By Charles M. Blow – – – – –
Last week I suffered through another dust-dry Republican debate in which a slimmed-down roster of seven candidates leveled many of the same attacks and regurgitated many of the same staid pitches.
There were a few flashes of life that caught my attention or made me chuckle:
Ted Cruz debuting some entertaining lines of attack to rebuff the questions the real estate developer keeps raising about whether Cruz is indeed a “natural born citizen” and able to become president. The real estate developer managed a surprisingly maudlin moment when he rebuked, quite successfully, Cruz for his outrageous us-against-them comments about “New York values.” Jeb Bush calling the perpetual squabbling between Marco Rubio and Cruz a “back and forth between two senators — backbench senators.”
But what struck me most about the debate was just how unremittingly bleak the tone of it was.
These Republican candidates have countered Obama’s “ Hope” and “Change” message from 2008 and “Forward” message from 2012 with “War” and “Ruin” and “Backwards.”
There seemed to be a competition to see who could describe the state of the country.
Understandably, a candidate has to identify a problem that they plan to fix. That’s simply the nature of politics. If there is no problem to fix, there is no need of a fixer.
Democrats are identifying problems as well.
Bernie Sanders has identified Wall Street greed, the “casino capitalist process” and income inequality as the enemy, and himself as the only one in the race with the credibility and philosophical track record to bring them to heel.
Hillary Clinton has identified Republicans and the prospects of their dismantling the progress made under the Obama presidency as her enemy, and she has positioned herself as the only logical heir to the current president, to protect his legacy and build on it.
But even as the Democratic candidates point to very real concerns, they seem to my mind also able to offer a vision of hopefulness and idealism.
Republicans are missing the second shoe. They are describing a coming apocalypse from which we must be saved, not a future that is full of light. Indeed, it is as if they must inflate some mythical beast so that they will appear more valiant in their quest to slay it. Everything is about arms and war and the Islamic State, guns and taxes and joblessness. It is about taking the country back to a different posture, a different period.
I can’t imagine that this will work in the end. While fear and anger can be effective electoral motivators, presidents are often elected on messages that carry a positive vision.
That positive vision is achingly absent from the Republican field. At least Ben Carson, with his meandering, absent-minded answer, came across as positive — not by his policies so much as by his soft-spoken, easy to laugh, slow to attack demeanor. But even that, during the most recent debate, didn’t work. Carson came off as more jester than that cogent candidate. When asked a question early in the debate, Carson responded with awkward self-deprecation: “Well, I’m very happy to get a question this early on. I was going to ask you to wake me up when that time came.” Oh Ben, they always look like they are waking you.
Most of the rest of the evening was consumed by the negative.
The real estate developer: “Our country’s a mess.” Later: “I’m angry because our country is a mess.”
Bush: “We have the mess in Washington, D.C.” Later, on Hillary Clinton: “She wants to continue down the path of Iran, Benghazi, the Russian reset, Dodd-Frank, all the things that have — that have gone wrong in this country. She would be a national security mess.”
Chris Christie: “There’s a number of things that the next president is going to have to do to clean up this mess.”
But, mess wasn’t always a strong enough word, so they sometimes amped it up.
Rubio: “She wouldn’t just be a disaster. Hillary Clinton is disqualified from being commander in chief of the United States.”
The real estate developer: “Our military is a disaster.”
Bush: “Hillary Clinton would be a national security disaster.” Later: “Everybody’s record’s going to be scrutinized, and at the end of the day we need to unite behind the winner so we can defeat Hillary Clinton, because she is a disaster.”
It isn’t completely clear to me the relationship between the candidates’rhetoric and the prevailing views of Republican voters: Are the candidates merely a reflection of the disaffected base, are the candidates helping to create the disaffection, or do they all exist in a national echo chamber amplifying each other?
But whatever the origins or the source of the expansion, this strikes me as a losing strategy. At some point, someone among the Republican candidates will have to offer a positive message to reach the middle of the voter spectrum and the crossover voters that one needs to win the presidency. If not, this field is destined to be remembered as a group of hyperbolic doomsayers rather than as successful presidential politicians.
Charles M. Blow has been a New York Times Op-Ed columnist since 2008.