Themes permeated candidates' forum

Who won the second round of the second Republican primary debate, and what did we learn?

 

My scorecard, which I’ll explain in a future column, ranks the candidates from best to “least best.” I say “least best” because no candidate performed terribly; and rankings were incredibly close except for the top two scorers.

My results: Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Dr. Ben Carson, Ron Paul, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz and John Kasich.

Before we entertain the reasons behind this ranking, let us discuss more thematic issues. Debates are designed to inform voters about policy stances, character traits and substantive issues. Therefore, the voter can make a semi-informed decision without much further research into the candidates. Fox News earlier in the first debate, and even more so CNN in this second debate, made a mockery of the point. Why was everything about Trump?

 

THE DEBATE WAS a circus – an entertainment ploy designed to grab viewers for a few (or not so few) hours. A study Friday demonstrated that 44 percent of the questions focused on or were addressed to Trump. A certain level of “Trumpism” is necessary and justified considering he has been the frontrunner. But not 44 percent.

With 11 candidates on stage, with less than a minute to respond to each question, and only 30 seconds for rebuttals, the moderators really needed to focus on substance and policy solely, not in reference or regard to Trump. It was difficult even for a trained political scientist to learn much about the candidates based on the debates. What a pity.

Nevertheless, we did learn quite a lot about the Republican Party platform. First, and perhaps dominating the night, was the argument surrounding religious liberty. This is a difficult question. Never mind the candidates’ views on what is the job of Supreme Court justices – which has been defined by Marbury v. Madison in 1803 as interpreting the Constitution, the laws of the land and acts of the other two branches, and once so, those interpretations become part of law itself (this is known as judicial review). But the particular relationship between church and state seems to be one of the most important points of the platform.

It is difficult to reason this out and decide which side is “right” and more “just.” Certainly the Supreme Court has now, based on its interpretation of the 14th Amendment, granted marriage rights to same-sex couples – and this is in its right to do so. But this offends the religious nature of the Republican candidates. And it is OK for any person to be offended by it.

 

BUT ONCE THE Supreme Court rules, and this may offend some of you but is basic legal knowledge, that ruling becomes the law of the land. On the other side, it can appear as though the government, including the court, is creating a “Christians need not apply” outlook on government jobs, and even nongovernment service-oriented careers such as bakers, wedding planners and photographers. In other words, there is a soft discrimination looming against Christians who oppose this ruling. The Republican candidates are homing in on this theme.

I think this is smart for the primary season, but may end up hurting the eventual winner during the general elections if he or she is not incredibly savvy and compassionate. The winner should couch positions in more constitutional terms. Certainly, it is reasonable for the government to allow accommodations for religious exceptions to avoid forcing one to violate his or her belief.

And more importantly, the second part of the First Amendment’s religious clauses, the free-exercise clause, states that the government cannot force a person to violate the free exercise of one’s religion, even in government jobs. Therefore, it is constitutional to provide exceptions to allow employees, even government employees, to not violate their conscience.

So here we have a very serious constitutional debate between religious liberty in the context of free exercise, and the equal-protection clause. This is a tension likely to extend far into the future. But is it one worth basing a platform upon? You decide.

In the following days, we will continue to discuss themes learned, then the individual candidates, and my scorecard explanation.

 

(The writer is an assistant political science professor at Augusta University. You can follow him on Twitter – @polscountrydoc.)

 

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