It’s a perfect encapsulation of the interesting times we find ourselves in. NBC and MSNBC gathered an audience of veterans to watch Matt Lauer pose questions to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Vets were selected to ask some questions of their own. The idea of the forum was implicitly to get the candidates on the record about national security issues.
And yet hardly anything discussed in the forum dealt with the kind of national security issues voters should be basing their decisions on.
Just hold your horses for a minute. I know Hillary is comprehensively untrustworthy, and there were bound to be questions relating to that. Her character, and her performance guarding national secrets, would clearly be a concern for national security. So, to Lauer’s credit, she spent a lot of time answering questions about classified material handling and emails.
But the primary voters and the Democratic Party didn’t have to make her their candidate. If they had chosen someone else, the CinC Forum could have been about current foreign affairs and policy.
They didn’t. The temper of voters in our interesting time is one of the things encapsulated in the forum. The Democrats have put up the most absurdly unsavory, corrupt, prevaricating candidate we Americans have ever seen. Hence, one half of a silly forum.
The other half of the forum is to be blamed on Matt Lauer’s choice of questions for Trump. Lauer did a similar thing, to a lesser extent, in the Hillary half of the forum. But in the Trump half, Lauer asked mushy-headed questions about the past in Iraq; about whether Trump knows more than the generals do about ISIS (a Trumpism we all know about, which doesn’t require further elucidation, as if anyone’s mind would change); and about Trump’s reaction to Vladimir Putin’s complimentary words about him (Trump).
These questions were clearly intended not to get Trump on the record on actual issues, but to make Trump talk about things Lauer thought would embarrass him. The difference between this and the Hillary segment is that Lauer’s tough questions to Hillary were pointed and logical: questions on her difficult subject (emails and security) that could elicit meaningful answers. He didn’t go easy on her, but he did pose questions that set her up to make responses a voter would actually find useful.
Meanwhile, the veterans’ questions for Trump from the audience – pre-screened by NBC – were about Veterans Administration issues. That’s an important topic, to be sure, but there’s nothing meaningfully revealing about baiting a candidate to say in public that, sure enough, he would definitely reform the VA and provide better services to veterans. Is there anyone who wouldn’t say that?
At any rate, I suspect a lot of viewers realize that it was stupid to badger the candidates about what they thought of invading Iraq in 2003. For one thing, vets as a voting bloc don’t join the mainstream media in their vendetta against the Iraq 2003 decision. The majority of vets don’t think it was a terrible mistake to go into Iraq.
Most would say that some aspects of the operation could have been handled better (indeed, some were handled poorly). But they don’t doubt the necessity of interdicting a major source of terror sponsorship and instability over there, instead of waiting for it to get worse and arrive over here.
But for another, very important thing, the Iraq decision is in the increasingly distant past. If it’s necessary to talk about Iraq in the past, why are the media constantly asking about 2003, instead of 2009, or 2011, or 2012, or 2014?
Imagine a candidate forum in 1948, in which a well-known media figure probed Dewey and Truman exhaustively on U.S. policy when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, or when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936. U.S. policy in both cases could be questioned in hindsight. But big, decisive, game-changing things had happened between those earlier turning points and 1948 – just as big, decisive, game-changing things have happened between 2003 and today.
It’s the media keeping the obsessive refrain of “Iraq 2003” going as a political litmus test. It’s not the demands of current reality. If we went by those demands, the forum Wednesday night would have asked about Iran destabilizing the Middle East, China destabilizing Southeast Asia, Russia rattling the saber in Eastern Europe, and the very real national security problem of unchecked migration and our unsecured national borders.
Instead, we got Lauer sanctimoniously pressing Trump on whether Trump was OK with being complimented by Vladimir Putin for his brilliance.
So, OK, Trump could have handled the forum more like a politician. I’m not sure it would be better if he had. Our world has already been turned upside down, and things aren’t equal anymore. But here’s what a politician would have done.
He would have taken each topic raised by Lauer and reframed it, in just a few words, to serve as the basis for saying what he, Trump, wanted to say. Lauer asks a dumb question about Putin? Trump talks about a strong policy with Russia: putting American interests first but looking for common interests and ways to cooperate and negotiate.
Lauer asks a dumb question about Iraq in 2003? Trump talks about Iraq in 2016.
You get the point. Here’s one very noteworthy thing from the evening, however. I’ll preface it by saying that Trump has yet to put this in the correct terms. When he talked about Iraq in the past, on Wednesday night, he said, once again, that we “should have taken the oil.” When he expands on this, it’s clear that he means we should have put the oil under American protection and some American-guaranteed scheme of management. Phrasing it more correctly doesn’t make it a better idea, but leaving his point as-is just makes it a silly distraction.
Here’s what actually matters about it. Of everything said in the forum about national security, it’s the only thing anyone will remember – as a moot-able proposition about policy.
Trump’s “should have taken the oil” argument is simple, direct, memorable, and something you can discuss in a meaningful way. You can do something with it – unlike anything said by Hillary, or in fact almost anything said by anyone in the 2016 campaign, candidate or prominent opinion-monger.
The only comparable point I can remember from anyone else is Ted Cruz’s theme about “carpet-bombing ISIS.”
Outside of the shorthand sound-bites on those two topics, and a couple of others from Trump (e.g., border security and vetting immigrants), there are no memorable points being made that form a basis for robust, cogent policy discussion on national security affairs. Iran? The undocumented side of the migration crisis (i.e., the path from Africa, Asia, and Europe to Central America – and then the U.S. border)? What about Syria? Iraq? Libya? The South China Sea? Ukraine? Eastern Europe? Who remembers any actual words about these topics? Who could describe what policy anyone actually proposes?
It’s more like the goofy woman in the insurance commercial saying “BLAH blah, blah BLAH blah…”
Hillary and almost all of the media speak in sweeping, comfortable, wholly unmemorable bromides, as if it’s about to be 2008 again and we’ll have some kind of do-over instead of facing a jolting reality we can’t fake our way through anymore.
Trump occasionally surfaces and says something arresting, and potentially actionable, but no one who prides himself on understands foreign policy agrees with it.
How did we get here? If we don’t figure that out, and set some priorities PDQ, we won’t have much choice about where we end up going.
“Interesting times” certainly are…interesting. I wonder how many viewers understand that we didn’t have a national security forum on Wednesday night; we had an uninformative, itch-scratching, popular-topics forum that seemed impressionistically to relate to national security, and that scratched mainly the MSM’s itch.
Look at old footage of candidate forums from the last 40-50 years. Do that, and you’ll end up agreeing that the Commander in Chief Forum on 7 September 2016 is the silliest excuse for a security policy forum we’ve had in at least two generations. If we’ve ever had one this silly, I’d be surprised.