Back in the 2012 election, President Obama joked that he should appoint Bill Clinton to a new post: "Secretary of Explaining Stuff" (Obama also kidded that “stuff” wasn’t his first choice for an “s” word).
Why the largesse? Because Clinton could walk into most any room and explain why the nation’s economy was better off under Obama despite a milquetoast recovery and a lot of evidence pointing to the contrary.
Such is the GOP’s challenge in 2016 – finding a nominee who can explain ideas and records in a way that connects with persuadable voters. John McCain lacked this talent in 2008 – he was a Senate process guy with little interest in domestic politics. Mitt Romney likewise struggled to connect. He came up with a 59-point economic plan – too much for voters to process, much less embrace.
Which brings us to Wednesday night’s CNBC debate in Boulder, Colo., the third such gathering of GOP presidential hopefuls.
The MTV of America’s investor class tried to coax the candidates into arguments (or at least take a swipe at Donald Trump), pestered Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on his personal finances and whether he should quit his day job, and hinted that Dr. Ben Carson is a homophobe. What this has to do with bolstering an underperforming economy? You tell me.
Republicans likely won’t win the White House if their nominee can’t “explain stuff”. Nowhere is that more true than the economy, supposedly the reason why CNBC invited the candidates to high altitude, to talk taxes and growth.
Unfortunately, that didn’t play out. The MTV of America’s investor class tried to coax the candidates into arguments (or at least take a swipe at Donald Trump), pestered Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on his personal finances and whether he should quit his day job, and hinted that Dr. Ben Carson is a homophobe.
What this has to do with bolstering an underperforming economy, easing the middle-class squeeze or espousing a new approach to government’s role in trade, regulation, infrastructure, scientific research or oversight? You tell me.
As for the debate, a few takeaways:
- Overall, a very good night for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the emerging foil to the establishment and outsider wings of the field. Cruz was the first of the candidates to call out the moderators on hostile questioning. He also broke news with a flat tax that sounded common sense and populist. Conversely, not a good night for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who seems to spend most of his time on these stages interjecting, rather that driving the conversation.
- Potentially, a good night for Rubio in that he can market a new brand: media-bias victim. “The Democrats have the ultimate super PAC. It's called the mainstream media," Rubio remarked. If I were he, I’d keep repeating that.
- Also a good night for Trump and Carson. Conventional wisdom held that Carson would receive a frontrunner’s grilling. Other than some eyes-glazing-over talk of his tax and budget math, Carson seldom was pressured. For the first time, Trump antics won’t dominate the post-debate talk – the moderators’ approach will. As for the third “outsider”, Carly Fiorina: she held her own on her Hewlett-Packard record. Good news for now, but is it a deal-breaker for a spot on the ticket?
- A tougher night for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul – casualties in the numbers game of too many candidates, too little time for three candidates starved for attention. Huckabee wants a consumption tax; Paul wants a flat tax. We never got that exchange. This will fuel talk that the December and January debates should feature smaller field.
- A frustrating night for Jeb World. Viewers didn’t hear much about his economic plan until the 100-minute mark; he got stuck with the obligatory $10-in-cuts-for-$1-in-taxes hypothetical (the same stale what-if from 2012). Congratulations to the governor for going 7-0 in his football fantasy football league. And kudos to Christie for using fantasy football as an example of where the government shouldn’t meddle.
In fairness, CNBC eventually did get into the specifics of the candidates’ tax plans (again, Rubio bore the brunt – in this instance, defending his rate changes). But that wasn’t until the top of the 8th inning of the Boulder debate – or the bottom of the 5th in Kansas City.
The good news: there’s another Republican debate on Nov. 10 with the Fox Business Network and the Wall Street Journal teaming up to put the candidates through their paces on the economy.
For the moderators, it’s the easiest of debate preparation: just ask CNBC’s moderators for the questions they should have asked – and didn’t.
Hey, sometimes “stuff” happens.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also blogs daily on the 2016 election at www.adayattheracesblog.com. Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.