A Moral and Political Critique of the Republican Primary Debates of 2015, Part 1

As have many Americans, no doubt, I put on the Presidential primary debates of both parties mostly as background entertainment while I was doing chores, at least at first listen. Yet it occurred to me that it might be fruitful to sit down and take some time to really consider the arguments. Yes, we’re all a bit cynical these days, it seems, and it’s easy to wonder: why bother? Aren’t all of these presidential hopefuls just corporate shills and lapdog ideologues of the powers that be anyway?

Be that as it may (and I doubt that’s the case for all or most of them, at least not fully, though I agree that the financial incentives in the current political structure are corruptive to say the least), many of these arguments win over or enrage a lot of people, and it seems important to understand why and how. After all, we’re still, ostensibly, a democracy, and we all still have to live together in this country. Why not make the effort to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments that pit citizens against one another, uniting people within factions while dividing the nation as a whole?

So here’s a critique of arguments offered in recent Republican primary debates; I’ll do the same with the Democratic debate(s) soon as well. The debate transcript selections are in red, and my own remarks in black. I leave out introductions, banter, moderator comments, lines which indicate audience response, some purely empirical claims, and other parts that don’t directly pertain to the political and moral ideas considered here. The parts I leave out are indicated, as usual, by a series of ellipses.

From the Fox News / Facebook Republican presidential primary debate, August 6th 2015

The source of the debate transcript which follows is Time.com
Participants: Donald Trump, Governor Jeb Bush, Governor Scott Walker, Senator Marco Rubio, Governor Chris Christie, Dr. Ben Carson, Senator Rand Paul, Senator Ted Cruz, and Governor John Kasich.
Moderators: Fox News anchors Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace.

KELLY: It is nine p.m. on the East Coast, and the moment of truth has arrived….

Great, truth, let’s hear it!

…Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women.

You’ve called women you don’t like “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.” …. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president…?

TRUMP: I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. …I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness…

I agree with Trump on one thing: political correctness can be a problem in public and political discourse, and I think our ‘outrage culture’ has gone too far in sanitizing what we could and should be able to say, both publicly and privately, and especially in education. Some of the outrage and sensitivity comes from a good place, the concern that, through offensive speech, we can harm one another, act as bad influences on one another, and perpetuate our own bad habits of thought. These are true. But it’s also true that speech is necessary for confronting and addressing ideas honestly, whether they be good or bad. For example, sexuality and gender issues, like all else, are all part of the human story that can and should be told, and humor, banter, and in-your-face crudeness are some of the valid ways in which we address them. Trump may consider himself a harmless participant in all that.

But we can and should consider what people say when we make judgments about people, especially when we’re choosing our representatives in government. In a free society, we all decide if someone who regularly makes remarks that disparages women as thinking beings and gauges their worth based on sexual attractiveness to men is the sort of person we think best represents the American people and their core values. And as we’ve already considered, the words we use, and especially that influential people use, can go a long way in determining how a society thinks and acts. Besides, do we really want to elect a person who makes such nasty remarks about the daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers of other people, which we wouldn’t tolerate directed to our own, to the highest office in the land?

So let Trump freely say what he wants to say. If Trump sounds like an asshole when he talks about women or anything else, that’s very useful information he’s providing. In the end, the people will decide if what he reveals about himself shows he’s worthy and capable of representing the rest of us on the national and international stage.

…WALLACE: Governor Huckabee, like Governor Walker, you have staked out strong positions on social issues. …You favor a constitutional amendment banning abortions, except for the life of the mother. …

HUCKABEE: Chris, I disagree with the idea that the real issue is a constitutional amendment. …I think it’s time to do something even more bold. I think the next president ought to invoke the Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the constitution now that we clearly know that that baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception. The reason we know that it is is because of the DNA schedule that we now have clear scientific evidence on. And, this notion that we just continue to ignore the personhood of the individual is a violation of that unborn child’s Fifth and 14th Amendment rights for due process and equal protection under the law

The glaring assumption in this argument, of course, is that possessing a unique sequence of human DNA is equal to personhood. But so far as I know, neither American law nor its parent British law has ever established such a thing. Historically, legal personhood has been linked to the assignation of roles and responsibilities, and in modern times rights, to independently living, breathing human beings. Most spiritual and religious traditions have also equated breath and life throughout history, including the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. It may very well be the case, with the advances we’ve made in medical science, that it’s time to reevaluate the concept of legal personhood. People who can no longer breathe on their own or otherwise survive naturally can be kept alive through extraordinary means, sometimes with their cognitive abilities intact or capable of restoration, and fetuses in the later stages of development are now usually viable and possess most or all of the mental capacities of newly born, healthy infants.

