Republican Wimpiness on Display

The Republican presidential candidates don’t seem to realize it, but they’re in the process of seriously undermining their own “tough guy” brand. Republicans have always seen themselves as “the Daddy party” (as opposed to Democrats’ “Mommy party,” of course), which has always meant no-nonsense toughness in the face of any opposition to their agenda. But how can American voters square this with the collective hissy fit the GOP candidates are now throwing over debate moderators? To put it the most obvious way, why should any voter believe that any of these folks will be able to get tough with (for example) Vladimir Putin, when they can’t even handle snarky questions from journalists? Republicans seem to have now embraced what was (ironically) a major political problem for Jeb Bush’s father — the wimp factor. Republican wimpiness is on full display right now. The GOP presidential candidates’ campaigns all had a confab this weekend to come up with a list of demands to fix the debate process. Reportedly, Donald Trump isn’t going to get on board (he’s going to cut his own deal with the networks, or something), but most of the other campaigns are signing a letter addressed to future Republican debate hosts. This letter is actually pretty wimpy, if reports are to be believed (it was a private meeting, so no public documents were released or anything). The candidates want opening and closing statements. They want pre-approval of any text that appears on screen next to them. It’s pretty small-ball stuff, really. Some radical ideas were considered, but reportedly couldn’t get consensus among all the campaigns. Added to all this wimpiness is the utter collapse of the Republican National Committee’s control over the debate process. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After the 2012 election cycle, the RNC was going to get tough and lay down the debate law for all Republican candidates. There were too many debates last time around, so there would be fewer this time. There were too many liberals asking questions, so the debate host networks would be hand-picked by the RNC. They were supposed to have rigged the process so that only conservative moderators would be allowed to appear. Obviously, something went horribly wrong with this plan. The purity tests for the moderators seem to have been seriously flawed, or something. Whatever went wrong, Reince Priebus and the RNC look pretty downright wimpy now, and unable to even stand up to their own presidential contenders. The mere fact that Republicans are even making the attempt to exercise control over what questions they get is pretty wimpy, when you think about it. After all, a part of the job of being president is occasionally holding press conferences. So what are any of these guys going to do if they become president? Demand pre-approval of any question asked? Is that really what Americans want from their leader? Some sort of veto power over the press? It’s mind-boggling when you really think about the implications of Republican candidates trying to tyrannically exert control over the free press, in fact. If any of them are elected president, they are going to — like it or not — have to take questions from journalists, some of them openly hostile to their agenda. But they’re wimping out on doing so during their primary campaign. The whole fracas actually boosts the chances of a Democrat becoming president. If Republicans demand (and get) tame debates from hand-picked questioners during the primaries, what is going to happen when we get to the general election and one of them has to stand next to Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton? To say they’d be unprepared is an understatement, if all they’ve participated in are echo-chamber “debates” up to that point. Republican complaints about the media are nothing new, of course. They’ve been whining about the media for decades, in fact. But the CNBC debate seems to have been some sort of final straw, and now the candidates are determined to somehow stack the deck in their favor. However, their biggest complaint wasn’t actually about the substance of the questions but rather the disrespectful tone of the questioners. Ted Cruz made lots of headlines for berating the moderators, but the question he was asked which set him off was actually a softball question — or it could have been, if Cruz had just answered it. Cruz was asked (admittedly, in a snarky way) about his opposition to the budget deal that John Boehner had just worked out with the other congressional leaders and the White House. This should have been a moment for Ted Cruz to shine, since his entire political persona has been built on strenuous opposition to such bills in the Senate. It’s not a stretch to say that the fame he has achieved by his filibusters and obstructionism is the main reason why he’s even a viable presidential candidate in the first place. And yet he chose to completely ignore the question and just rip into the moderators. Republican candidates say they want substance, but when they get substantive questions (about the budget and the debt ceiling), they ignore them and refuse to answer. They say they want more interaction between the candidates on stage, but the second debate was pretty much designed to do just that (CNN almost exclusively set up candidate-versus-candidate questions, and then showed both in a split screen, hoping for some juicy interaction). This format was loudly attacked after the second debate, however, so it’s kind of hard to figure out what the Republicans really want at this point. Wimpy demands to pre-approve on-screen text aside, what exactly would they change? At this point, it’s anyone’s guess, because no matter how the next debates are structured, there are bound to be lots of complaints, media-bashing, and other assorted whining after they happen. Actually, make that “while they happen,” since the biggest “winners” from the last debate were the candidates who bashed the media the hardest during the debate. Republican presidential candidates apparently all want nothing more than: “Could you please give me your campaign’s talking points on subject X?” Or perhaps: “What are the lines you use on the campaign trail which get the biggest applause?” They do not want any of their “facts” challenged, obviously, and they do not want anyone to bring up embarrassing quotes or events from their past. These are all deemed “gotcha” questions, and will be banished from the debate setting. Otherwise there will be a chorus of: “WAAAAH! He was MEAN to me!” in the post-debate spin room. This is the Daddy party? Really? These are the guys that are going to go toe-to-toe with Russia and China and make them back down through sheer strength of personality? Are you kidding me? Hillary Clinton recently sat down and answered extremely hostile questions for 11 straight hours. She did so with aplomb and certainty, and received praise for her poise from just about every neutral observer. Compare that to Republicans who spent a total of maybe 10 or 15 minutes each answering questions from the station that created the Tea Party, and who now want to write the rules in advance so that they don’t have to listen to any more disrespectful questions. That is a clear contrast in strength and wimpiness, folks. If Hillary Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, from what we’ve seen so far she’s going to eat these guys alive when the general election debates happen. That is, unless the Republican candidate wimps out from even participating, since he or she won’t be able to set those rules in advance. Chris Weigant blogs at: Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

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