By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter @bfry1981) Author, International Affairs/Development/Public Policy Professional, Freelance Writer/Journalist/Consultant/Historian
AMMAN — As much as the horror show of the second Clinton-Trump debate should bother us, on some levels the Pence-Kaine vice-presidential debate is more worrisome.
I say this because that one has been acknowledged to be the more “normal” debate, and should remind us all of how dysfunctional our system is even without Trump and his candidacy. But, because of that, it is also one of the more instructive moments of this campaign season, even though the debate happened almost two weeks ago; in fact, its lessons’ importance do not dim with the passage of time, but only increase, and will be relevant for the foreseeable future.
See, the thing about the now-generally-spineless Republican Party elected officials is that we can see the next episode, should Trump lose, with breathtaking clarity: “WE REPUBLICANS LOST BECAUSE OF TRUMP. BLAME HIM. WE ACCEPT NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR WHAT HAPPENED BECAUSE WE ARE 100% FREE FROM ALL BLAME AND 100% OF THE BLAME IS ON TRUMP,” they will spout piously.
But the largely uninspiring Pence-Kaine debate easily disproves that; it shows what is wrong with the Republican Party, it shows much of what’s wrong with our political system in general, and it even reminds us how thin the Democratic Party’s bench is.
What the VP Debate Told Us About Democrats
Now, a brief note on the issues with the Democrats before getting into the meatier awfulness of the other two topics.
First, don’t get me wrong: I like Tim Kaine, and though I was at first disheartened by the pick of another white male, I knew Elizabeth Warren would have been a disaster in repelling centrist voters and in making it an all-female ticket (nothing wrong with that for me but America is still a backwards country), and I was really hot for Julián Castro and would also have been excited by Corey Booker, but after I watched Kaine speak once he was picked and learned more about him, I chided myself for wanting to be “excited” and realized that Clinton was right to pick Kaine, who had far more experience and who could credibly be said to be ready to be president more than most (and certainly far more than the younger and inexperienced Castro and Booker, give them time for goodness sakes! Patience!!).
I realized my expectations as a liberal should not outweigh an ability to appeal to swing voters who are not as liberal as I am and to be ready to be Commander-in-Chief should disaster strike.
In the debate, Kaine deserves some credit for acting like a kamikaze pilot aimed right at Trump: at the expense of his own favorability, he kept the focus on Trump throughout the debate even though it meant a “loss” to the man with whom he shared the stage, Mike Pence: suicide mission accomplished, Sen; Kaine.
But on other levels, Kaine was lacking: he stumbled over his words more than a few times, his delivery was off, his attempts at humor fell flat. More than anything else, Kaine’s very presence was a reminder how thin the Democratic bench is, even if the Republican Bench is unquestionably weaker, especially in terms of substance. I remember thinking when Ted Kennedy died—the Last Lion of the Senate—there was no one else even close him except perhaps for Biden, now aging and in the twilight of his political career. The Lionesses of the senate—Barbara Mikulski and Barbara Boxer—are both retiring this year, with only Dianne Feinstein left in their class, though Claire McCaskill can be said to be a good person to soon be of similar stature. In the House, Nancy Pelosi, John Lewis, Elijah Cummings, Jim Clyburn, and other elder statesman will continue to serve there, but that’s pretty much it for them. Booker and Castro are exciting, but that is a list of two people. And Warren, whom I also like, is admittedly mostly talk and to the left of most Americans and is therefore not a viable national candidate for the same reasons Bernie Sanders is not.
What the VP Debate Told Us About Republicans
As for the Republican bench, it was eviscerated by the one-two combination of Donald Trump and actual Republican voters this primary season. Newer, supposedly up-and-coming stars like Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio performed abysmally. Tom Cotton (who didn’t run) may have an appealing veteran background, but he, like many other GOP newcomers, is also an irrational extremist who will narrowly appeal to white male voters and few others in terms of demographics or gender, which, in the future, will not be a winning formula even if Trump shocked us all with how many legs this formula can still stand upon in 2016 with what at least convincingly seems like a Picket’s Charge last-gasp of American white ethno-nationalism.
GOP: Party of Fantasy
Now, as to the most serious problem—especially on the Republican side, people were pining about possibly having the guy in the VP slot switch positions with the candidate on the top of the ticket. While that would spare us the possibility of a Trump cataclysm, it would, sadly, do nothing to alleviate the myriad problems facing our political system before Trump announced his candidacy.
In fact, the Kaine-Pence debate reminded me of the Bush-Gore, Bush-Kerry debates from years past, minus all the personality and excitement; yes, these two came off blander than we thought was possible, but the recent debate was worse in so many ways. Back then, it seemed the two parties lived in alternate realities on many issues and couldn’t agree on basic facts about the state of the world they cohabited. Today, those divisions are only more pronounced and cover even more issues than before, making the partisanship of the Bush and early Obama years seem almost quaint in comparison.
