”I Think the Adults are Beginning to Take Over”

Thursday, 12. November 2015
Michael Haltzel
Visiting Senior Fellow - The Global Security Research Programme

The question persists how two candidates totally without political experience, Carson and Trump, can still be sitting at the top of the public opinion polls among Republicans.

The adults are beginning to take over the discussion in the Republican presidential debates . . . I think. To be sure, last night's debate in Milwaukee contained much more substance than the previous three, and fewer purely personal attacks. And yet there was enough mud-slinging, posturing, and obfuscation by several of the leading contenders to stop this American from uncorking the champagne to celebrate the return to sanity of the Grand Old Party.

Contrary to many descriptions in the European press, the Republican Party has not been taken over by its Tea Party wing. While all the candidates stuck to party orthodoxy in criticizing virtually everything the Obama administration, especially Hillary Clinton, has done, the debate did showcase widely differing views on how to govern if the GOP wins the 2016 election.

John Kasich and Jeb Bush tore into Donald Trump's unworkable – and many would say inhumane – plan to deport eleven million people who have entered the U.S. illegally. There was much discussion about government spending, and while some of it contained dubious assertions, at least the focus was on policy. Foreign affairs also gave the candidates a chance to strut their expertise and in some cases experience. For me the most interesting, and surprising, comment was by Kasich who essentially advocated giving Finland a security guarantee against Russia.

Rand Paul brought up the question of how to pay for the huge increases in military spending proposed by some of his rivals. Marco Rubio responded by calling the Libertarian Paul an isolationist – perhaps not far off the mark – but then evaded giving an answer to Paul's legitimate question. Not answering the question, of course, was not limited to Rubio. Ben Carson used low-key humor to fend off rather gentle attacks but, once again, failed to address the documented factual inconsistencies in some of the most important elements of his personal narrative.

Stylistically, Trump was somewhat more muted than his bullying performances in earlier debates, but still came across as arrogance personified. Ted Cruz, a debater since his college days, mixed skillful retorts with outright nonsense such as his assertion that "Obamacare isn't helping anyone.” Carly Fiorina, the only woman on the stage, was forceful yet poised, and may be positioning herself for the Vice Presidential spot on the Republican ticket.

The question persists how two candidates totally without political experience, Carson and Trump, can still be sitting at the top of the public opinion polls among Republicans. The answer is that they are tapping into widespread public anger, which exists despite the very impressive American economic recovery. The U.S. unemployment rate has fallen to 5%, and American private enterprise is creating new jobs at a pace that Europe can only dream about. Unfortunately, however, the uneven distribution of income and wealth in the U.S. is off the charts. In addition, some candidates cannot resist fear-mongering, especially on social issues, which while an effective short-term tactic in gaining support, also contributes to alienating millions of Americans from the political system. What better way to express this alienation than supporting "tear down the house” candidates? I hope last night showed the beginning of the end of this phenomenon.

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The column is part of a series of FIIA columns on the US presidential elections.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors