night, there are a few things we know for sure.

As usual, there will be two debates – an undercard debate at 6 p.m. featuring candidates who currently aren’t polling well (former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former New York Gov. George Pataki). And there’s the main debate at 9 p.m., which includes the rest of the field. All nine of them.

And as usual, there will be the carnivalesque atmosphere that has pervaded and degraded the GOP field. What’s more, now that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has emerged as Donald Trump’s main challenger for the GOP nomination, it is fair to anticipate that the two right-wing darlings are going to spar with each other.

Indeed, we have already seen a sneak preview of the impending exchange on Twitter, where Trump responded to Cruz’s claim in a New York Times interview that the billionaire lacks the “seriousness” necessary to handle tough foreign policy crises as president.

Make no mistake about it, this upcoming tit-for-tat will be more than just a way for the two frontrunners to air out their grievances. Both Trump and Cruz have emerged as political superstars because they know how to garner headlines with colorful and inflammatory statements, both about the issues and about the other candidates.

As such, each man isn’t going to trying to get under the other’s skin so much as angle to have their remarks make headlines during the subsequent news cycle. After all, nearly a month will separate this Republican debate from the next one, meaning the impressions made on Tuesday night are far more likely to stick.

Every Republican on the stage is going to grandstand about their ability to effectively combat terrorism.

Both Trump and Cruz have emerged as political superstars because they know how to garner headlines with colorful and inflammatory statements, both about the issues and about the other candidates. 

To get a taste of what we can expect, one should again return to Cruz’s observation about Trump to the New York Times. “You look at Paris, you look at San Bernardino, it’s given a seriousness to this race, that people are looking for: Who is prepared to be a commander in chief? Who understands the threats we face?”

At a time when Islamic terrorism is again making international headlines, it is inevitable that the party which governed America during the post-9/11 years will try to again win votes by presenting itself as the party of military strength.

In addition, though, we are also likely to see the GOPers attack political correctness and its perceived role in abetting Islamic militants. After all, Trump’s controversial proposal to ban Muslim immigrants has helped him in the polls, and while his fellow Republicans have heavily criticized him for going so far as to propose a national database monitoring Muslim Americans, they stand to profit as much as him from asserting that political correctness has made us soft in standing up to potential terrorist threats.

And because of that rift, you can expect candidates to continue attacking each other for being insufficiently conservative.

In one of the lesser reported details of the recent political news cycle, it appears that moderate candidates like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are actually rising in the polls for early caucus and primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Although they are still eclipsed by Trump and Cruz, their cause is aided by the fact that the Republican establishment remains very worried about whether Trump and Cruz could actually win the nomination.

For the GOP, this election as much about principle as possible. That’s why we’ve seen Trump tout his financial independence from the big-moneyed donors who have historically fueled successful presidential campaigns and why Cruz has spent years openly criticizing his own party for being “squishes” when it comes to matters of principle. Even though the polls are making it increasingly likely that idealism is going to trump pragmatism in the primaries, the Republican establishment hasn’t failed to ultimately pick their party’s nominee since the 1964 presidential election. That’s more than half a century of precedent that Trump and Cruz need to buck if they hope to win – and they’d be foolish if they weren’t concerned about it.

Still, when everything is said and done, very little meaningful discussion will actually occur at the debate.

One of the most disappointing dimensions of the Republican presidential debates is the fact that, despite having more than a dozen candidates in the field, there has been very little substantive conversation on the important issues facing America today.

This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been disagreement between the candidates (particularly when it comes to calling Trump out on whatever incendiary diatribe has recently caught the public’s attention), but the focus on spectacle has completely overshadowed any thoughtful conversations on the party’s positions and how they will impact our nation’s future. When it comes to issues from opposing gun regulations and advocating the repeal of the Affordable Care Act to criticizing the Federal Reserve, the Republican candidates have been of one mind to a remarkable degree whenever it counts the most. It’s hard to think of an election in which there was such a diversity of options over such a narrow range of opinions.

This, unfortunately, may be the bottom line when it comes to Tuesday’s debate. While the identity of the Republican Party’s standard-bearer next year remains undetermined, the process that will have nominated him is one that has focused far more on whipping up crowds with cheap demagoguery instead of cultivating intelligent conversation on the issues facing America over the next four years. This may make for an entertaining evening, but the price won’t be worth it. 

Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University and a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, and MSNBC. 

Donald Trump/YouTube | Remix by Jason Reed 

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*First Published: Dec 14, 2015, 10:40 pm