Grading Republican Presidential Candidates on an Incredibly Generous Curve

by Neil H. Buchanan

Last week's Republican non-debate was both different from and the same as the fake debates that had gone before.  It was different in the sense that people occasionally disagreed with statements made by other candidates on some policy questions, but it was still essentially the same waste of time in which candidates talked past each other and pundits tried to say who won by determining whose vapid statements would most impress Republican base voters.

Focusing on what was different, The New York Times ran a long article the following day, "G.O.P. Fight Now a Battle Over What Defines a Conservative," in which the reporter Jonathan Martin tried to make the case that the debate represented an "abrupt transition from vague promises ... to a new season of the campaign shaped more by the glaring policy fissures that are dividing Republicans over what exactly to do about the nation’s problems."  I suppose that is right in a certain sense.  After all, the debate did finally include some resistance to Donald Trump's claims that he can build a bigger wall along the Mexican border, and all of that nonsense.  If the mere utterance of such obvious comments really constitutes an abrupt transition, then that says quite a bit about what went before.  Still, Martin was right to note the change.

But Martin followed up that reasonable observation with this jaw-dropper: "From immigration and bank regulation to taxes and national security, the robust seminar on the issues that began Tuesday night and continued Wednesday exposed a contentious dispute over what it means to be a conservative."  Robust seminar.  Robust Seminar?  OK, I get it.  I live in a professional environment where the word "seminar" has a particular meaning (actually, more than one meaning), in much the same way that I used to spend time in a world where "debate" means something quite different from "eleven people on a stage complaining about the moderators."  It is not necessarily a bad thing if non-specialists use a word in a way that specialists find annoying (or even infuriating).

The problem is that, even though people do use the word "debate" as a substitute for "argument" -- or simply "yelling past each other" -- in everyday usage, there is no man-on-the-street version of a seminar.  When a reporter for a top newspaper invokes the idea of a seminar, and a robust one at that, he must intend to say that the candidates are engaging in rigorous discussion about issues in a way that will allow the free marketplace of ideas to perform its magic.  Indeed, Martin claims that what is happening amounts to "[y]ears’ worth of arguments conducted at issues forums and in the pages of policy journals and newspapers ... now coming to life."

The problem is that there is no seminar going on, either at the debate or afterward.  Indeed, when conservative "issues forums" involve nothing more than uninformed rants about how the  government is faking data to hide hyperinflation (or complaints about a value-added tax being "a French tax system"), and right-wing policy journals and newspapers are filled with claims that have been long debunked (with even the trusty old "supply creates its own demand" having been revived in the midst of an ongoing proof of its falsehood), the possibility of Republican candidates engaging in a robust seminar as such ideas move into the political sphere is laughable.  The problem is not limited to climate-change denialism or the rejection of evolutionary science.  Unwelcome evidence about the effects of tax cuts is also to be ignored.  As Paul Krugman noted early last year, referring to the Heritage Foundation's supposed role as an incubator of conservative intellectual ideas, former South Carolina Senator and Tea Party hero "Jim DeMint Hasn’t Destroyed Heritage’s Intellectual Integrity," because "[t]he organization never had any."

But Martin, at least judging by his article in the Times, seems to think that people disagreeing with each other constitutes an intellectual (or at least substantive) exchange.  "The exchanges among the candidates — some of them explicit, others implied — that began Tuesday night spilled over in television interviews and on the campaign trail Wednesday, presaging a fierce fight over ideas ... ."  So we now have implicit exchanges among the candidates, which is a truly puzzling phenomenon.  But even leaving that aside, what is the fierce fight over ideas, exactly?

The best that one can say about Martin's article is that he has noticed that conservatives do not agree with each other about everything.  The fierce fight over ideas is not actually going to be a discussion based on evidence and logic, but instead will simply boil down to deciding whose particular mixture of nonsense gains the support of a sufficient number of Republican primary voters.  Will they decide that Donald Trump's vague statements about taxes (which, as I noted recently, are too inchoate even to qualify as a "plan"), combined with his vilification of foreigners and everyone who can count as an "other," make The Donald truly presidential material?  Instead, will they say that John Kasich's logic-free obsession with a balanced-budget amendment, combined with a willingness to treat poor people as people, is the right mix?  Will they instead decide that Jeb Bush's mealy-mouthed melange of conservative talking points is better than Marco Rubio's hyper-extremism about abortion or Ted Cruz's hate-filled view of everything?

We have long known that the conservative coalition, as it is currently constituted, is puzzling.  Religious conservatives and Wall Street anti-regulatory types are hardly obvious allies.  It is not clear why evangelicals who oppose abortion would necessarily ally themselves with anti-immigration bigots.  These fissures in the coalition have been obvious for decades, summoning all manner of analysis in newspapers, magazines, and books (What's the Matter With Kansas? being the obvious instant classic of its genre).  Martin's article might simply reduce to the statement that "the Republican candidates have some differences, and they will inevitably disagree with each other in ways that might be interesting."

If so, then why oversell it?  Why say that the Republicans have started to engage in a rigorous intellectual debate that will define conservatism, when all that is really happening is that ambitious politicians are going to try to find the issues that can win the nomination by appealing to an angry, anti-intellectual primary voting base?

It strikes me that this is akin to the familiar notion of "false equivalence," about which I have written frequently here on Dorf on Law.  (See, e.g., here.)  The idea, of course, is that news outlets feel that they can only prove their objectivity by being "balanced," which means that they must find something negative to say about a Democrat every time that they say something negative about a Republican.  Who cares if, say, Republicans are threatening to shut down the government (again), while Democrats are saying that they will not agree to include an anti-abortion measure in an unrelated bill?  The message is that "both sides are stubborn and playing to their extreme bases."

Similarly, in the midst of recent questions about the veracity of Ben Carson's personal story, and Donald Trump's attacks on Marco Rubio's ties to FaceBook, a Times article ("Candidates Stick to the Script, If Not the Truth, in the 2016 Race") noted Hillary Clinton's silly claim that she used a private email server so that she could simplify her life by using only one device, even though we know that she was using multiple devices.  The article also noted that Clinton has claimed that all of her grandparents were immigrants, when it turns out that only three of the four were.  Yet these examples are somehow equivalent enough in the mind of the reporter to be included in the same article in which a story by Carly Fiorina is "almost entirely inaccurate," and that also noted Fiorina's refusal to back down on her claims about a video supposedly showing "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."  Yeah, Clinton's whoppers about her Pennsylvania-born grandmother and her hand-held devices are right up there!

The description of the supposedly emerging "robust seminar" among Republicans, then, can best be seen as another effort by the Times to say, "Hey, we take both sides seriously!  It does not matter that the Democrats' debates have actually involved substantive discussions of regulatory policy, or stagnant wages, or other important issues.  When one Republican candidate says to another, 'Nuh-uh!' and the other retorts, 'Yuh-huh!!' we'll report that as if it were an exchange at the Algonquin Round Table."