Dr. Carson had the funniest line in the Thursday night’s GOP debate. After being largely ignored, and during a spirited exchange between his fellow candidates he begged, “Can somebody attack me please?” to an amused audience. The levity provided a needed break from an otherwise intense debate. His question also was symptomatic of a chronic problem of his, a lack of understanding of how presidential debates differ from the academic kind. Academic debates are measured, well controlled affairs. Presidential debates are media events. Even so, they have rules, some apparent and official, some less apparent and unofficial. The same rules that work for Trump, Cruz, and Rubio work against the good doctor.
The debate rules are deceptively simple. The candidates are asked a question, then have a certain length of time for their response. Typically, if another candidate on the stage is mentioned in the answer, that person is allowed a response. Naturally, a smart candidate loves it when one of his opponents mentions him or her because it gives them an additional opportunity to speak. Ben Carson is no different, which explains his ironic protest at not being attacked.
Another irony is that the answer to Dr. Carson’s problem could be a basic Christian tenant, one that he knows well. He has yet to apply its application, albeit in a novel way perhaps, to his present situation. That rule is: “Do onto others as you would have done to you.” It is understandably not an obvious connection for him to make, that for him to be attacked, and thus get an opportunity to respond, he must attack himself. His attacks need not be gratuitous like Trump’s, or biting like Cruz’s but he does need to call out his opponents by name where he disagrees. He can do it civilly or at least in a way that’s not off-putting, Rubio effectively walks that fine line using his sharp wit. Fiorina did it by likening her opponent’s stance to one of Hillary’s or President Obama’s, then providing an alternative view.
Think of the premise of almost every question, the formula going something like this: “Candidate X, candidate you said this about candidate Y last debate, do you stand by your remarks?” Yes, it is often a transparent attempt to pit one candidate against another for the sake of drama. It is a simple proposition—if you’re a candidate on the debate stage and want to speak, you want to be either candidate X or Y in that question. We are ten debates in, the eleventh is around the corner in Michigan. Maybe he has yet to make the connection between calling out opponents on the stump and the reception of debate questions, maybe he thinks himself above such things. If it is the former, he needs to figure it out in the course of a roughly a week. If it is the latter, the old saying may unfortunately prove true yet again, that “good guys finish last.”