Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The GOP CNBC Debate: Everything Old Is New Again?

So far, the GOP presidential debates have been a lot of fun to watch, mostly due to the antics of Donald Trump.  Indeed, one CNN pundit brilliantly described the circus-like debates as “Fonzie on stage with a whole bunch of Richie Cunninghams.”  

The CNBC debate was different than the others. This time Trump was less the publicity-consuming forest fire, giving some of the other candidates a rare chance to poke their head into the spotlight.

This made the debate – for me, at least – the most interesting session yet.

It wasn’t because of the alleged bias of the CNBC “moderators.” Blaming the media or pollsters when your candidate loses smacks of blaming the refs in the NFL. However, the CNBC crew was, bias-wise, more egregious and self-embarrassing than most. 

What made the CNBC debate truly interesting was the showdown that occurred between former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and current Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

As has already been widely reported, Bush confronted Rubio for missing votes in the Senate, and Rubio – clearly anticipating the attack – responded aggressively and effectively. It was a "you sank my battleship" moment for Bush, and may have been a defining moment for both campaigns, as Rubio’s surging and Bush’s sinking poll numbers could indicate.

Still, what made it most interesting for me is the strange déjà vu feeling I had.

First, here is the relevant clip of the Bush-Rubio exchange during the CNBC debate.

Watching it, I felt I had seen a similar debate moment before.  A brief search of YouTube reminded me I have.

The date was October 11, 1992, when President George H. W. Bush – desperately fighting for reelection – called out Governor Bill Clinton for alleged patriotic lapses.

In the Bush – Clinton exchange, a genteel political aristocrat known for his aversion to engaging personally in sharp-edged attacks tentatively launched a volley against his Democratic foe clearly orchestrated by his campaign team. And, it backfired.

In the Bush – Rubio exchange, a soft-spoken, wonkish ex-governor who prefers talking policy rather than competing in the kind of garish scrum into which the GOP debates have devolved awkwardly attacked a political protégé on a perceived vulnerability. 

That backfired, too.

For the record, I would be very comfortable with Governor Bush as the next president.

The question isn’t whether Jeb would be a good president.  The question is, given the strange dynamics of 2016, can he be a good candidate? 

Concerns about the economy overshadowed Bush 41's historic foreign policy successes, leaving the man who won so convincingly in 1988 a spent political force by 1992. 

The times shape the candidate. Can this candidate Bush shape the times? 

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