I write these thoughts as CNN ends the second GOP candidate debate at the Reagan Library. Setting aside my own beliefs and reactions to what was actually said, and without being influenced by so-called “pundits,” it is clear to me that the candidate who most benefited from this gathering was Carly Fiorina, who was articulate, no nonsense, and able to keep “the boys” in their place. The polls in the coming days will reveal if my reading is correct. But even more importantly, those polls will indicate if Donald Trump and Ben Carson remain the double digit leaders in this gaggle of GOP candidates.
Little new was raised at this second GOP debate; rather, the candidates overwhelmingly rehashed their tested talking points, which was safe since few Americans have previously heard these stump speeches. What remains most striking with this field of candidates is the fact that only a couple of them actually understand the office they are pursuing. For example, Jeb Bush has been close enough to the office with a father and brother holding it to appreciate what it is all about. Governor John Kasich, after eighteen years in Congress, has a pretty good idea. Those who have served as governor appreciate the role of a government executive, but being a governor is nothing like being President of the United States, particularly when they have no Washington experience. First term senators, like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul, do not have a clue what really goes on at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, especially when the president is of the opposite party.
Not one of the GOP candidates is attempting to lead; rather, they all are dancing to the tune(s) they believe the GOP base wants to hear. But the contemporary GOP base, after years of irresponsible Republican leadership that has turned them off to all things relating to government, has lost contact with reality. Accordingly, the GOP base has made clear they do not want a candidate who is really qualified. To the contrary, as the polls leading up to this second debate showed, the party’s base favors the least qualified candidates.
As the Republican primary race has progressed, the Republican Party’s base–and these are the people who regularly participate in primary contests–has responded in poll after poll that they want a candidate with no real Washington experience. The New York Times recently reported, “More than 90 percent of [GOP] voters in the Register/Bloomberg poll… said they were unsatisfied or ‘mad as hell’ with government and politicians.” Accordingly, as this second GOP debate approached, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, both political novices and Washington outsiders, were leading in the GOP polls, along with Carly Fiorina, similarly with no true political or governmental experience, who is not atop the pack but steadily gaining ground.
The fact that the GOP base is attracted to the least qualified candidates is stunning, although not surprising. Any former or current high-level Washington insider will (and should) tell you this is a road to disaster. In varying degrees, lack of true executive government experience hobbled the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. To the contrary, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush understood how to get their hands on the levers of power available to a president from their first days in office–and they did so. In fact, our truly great presidents–George Washington and Abraham Lincoln–understood our highest office before they assumed it, albeit at a time when the office was far less demanding than today.
To make this point, it is only necessary to look at our last two presidents who learned how to be president on the job–Clinton and Obama. This is not a criticism, rather a statement of reality. Although Bill Clinton had worked briefly on Capitol Hill as a college student, that is not the same as experiencing high office. Obama was still a freshman senator when he ran and won, barely understanding the workings of Washington when he arrived at the White House. Neither were ready to be president. Fortunately, both were fast learners. But both presidencies would have accomplished much more had there not been a several year learning period. Both were lucky our enemies do not fully appreciate the nation’s vulnerability with a cub president.
Remarkably, the Republican base at this stage of the primary process favors candidates who know absolutely nothing about being president: Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Both men clearly have struck a chord that appeals to the GOP base. Apparently, Trump’s bullying obnoxiousness, his immigration-based xenophobia, along with an authoritarian personality (which I discussed previously), appeal to many Republicans. Ben Carson’s hard rightwing pronouncements, delivered with his soft voice and the bedside manner of a former pediatric neurosurgeon, appeal to other Republicans not inclined toward Trump’s blunderbuss. What these men have in common, however, is a total absence of understanding of the office they are pursuing.
