I did not watch any of the Republican presidential debate on Thursday night. As luck would have it, I had dental surgery in the morning, and the pain was peaking. The Tylenol that had sufficed for weeks was no longer cutting it, so I found some narcotic pain reliever in the cabinet, and I was lying in bed waiting for it to kick in. My wife, who usually follows politics closely, couldn’t watch it either. For both of us, quite frankly, whole presidential field on the Republican side has become too unworldly, too extreme, and it was not as if we didn’t already know in broad terms what kinds of questions would be asked — and what kind of answers would come back.
A day later, I found this predictable summary on-line, from CNN Politics (here):
The top 10 candidates for the Republican presidential nomination only had a few minutes each on Thursday to capture the attention of voters tuning in to the first big-league Republican presidential debate.
Donald Trump may have grabbed the most headlines from the right, but the prime-time debate didn’t yield a clear victor. The night did offer a few breakout stars, and no candidate seemed to have sunk their campaign by the end of the night. From the stand-out moments to the blows, here are the night’s top eight takeaways:
1. Donald Trump won’t budge – ‘Trump proved yet again that he’s not going to back down from his bombastic rhetoric’;
2. Rand Paul: Attack dog – ‘Rand Paul was eager to grab headlines, jumping in even when he wasn’t called on’;
3. Christie v. Paul – ‘New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took advantage when given the opportunity to address his beef with Paul over national security’;
4. Kasich, John Kasich – ‘John Kasich’s main goal was to get his name out,’ and ‘Playing off a home-court advantage, Kasich deftly handled questions on the attacks Democrats would lob at him and took a pass on attacking Trump, insisting that ‘Trump is hitting a nerve in this country”’;
5. Jeb Bush: Rusty, but working on it – ‘Bush started off his week stumbling in New Hampshire … and teed off the debate Thursday by stumbling through his answers yet again’;
6. Where was Walker? – ‘his responses were drab and he didn’t break out from the rest of the field’;
7. Attacking Trump – ‘Aside from Paul, the rest of the candidates largely avoided attacking Trump’ and ‘it was the second rung of candidates who debated at 5 p.m. who took swings at Trump while he was absent’;
8. Fiorina’s breakout moment – ‘While the prime-time debate didn’t reveal any winners, Florina came away from the earlier debate as the clear victor, generating chatter on social media and buzz among political pundits.’
To me, this summary seems almost beneath superficial. No attention is paid to where candidates purport to stand on substantive issues, or even to identify what those issues are. (CNN did link a “fact check” to this story, here, but when you go there, you find only a small sample of randomly selected assertions “checked” by unnamed checkers, not enough to provide any real perspective on anything.) In this respect, if my experience is any guide, the depth of this coverage accurately reflects the depth of the “debate” itself.
Presidential politics has always been, first and foremost, a popularity contest. Go anywhere else and you will see the same sort of thing. My wife turned on MSNBC Friday morning, and in the few panels I observed the questions were mainly about which candidate most impressed viewers — and which of them, if any, won the debate?
Of course, the average reader will castigate me at this point: “What did you expect?” It’s not what we can expect at this stage of the electoral process that I want to address, however, but whether we can ever expect anything more.
In this morning’s Albany Times Union, my favorite editor, Rex Smith, published “GOP and Fox whiff at bat in debate,” making some noteworthy observations:
It’s theater. It’s American politics. Do not confuse this with what any candidate will do once burdened with the serious task of governing, which thankfully turns even the most simplistic demagogues into an adult.
The key word there is “serious.” Are we really certain that any Republican in national politics today is anywhere near as serious about running the national government as he/she is about eliminating its domestic effectiveness? Which ones? And which, among our Republican presidents of the past, can we honestly credit with having matured into adulthood in that respect: Richard Nixon? Ronald Reagan? G.W. Bush? So at what point can we honestly expect any candidate to start getting “serious”?
What was most surprising about the debate, though, was the performance of its presenter, Fox News. Social media feeds suggest that the most conservative of viewers considered the anchors’ questions too hard-hitting. Fox’s regular audience, after all, has come to expect deference to Republican politicians. But led by Megyn Kelly — a graduate of Bethlehem High School and Albany Law School, by the way — the anchors poked at each candidate’s weaknesses, like Kelly calling out Trump for labeling women “fat pigs” and “dogs,” and asking Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker if his view on abortion was too extreme. “Would you really let a mother die rather than have an abortion?” she asked.
Yes, Megyn Kelly is a neighbor — all of my children are also graduates of Bethlehem High School. It’s hard not to take it just a little bit personally when Donald Trump calls her a “bimbo” (here), but the real question is whether America can tolerate having a man for President who habitually engages in this kind of coarse name-calling and public character assassination. And not far below the surface lurks another, more basic question: Why would anyone resort to name-calling and bullying to put down opposition, if they actually had a message they could present straight-up, and sell?
Smith pointed out that the debate pretty much ignored millennials, then closed with this:
Polls show millennials are overwhelmingly progressive on social issues, like abortion, gun safety, climate change and renewable energy. Only one of those topics was raised by the debate moderators. Both Fox and the GOP seem to be missing a chance to broaden their base.
But it was just the first debate. The next one is almost six weeks away, this time with moderators from CNN. Everybody had better get back to rehearsing in front of the mirror. Glory may await.
