It’s entertainment. That’s what politics is about.
Somehow it became Holy Writ this presidential cycle that Donald Trump and Ben Carson are doing well because they have nothing to do with Washington, a place that real Americans are supposed to hate.
It is the year of the outsider, the political commentators said. And if you have never held political office, you naturally will be at the head of the pack.
But that’s wrong. It’s not about being an outsider. It’s about being entertaining.
Trump entertains with his bombast and gusto and outrageous self-promotion.
Carson entertains with his slow blinks, clasped hands, soothing monotone and calm demeanor.
Carson is a feel-good guy. He is not a shouter. John Kasich, who many in the media thought would do very well this year, believes there is a direct relationship between getting votes and decibels.
And Kasich spent most of Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate bellowing his replies as if he were shouting into a hurricane.
Kasich may be many things, including smart and accomplished, but he is not entertaining.
Trump is first in the RealClearPolitics poll average. Carson is second. And Kasich is ninth.
Ted Cruz is in fifth place, right behind Jeb Bush. But I have a feeling Bush has secretly decided he’d just as soon be secretary of the interior as president of the United States. That’s how his debate performance looked, anyway.
Which means Cruz could rise a notch or two. And as Cruz showed Wednesday, he understands entertainment.
The CNBC debate moderators had attempted to use a tried-and-true formula to create a successful debate. They wanted to get the candidates to beat up on one another.
Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but Cruz played it very smart, and he did it on live TV without rehearsal.
“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz said. “This is not a cage match.”
Then he performed an impressive feat of memory, providing a compendium (as he saw it) of the media questions so far:
“Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain?
“Ben Carson, can you do math?
“John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?
“Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?
“Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?”
“How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?” Cruz said. “The contrast with the Democratic debate, where every fawning question from the media was, ‘Which of you is more handsome and wise?'”
But Cruz wasn’t done.
“Nobody watching at home,” Cruz said, “believes that any of the moderators has any intention of voting in a Republican primary.”
The audience members went nuts. This was gutsy stuff. This was fun. And they liked it.
Marco Rubio, who is nobody’s fool, recognized which way the wind was blowing.
“The Democrats have the ultimate super PAC. They’re called the mainstream media,” Rubio said. “The mainstream media’s going around saying (last week) was the greatest week in Hillary Clinton’s campaign (because of her testimony before the House Benghazi Committee). It was the week she got exposed as a liar. … But she has her super PAC helping her out — the American mainstream media.”
The crowd responded with cheers and applause.
And later, when moderator John Harwood tried to interrupt Chris Christie, Christie shot back: “John, do you want me to answer, or do you want to answer?”
The audience applauded.
“Even in New Jersey, what you’re doing is called rude,” Christie said, which was dubious honesty but great television.
To be fair, CNBC had helped create a somewhat lighthearted approach to the subject of American economics. “In 30 seconds,” one question began, “what is your biggest weakness?”
Harwood also asked Trump whether some of his positions lacked intellectual rigor: “Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?”
The Donald looked hurt. “No,” he replied, “and it’s not a very nicely asked question the way you say that.” Later, Trump said some of the questions were “nasty and ridiculous.”
At 9:18 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, it finally happened. The audience booed one of the moderators.
CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla had been asking Carson about a controversial and delicate matter: Carson’s support for Mannatech Inc., a maker of nutritional supplements that has been sued in the past for making false claims.
Carson said he made paid speeches for the company and he takes its food supplement but that is the extent of his support.
But Quintanilla said Carson’s picture had appeared on the company’s home page.
“If somebody put me on their home page, they did it without my permission,” Carson replied.
But Quintanilla pressed further, questioning Carson’s “vetting process” with regard to appearing on home pages.
And here the audience began to growl and boo and howl.
Carson played it like a pro.
“See?” Carson said calmly and quietly, a beatific look on his face as he praised the wisdom of the audience. “They know.”
They do know! They know what they like. And that’s entertainment.
Roger Simon is Politico‘s chief political columnist. His new e-book, Reckoning: Campaign 2012 and the Fight for the Soul of America, can be found on Amazon.com, BN.com and iTunes. To find out more about Roger Simon and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2015 CREATORS.COM
Republican U.S. presidential candidates businessman Donald Trump speaks at the 2016 U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate held by CNBC in Boulder, Colorado, October 28, 2015. REUTERS/Rick Wilking