Those of one party focus on policy; those of the other consist primarily of ad hominem attacks, lately emphasizing anatomical deficiencies. This difference in the character and quality of the debates epitomizes the character and quality of the two political parties in this presidential election year. And while the Republicans are far more entertaining, the Democrats are showing far more about the substantive direction in which they would take the country.
In essence, the Republicans are reality TV, while the Democrats are a PBS documentary. We watch reality TV to forget about our own reality for a while. We watch PBS documentaries only when our nerdy high school child tells us we need to. But reality TV shows don’t win Emmy awards; PBS documentaries do.
My point is that while the Republicans are fascinating to watch as they descend into name calling and worse, the Democrats are explaining what they want to do for the country. If you study the Republicans in their debate performances, you learn little other than that they all think Obama has been a disaster and that Hillary would be even more of a disaster. If you study Clinton and Sanders in their debates, you learn that they agree on most issues and disagree only marginally on a few. But, more importantly, you learn that they have substantive expertise on the issues facing the country. That used to be what you learned from the debates of both political parties, before Donald Trump (with strong assists from Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) turned their debates into school yard “so’s-your-old-man” name-calling rhetorical slugfests.
Donald Trump is a bully. He’s essentially a big man with a small man complex, which is what the worst bullies are made of. They get away with being bullies because they are big. (In a school setting, we’re talking physically big, so as to be intimidating.) But what makes them bullies is that they lack self-esteem. You’ll never meet a physically large male bully who isn’t also, at his core, insecure and lacking in self-confidence. They are the antithesis of the classic “gentle giants,” who have no need to throw their weight around and thus are far more often loved than feared.
If you study Trump’s performances in the debates, you’ll see a consistent pattern of rhetorical bullying. He makes his opponents cower just by dint of his aggressiveness. Anyone who challenged him, from Jeb Bush to Carly Fiorina either was told to shut up and mind his inferior position on the stage or was demeaned for being physically unappealing. When Megyn Kelly questioned him aggressively he tried to “explain” her attacks on gender specific grounds that were nothing less than misogynistic.
Bullies do that kind of thing. They make their opponents fear them because they threaten to hurt them, and if they are allowed to get away with it, they do it all the more often.
Trump was allowed to get away with a lot of bullying early in the campaign. Of late, he has been getting some pushback, primarily from Marco Rubio. But the pushback has made the debates even less substantive than they were in the earlier stages, when everyone took great joy in making Obama and Clinton the targets.
Debates that are nothing more than a succession of sixty second stump speeches are bad enough. But when those sixty seconds are devoted solely to attacking opponents, they lose all intellectual appeal, kind of like a pseudo-documentary on cable TV that is really just a reality show.
The two candidates in the Democrats’ debates are a lot less psychologically interesting, which is why their debates are far more academic and substantive. Hillary Clinton is a policy wonk who probably knows more foreign policy than the entire gaggle of Republican candidates who started out back in June. She also knows more domestic policy than any of the Republican candidates still running. But she is also a hard-core politician who will think nothing of besmirching an opponent for voting against a bill that included one good provision (the auto industry bailout) amidst a bunch of bad ones (the bank failure bailouts).
Bernie Sanders is a single-issue candidate whose issue is important enough to justify his extended run for the nomination. His passion is palpable when he talks about the super-rich and the Wall Street traders who control so much of the country’s economy. (See “The Big Short” for an entertaining version of his stump speech.) He hates personal attacks and would much rather not engage in them at all. He says he couldn’t care less about Ms. Clinton’s e-mail scandal because he doesn’t want to sully his campaign message with gutter politics.
Between the two of them, you may get ten minutes of heated quasi-name calling in a two hour debate. The rest of the time, they will be engaged in substantive discussions on important issues (like climate change, lead in the water, when to use the country’s military force, how to deal with racial prejudice, and what can be done to improve the Affordable Care Act). Those discussions don’t get much coverage in the network and cable news recaps of the debates. Instead, you’ll hear most, if not all, of the ten minutes of quasi-name calling.
In sum, here’s what a study of the Republican debates reveals: all of the candidates think Obama has been a terrible president and think Hillary would be at least as bad, if not worse; they all think their opponents are terrible candidates with numerous flaws of character and physical deficiencies, but they would each support any of their own over Hillary; all of them would defeat ISIS and keep America safe from terrorism; all of them would make America great again (since it isn’t great anymore).
On the other hand, the Democrats’ debates reveal these undeniable prospects: either of the candidates would run circles around his or her Republican opponent in the general election if the debate deals with policy direction and substantive issues; but only one would be effective at combating a bully, and the best bet is that she’d give him a nasty shiner and a bloody nose in the process.