The key word there was “seem.” What chance? I’ll give Rex Smith a pass on that one: He’s the newspaper’s editor, and he has to tread close to the middle of the road. But millennials are, first and foremost, concerned about economic issues — jobs, mortgages, health care, student debt, and household debt — as are most Americans. For the President of the United States, performance on those issues is, as they say, where the rubber hits the road. Such issues, however, were M.I.A. on Thursday.
Don’t expect a higher level of discourse in this election cycle on economic issues than we’ve had in the past, even though it is ever more urgently needed. Big money buys candidates, and official policy, and the wealthiest among us are continuing to promote and protect the interests of big money. Let us not forget that the GOP is the political party of big money. It has radically changed as income and wealth have concentrated higher on the income and wealth ladder over the last few decades. The moderate Republicans of the past have been squeezed out as their base — second-tier wealth — has gradually declined.
It’s a matter of economics. So, how did this warm-up debate look through the eyes of an accomplished, expert economist?
On Friday morning, Paul Krugman weighed in with one of the best social commentaries I have ever seen from him — “From Trump on Down, the Republicans Can’t Be Serious” (here). He began by asking how, despite the supposedly deep field of Republican candidates, Donald Trump ended up leading by such a wide margin:
The answer, according to many of those who didn’t see it coming, is gullibility: People can’t tell the difference between someone who sounds as if he knows what he’s talking about and someone who is actually serious about the issues. And for sure there’s a lot of gullibility out there. But if you ask me, the pundits have been at least as gullible as the public, and still are.
For while it’s true that Mr. Trump is, fundamentally, an absurd figure, so are his rivals. If you pay attention to what any one of them is actually saying, as opposed to how he says it, you discover incoherence and extremism every bit as bad as anything Mr. Trump has to offer. And that’s not an accident: Talking nonsense is what you have to do to get anywhere in today’s Republican Party.
For example, Mr. Trump’s economic views, a sort of mishmash of standard conservative talking points and protectionism, are definitely confused. But is that any worse than Jeb Bush’s deep voodoo, his claim that he could double the underlying growth rate of the American economy? And Mr. Bush’s credibility isn’t helped by his evidence for that claim: the relatively rapid growth Florida experienced during the immense housing bubble that coincided with his time as governor.
Indeed, talking nonsense is exactly what a successful candidate has to do, and we all know why: Making sense is dangerous to the narrow interests of wealth. Krugman sees this problem as running much deeper than just bad economics:
And while Mr. Trump is definitely appealing to know-nothingism, Marco Rubio, climate change denier, has made “I’m not a scientist” his signature line. (Memo to Mr. Rubio: Presidents don’t have to be experts on everything, but they do need to listen to experts, and decide which ones to believe.)
The point is that while media puff pieces have portrayed Mr. Trump’s rivals as serious men — Jeb the moderate, Rand the original thinker, Marco the face of a new generation — their supposed seriousness is all surface. Judge them by positions as opposed to image, and what you have is a lineup of cranks. And as I said, this is no accident.
It has long been obvious that the conventions of political reporting and political commentary make it almost impossible to say the obvious — namely, that one of our two major parties has gone off the deep end. Or as the political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein put it in their book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” (here), the G.O.P. has become an “insurgent outlier … unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science.” It’s a party that has no room for rational positions on many major issues.
Of course Paul Krugman is right, and we all know it: We live in a real world, and in the real world, facts prevail. No amount of fantasizing and obfuscation can do anything but obscure reality. What is more, we know why this is happening: Money controls everything. Profits beget more profits, and conflicts that stand in the way of easy profits — like environmental protections, financial regulations, or any program that might improve the lives of lower-income citizens — are abstracted into fanciful falsification, or simply denied. I’ll bet if we checked we’ll find that none of these candidates supports higher taxation for corporations and the very rich. Most, like Paul Ryan, openly support more tax cuts for them. If we checked, we’d probably find that they all line up with Ryan and Bush in support of “trickle-down” economics.
The Victory of Ignorance
None of this nightmarish charade would be possible if people understood how the economy really works. Almost no one does, however. Even most economists have been brainwashed into believing some very bad ideas, ideas that have been addressed on this blog, that make all the difference in the world. So, “here we are, under the bright lights” (kudos to anyone who recognizes the source of that quotation). Bernie Sanders is campaigning on truth, and he is light-years away from any of these Republican “cranks.” This is no time, he has reminded us, for politics as usual.
A new SEC regulation (here) will require corporations to reveal the ratio of the top CEO’s pay to average wages. That is certainly a step in the right direction, but the ratios, as startling as they have been, only tell part of the story. In and of themselves, they provide no clue as to the huge amount of income and wealth that has transferred high within the top 1% since 1980.
The top 1%’s net worth, as reported in national net worth accounts, has increased by more than $20 trillion since 1980 (That’s more than $570 billion per year, in current dollars.) These transfers have been taking place at a steady pace, and most of that total took place before the Crash of 2008. Another huge amount (perhaps as much as $8 trillion) has been moved from the U.S. taxing jurisdiction and placed in off-shore accounts around the world. Over time, the percentage of the population that enjoys any growth of wealth or income at all has been gradually shrinking: All growth is now hyperbolically distributed among the top 2-3%.
The stark truth is that the American economy is unstable, locked in an accelerating inequality cycle that is stifling growth and causing accelerating levels of poverty and household debt. This will not, cannot, end well. There was a popular saying in my day: “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” (here). Right now, America is dancing to Nero’s tune.
JMH — 8/8/2015 (ed. 8/9/2015)