But linking personhood to DNA is a very recent and I would say extreme innovation, and as yet no federal court has recognized this linkage, to my relief. The science of human reproduction reveals that it’s a complex process, rife with false starts (it’s widely estimated that well over half of all human conceptions fail to result in healthy live births). To assign personhood to every human conception would overturn centuries of very good legal precedent which does not concern itself too much with assigning rights and responsibilities to human organisms in the earliest and not yet determinate stages of development. Instead, it does and should concern itself first with the protection of the rights and responsibilities of individual human beings who we know already possess the attributes traditionally assigned to legal persons: viability without radical intervention and/or evidence of consciousness. Recent attempts to enforce laws based on DNA-based personhood have reduced pregnant and potentially pregnant women too close to the legal status of mere incubators.

…KELLY: Governor Kasich, You chose to expand Medicaid in your state …[and] defended your Medicaid expansion by invoking God, saying to skeptics that when they arrive in heaven, Saint Peter isn’t going to ask them how small they’ve kept government, but what they have done for the poor.

KASICH: …we’re treating [drug addicts] and getting them on their feet. And …the working poor, instead of them having come into the emergency rooms where it costs more, where they’re sicker and we end up paying, we brought a program in here to make sure that people could get on their feet. And do you know what? Everybody has a right to their God-given purpose….

It’s a relief from time to time to hear an American politician on the Christian right who remembers, if only occasionally, what the Christian religion was originally all about, and what it’s still all about at its best: eschewing greed and helping others. The Ayn-Rand, Gordon-Gecko brand of ‘nothing personal, it’s just business’ ethics, equating selfishness and relentless personal enrichment with ‘personal responsibility’, is not traditional; it’s another very recent innovation, though not so recent as the unique human DNA = personhood one. The early Christians were the original socialists, though their government was not linked to the civic one, and the only enforcer of their laws was, according to the New Testament, God himself. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who hid some of their wealth from their Christian community which required the sharing of all resources. When Paul calls them out on their deception, God strikes them dead.

If I heard more conservative Christian politicians declare publicly that while they don’t believe the government should interfere, it’s still a grave sin for people to spend their money on lavish lifestyles for themselves when their employees are underpaid and so many others go without healthcare and other basic necessities, I’d be inspired. If I heard their voices crying in the wilderness of this self-centered, hyper-materialistic society we’re creating that it’s wrong to hoard money in tax shelters, depriving their fellow citizens, including the military and its veterans, of lawful tax revenue, I’d listen and admire. What would the God of the Acts of the Apostles think of such deception? But it still appears clear that those who benefit most from tax loopholes are the ones funding most of these ‘pro-business’ politicians and giving them lucrative private sector jobs when they’re done. In such an environment, these politicians rarely proclaim that they believe Business, just like everyone else, should conduct itself according to principles that the biblical Jesus spent most of his time talking about.

….WALLACE: Gentlemen, we’re turning to …the issue of immigration. Governor Bush, …I want to ask you about a statement that you made last year about illegal immigrants. And here’s what you said. “They broke the law, but it’s not a felony, it’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family.” Do you stand by that statement and do you stand by your support for earned legal status?

BUSH: I do. I believe that the great majority of people coming here illegally have no other option. They want to provide for their family But we need to control our border… We need to be much more strategic on how we deal with border enforcement, border security. We need to eliminate the sanctuary cities in this country. It is ridiculous and tragic that people are dying because of the fact that — that local governments are not following the federal law. …I hope to be that president — will fix this once and for all so that we can turn this into a driver for high sustained economic growth. And there should be a path to earned legal status…

Sadly, this is not the first time people have been driven to our borders as political and economic refugees. In times past, we turned them away, and as they had no opportunity to enter illegally, their ships were forced to return, and they died in the Holocaust. In that case, I believe those fleeing to our country would have been justified in breaking the law, as their right to sustain their own lives trumped all. As Bush pointed out, the situation is not that different for many illegal immigrants. Our policies help perpetuate the drug war ravaging so many of the countries south of our border and our own citizens are the eager customers of the murderous cartels, and while we might point out that it’s their governments’ responsibility to protect them, not ours, that makes no difference when it comes time to choose, to try and make a safe and decent life for themselves and their children.

