Thursday, October 29, 2015

This is not a cage match.

Ted Cruz showed his chops. The former leader of the Princeton debate team, and reputed top college debater in the country decimated the moderators at the CNBC Republican Presidential Debate on Wednesday night. This is not a cage match, Cruz began, and proceeded to lay out the asinine questions that the moderators asked the array of presidential contenders on the stage. Mr. Trump, are you a cartoon character? Mr. Carson, can you do math? Mr. Bush, why are you still in the race. These are questions we might ask among our friends at a dinner party, but John Harwood, seriously?

Ted Cruz compared the Democrat debate to a Menshevik running against a Bolshevik, and it was an interesting historical analogy that was probably lost on 99.99% of the American audience. We are not big on history, after all, so who would recall the tepid socialist regime of Alexander Kerensky that toppled Tsar Nicholas and ended the Romanov dynasty in February of 1917. The Mensheviks enjoyed a brief rule before being toppled in the October Revolution that brought Vladimir Lenin to power and led to the 70 year rule of the Marxist-Leninist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Few remember that we had a horse in that race. Along with British, French and Japanese forces that were on the ground, the U.S. was supporting domestic opposition to the Bolshevik regime during the three year civil war that followed the October Revolution. Russia was a big place and Siberia was and remains a resource rich environment, and the declining European colonial powers and the expansionist Japanese empire all coveted a piece of the rock.

If Cruz's analogy had a weakness, it was in the relative strength of the Democrat combatants. Bernie Sanders by all rights stands to the left of Hillary Clinton, so should be the Bolshevik in the story. As Lindsay Graham, the greatest wit among the Republican contenders, suggested in Wednesday's junior varsity debate, Bernie "went to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon, and I don't think he ever came back." But, of course, Hillary is no weak-kneed Menshevik, and if there are political killers on the modern American landscape, they are the Clintons. Lenin would be proud, and no doubt when Vladimir Putin looks at the landscape of adversaries coming down the road there are few whose ability to play a long game must concern him as much as Hillary. Marco Rubio is a child, Christie and Trump blowhards, and Jeb! barely a shadow of who we were told he was. Ted Cruz might well be the cream of that crop, but Putin knows our politics as well as we do, and for Cruz to be elected would require a strategic capability to manipulate the democratic process that none but Putin himself possess.

What set Cruz apart was his ability to actually listen to what others were saying and respond. Unlike Rubio, whose rhetorical flourishes demonstrated the benefits of extensive debate preparation--all of his answers were well crafted in anticipation of specific lines of questioning--Cruz was doing what real debaters are supposed to do, he was rebutting what his adversaries were actually saying. He applauded his rivals when that supported his thesis, and showed humor that demonstrated his understanding of how others view him. His greatest weakness? His affability and overall agreeable nature.

Chris Christie had his moments. Perhaps only those from Philly and south Jersey appreciated his giving Allan Iverson his moment in the sun. Practice? We're talking about practice? went Iverson's most famous rant. In response to CNBC moderator Carl Quintanilla's question about whether fantasy football gambling should be regulated--a question asked because of a recent insider trading scandal--Jeb! showed is only moment of joy in the last month as he noted that his fantasy football team was 7-0, let by Patriot tight end Rob Gronkowski, and, turning to his one-time running buddy Marco Rubio, "I have Ryan Tannehill, Marco, as my quarterback. He was 18 for 19 last week. So I'm ..." And Christie exploded. Fantasy football? We're talking about fantasy football? "We have $19 trillion in debt. We have people out of work. We have ISIS and al-Qaida attacking us. And we’re talking about fantasy football? Can we stop? Can we stop?”

And of course, Christie was right. His retort summarized the night in two respects. The CNBC forum was little more than a cage match. They were like the previous three presidential debates that have all been plays upon the classic Tim Russert Meet the Press gotcha format of pointing out hypocrisies in candidate rhetoric over the years, but in the CNBC case a bit more incendiary and insulting. It marked the confirmation of what this presidential season has now been fully reduced to: the ultimate reality TV show. And the night marked a new low for Jeb Bush, as he proved unable to do as Chris Christie did and pivot from a silly conversation about fantasy football to some more salient topic.

It was a shame, because this presidential debate was remarkable for the alignment of positions taken by the candidates pointing to real issues about our economy, income inequality, and the fundamental question of whether things in the country are working the way they are supposed to be working, and for whom they are supposed to be working. For Hillary and Bernie--the Menshevik and the Bolshevik--to be discussing why, as Carly Fiorina asked, we now have five major banks on Wall Street where we once had ten, or why, as Marco Rubio asked, our education system is no longer providing adequate support for Americans that want to go to college and lift up the possibilities for their children and their children's children, would be no surprise. But when it becomes the central focus of a Republican debate that CNBC honcho Larry Kudlow thought should focus instead on cutting corporate income tax rates, the moderators should have shown the same dexterity that Ted Cruz demonstrated, and pushed for a real discussion of why our economic and political system is not working for the large majority of Americans, and what a Republican solution to that very real problem might look like.

Over the next week, the next phase of our new reality show will swing into its next phase. The next batch of polls will come out, and America will vote one or two candidates off the island. Perhaps Rick Santorum will go home, and maybe Bobby Jindal, as the show's executive producers look for a say to get Lindsay Graham on stage and move Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul off. There is a good reason that Donald Trump continues to lead in all the polls, after all he has been a reality TV show celebrity for more than two decades and he gets how the format works. But Ted Cruz has made the case for introducing some seriousness into the process, and perhaps the next debate will take his words into account. After all, the CNBC moderators must have been totally embarrassed by finding themselves--rather than the other candidates--the target of the food fight that they provoked.