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Fox News debate weak on race, sour on Trump

The stage is set for the Republican debate. Brian Snyder/Reuters

Ten of the most popular Republican presidential candidates gathered in Cleveland on the evening of August 6 for two hours clearly designed to be fast-paced and entertaining.

It wasn’t a debate, exactly.

The three moderators fired off one hard-nosed question after another to different candidates in a seemingly random order. Some questions from Facebook users ran as standalone video clips without being addressed to anyone. Equal time was apparently not a big concern.

What stood out to American academics watching the show? Mostly the things that were half-spoken or left unsaid.

GOP still clinging to the Southern strategy

Lisa García Bedolla, UC Berkeley

In the 1960s, the Republican Party launched the Southern strategy – the use of coded racialized appeals to gain white votes. The large proportion of whites who now identify as Republican attests to the strategy’s resounding success. Its continued influence was evident on the stage in Cleveland Thursday.

Despite the fact that Fox’s Facebook monitoring showed that “racial issues” were the top source of conversation among Facebook users this week, the Republican hopefuls engaged in a variety of rhetorical contortions in order not to mention the word “race” or acknowledge the deep, pervasive racial inequalities that exist in US society.

When asked about how to diversify the Republican base, John Kasich talked mostly about economic growth, saying only after you establish growth can you reach out to the “people in the shadows,” including “minority people.” He later underlined the same point by saying how the United States needs to “give everybody a chance” and not “let anyone be behind.”

The only candidate asked directly about policing problems, Scott Walker avoided mentioning the word race, only stating we need to improve police training and “treat everyone the same.”

Rand Paul labeled himself a “different kind of Republican” because he had been to Ferguson, Chicago and Detroit, but he did not say why those visits should be seen as meaningful. Their racial content was implied, not stated.

The only racial group that was mentioned directly was Latinos (specifically Mexicans), who were referenced as “illegals,” drug dealers and murderers who need to be kept out through secure borders and a border wall. As Donald Trump has repeatedly demonstrated, denigrating Latino immigrants remains the one area where direct racial rhetoric is allowed among Republicans.

There was much talk after the 2012 election of the Republicans’ need to appeal to a more diverse electorate. Despite an African American and two Latinos on the stage, Thursday’s debate contained no substantive acknowledgment of or appeal to a broader audience. These candidates are still catering to their white base, holding strong to the Southern strategy.

Lisa García Bedolla is Chancellor’s Professor of Education and Political Science at University of California, Berkeley. García Bedolla’s research interests center around the civic engagement, community activity and educational success of ethnoracial groups in the United States. She is author of Latino Politics.

Trump issues a warning

Anthony Gaughan, Drake University

Fox News hosted a shallow and unfocused but highly entertaining Republican presidential debate on Thursday night.

The prime-time GOP debate certainly won’t win the Lincoln-Douglas Award for analytical rigor and substance. The candidates largely relied on unilluminating talking points and detail-free promises to balance the budget, defeat ISIS, abolish the IRS, repeal Obamacare and save Social Security and Medicare without raising taxes or cutting benefits.

The Fox debate, however, will likely be remembered for one significant moment: Donald Trump’s warning that he might run as an independent candidate in 2016. That spells big long-term trouble for the GOP. As an independent, third-party candidate, Trump would have the money, the flamboyance, and the name recognition to win 2% or 3% – or more – of the vote in the general election.

That may not sound like a lot, but it would mean a great deal because Republicans have no margin for error. Although Republicans do well in low-turnout midterm elections, the same is not true of high-turnout presidential elections. The GOP has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. The undeniable reality is that the party’s narrow base of white, elderly, rural and southern voters is shrinking rapidly as America becomes an increasingly diverse, cosmopolitan and urban society.

If Trump runs as a third-party candidate, he could be the Ralph Nader of 2016. In 2000, Nader ran as the Green Party candidate and carried 2.7% of the general election vote. Nader’s support came primarily from Democratic nominee Al Gore’s base of voters. Nader’s presence in the race was particularly critical in Florida, where his 100,000 votes tipped the election from Gore to George W Bush.

In 2016, history could repeat itself, only this time at the Republicans’ expense. Trump’s threat to run as an independent is thus ultimately more important than anything else that happened last night.

Anthony Gaughan is an Associate Professor of Law at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. His academic specialties include election law, national security law, and legal and constitutional history. He is a former United States Navy officer and an Iraq War veteran. He is the author of The Last Battle of the Civil War: United States versus Lee, 1861-1883.

Where did all the conservative environmentalists go?

Andrew Hoffman, University of Michigan

The first Republican presidential debate is over and the environment failed to make a showing. What can we make of its absence? For one, the Republican Party has no environmental platform. For another, the party is ceding the issue – and the voters that care about it – to the Democratic Party. This is a major liability.

Candidate Lindsey Graham (a candidate in the bizarre second-tier debate earlier in the day) said as much earlier this year when he lamented,

You know, when it comes to climate change being real, people of my party are all over the board … The Republican Party has to do some soul searching. Before we can be bipartisan, we’ve got to figure out where we are as a party … What is the environmental platform of the Republican Party? I don’t know, either.

This is a problem for the party of Teddy Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush – all of whom left a profound and indelible mark on the environmental politics of this country. And this seems strange, and even careless, at this particular point in time.

Nearly 200 scientific agencies have endorsed the IPCC consensus statement on climate change. The pope has just issued a historic encyclical letter on the issue. Major religious leaders of the world have followed suit. President Obama has just laid out an ambitious Clean Power Plan endorsed by over 350 companies. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has pledged to support it if elected.

All these events signal the extent to which this is an issue of great importance today and one that matters to a great many Americans, most notably young voters. But the Republican Party seems poised to remain on the sidelines.

Andrew Hoffman is a Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at University of Michigan. Hoffman has written extensively about corporate responses to climate change. He has published 12 books, most recently How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate.

Fiorina the early winner

Andra Gillespie, Emory University

The first Republican debate lived up to the hype, though probably not in the way that most people expected.

In both debates, the Fox News moderators did an above-average job of directing questions to all the candidates. They also did an excellent job of asking tough questions of each of the candidates, particularly about their obvious weaknesses. And I applaud them for attempting to hold candidates to task when the candidates sidestepped.

I think many people tuned into this debate expecting to see Donald Trump instigate a fight. While we didn’t see a fight, Trump’s performance was revealing and may have a long-term impact on his viability as a candidate. His candor in refusing to endorse a Republican nominee at all costs could affect his support in the long run. In addition, his endorsement of a single-payer health care system will likely ring dubious to many primary voters. Finally, his flippant response to Megyn Kelly’s question about his record on gender sensitivity will likely haunt his political and post-political career.

Carly Fiorina received a lot of positive buzz after the underdog debate, and as one of the “outsider candidates,” she provides a stark contrast to Donald Trump. Where Trump occasionally came across as ill-prepared and inconsistent in his debate, Fiorina was well-informed and prepared. She’s still a long shot for the nomination, though. If Fox News’ post-debate citizen panel represented an accurate cross-section of the GOP electorate, it seems as though Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson benefited more from Trump’s weak performance.

Finally, I have to agree with many television commentators who noted that Jeb Bush gave a flat performance. He clearly has the resources to survive a weak start, but he is going to have to figure out how to capture the imagination of his party.

Andra Gillespie is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Emory University. She teaches the undergraduate survey course in African American politics and a course called “New Black Political Leadership.” She is the author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark and Post-Racial America.

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