But Bush is not correct in claiming that people are dying specifically because sanctuary cities are not targeting illegal immigrants for arrest. The relatively few people who are the victims of crime at the hands of illegal immigrants are suffering because some people do wrong, whatever their citizenship status. Later in this debate, in remarks I leave out for the sake of space, Trump, Cruz, and Carson offer anecdotes of conversations had with Border Patrol agents and other officials as ‘proof’ that illegal immigrants are bringing unprecedented waves of crime with them, a very poor type of evidence compared with the official arrest and crime records which contradict their claims. If Bush, Trump, Cruz, Carson, and others want to make the argument that ‘sanctuary cities’ should do more to arrest illegal immigrants as a crime prevention measure, than for consistency’s sake they would need to argue in favor of also rounding up American citizens too, since they’re the ones committing violent crimes at higher rates.

It seems that we would do more to reduce crime and violent deaths across the board by reducing the incentives and opportunities which lead to them. We should change our drug policies, decriminalizing many drugs, replacing our prohibition system with sensible regulation and treatment options. And we should stop allowing guns to flood our country, making it all too easy for the depraved, the violent, the angry, the untrained, the mentally ill, the depressed, the clumsy, and the just plain unlucky to kill each other and themselves.

KELLY: Alright, gentlemen, we’re gonna switch topics now and talk a bit about terror and national security. Governor Christie. You’ve said that Senator Paul’s opposition to the NSA’s collection of phone records has made the United States weaker and more vulnerable….

CHRISTIE: When you actually have to be responsible for [prosecuting, investigated, and jailing] terrorists, you can do it, and we did it, for seven years in my office, respecting civil liberties and protecting the homeland….

PAUL: …I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from innocent Americans. The Fourth Amendment was what we fought the Revolution over! John Adams said it was the spark that led to our war for independence, and I’m proud of standing for the Bill of Rights…

CHRISTIE: …You know, that’s a completely ridiculous answer. “I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from other people.” How are you supposed to know, Megyn?

PAUL: Use the Fourth Amendment! …Get a warrant! …Here’s the problem, governor. You fundamentally misunderstand the Bill of Rights. Every time you did a case, you got a warrant from a judge. I’m talking about searches without warrants …indiscriminately, of all Americans’ records….

It’s always interesting to me when people who describe themselves as proponents of ‘small government’ become ardent defenders of big, intrusive government when it comes to certain pet causes. I agree with Paul here: one of the strengths of our system is that there are mechanisms built into our laws, at least ostensibly, to keep government accountable to its people. Obtaining a warrant before gathering information on citizens is one great way to accomplish this, and to show the world that we actually mean it when we claim to believe in a government of laws that’s accountable to its free citizens. And let’s not forget: amassing one massive, centralized database of the communication of private citizens provides an irresistible target for those who would want to hack into and steal such a gold mine of information, be it for political power, business, or terror.

… KELLY: Senator Cruz …you asked the chairman of the joint chiefs a question: “What would it take to destroy ISIS in 90 days?” He told you “ISIS will only be truly destroyed once they are rejected by the populations in which they hide.” …

CRUZ: Megyn, we need a commander in chief that speaks the truth. We will not defeat radical Islamic terrorism so long as we have a president unwilling to utter the words, “radical Islamic terrorism”. …When I asked General Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs, what would be required militarily to destroy ISIS, he said there is no military solution. We need to change the conditions on the ground so that young men are not in poverty and susceptible to radicalization. That, with all due respect, is nonsense.

KELLY: You don’t see it as…an ideological problem — an ideological problem in addition to a military one?

CRUZ: Megyn, of course it’s an ideological problem …Let me contrast President Obama, who at the prayer breakfast, essentially acted as an apologist. He said, “Well, gosh, the crusades, the inquisitions–” ….

Cruz is right insofar as it’s an ideological problem, but not necessarily in the way he means. People are prone to be inspired and radicalized by ideology, and right now, there’s an influential brand of Islam that inspires its followers to do violence in its name. But waging war, especially in the opponent’s territory, doesn’t solve this problem; it doesn’t tend to make one’s ideological enemies wave the white flag right off the bat. It tends to do the opposite, to inflame patriotism on all sides, especially for citizens and sympathizers of the country that’s been ‘defiled’ by ‘outsiders’ breaching its borders. Young men, especially single and without families, have always been most susceptible to this. And a cause like ISIS, which promises salvation through glorious martyrdom, is an irresistible draw to people of certain temperaments and beliefs, and especially to those who have not made their own lives meaningful to themselves in some other way. History is rife with examples of this, the original Muslim conquests, the Inquisition, and the Crusades all included.

