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The Republican presidential candidates’ debate last night was the most cynical two hours of campaigning I’ve ever heard—and I’m not referring to policies or proposals raised by any of the candidates.

I’m referring to the loudly and repeatedly stated theme that emerged: Our government is broken beyond repair.

What a hopeless—as in devoid of hope—point of view.

No reasonable person thinks our government is perfect—so why should the idea at the opposite extreme be credible? Yet I can’t recall hearing anyone say a certain program works well, or that another one just needs a little tinkering to be effective, or that another one works so well that the same approaches could be applied elsewhere.

Instead, we heard blanket indictments of things like government regulations. Fewer regulations! is the rallying cry.

Guess what? Government regulations are responsible for the cleaner water in the river that runs through my town. Regulations that reduced pesticides brought bald eagles and ospreys back to the river valley. Regulations removed lead from household paint and gasoline, making the environment safer for us all. Regulations made our air cleaner. Nutritional labels on foods? The knowledge that smoking causes cancer? Seat belts in cars? Corporations and industries didn’t implement these changes on their own. It took the government’s hand to push them in directions that make all of our lives better. But the candidates call for fewer regulations, not more.

Has the government gone too far in other areas? Of course. Standardized education testing is an insult to teachers in classrooms across America. In my state, the government won’t let me buy an auto insurance policy that will forgive my first accident, although drivers in other states can buy such policies. When I buy beer at the grocery store, I have to show a photo ID, as if there’s a chance I look 40 years older than I really am.

Our government, though, is not broken. It’s not perfect, but it’s not useless, and candidates who say it is are insulting the intelligence of potential voters.

They insult our intelligence in other ways, too. The first question last night asked the candidates what they thought their biggest weakness was. The first person to answer, John Kasich, ducked the question immediately so he could make a campaign speech instead. The pattern held all down the line, although some of the candidates at least gave five or 10 seconds of lip service to the idea that they might have weaknesses.

A colleague and I were talking yesterday about how college students can't follow simple directions. Last night, we had a stage full of intelligent adults who were also unable to follow directions—that is, to answer questions. Instead, they made 30-second speeches that had nothing to do with the questions. They told us government is broke, but when they were asked prodded about what they would do to fix it, they evaded the questions—or, in Donald Trump’s case, whined that the questions were “nasty.” (I can’t believe what a thin skin that guy has. Putin would puree him and serve him with caviar on little slices of crusty black bread.)

Perhaps the biggest way politicians give us no credit is by answering a question evasively. Chris Christie had an exchange with one of the moderators, John Harwood, about New Jersey’s energy policy. Christie defensively retorted that the state wasn't involved—after all, government is broken—but instead had “worked with the private sector” (or words to that effect) to diversify energy sources in New Jersey.

But when Christie says his state worked with the private sector, what he’s really saying is, “We gave millions of dollars to private companies and promised not to regulate them so they could make millions more dollars at the public’s expense and line the pockets of their political lapdogs.”

So: Politicians tell us government doesn’t work. They duck questions when asked what they’re going to do to fix it. And when a question corners them, they try to BS their way out of it. The fallback replies to every uncomfortable question are to call for smaller government, blame the other party, or blame the media. Marco Rubio complained that the media had given Hillary Clinton a pass on reports that she was telling her family very early on that the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi was related to terrorism, not outrage about an American movie, which first reports indicated. But I knew about that story days before Rubio mentioned it because of the media—specifically, The Guardian's online edition. Where does Rubio get his news?

Despite the cynicism, we watch these events anyway because occasionally, a lightning bolt of common sense streaks through the fog of evasiveness and obfuscation. Last night, Mike Huckabee said one of the smartest things I’ve heard about containing health care costs: Do so by trying to eradicate cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, which he called the four “drivers” of health care costs. Prevent those expensive diseases instead of treating them, in other words. It would save billions, even trillions. Such initiatives, though, would require government involvement—and as the candidates reminded us, the government doesn’t do anything right.

I think there's an exception to that broad statement, though: Our government is beyond brilliant in its ability to make wealthy people even wealthier while at the same time quashing the dreams of the middle class and the poor in more ways than can be counted. I didn't hear too much about that, though.

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Oct. 30th, 2015 01:28 am (UTC)
I can't even estimate how many times I yelled at the screen last night, "You aren't answering the question!" I don't know why they call these debacles "debates."
t.
patrick_vecchio
Oct. 30th, 2015 03:41 am (UTC)
I was ready to stop watching after all the evasiveness on that softball of a first question.
sahlah
Oct. 30th, 2015 11:43 am (UTC)
I gave this debate a pass - I had no expectation of them answering anything. Sad.
patrick_vecchio
Oct. 30th, 2015 01:24 pm (UTC)
For me, the attraction was hearing how they evaded the questions. The Christie answer on energy was a good example, but I found myself saying "wait, wait, wait" a lot during the two hours of obfuscating.
(Anonymous)
Nov. 1st, 2015 03:38 pm (UTC)
is this what Freud meant by SUPER EGO
patrick_vecchio
Nov. 1st, 2015 11:21 pm (UTC)
I don't think the word "super" is big enough.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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