Sometimes it looks as if the Republican nominating contest was hacked by an outside power, one seeking to show that democracy is not a very good system of government or that it doesn’t work very well in the United States.
The campaign season, and the debates in particular, are a way to highlight the best ideas, the most inspiring vision for the country and to offer voters a range of possibilities for solving the country’s problems, finding its right place in the world and moving the nation to a better future. That, at least, is the ideal.
The 2016 campaign has so far proven much, much less than inspiring or uplifting. That’s true not only in foreign and domestic policy, but also in the impact it is having on the country.
Here are a few ways in which the candidates and the process disappointed:
At a time when hundreds of thousands of refugees are rushing into Europe, fleeing death, hopelessness and despair and creating a humanitarian and political crisis in the West, the 11 would-be presidents on the stage at Wednesday’s CNN debate had essentially nothing to say on the subject.
It wasn’t for lack of opportunity. The three-hour event included a hefty portion on foreign policy, but no one had a thought to contribute on the refugee crisis. That vast movement of humanity will grow larger in the months to come and the consequences will affect not only America’s allies but also the United States. The oversight was particularly ironic considering that the issue of migration to the United States has defined the 2016 Republican debate more than any other.
On what is the most urgent foreign policy challenge facing the next president, the war in Syria, which is spilling across the region, sending waves of extremist ideology and human suffering out from its epicenter, the frontrunners got away with empty statements that should not be tolerated by voters from people who claim they want to lead the United States and the Western alliance.
Donald Trump, in characteristic fashion, tossed out something that sounded like common sense but was really meaningless and callous. “We’re fighting ISIS. ISIS wants to fight Syria. Why are we fighting ISIS in Syria?” he said, offering what sounded like the premise to a profound conclusion, but instead ended in “Let them fight each other,” then the United States can “pick up the remnants.”
It’s unclear what exactly he has in mind, but allowing the carnage to continue with some hope of future benefit to the United States means letting the malignancy of Syria continue to metastasize without end.
Other candidates offered detailed criticism of President Obama’s failed policies in Syria, but their proposals were less than convincing and deserve far more scrutiny. Rand Paul seems to believe that Syrian President Bashar al- Assad should stay in power. Al-Assad is the brutal dictator whose rule provoked the current disaster. He has used chemical weapons against his people and unleashed deadly barrel bombs on civilians. Without his removal it’s hard to imagine a lasting, peaceful solution.
Others want to send U.S. troops. In the undercard debate, Lindsay Graham said if he’s elected, “we’re going to kill every one of these (ISIS) bastards … if we don’t, they are coming here.”
For those worried about extremism and prejudice, the campaign has already spawned ugliness in this country. More than anyone, Trump has set the tone, with boisterous attacks on Mexican immigrants matched by a deafening silence when a supporter repeated anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.
The attitude is not surprisingly spreading. During the debate, the ultra-conservative activist and Trump backer Anne Coulter tweeted something that smelled very much like anti-Semitism. “How many —-ing Jews do these people think there are in the United States,” she wrote, when the candidates were expressing their support for Israel, apparently to her displeasure. One sulfurous tweet from a radical is barely worth mentioning, but the wildfire of anti-Semitic tweets ignited by this spark is a troubling sign of the dormant prejudices awakening in the country during this campaign.
Add the anti-Jewish eruption that followed in Coulter’s support to the rash of anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim and other noxious flare ups of bigotry that seem to emanate from the anti-immigrant screeds by Donald Trump and his supporters. The party has so far failed to put a stop to this nasty trend. Rather than lifting up the democratic discourse, this campaign season is tarnishing the Republican Party and it is harming the country’s moral fiber.
On domestic policy, the candidates failed to address what is possibly the most important issue of all to voters. Even now that the economy has pulled out of recession, there is a fundamental problem gnawing at the country’s foundations. For the vast majority of Americans, earnings have not grown for decades.
That fact has held true during Republican and Democratic administrations and it affects voters of all parties. Since 1970, income for the bottom 90% of Americans has shrunk, while it has gone up more than 200% for the top 1%.
The Republican field, with a frontrunner who constantly boasts of his extreme wealth, may find this topic unworthy of discussion. But the fact is that income inequality in the United States has been increasing for many years and is now at its most extreme level since 1928. Republicans can choose to dismiss this as an issue for the “left” or they can rise to the challenge and take up a major problem affecting the future and stability of the nation.
Vaccines and autism
Lies and half-truths go unchallenged by the debaters, sending misinformation to the public amid tepid rebuttals from an intimidated field. This was most shockingly on display when Trump, a real estate expert, started proffering advice on vaccination dosages, saying he knew of a little baby that was vaccinated and ended up “very, very sick; now he’s autistic.”
Trump perpetuated a harmful myth before 23 million viewers, but when moderator Jake Tapper asked Ben Carson, a pediatric neurologist, if Trump “should stop saying vaccines cause autism,” Carson spoke vaguely about the misinformation, saying that vaccines don’t cause autism, but refused the chance to bring an end to the vote-getting conspiracy. “I think he’s an intelligent man,” Carson said of Trump, “and will make the correct decision after getting the real facts.” The other doctor on stage, by the way, Rand Paul, gave a second opinion with an unhelpful, “I’m all for vaccines. But I’m also for freedom.”
The biggest failure of the process so far can be found in the polls. If learning more about the candidates’ positions is supposed to make the voters better able to make a choice that is good for the country, it is hard to see how that is, in fact, taking place.
For some reason, voters are offering their strongest support to the candidate who is offering the least substance. Just look at Trump’s website. Under “positions” he has nothing but gun rights and immigration. The latest CNN poll shows Trump’s support eroded after the debate and Carly Fionina moved up to second place, but even now more voters support Trump than any of his Republican contenders.
One explanation for why this is happening is that in America, as in other countries, this is the “Year of the Clown.” It’s the result of a sense of frustration with the establishment, and it’s a test of democracy.
Or, perhaps somebody did hack the Republican primary.