I do not know who won last night’s debate, but I do know who lost: Jeb Bush. His comments consisted largely of empty platitudes, weakly delivered. He came across as someone who didn’t really want to be President, or at least didn’t want to work for it. I watched the debate at a gathering of local Republicans to which a friend had invited me. Every candidate except Bush drew at least some laughter or applause.
It was clear whom FOX News did not want to be on the stage: Donald Trump. The questions directed at him were uniformly hostile, and many were nasty and personal in a way that the questions directed to the other candidates were not.
Even though the debate was held in the industrial Midwest, none of the FOX News reporters thought to ask a question about trade. One of the reasons Romney lost was because many white working class voters stayed home rather than vote for someone they believed was in favor of outsourcing their jobs. Indeed, I suspect that the GOP chose Cleveland as the site of the Republican Convention in part to appeal to such voters. But it is hard to appeal to working class voters if one of the major issues they care about is never addressed.
The FOX reporters did ask question after question on foreign policy, all from a neocon perspective. The answers to those questions revealed a depressing uniformity among the candidates. Indeed, on foreign policy and defense issues, it sounded as if the debate were being conducted years or even decades ago. There was, for example, much talk about strengthening the American military, even though the United States currently spends half of what the entire world spends on defense, outspending Russia and China combined by nearly three to one. Although the FOX reporters asked several questions aimed at getting candidates to explain how they would appeal to voters who disagree with them on social issues, not a single question was asked about how candidates would explain their support for continued American intervention in the Middle East, even though George W. Bush’s foreign policy became a political drain in a way that his positions on social issues never were.
Donald Trump said that no one would be talking about illegal immigration if he weren’t in the race, Ted Cruz said that our leaders don’t want to enforce immigration laws, and Scott Walker said that he changed his mind on legal and illegal immigration after listening to the voters. All of these statements are correct. The demand to tighten up immigration comes entirely from below, not above. But that demand is a strong one, as the unexpected popularity of Trump has shown.
Thomas Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He writes from Cleveland, Ohio.