The immigration argument that Rubio ducked shows what’s wrong with presidential debate structure

Both the Associated Press and The New York Times did a solid job of reporting the factual mistakes made by the various Republican candidates for president in the fourth debate. Between the two media outlets, they picked up on the fact that:

  • Ben Carson was wrong when he said that raising the minimum wage always increases the number of jobless.
  • Donald Trump was wrong when he claimed China designed the Trans-Pacific Partnership; in fact China had nothing to do with the agreements.
  • Marco Rubio was wrong when he said welders make more money than philosophy majors; philosophy majors make more than three times what welders do.
  • Ted Cruz was lying when he said he was proposing a simple 10% flat tax, when his plan also calls for a 16% added value tax; added value taxes, FYI, are typically passed along to end users—meaning the general public.

But as usual, the media outlets went after small fry errors, the policy equivalent of nitpicking gotcha’s. On the larger issue of conceptual lies, the media was silent. To a person, the eight candidates at the “big kids” debate all advocate that lowering taxes will lead to economic growth. Analyzing each of their tax proposals in detail reveals that all want to give the lion’s share of reduced taxes to the wealthy and ultra-wealthy. None of the media points out that the bulk of the research by economists demonstrates that lowering taxes on the wealthy does not lead to increased jobs, but raising taxes on them does.

Likewise with government regulation, immigration and the minimum wage: The media is happy to correct an error—or lie—of number or fact, but not of concept.

Speaking of the minimum wage, the way the debate moderators handled that issue at the fourth debate exemplifies what’s wrong with the basic debate structure. At the very beginning of the debate, a moderator asked Trump and Carson whether they thought the minimum wage should be raised to $15 an hour. We did not get an opportunity to hear what any of the other candidates thought about the minimum wage, because the moderators changed the question for Marco Rubio, who decided to answer the minimum wage question despite the change of subject. All three were against raising the minimum wage, but we never found out what the other five thought.

The moderators insisted on flitting from question to question, afraid that viewers would get too bored with eight people pontificating/obfuscating/expatiating the same basic thoughts on the same issue, essentially saying the same thing, because it seems as if on every issue, at least six of the eight hold isomorphic views. The show biz aspects of the debate compel the moderators to keep the subject fresh.

The changing of topics before all had their say worked in Marco Rubio’s favor when the topic turned to immigration. First Trump gave his poisonous views on immigration and then both Kasich and Jeb pointed out the impossibility of deporting 11 million people. Jeb added a compassionate note about the American way. It was probably his finest moment in the campaign so far, and was rightfully the highlight of much of the mainstream news media’s coverage.

What happened next is what I would call a deus ex machina for Rubio. A deus ex machina is a god that comes out of a machine at the end of Greek or Roman play who resolves all the plot twists; in modern parlance it refers to any sudden ending, such as the King pardoning Mack the Knife (Brecht) or arresting Tartuffe (Moliere). For Rubio, the deus ex machina was the moderator’s need to change the subject. The next question was to the young lad Marco, but about automation, not immigration. And unlike the first time the moderator changed the subject on Rubio and Rubio said, “Let me answer that, too,” this time Rubio took a pass and gave his standard campaign messages about addressing automation. Rubio avoided the need to confront his disgraceful waffling on the subject, coming out against the immigration bill he helped to develop because he was afraid to lose primary votes.

Much of the news media is calling Rubio the big winner from last night, but I think that’s wishful thinking for those looking for an alternative to Cruz, which means most of the mainstream and rightwing news media. I don’t think any candidate did anything to change anyone’s minds, except Carly Fiorina, who I expect will lose support.

Carly produced the most laughable moment of the debates, and she did it again and again. It’s when she kept calling for “zero-based budgeting” as the answer to our problems. Zero-based budgeting means that when putting together an annual budget, a manager does not start with last year’s number, but determines the department’s needs for the coming year; you start from zero and decide what you really need. It’s a technique of managing corporations that I learned in my first job after graduate school, in 1974! It’s been around for decades. Wikipedia says the federal government has been using it since Jimmy Carter mandated it in 1977. It’s a fundamental tool of all organizations.

Essentially, what she is saying is the equivalent of a chess teacher saying he can teach a kid to be a world champion by learning the “fried liver” offense, which can win you a game or two on the beginner’s level but will lose to any player with even a little experience. I have to believe that many business people noticed that Fiorina is advocating the second day’s lesson in business management 101 for non-majors as the key to most of our problems. Even those without MBAs will likely have been bored by this one-trick pony droning on and on in message points that sometimes didn’t really match the question.

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