Eleven Republican candidates took the stage at the Reagan Library in California last night to convince the American people that they were worthy of electing to the White House. Of course, the entire debate provided just as much entertainment as information, since everybody knows that the voters are going, like third graders dangling a toy off a cliff, to keep threatening to vote for Donald Trump until the very last minute, then, once they realize that people are giving them attention, go the safe route and nominate Jeb Bush.
I’m always amazed in formats such as these how conventional norms against self-aggrandizement and bragging fly so thoroughly out the window. Last night, the braggadocio seemed to be taken to new peaks as Trump set a tone of self-elevation that subsequently validated others’ boasts.
“I did great in Atlantic City,” Trump said. “I knew when to get out. My timing was great. And I got a lot of credit for it.”
I’m not sure why Trump believes his ability to jump ship before an economic downturn is a particularly notable skill in his quest for the Presidency. Furthermore, the fact that he got “credit” for it—that is, that other people agree his timing wasgreat, surely isn’t going to count among the great personal characteristics of one of our nation’s leaders.
But Fiorina and others jumped on board.
“I was a terrific CEO,” she said.
“I’m the only person on the stage who…balanced the federal budget,” Kasich chimed in.
But despite all this crowing, the real winners last night, it seemed to me, were the two qualities that allowed candidates to stick out in voters’ minds: clarity and humor.
Fiorina, for example, nailed a question from the moderator about Trump’s insulting comments about her face:
“You know, it's interesting to me, Mr. Trump said that he heard Mr. Bush very clearly and what Mr. Bush said. I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”
It was short, it was sweet, and the audience loved it.
Later, following an interchange between Trump and Carson about the effects of vaccines on autism, the moderator turned to Rand Paul.
“Dr. Paul, I’d like to bring you in.”
“A second opinion?” Paul said, to chuckles.
Paul, to me, seems like one of the most ideologically consistent people on stage. Like it or not, he’s got his political beliefs, which are rooted in a genuine social philosophy, and, to his great credit, he has managed to survive, and even thrive, in Washington DC despite its mostly suffocating atmosphere of sheepishness and conformity.
Paul, though, lacks what Fiorina, Trump, and Christie possess: an ability to finish sentences. Again and again, Paul’s monologues end with a dash rather than a period. What this does is undermine his ability to make messages stick. And this destroys his memorability. The is true of several other candidates: notably, Carson, Kasich, and Rubio.
What stays most in the mind of the listener is a concise sentence with a clear end. This is part of Trump’s appeal. For as inexperienced a politician as he is, Trump can string together a forceful, memorable sentence—one that obeys the mantra “Any publicity is good publicity.” At this stage in the game, the way to win the polls is not to say good things, but just to say memorable things. Politicians can turn that recognition into genuine political support at a later stage.
Some final thoughts about the candidates:
- Marco Rubio will never win the nomination because he still looks like a teenager
- Ted Cruz is the slimiest, vilest, most conniving candidate up there. He may also be one of the smartest.
- Chris Christie is governed, literally, by his gut. It’s a wellspring of force and energy but he’s like a little man riding on the back of an untamed yak.
- Carly Fiorina tries to make up for the fact that she can’t move her forehead by moving her eyes a lot, to uncanny effect
- The best thing that ever happened to Trump was when his grandfather, Friedrich Drumpf, Anglicized the family name into a casino-owner’s wet dream of memorability and brand-name recognition
- John Kasich is too reasonable for his own good
- Ben Carson seems like someone I’d like to have at my barbecue.
- Bush perennially looks like a short-sighed fourth grader who just got caught peeing behind the swing set.
I can't wait till the next debate: reality TV at its finest.