Last Thursday’s Republican presidential debate, the third of this election cycle, featured many of the elements Americans have come to expect from high-profile political sparring matches. Candidates borrowed each other’s ideas and made postured attacks. There were the serious questions met with evasive, pandering non-answers and leading prompts from moderators who often seemed out of their depth.
As a result, the Republican National Convention (RNC) called the debate “a disappointment” and said they will cancel a future debate which was also due to be produced by CNN. Anderson Cooper, whose moderation of the Democratic debate was professional and hard-hitting, criticized the debate as being “poorly produced” and providing fodder for conservative critics of the media.
Despite these familiar failings and the harsh criticism of its production, the debate still had Republicans looking far better as a whole than after either of the two previous debates. The ten candidates spent less time interrupting each other to sling insults and more time focusing on economic issues, with which they are are better trusted than the Democrats to bring growth and create jobs.
At this point, left-leaning voters would now be remiss to dismiss the Republican campaign as a hopeless freak show, seemingly designed to entertain rather than campaign. The debate demonstrated a maturing of discussion on the right. Republicans should follow this line further, avoiding embarrassing positions on social issues to present themselves as a party of growth. Democrats, in turn, should take their opponents more seriously if they hope to win the presidency next year.
The holistic improvement of discussion on the right is linked to shortcomings on behalf of the two frontrunners, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and real estate magnate Donald Trump. These candidates failed to capitalize on their poll numbers. Their staggering leads would be expected to produce an over-confident charisma, yet neither of the two leading candidates matched their pre-debate swagger.
Neither Trump nor Carson is likely to drop out soon, but they are both finished. They have relied on presenting strong, unyielding views through the forces of their respective personalities. If the debate is any indication, it seems they have run out of things to say. Careful dissections of policy are their bane. Trump floundered when asked about his immigration policies. He piggy-backed on Ted Cruz’s worthy plans for a more liberal visa regime in the form H1B visa reform, and offered no credible response when moderator Beck Quick pointed out that his campaign website and previous inflammatory remarks on immigration call for the opposite. Carson similarly failed to give an adequate accounting of the deficits his tax plan would produce and flat-out lied about his involvement in a troubled dietary supplement firm.
It could not be said that either Trump or Carson flopped in the debate. Their poll numbers have not yet suffered. Yet both failed to stand out, even from their positions at the center of the stage. Carson maintained the relaxed, likable delivery which has won him so many fans. Yet in doing so he hardly made himself heard. Carly Fiorina, whose support was about a third of Ben Carson’s before the debate, spoke 40 percent more than the frontrunner. Trump still is still able to win over crowds with his bombastic charisma, yet his appeal rests on his ability to dominate the conversation by being loud and bold. If his roll in the conversation continues to be drowned out by more experienced candidates with substantive policy plans, his poll numbers can only move in one direction.
As the crowd of candidates thins and the self-promoters drop out or grow silent, the appeal of Republican voices to mainstream Americans will likely grow. This has as much to do with concrete policy suggestions as presentation. By toning down reverent rhetoric and overt xenophobia that appeals to a small base but alienates more tolerant, mainstream voters, Republicans can broaden their appeal.
By and large, the candidates eschewed bigotry and name-calling to focus on issues on which Americans are more likely to lean conservative. Universal calls for a smaller government and more fiscal restraint by the would-be presidents find a wide audience in this center-right country.
It is a grave error to think only the populist democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders will appeal to struggling middle- and working-class Americans. The religion-based appeals of Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz and the message of empathetic capitalism espoused by Fiorina, Rubio and Bush all attacked entrenched elites just as the Democrats did. Virtually every candidate had something to say about the government’s unsavory role in protecting the rich and how they will help the middle class. Liberals do not have a monopoly on the claim to defend regular Americans against the power and abuses of the 1 percent. Tax plans, visa schemes and deficit reduction are construed as uplifting the middle-class. These arguments are to many just as persuasive as the Democrats’ promises of safety nets and better public services.
Ultimately both parties must explain how exactly their policies will help most Americans. Dismissing the other party’s commitment to helping the middle-class is not a good strategy for victory. However, as the Carson and Trump’s weaknesses come into sharper view and the frontrunners lose their leads, the party as a whole will gain traction in the presidential race.
Will Stupp is a senior Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.