Circus over substance

Published 11:33 pm Friday, August 14, 2015

The first presidential debate of 2016 is now in the books.
It says something about the quality of the major Republican candidates that the best performance by far belonged to former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who wasn’t polling in the top 10 and didn’t make the main event. If her numbers hold, she will be in prime time soon.
Fiorina, especially in contrast to her fellow CEO, Donald Trump, was well-prepared and disciplined. She knew what she wanted to say, and she said it. That included the best indictment of Trump — namely, that he has no fixed principles to guide him as a campaigner or as president.
Other than Fiorina, none of the other candidates, in what Twitter denizens called the “Happy Hour debate,” said anything that anyone noticed then or remembers now.
In the prime-time event, Trump was contained and maybe even degraded. At the beginning, he was the alpha male, the center of attention, with the others seeming to want to pick fights with him, win his approval or even both. But as the debate continued, the other candidates made their points without taking on Trump. Sen. Rand Paul and Gov. Chris Christie had a boxing match of their own, perhaps the most engaged and engaging part of the debate. Even former Gov. Mike Huckabee got off a few one-liners. But nobody remembers any of that. It’s all Trump.
Trump made a few points, but he remains weak on specifics and policy. Yet, according to the latest CNN-ORC poll, Trump still has a significant lead in Iowa. The amazing consensus of the majority of polls was that Trump’s national poll standing remained “mostly unchanged” after the debate. Some candidates had minor surges: In Iowa, Sen. Marco Rubio, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Sen. Ted Cruz each gained 3 or more points.
You can divide the Republican candidates more by attitude than ideology: They are “lovers” or “fighters.” Bush, Kasich and Rubio seem to want to win over voters beyond the Republicans’ 23 percent base. Trump, Cruz and Walker want to stomp on the Democrats.
Christie is a street-corner fighter by temperament, but a relative moderate in today’s Republican Party. Huckabee has a nice-guy effect that is rapidly wearing off as he shows a rough edge and extreme positions. Carson has a great story, an impressive career, some good lines and what some feel is far too passive a personality to be in the race. You wonder why he is running.
There was, of course, the dust-up between Trump and Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly. What’s fascinating is that Trump didn’t like the line of questioning — or being questioned. I think he’ll pay for that. For all his bravado, he couldn’t take the tough questions Kelly asked. As is his habit, he attacked in the most offensive way.
If the Republican candidates had the opportunity to discuss the issues without Donald Trump’s headline-hogging rants, the things they say might be even more embarrassing to the Republican cause than Trump’s crude putdowns of women.
In 2012, Romney lost tens of thousands of votes when he proposed Planned Parenthood be abolished. This year, Republican male candidates are in lockstep for it to be defunded — over citizen “gotcha journalism” videos that probably would not be admitted in a court of law.
Speaking of the law, federal funds cannot be used for abortions. So Republican candidates are seeking defunding of Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion, cancer prevention programs and health screenings for men and women.
Republican leaders want this nightmare to end. But-nightmares don’t end until you wake the heck up! The Republicans wouldn’t have to deal with this sort of sideshow if their main tent were opened to a more diverse audience.
Given the stance of most of the Republican candidates on women’s issues, they should be thankful for the distraction Trump provides.
Trump’s misogynistic outbursts overshadow some of the really frightening positions of other male Republican candidates, like Walker and Rubio. Their positions would deny women who are victims of rape or incest the right to an abortion.
Walker appears to go further and sounds as if he’d choose the life of the fetus over the life of the mother. As awful as Trump is, he’s not going to be president. These other guys could be, and their positions on issues are dangerous to women.
In truth, Trump is a disservice to voters because he moves the conversation from substance to circus. For those who missed the first debate, the second performance is just around the corner.
Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.

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