As the field of Republican presidential contenders narrows, the rancor is growing and an unmistakable theme is emerging: Anti-establishment candidates are dominating the debate, while more mainstream candidates struggle to get attention.
Billionaire businessman Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, both big personalities with little regard for facts and even less, it would seem, for the actual business of governing, emerged from the first 2016 debate as the pair to beat. The flubs and missteps that would have wounded candidates in previous election cycles appear to bounce off these two. So great is the voter discontent they have tapped into that little else matters, except that they promise to do things differently and convey an air of authenticity.
On Thursday, once brighter lights such as Sen. Marco Rubio and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made clumsy bids for Trump/Cruz supporters, seeking to outdo one another with nasty rhetoric and dark visions of a lesser America. Both at one point referred to President Obama as a child, with Christie threatening to “kick his rear” out of the White House. Never mind that Obama will leave of his own volition at the end of this year, having completed two terms in office.
This is a disappointing turn of events for those voters looking for more than bombast who want to hear what a Republican candidate might do about stagnating wages, underemployment and a health care system that has yet to bring costs under control. Or a candidate who can talk about the need for more secure borders while acknowledging the value immigrants can bring, and can outline ways to keep America safe without stoking the fears that drive poor choices. We could see glimmers of those candidates once. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush tried with little success to steer the debate from insults about “New York values” and the legalities of presidential eligibility to more substantive matters.
In the GOP rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this week, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley urged Americans to resist the temptation to “follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” and instead dial down the volume to “actually hear what someone is saying.” She also sounded a too-little heard acknowledgment that both sides have contributed to the dysfunction now driving voters to nontraditional candidates.
Smart candidates grow over the course of an election. Trump and Cruz have displayed their mastery of the theatrical and an ability to connect with the public. Those skills have their place. Now it’s time for the two to prove they can also be factual, responsible and capable of bringing competence and the cool reason a leader needs to succeed.