A policy which encourages a backlash of more martyrdom-seeking looks like the strategy of defeating the mythical Lernaean Hydra by cutting off heads as fast as you can, knowing all the while this causes twice as many to grow in their place. We would probably do better by other means, such as helping other Muslims defeat them, or by capturing their leaders and putting them on trial, showcasing them as criminals and murderers and not noble defenders of a worthy cause. While Obama may err sometimes on the side of political correctness, it’s clear from the context that his goals (and they are worthy ones) are to avoid stirring up more religiously-motivated hatred, and to reduce the use of religious- and ideologically-charged rhetoric that self-proclaimed holy warriors can use as recruitment tools.

…  KELLY: Dr. Carson, in one of his first acts as commander in chief, President Obama signed an executive order banning enhanced interrogation techniques in fighting terror. As president, would you bring back water boarding?

….CARSON: Alright. You know, what we do in order to get the information that we need is our business, and I wouldn’t necessarily be broadcasting what we’re going to do

This is a silly remark in the information age we live in. If government agents torture people, we all find out at some point, and not only does it undermines our credibility when we do it in secret, we cede the moral high ground. We’ve made the moral decision, along with most of the civilized world, that we no longer believe in using tactics that are so brutal and corrosive to respect for human dignity. How can we hold ourselves up as an example to the world while resorting to tactics we’ve declared wrong to use on our own people when it suits our purposes? And, of course, our willingness to resort to torture is yet another recruitment tool for ‘holy warriors’ and provides them with the justification they want to torture captured Americans.

CARSON: We’ve gotten into this — this mindset of fighting politically correct wars. There is no such thing as a politically correct war. …And I’ve talked to a lot of the generals, a lot of our advanced people. And believe me, if we gave them the mission, which is what the commander-in-chief does, they would be able to carry it out. And if we don’t tie their hands behind their back, they will do it extremely effectively…

If he means that torture is more effective than other means of extracting information, than he’s just empirically wrong. It’s been shown time and time again that people being tortured, just like people under other kinds of duress, will tell you whatever they think you want to hear. Look at the history of torture and how often torturers got people to confess to the most ridiculous and unbelievable things, such as trafficking with the Devil and casting spells to kill neighbors’ cattle. Not to mention the huge amount of data we have on coercive interrogation techniques in law enforcement, which we’ve come to discover has led to unacceptably high rates of false convictions.

BAIER: …Now, broadly, ..the size of government is a big concern … But year after year, decade after decade, there are promises from Republicans to shrink government. But year after year, decade after decade, it doesn’t happen. In fact, it gets bigger, even under Republican politicians. …Is the government simply too big for any one person, even a Republican, to shrink?

HUCKABEE: It’s not too big to shrink. But the problem is we have a Wall Street-to-Washington access of power that has controlled the political climate. The donor class feeds the political class who does the dance that the donor class wants. And the result is federal government keeps getting bigger.

True, Huckabee, that’s true of the revolving door, of the tendency of many of the wealthiest to co-opt the power of the federal government to promote their special interests. If Republicans were generally even a little less willing than Democrats to keep money flooding into politics from special interests, equating dollars with speech, I might believe he’s on the right stage. As of yet, it’s only been a relatively few libertarian-leaning candidates, and John McCain, who’s consistently, openly criticized the Republican party and called for its reform on this account.

…. HUCKABEE: And I’m still one who says that we can get rid of the Internal Revenue Service if we would pass the Fair Tax, which is a tax on consumption rather than a tax on people’s income, and move power back where the founders believed it should have been all along.

The so-called Fair Tax system is an interesting idea overall: it has a built-in system of basic welfare, which delivers on the claim that we value equal opportunity; it taxes consumption, which might significantly curb the environmental effects of industry; the code itself is simpler, increasing transparency and making the ordinary citizen more or less as able as the wealthy to navigate it without the help of professionals; and it’s progressive in one sense, in that people with less money, up to a point, end up paying less. It has some big problems as its currently formulated, such as: the excess money of the wealthiest people, who couldn’t spend most of it even if they tried, would not be taxed and would therefore fail to generate much-needed public revenue; it would be more difficult to enforce, especially when it comes to services; capital gains would not be taxed, encouraging investment in what Joseph Stieglitz calls ‘rent-seeking’ over innovation and the creation of useful goods and services; and its doesn’t have any disincentives that I could find for the kinds of financial speculation that so often brings down our economy. If the Fair Tax system underwent some pretty thorough reforms to solve some of these problems, I might become a proponent myself.

