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Debating the Debates

PS#25

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It took several tries before I could finish this Charles Krauthammer article about the Republicans squandering their “victory” over the so-called mainstream media, via CNBC’s demeaning questions at the most recent debate. But as Eugene Robinson explains here, it was really the phrasing and not the questions themselves.

In short, Donald Trump’s candidacy—as exemplified by the 50-foot high border wall that he assures us Mexico will pay for—really is a cartoon.

I subjected myself to Krauthammer’s vitriol in the name of schadenfreude—aside from a few well-worn jabs at Obama, he directed his anger at fellow Republicans. To re-tweet Donald Trump: “We have some very stupid people in charge.”

Feeding my schadenfreude is a self-serving habit that I’ve been able to exercise a lot lately, given the multiple wars currently being waged inside the GOP. This week featured Krauhammer vs. the candidates and the RNC, then Poppy Bush on his son as the victim of bullies Cheney and Rumsfeld, and finally George Will vs. Bill O’Reilly on Reagan’s incompetence. No, really.

What’s next? Oh wait, we’re closing in on the primary season. Screw the questions; I say hand each candidate a stick and chuck ‘em all into a pit. I want to toss in all the talking heads too, but we’ve already got a scrum down there.

Getting back to the candidates vs. the media… that war is a staple of any candidate’s campaign. Even Fox News wasn’t buying the Republican debate revolt, with anchors Megyn Kelley and Shepard Smith speaking up. Let’s not forget how contentious the very first debate became, on account of questionable questions. That one was hosted by Fox News, which some time ago became a player in the mainstream media.

Obama riffed on the whiners at a fund-raiser in New York, when he said that if presidential candidates couldn’t handle debate moderators, “…then I don’t think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you.”

Exactly. Republicans need to be careful not to be wounded by their own weapon when they select only sympathetic hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. If they do, their debates will be as low energy and bor-r-ring as the Democrats’ meetings.

Krauthammer suggested that Limbaugh & Hannity ought to host the Democratic debates. Wow! That would be something to watch, and likely at its most exciting when the moderators attempt to rein in Hillary as she runs over her talking time.

Yes. I do want to see that.

It’s not that the Democratic forum in South Carolina on November 6 was dull— host Rachel Maddow did ask difficult questions—but just like the first debate, nearly all answers transformed quickly into stump speeches. So how do you get spontaneous answers, except to ask uncomfortable questions?

Maddow did very little of that, and was also characteristically polite.

So yes, it was dull. I do give her credit for stumping O’Malley by asking what Democrats are doing wrong in the South—given that they consistently lose the electoral game in South Carolina and other “Deep South” states.

It’s not as if we don’t already know the multiple answers to that one: O’Malley’s conundrum was that telling the truth about Republican efforts to limit voting rights would read as whining. In truth, the results with 100% voter participation are not set in stone.

Even more significant: Republicans are WAY better than Democrats at framing issues. They may trash the economy every time they get actual control of it, but they are excellent at regaining the right to do so again, by getting elected. At least at the local and state levels.

This will be a good year to see if they can do it nationally.

Back to that forum of Democratic candidates: Rachel Maddow did grill Bernie Sanders repeatedly on his anti-gun control votes, but then allowed him to easily deflect any stigma. He earned a hearty audience laugh by tying the issue to compromise: Gun control advocates wouldn’t get everything they want, and “…people who want a missile launcher in their back yard as a constitutional right, may not have that.”

Otherwise, Sanders echoed his angry populist stump theme of income inequality and the ballot-box revolution that we need to turn around the country. And he’s right, that kind of revolution is exactly what is needed—a massive turnout at the ballot box by the young and downtrodden. But we all know that won’t happen.

The irony is: despite the sad fact that the revolution he’s trying to foment is highly unlikely, it is not impossible. Voter turnout has been so anemic for so many years, that a devastating electoral sweep could actually happen if any group realized their power and consolidated it.

Perhaps in the mold of Wild in the Streets? Yikes, I hope not!

Hillary Clinton’s debate performance? More irony, for me. I see a lot of wonkiness and competence—shades of her husband—but none of his charisma. That’s a skill more required in campaigning than governing, but she can’t do the job if she can’t win it.

Really, there’s no telling how it all plays out. Not yet. This year, Republicans have been especially good at shooting themselves in the foot. And at fighting with each other. But that’s only “so far.”

* * *

Can the complexity—or simplicity—of a candidate’s speeches say anything about the person, or his/her supporters? You’d think so, but a recent study says you’re wrong.

Several news organizations have performed evaluations of candidate announcement speeches, to see what grade level they were aimed at. One real measurement that I’ve used on my own writing is the “fog index,” which tallies characteristics such as sentence and word length.

This year’s evaluations use the Flesch-Kincaid readability index, which examines word choices and sentence structure. For example, this particular column tests at around 10th grade reading level. When I write fiction, I’ve always tried to hit a 7th-grade level. Not because people are dumb, but because it’s easier to read. IMO the basic rule of all writing is this: if words get in the way of the meaning, you’ve overwritten.

After all that, this year’s results as published in the Boston Globe may be apropos of nothing but confusion:

Reading Level—Announcement speech for this candidate

10th grade—Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, Bernie Sanders

9th grade—Carly Fiorina

8th grade—Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Lincoln Chaffee, Jeb Bush

7th grade—Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki

6th grade—Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum

5th grade—Ben Carson

4th grade—John Kasich, Donald Trump

Consider: John Kasich is one of the most reasonable-sounding Republican candidates and Donald Trump may be the least reasonable sounding. Yet both gave speeches readable by 4th-graders. There are other interesting juxtapositions: Mike Huckabee and Bernie Sanders at the 10th grade reading level, for example. Go figure.

* * *

Fox Business Network made sure to host the November 10th Republican debate as timidly as possible. I watched one of the hosts biting her lip as she listened to Bobby Jindal turn the sad facts about Louisiana upside down. She said nothing.

I’m starting to think that every debate—for both parties—should be hosted by a panel of hostile reporters. It’s the only way to keep the candidates off their stump speeches. The hosts would also have factual backup as they ask questions, and the guts to confront candidates who deny those facts.

Yeah, like that’ll happen.

* * *

Here’s a scary little observation, hidden among the comments following an article about Donald Trump. It speaks to me about why my meaningless single vote (and yours) is actually important.

“He’ll either make the country great again, or burn it to the ground. Either way, it’ll be interesting to watch.”

Yow. Don’t let people who think like that decide who’s in charge.

 

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Written by

Steve Schlich is retired after 35 years of writing fiction about software: “easy to use,” “does what you want,” and the like. Hobbies include webmaster for www.RodSerling.com, writing songs and short stories. In 2004, he created www.NakedWashington.com, a website chronicling the naughty public art in Washington, D.C. He lives happily with his wife and cats, north of San Francisco.

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