WASHINGTON – Along with 24 million Americans, I watched the TV debate organized by Fox News in Cleveland, Ohio featuring the top 10 (in terms of popularity in opinion polls) Republican presidential contenders.
Of course everybody wanted to see how Donald Trump, a successful real estate developer turned into most unorthodox political candidate, would do. He came to the debate leading in all the national polls, by a wide margin.
Well, I thought that his participation was a positively deplorable spectacle.
Trump did not surprise me. He was essentially himself. Boisterous, grandstanding, and gratuitously offensive. Besides, he made several outlandish statements about what he would do as President, without any explanation whatsoever as to how he would accomplish any of this. Not to mention his unapologetic admission about having donated money to politicians in the past (mostly Democrats), so that they would do for him all he asked them to do. So, he says he “bought” politicians, and he is proud of it.
It was theater
In other words, he gave a performance. It was theater. Nothing to do with engaging in a serious debate. And yet, the day after the Cleveland event the media commentary was all about conjectures as to how this colorful show most likely will help Trump in the polls.
This is unbelievable. How could this spectacle help anybody who is running for President? Look, Trump is a successful businessman, (no question about that). And in America we respect success.
However, his business talent mixed with his bizarre personality does not translate well into the national political/policy-making arena. His debate performance, while perhaps entertaining, certainly did not indicate that he has the knowledge, the rationality and the poise that I would like to see in a good President.
Millions of Americans like Trump
But here is the thing. Millions of Americans actually like Trump precisely because of his boisterous, irreverent and, to say the least, inelegant style. The fact is that a sizable chunk of the American electorate wants to be entertained, in fact enthralled, by a man “with real guts”. These voters really like a would-be President who says, actually shouts, that all his competitors are weak and stupid, and therefore cannot get anything done.
For them, this is really refreshing! “Tell them like it is, Donald!”, “We are sick and tired of professional politicians who talk a lot and deliver nothing”. These fans think of Donald Trump like Clint Eastwood playing the tough cowboy who rides into a town run by the bad guys and methodically kills them all.
Except that this is real life, not a movie.
“Throw the rascals out”
I do not know what to say. In fairness, it is hard to praise the political status quo.
It is true that gridlocked Washington, run mostly by mediocrities and now paralyzed by partisan rancor, offers a sad spectacle of immobility; while the country needs urgent action on many fronts: fiscal policies, entitlements, taxation, and education.
Because of all this, the old, if simplistic, American “solution” of “throwing all the rascals out” sounds very appealing, at least to some. And Trump presents himself as the guy who will actually throw the rascals out. For a sizable number of conservative Americans, (for the moment, at least), he is the savior we desperately need.
Indeed, for them Trump is the tough and experienced pro who will come in and fix things, in no time. After all, he has done well in his real estate business. So, why can’t he do the same in Washington? He will go in, fire all the bad people, promote the few good ones, and finally get things done. Simple, no?
Yes, great idea. Except that it is impossible.
Even assuming that Trump had an elaborate and credible policy agenda, (and he does not, at least not yet), the idea that any President can implement his or her program by first offending almost everybody he would have to work with is a bit unrealistic.
Yes, it is true that Washington has become exceedingly, in fact absurdly, complicated. There is the executive branch centered in the White House, and then two very independent and very petulant branches of Congress, with a myriad of committees and subcommittees sometimes run by overly ambitious, media hungry chairmen. These committees have subpoena powers. And they can call any member of the administration to testify under oath on practically anything. And any member of the Senate has the power to delay or block almost any presidential appointment. In practical terms, this means that in this system it is extremely easy to delay, block or derail almost anything.
And then there is a gigantic federal bureaucracy. Finally, this unwieldy blob is kept together by tons of often incomprehensible federal legislation, a good mix of executive orders that are in fact new laws in disguise, and trainloads of regulations.
A President needs to forge and lead a coalition
This is hardly an ideal setting for any President who wants to govern. However, the problem is that this is how things are today.
Which is to say that a good President would need good ideas, and will power, for sure. But he or she would also need to forge and keep together a broad-based coalition, with many, many true allies who will help him or her move anything forward.
I can hardly believe that President Trump would have a lot of people in his corner, since he has already offended most of the actual and potential players, by calling them incompetent, weak and stupid.
How about the others?
Well, if Trump appeals to many registered Republicans who will vote in the primaries, how about the others candidates who shared the Cleveland stage with him?
Again, here I am also mystified.
After the debate, I heard sophisticated commentators praise rather cheap appeals to raw emotions uttered by other mediocrities on that stage. “This was good stuff” –they said. Using this “appeal to emotions” metric, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio are also considered good presidential material. And why? Because they said a few banal things –but they said them with passion. Same about former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
And so, these otherwise ordinary and truly uninteresting politicians are considered debate “winners” because their radical ideas (Huckabee articulated a truly bizarre idea that should lead to the end of legal abortions), or irrelevant claims (“I was born poor”) were expressed in a way that looked sincere.
So, here we go again. Back to politics as theater. The made for TV would-be President has to have “empathy”. He has to “connect” with the emotions of his audience. He has to make them believe that “he is one of them”. And if he can do this with a happy mix of ease and gravitas, delivering a few clever lines, with occasional humor, then he is almost there. Delivering entertainment that stirs emotions: this is what we call “presidential” substance, these days. Forget about policy agendas.
All this shows that TV audiences want politics as a gripping spectacle that will mesmerize them, excite them. Never mind the substance. Never mind how plausible or implausible the ideas and policy solutions presented by the candidates are.
The important thing is to articulate anything, including banalities and glaring factual errors, with eloquence and passion. This makes people believe that the candidate is sincere, therefore likable, and therefore electable.
Sadly, this is about all there is to it.
Bush is too ordinary
The candidate I actually liked, Jeb Bush, did not even get a nod from the critics. The pundits dismissed him. “He did barely OK. The most that we can say in his favor is that he did not embarrass himself. But he did not say anything memorable. If he wants to make an impression and get some real traction with the voters, he has got to show that he has some fire in the belly,”.
Well, I thought that Bush’s quick but clear outline of his achievements as a two term Governor of Florida, one of America’s largest states, was impressive. His record on fiscal responsibility, well above average economic growth, immigration issues and education reform is very good. His goal to grow the economy by 4% as President is difficult, but achievable –showing incidentally that he aims high.
But no, according to the critics, this was only about resume recitation, and boring wonkish blah, blah, blah.
The people like passion and drama
In the end, nobody cares about fiscal surplus figures and economic growth statistics. Who cares about a former two term Governor who actually did something really substantial –for 8 years? (By the way, this –a record of real achievements– also applies to sitting Ohio Governor John Kasich, also a candidate on that same stage).
These days, in a national political campaign substance is irrelevant, in fact, unwanted. We need clever lines, well placed jabs at opponents, and above all an attitude that exudes strength and self-confidence. This –attitude– is what separates a leader from the rest of the pack. This is what people want and what people will remember.
Sadly, it is through this show business process that we shall nominate a candidate for President. We are treating this political contest as if it were the American Idol talent show.
If this is really so, God help us. It would mean that, as a nation, we really lost any connection with reality and rational thinking. Forget about a record of competence and achievement as credentials for the highest office in America. We’d rather have a guy with “fire in the belly”.