We all probably understand that these “debates” are not really “debates” at all. They are, as I have previously described them, more like joint press conferences. Oh, there is the occasional confrontation about an issue that leads to something like a debate (e.g., the Chris Christie/Rand Paul disagreement over NSA surveillance and the Fourth Amendment). But the controlled, time-sensitive format, in which moderators almost never press a candidate for an actual answer to a question, rarely produces genuine debate. And let’s be honest, having a genuine debate with 11 people on the stage and less than 2 hours of airtime is tough anyway. One wonders whether people would even be interested in hearing more – rather than less – information about an issue. It’s too bad. Some of the candidates have thoughtful, even expert, perspectives about some of these issues (e.g., Bush on immigration reform; Christie on entitlements; Paul on civil liberties; Kasich on budgeting, job creation, and the role of compassion and compromise in conservative governance; Graham on foreign affairs). And some of the questions involve topics that cannot possibly be intelligently discussed in 60 seconds. So, we opt for brevity, for the bullet points and talking points and 10-word zingers. And we learn little. To paraphrase Josh Lyman, we opt for the McNuggets. The fortune-cookie candidacy.
That said, I will devote a post or two (or more) to things that I at least hope might come up. For starters, I hope that Donald Trump will be pressed (by the CNN moderators or someone else) on his view of the President-as-King, and ask him about whether he believes that the President can unilaterally impose tariffs, build a wall while forcing Mexico to pay for it, and alter the tax code, or whether he understands that Congress must take action on those matters. If he does understand that, then ask him how he will negotiate with members of Congress, many of whom will despise him. I would also ask him whether he believes that President Obama has ever exceeded his constitutional authority as President, and if so, press him on how his view of presidential power would be more modest.
Rand Paul has called Mr. Trump a “fake conservative,” which is true, although probably true of lots of candidates who style themselves “conservative” – and also somewhat ironic coming from a Libertarian. Still, Senator Paul today raised an excellent point about Mr. Trump’s history of using eminent domain to benefit corporate and economic development interests at the expense of private property owners (Ilya Somin has an excellent post on this at VC). This is a major issue in conservative circles, even ten years after the much-hated Kelo v. City of New London Supreme Court decision, which held that such economic development takings satisfy the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Someone – Senator Paul or a moderator – should ask Mr. Trump about his views on government taking of private property that is then transferred to private interests, and whether he still agrees with the Kelo decision.
Ben Carson seems like a genuinely wonderful person, a brilliant and kind man of extraordinary personal accomplishment. But none of that, by itself, qualifies him to be President – anymore than Mr. Trump’s personal wealth and success in the entertainment industry qualify him to be President. I worry that Dr. Carson, too, lacks the depth of knowledge and sophisticated understanding of constitutional government to persuade me that he is ready to be a President. It is hard not to be impressed by him, and when he paints with broad strokes, it is easy to see his appeal. When nudged for deeper explanations, though, he is less impressive. But perhaps that will improve. Fortunately for him, the “debate” format will not require much in the way of depth (from him or anyone else).
Finally, Carly Fiorina. The expectations are high. She has to meet them, or she will fade. She has been impressive so far in almost every venue that I have seen her. She is razor sharp, and skilled on her feet. And it would be truly laughable to see Hillary Clinton lecturing Mrs. Fiorina on women’s health – or any other issue affecting women. But as she continues to gain attention, Mrs. Fiorina will likely face increasing scrutiny about her experience, her loss to Barbara Boxer in California, and, like Dr. Carson, her preparation for the presidency. She had better be well-prepared to answer those kinds of questions, and to stand out on a stage of 11 people all vying for attention.
Again, though, I fear this is another highly anticipated evening that ultimately disappoints, where talking points and zingers will rule over substance and nuance and depth. But let’s enjoy it for what it is. And let’s fondly remember The Gipper while we’re at it.