My Reaction to a 1996 Republican Primary Debate

I like Bob Dole, and think he’s a decent man. But if his older 1996 incarnation is the best you’ve got, you’re in trouble. Especially against a charismatic person like Bill Clinton. And looking at the primary and how his biggest competition was Pat Buchanan—the precursor to Ted Cruz, the guy who gave the most hateful convention speech I’ve personally ever heard, the guy who destroyed the Reform Party and more than anyone embodied religious fanaticism in the ’90s…yeah. I don’t expect to find anything that appeals to me in this lot. My main purpose for surveying all these primaries was to scout out people who lost but may have been good Presidents, and who I think the rest of us ought to research more. From this point forward, I don’t think the Republican Party is going to provide that, but I’ll keep watching anyway in the spirit of fairness.

Around this time is when the Republican party began to go off the rails—the mid-’90s. This is when Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan and others were out for blood against the Clintons. This is when they slowly but surely began to form into an obstructionist “block the Democrats no matter the cost!” party rather than a party of real leadership and vision for the future. Bob Dole’s campaign from this cycle was, I believe, the last hurrah for Paleoconservatism in America the same way McGovern’s run was the last hurrah for (real, economic left-leaning) Liberalism. Every other candidate from both parties since the ’80s and ’90s was economically neoliberal, neoconservative on foreign policy and the only difference was wedge social issues. (Even these were often shared between the parties, as the Democrats adopted more Republican talking points like “tough on crime,” and the war on drugs, yet were too chicken shit to defend LGBT people openly yet.) Yet, paradoxically considering the smaller differences between the parties, the hatred and partisanship was worse than ever before and has only continued to get out of control. From this point on, the Republicans are going to descend into hyper-fanaticism unlike anything yet in our history while the Democrats largely roll over, accept it, and come back for more in the next cycle, conceding ever more ground.

The Candidates

So, aside from Dole and Buchanan, we have an ambassador, Alan Keyes, Maury Taylor, Richard Lugar, Lamar Alexander and Phil Gramm. Dole seems to be inexplicably absent.

I’m sorry, but Keyes has the most annoying voice you’ve ever heard in your life. You need to hear it for yourself, it’s the stereotypical whiny, nasally gay stereotype voice you’d hear in a TV show. He almost sounds like Steve Urkel.

Taylor also has an irritating voice and looks like a younger, thinner Dick Cheney. Hes spewing empty platitudes about bureaucracy and cutting taxing.

Lugar is better, his speaking voice is easier on the ears and he has a more presidential tone.

Buchanan is…Buchanan. He doesn’t frighten me quite as much as Ted Cruz, but you’ll definitely see a lot of the later evangelical demagogue in him nonetheless.

Alexander also gives the typical platitudes about balancing the budget. Funny, it wasn’t so important under Reagan. I wonder if he’d even have the decency to give Clinton the credit for running on a surplus.

Gramm looks and sounds like an old duck. Notice how he throws Bob Dole under the bus for cutting a deal with Clinton (implying that’s why he’s not here). Like, yeah…how dare that guy do his job! The nerve of that traitor, working with the president to get things done! And notice how Gramm brags that “I’m not gonna do that!” The very beginnings of Republican obstructionism we all know and loathe today.

What’s stunning here is how similar the ’96 field is to the ’16 field (and I suspect, all the ones in between.) You’ve got the token black guy to “prove” the party isn’t reliant on the Southern Strategy coalition, the obnoxious “I ran a business once!!” washed up corporate Manager/CEO, the seemingly moderate voice of reason who’s actually just as batshit if you look at his record (he just knows how to hide it better), the religious fundamentalist, and the obstructionist who thinks NOT doing your job in government is some kind of badge of honor. The difference is, in ’96 we at least still had the good sense to choose the last sane, principled man left. In ’16 we chose the craziest extremist of the bunch.