…BAIER: Dr. Carson, do you agree with that?

CARSON: What I agree with is that we need a significantly changed taxation system. And the one that I’ve advocated is based on tithing, because I think God is a pretty fair guy. And he said, you know, if you give me a tithe, it doesn’t matter how much you make

Carson, by contrast, advocates a flat tax, which is a deeply unfair system if there ever was one. $1 out of every $10 is a crushing burden to a poor person, but can have little to no impact on the quality of life of a wealthy person. And even if he wanted his Christian beliefs to inform our tax laws, there’s no evidence that the Judeo-Christian God would advocate a flat tax anyway. While tithing was a common charitable religious practice for the Jews as it was for other traditions, two remarks of the biblical Jesus express a different view of what the just person should contribute. In one parable, he dismisses the large charitable donations of the rich while praising an old women who gave only a tiny amount, because it was nearly everything she had. In another place, he said, ‘For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required’. Instead of proportionality, he valued the contribution according to the generous spirit with which it was given, and how much was given compared to how much one received in life. In this sense, Jesus could be considered a critic and advocate of reform of the old practice of tithing, just as he was of many other practices of his time.

KELLY: The subject of gay marriage and religious liberty. Governor Kasich, if you had a son or daughter who was gay or lesbian, how would you explain to them your opposition to same-sex marriage?

KASICH: Well, look, I’m an old-fashioned person here, and I happen to believe in traditional marriage. But I’ve also said the court has ruled … And guess what, I just went to a wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay. Because somebody doesn’t think the way I do, doesn’t mean that I can’t care about them or can’t love them. …I think the simple fact of the matter is …we need to give everybody a chance, treat everybody with respect, and let them share in this great American dream that we have….

Well said, a succinct and plain-spoken defense of the American value of pluralism and of the rule of law, the latter of which can be extended to protect people who had previously, and unjustly, been denied its protection.

…BAIER: Governor Huckabee, the culture of the American military is definitely changing. Women are moving into combat roles. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has obviously been dropped. And now Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently directed the military to prepare for a moment when it is welcoming transgender persons to serve openly. As commander in chief, how would you handle that?

HUCKABEE: The military is not a social experiment. The purpose of the military is kill people and break things. It’s not to transform the culture by trying out some ideas that some people think would make us a different country and more diverse. The purpose is to protect America

The American military has been de-segregated and liberalized many times over the centuries, to it and the nation’s benefit. While its primary purpose to to fight wars and defend the homeland, its also a powerful symbol of how we conduct ourselves among the nations of the world. For example, when black soldiers were treated shamefully in the barracks, on the battlefield, and at home despite their heroism, the injustice of the differential treatment really sank in for the American people, and the civil rights movement first gained its real traction as a result. But the military is not only a symbol, it’s our national defense, and as such, should represent who we are as a people. And whether some individuals like it or not, we are, as a people, men, women, black, white, brown, straight, gay, and transgender.

KELLY: …In our final moments here together, we’re going to allow the candidates to offer their final thoughts. But first, we want to ask them an interesting closing question from Chase Norton on Facebook, who wants to know this of the candidates: “I want to know if any of them have received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first.”

….KASICH: …You know, today the country is divided. …We’ve got to unite our country again, because we’re stronger when we are united and we are weaker when we are divided. And we’ve got to listen to other people’s voices, respect them …because of how we respect human rights, because that we are a good force in the world, [the Lord] wants America to be strong. …And nothing is more important to me than my family, my faith, and my friends.

Again from Kasich, he is honest about his beliefs, but succinct: he places the focus of his answer on solving the political matter at hand, and expresses a commitment to the law and to human decency, which all Americans can unite behind, regardless of whether his religious beliefs cause him to disagree personally on specific matters. This is the right tone to take when you run for the presidency of a pluralistic society dedicated to freedom of belief. Carson took the same tone in answer to this question. The rest of the candidates made comments that mostly sounded religiously divisive to me, more like preachers and less like public officials.

….KELLY: Thank you all very much, and that will do it for the first Republican primary night of the 2016 presidential race. Our thanks to the candidates, who will now be joined by their families on stage.

To be continued….

* Listen to the podcast reading of this piece here or on iTunes
* A nearly identical version is also published as a guest post at The Moderate Voice.

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