Democracy & Government

First Presidential Debate: The GOP Was MIA

Besides birtherism and anti-Blumenthalism, Donald Trump basically ignored the entire Republican agenda of the past eight years.

First Presidential Debate: The GOP Was [...]

While Donald Trump didn't talk about the GOP's pet causes at the first debate, he did plug his new hotel in Washington, DC, staffed with “unbelievably happy” employees. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The big surprise in last night’s debate was not what was said and done but what was not. Should it have surprised any close observer of the two candidates during the past year that Donald Trump is a know-nothing buffoon? Or that Hillary Clinton is an extraordinarily competent politician who holds generally mainstream views and can articulate them calmly and eloquently? If it did, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Trump has been treated with kid gloves by ratings-desperate cable news industry, most of whose denizens he has intimidated into allowing him to lie with impunity; that is when he was not simply spouting indecipherable nonsense. Clinton, meanwhile has attempted to stick to the nuts and bolts of the policies she plans to put in place as president at least as long as she can until she is interrupted by a television viewer to ask her about one of the GOP’s pet causes.

But here’s my question: Where were those causes last night? Was there any mention of Obamacare, which Republicans have been known to compare to Nazi concentration camps and has occupied the House of Representatives with literally dozens of pointless votes? What about Benghazi? Again, this was supposed to be the most grievous foreign policy crime since Yalta and the worst cover-up since Watergate? Was the word even said? What about all the crimes of the Clinton Foundation? Nada. The email scandal? Well, Trump tried it but gave up rather quickly. He didn’t even feint in the direction of shrinking the government. (Remember the tea party?)

The Republican Party’s only priority has been satisfying the demands of its donors and holding onto its seats.

What did he bring up? I actually find it hard to describe. He spent a lot of time attacking US trade policy, which, someone might want to mention to him, his own party owns more than do the Democrats. (These trade agreements always pass with far more Republican than Democratic support.) He bragged about his own tax avoidance. He gave a commercial for his new hotel and was particularly proud of owning at least one resort that does not discriminate against African-Americans.

So again, my question: What the heck happened to the entire Republican agenda of the past eight years? The only issue he gave to his friends at Fox News was birtherism and anti-Blumenthalism. And that crack about 400 lb. men in their beds; well, did he have to go after the station’s demo? (And was that a passive-aggressive crack about his now-unemployed buddy Roger Ailes?)

The upshot of last night is not merely that one candidate is hyper-qualified to be the next president of the United States and the other one is not even a decent beauty-queen host; it’s that the entire Republican Party agenda of the past eight years has been a hoax. The party’s only priority has been satisfying the demands of its donors and holding onto its seats. The fact that its voters would pick this comically unfit individual — and I cannot begin to count the ways — who shares none of its core values save hatred for its enemies demonstrates this. And it is a kind of poetic justice that Ailes and Fox News (with a strong assist from a now thoroughly corrupt CNN) created this monster that has swallowed the Republican Party for lunch and now doesn’t know what to do for dinner.

What bothers me — in spite of my great relief at the outcome of the debate — is the fact that Clinton has by and large allowed the Republican Party to get away with all of this. Trump may (or may not) have been the worst of the party’s choices for president. But he was no outlier. He was the logical culmination of the McConnell/Ryan/Ailes agenda. And hundreds of senatorial and congressional candidates are running on exactly that same Ponzi scheme — delicately distancing themselves from Trump but selling the same old snake oil that it’s hard to believe that even they themselves are buying. It’s not just Trump who is nuts; it’s an entire political party — and given the fact that it is the majority party in Congress — an entire political system that has been run off the rails. Clinton and the Democrats need to rescue it before they can hope to put any of their newly progressive agenda into practice, lest they continue to fight that same, silly rear-guard action that doomed Obama’s early years.

She’s got two more debates. Let’s hope she takes the opportunity not to sit on her lead but to build on her victory.

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman is CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College, media columnist for The Nation, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of nine books, including When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences (2004), Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama (2011) and Inequality and One City: Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment, Year One (2015). Follow him on Twitter: @Eric_Alterman.