The Questions

It just gets worse, too. The first question is asking for something they liked about Bill Clinton’s tenure as President. First response? “His golf game.” Wow. Go fuck yourself. And I don’t even like Bill Clinton. But seriously, this is just childish rhetoric, and I haven’t seen anything like it at any of the primary or general debates up to this point. I don’t care how much you dislike someone, surely there’s ONE THING you can find to agree with them on or give props for. (As an example, I hate everything they stand for, but I’ve given Nixon, Reagan, Trump and Howard Phillips their due credit for great oration, often convincing rhetoric and hypnotic charisma. If I were asked a similar question about say, Trump, at a debate, I could at least find it in myself to answer say something like: “He speaks for a lot of disaffected people whom the system has been ignoring and made them feel included again in the process. He’s a tough, effective campaigner who overcame impossible odds through sheer force of will.”

Then he (this being Taylor) pivots to talking up his own record, not Clinton’s which was the question. Lugar accuses Clinton of preying on people’s anxiety for his own gain. Again, using the question of what his positives are, to attack him. Real classy, totally professional. Buchanan says Clinton has no “core beliefs.” Alexander is the only one to give a genuine compliment—he’s a good persuader and would’ve made a good legislator. Then Alexander goes on to accuse Clinton of living his midlife crisis in office. (I actually will admit, considering Monica, this one is a fair assessment of Bill, for better or worse.) Gramm says Clinton makes great promises, but none of them are true. I will also agree with this–Bill promising to end supply side economics in ’92 only to uphold a neoliberal agenda in office is solid proof of that. Still, the question was about positives, and it really makes you look petty that you can’t even try to think of something.

This whole first segment was literally “who can come up with the funniest, catchiest anti-Clinton soundbite.” This is what our national political discourse had sunk to by this point. Democracy has never been perfect, but I could not ever imagine seeing this sorry spectacle play out in the ’60s or before. And I have my issues with the DNC and many individual Democrats for sure, but I never saw them engage in this kind of behavior up to this point or for a long time afterward. Even now many on the left-wing seem to bend over backwards to appease Republicans: I’ve seen large swaths of them pretending the Republicans only started to become petty, juvenile and mean-spirited in 2016 when the convention speeches as well as the primary debates prove it was actually a gradual process that began decades earlier. I’ve even seen a few people whitewash the past and excuse a lot of W’s crimes in office because “at least he’s better than Trump!”

It just goes on too. Apparently the Republicans still hadn’t figured out how to run a proper debate even 4 years after the Democrats had. Here again, we have this asinine system of the candidates asking each other questions. Bragging about how fast they’d overturn Roe v Wade, how many jobs they “created,” and all the typical modern day Republican talking points. By this point, the party had gotten the stock applause lines down to a science, and they’d be sure to repeat ad nauseam. Anytime the audience asks a question trying to get them to explain the shortcomings of their party, they pivot to blaming and shaming the Democrats rather than show an ounce of humility or admit they could stand to improve themselves going forward.

Honestly, I’m sorry, but around 40 minutes in I just couldn’t take it anymore. I think it was hearing Taylor brag for the dozenth time about how “I’m the only one from a business up here.” Basically, if you’ve seen any Republican primary from the last 2 (at least) cycles, you’ve seen this debate already. Believe me on that, the Republican primaries had already become boiler plate stock phrases at this point. You know what you’re gonna get going in and you either like it or you don’t. I don’t, so there’s no use torturing myself unnecessarily.

At least in 2016 we had Trump to make things fun and call the other jokers on stage a bunch of names. Say what you will about him, but he knew the game and knew how dumbed down much of the electorate had become by that point. (Thank the media for turning the process into a superficial, glorified reality show over the years.) Trump knew you just need to brag about your supposed business credentials, stamp your feet about being anti-abortion (and since the 2000s, anti-immigration) and call the Democrats a couple funny insults and boom the Republican crowd is yours. We see the beginnings of that here in ’96. It’s like junk food for the mind, and even in the interests of fairness and wanting to soak up history, I have my limits.

It’s a shame Bob Dole wasn’t at this particular debate. It’d be nice to see if he kept his cool head and that’s why he won, or if he sold out like McCain and Romney, pivoting far-right to win. I’m glad he won the nomination, but also sorry he got blown out as badly as he did in the general as it might have convinced the Republicans they lost by not going extreme enough.

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