Trump all but conceded in the second debate that if he won he would bone up on the job, particularly in national security, and hire people who know what they were doing. But that will work about as well for a future president as it would for a future neurosurgeon who read a few books and got a few advisers before he attempted to separate conjoined twins–as Ben Carson has done. Carson, on the other hand, gives the impression that he does not really believe he is going to wake up on January 21, 2017 in the White House; rather, he is having a lot of fun, as a former life-long Democrat, spreading his recently discovered gospel of conservatism. It is evident from Carson’s two debates that he does not have any idea about what a president can and cannot do, nor does he appear to have given it much thought. In short, at this stage of the primary process, the Republicans favor two of the least qualified potential candidates in modern history for the presidency, and after this last debate, they may make it a trio if Fiorina advances in the polls.
No one can really be surprised at this anti-Washington, anti-qualified politician posture of the GOP base. After all, Republican leaders have been playing their base, as well as other Americans, for fools for several decades. Republican leaders have been pushing anti-government rhetoric for decades. The effort to diminish–or better yet, destroy–federal power began in earnest when Newt Gingrich was a back-bencher in the late 1970s, throwing grenades in the House of Representatives. His total irresponsibility in gaming the system attracted attention, and soon he was the leader of the House Republicans, and Speaker of the House by 1995. He never stopped pushing the envelope, down to his forcing an impeachment of President Bill Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky, while Gingrich was deeply involved in his own marriage destroying affair. Other GOP leaders have picked up where Gingrich left off as his own bad behavior made him irrelevant on the national stage.
Nonetheless, Gingrich’s politics of irresponsibility, from shutting down the government to encouraging baseless (but expensive) investigations of the executive branch in pursuit of nonexistent scandals to oust Clinton from office, found a receptive and permanent place in Republican thinking, as an endless array of willing co-conspirators joined the anti-government, anti-Washington cause.
I have been writing about these reckless ploys to game the democratic system for years. See, for example, “The Tea Party” (July 29, 2011), where I noted: “The movement seeks to disrupt the processes, by gaming the system, in order to de-legitimatize government”; “Gaming American Democracy” (September 23, 2011) , (October 7, 2011) and (July 13, 2012); “Impeachment Insanity Has Consequences” (April 4, 2014); and “The GOP’s Coming Confirmation Extortion Games” (December 2, 2014). See also, Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches. Any honest Washington journalist could (and more should) tell you that it is the Republicans who have paralyzed government operations, exacerbated partisan differences into a dysfunctional government, and refused to compromise to the point where they cannot agree on anything.
The “know nothing” candidacies of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, and the talking points-rehearsed candidacy of Carly Fiorina, are the culmination of prior GOP leaders belittling the federal government, Washington, and most recently the relentless attack on President Barack Obama–discrediting the very legitimacy of his presidency with the so-called “birther movement,” which has been led by Donald Trump. The fact that it is unlikely Trump could pass a U.S. Civil Service examination, that he would even be able to drive himself from the White House to the State Department to the offices of the Food and Drug Administration, and that he believes he can simply hire the right people to handle the job, is terrifying. Prior experience in Washington makes a big difference in how a person performs as president.
It was former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee who made one of the most profound remarks during the second GOP debate. Huckabee said, “The next president is primarily elected not just to know things, but to know what to do with the things that he knows. And the most dangerous person in any room is the person who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.” I have little doubt that Dr. Ben Carson knows what he does not know. Similarly, I am confident Carly Fiorina knows she is not ready to be president, for it seems clear that she is running to be someone’s vice president so she can learn. But Donald Trump is dangerous, and I am confident he does not know what he doesn’t know, for he has succeeded in life on chutzpah–a quality that does not work in the Oval Office.
Only time will tell if this second debate has revealed the true shallowness of the leading GOP candidates for president to the party’s base, and the potential consequences that could have for not only the GOP but the nation. Thankfully, the Democrats seem to understand the danger of know-nothing candidates, and all their prospects are deeply knowledgeable about the presidency, particularly Hillary Clinton and, should he run, Joe Biden.