Winners and losers for the RNC Cleveland debate 2016

The interpreting classes of media, academics, and Hollywood are busy with the assignment of winners and losers from the Thursday night debate among Republican aspirants to the nomination for president of the United States.  Ostensibly, the Republicans began a long process of hurting themselves by attacking one another in hopes of gaining ascendancy in the all-important polling of public opinion.  According to Yahoo News, not one Republican candidate can presently defeat Bernie Sanders in a public poll.  Such absurdities point to the distorting nature of our epistemological culture.  The discovery of winners and losers is an important part of the debating process.  For this most recent debate, there are a number of apparent winners and losers in the Thursday night debate:

The winners

  1. Carly Fiorina stood out as the winner of the undercard debate.  She is an embodied counterargument to both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.  The model of how a female candidate could enact a conservative political persona with confidence that attracts voters was amply demonstrated.  Rick Perry appeared confident and in recovery from his 2012 collapse.  Perry seemed advanced on the question of immigration by identifying how the border security question precedes the matter of amnesty.  The strength of the seven undercard debaters underscored the strong slate of 17 candidates for the Republicans.
  2. Secondly, the overall conduct and moderation of the undercard debate was strong and lacked public intrusions found in the main debate event later in the evening.  The style of moderation maximized the advocacy of the candidates and minimized the role and advocacy of moderators.  This should be a general principle and goal for all debates.  Time limits were also more effectively enforced to create balanced speech time for contenders.
  3. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio appeared to be the strongest debaters in the major event of ten.  Ben Carson scored some strong humor points along with Mike Huckabee.  But Cruz and Rubio appeared to advance their standing the most.  It was not clear that Trump emerged stronger or that Bush was able to establish a clear leadership position, though none of the candidates appeared to do major damage to his campaign.

The losers

  1. The Democrats.  The Democrats have a variety of nominees for the presidency including Hillary Clinton, Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Martin O’Malley.  The Democrats just announced their primary debate schedule but will have only six debates – something all but Hillary Clinton seem disappointed and upset by.  Martin O’Malley explained: “There's an effort by a few insiders to try to limit the number of debates.”  The Democrats do not need debate the way Republicans need to debate.  The Republicans will have at least twelve debates.  In fact, for Democrats, debate has been ended on the following topics: gay marriage, climate change, voter fraud, the Confederate flag, and an array of controversial topics.  For Democrats, a world with less debate is not particularly vexing or urgent.  One can simply join the nudgings of the internet and follow the group toward blissful public policy.  The lack of interest in seeing Democrat candidates debate points to a fundamental style distinction between what the American public wants and what those dominating governance are willing to entertain.
  2. Hillary Clinton.  Hillary Clinton is deemed by our intellectual culture the normative front-runner of the Democratic Party and essentially the replacement for President Barack Obama, insofar as a deliberative process is truly necessary to confirm such an intuition among the elite.  The lack of debate between her and her party rivals, along with a severe disinterest in journalistic questioning of candidate Clinton on a range of issues, suggests a lethargic and perhaps regal approach to her political coronation as the nation’s next president.  Debate, we are told, is rather archaic to the democratic process, though we will be told that Republican candidates have been bought and sold within the expensive campaign process that will ostensibly cost at least one billion dollars to complete.  Hillary Clinton’s campaign puts journalists in roped-in pens and drags them around public events as she sees fit.  Will Hillary Clinton be ready to debate a Republican candidate who endures at least a dozen public televised debate events?  It is doubtful.  In fact, her fatigue at campaigning may make the drubbing taken by President Obama in October 2012 – where the president lost in the most lopsided debate in television history – look relatively animated. 
  3. Political debate.  Political debate lies at the heart of the vibrancy and sufficiency of American democracy.  We can argue.  We can disagree.  The First Amendment was first for a profound reason: our larger liberties are contingent upon it.  Here our freedoms begin with words and capacities to disagree among ourselves and against our government.  But the events the public will see from now until November 2016 will be simulacra of true debate.  Journalists will conduct elaborate press conferences wherein their preferences about politics will be offered as the public standard.  It will not be the old-school Lincoln and Douglas debating the prospects of slavery without a Candy Crowley to interrupt and explain who is right.  The head-to-head debating that remains common from junior high to college tournaments is not what candidates will truly experience.  Despite desperately high public desires to hear candidates in their own words arguing about the future well-being of the nation, these “debates” will be shaped by the containers created by “moderators” who seem anything but moderate.  Americans tend to be mesmerized by the parliamentary debates of Great Britain, where candidates seem to directly confront one another without these containers.  Certainly a large part of Donald Trump’s appeal must be attributed to his apparent shattering of media containers that seek to provide limits to his opinions – and vicariously to a public that feels similarly limited.  Americans are obviously exasperated by the obsessive offenses taken by opinion leaders in order to manipulate political rivals into silence. 

Our elite view of the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage is now immediately beyond debate.  They do remain eternally vigilant in challenging and re-visiting the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.  Hillary Clinton views it as a litmus test for serving on the Court.  The elite view the decision as affirming the personhood of corporations but fail to notice that the case centers precisely upon a small group of individuals who wanted to make a film criticizing political figure Hillary Clinton.  Why is our elite culture so opposed to debate?  The First Amendment was not written for one political party or one political viewpoint.  It was written for all of us.

Hillary Clinton is not the presumptive president of the United States for 2017.  She should have to debate as much as any other candidate.  Nor is it the charge of our punditry class to measure who is worthy to challenge Hillary Clinton.  The Democratic Party should face the same interrogation on politics that their opponents face.  Those with the courage and willingness to live in such a world of debate are the better for it, and this was clear among the 17 participants for the Republicans.  Those elite here and abroad who insulate and manipulate the world against debate are the losers. 

Ben Voth is an associate professor of communication and director of debate at Southern Methodist University.  He is an adviser for the Bush Institute and the debate fellow for the Calvin Coolidge foundation.

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