During the W. Bush years, no mainstream Democrat argued that Bush was responsible for or created al-Qaeda. Sure, there was fair criticism that Bush’s policies were counterproductive and incited and enabled more terrorism—an objectively true claim, as even Bush realized this when he replaced Rumsfeld with Gates and had Gen. Petraeus totally reorient our strategy in Iraq to be (more effectively) population/civilian-centric—but no mainstream Democrat suggested Bush wasn’t actually trying to win the war, that he was the main reason for the rise of al-Qaeda, or, even worse, that he sympathized with al-Qaeda and Muslim terrorists.
Even Trump, the Republican nominee for the presidency, has implied or said such things about Obama and terrorists and ISIS, has even clearly said he believes Obama “founded” ISIS even when given chances to clarify, and he is hardly alone in making such statements or holding such beliefs, which have existed since even before Obama took office as president (a Quinnipiac poll from this summer found that over half of Republicans—and nearly one-third of all Americans—agreed with Trump that Obama “may sympathize” with terrorists!). And most Republicans think that it’s mainly Obama’s fault that ISIS has risen as far as it has, which flies in the face of logic and history.
Compared to the W. Bush years, there is even more about basic reality on which the two parties cannot agree, and, as usual, it’s the Republicans who have fantastically constructed an alternative false reality.
Republicans today doubt the seriousness of climate change or even its existence and also doubt the validity of evolutionary science and other scientific consensuses, as they did back then; many still believe in the demonstrably false claims of trickle-down Reaganomics; today it is clear that Republicans also and/or increasingly believe in a fantasy of the state of and effects of illegal immigration, that there is not a racial disparity in law enforcement and the criminal justice system when there clearly is, that Obamacare is a total disaster even though it is not (even with its poorly understood problems it has made tremendous improvements), that Syrian refugees as being admitted currently to the U.S. pose a grave national security threat when they do not, that having a minimum wage or raising one is bad even though there is no evidence for the former and little that evidence the latter is true (as long as the raise is not stupidly high), that racism is an equal or larger problem for white people compared to African-Americans when this is flat-out absurd, that there is no discrimination against Muslims in America when there clearly is, that America is not on a steady if slow but also historic economic recovery when it clearly is, that the South was not exactly wrong during the Civil War and that America was founded as an explicitly Christian nation (wrong and wrong), that voter fraud is a pressing issue of major concern when it is virtually non-existent, and, on top of all of this, Republicans trash the quality of the U.S. military when it is still by far the most powerful military in the world and is still being upgraded robustly.
Many of these gaps in reality were on full display in the debate between Pence and Kaine. In fact, throughout the campaigns, including the VP debate, the candidates on opposing sides have sounded like they are talking about two completely different countries when they describe America. On top of all that, Pence was in full-denial-mode when it came to Trump’s many verifiable insanities; either that, or Pence didn’t even attempt to actually defend or address some of Trump’s atrocious behavior.
VP Debate an Awful Look Into Our Political System’s Pre-Trump Deficiencies
So, in what would supposedly be something of a “dream” scenario for Republican elites (the same Republican elites that had unwittingly laid the groundwork for Trump’s hostile takeover), a debate where Pence, not Trump, would be the presidential nominee for their party—a nominee who would still be in denial of basic reality on things like climate change and racial discrimination and immigration and the state of the economy and would also deny the basic reality of much of the ugliness underpinning the Republican party—would be considered ideal.
So even taking Trump out of the equation, we find that we are lacking in key components necessary for a serious, substantive debate about our future and that one of our two parties is willing to perpetually deny reality and its own strong ties to dark forces like racism and anti-intellectualism and militarism and plutocracy.
Without Trump, it is still impossible to have a fact-based, reality-situated discussion about our country’s policies and its future. Without Trump, we are still in trouble, and in very deep trouble. Without Trump, it is quite possible that Ted Cruz would be the nominee as he by far had the most delegates compared with any other Republican candidate (well over three times as many) besides Trump.
Yes, defeating Trump’s historically awful candidacy is a necessary step, but if victory in that cause is achieved, the real work is only beginning and it will be oh-so-very-hard; the American political system was in dire straits even before he announced his candidacy, and nobody should forget that. Anyone who does, just watch the VP debate and that is all the reminder of this sad truth that anyone should need.
And I would hope that without Trump lowering the bar to unprecedented depths that this problem would be something we would be discussing intensely; under Trump’s looming, groping shadow, I fear that discussion has been lost, failing to materialize as we try to put out an orange Trump fire all while missing the erosion threatening to send our house divided tumbling down a cliff over a longer period of time in a sinking collapse that would not be as sudden but would be as real a threat as Trump’s more dramatic and more immediate inferno of inanity.