Blow, Cohen and Krugman

In “Gotcha, G.O.P.” Mr. Blow says the Republican candidates, especially Ben Carson, appear to want to say little and avoid tough questions.  Mr. Cohen, in “Erdogan’s Violent Victory,” says the Turkish president played with fire and turned “stability” into the key word of the campaign.  Prof. Krugman, in “Partisan Growth Gaps,” says Republicans make big boasts, but things go better under Democrats.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Here we go again with attacks on the “mainstream media” and the invocation of the dreaded “gotcha question” to excuse poor performance and intellectual flat-footedness.

After being asked at last week’s debate about his ties to the shady nutritional supplement company Mannatech and saying “I didn’t have an involvement with them” and dismissing claims of a connection as “total propaganda,” Ben Carson called Thursday for an overhaul of Republican debate formats.

“Debates are supposed to be established to help the people get to know the candidate,” Carson said, according to The Washington Post. “What it’s turned into is — gotcha! That’s silly. That’s not helpful to anybody.”

I think the question was a fair one, and I’m not alone. Carson’s business manager, Armstrong Williams, said Thursday on CNN that the question wasn’t a gotcha one but an “absolutely” fair one.

And on the credibility of Carson’s denial, PolitiFact ruled:

“As far as we can tell, Carson was not a paid employee or official endorser of the product. However, his claim suggests he has no ties to Mannatech whatsoever. In reality, he got paid to deliver speeches to Mannatech and appeared in promotional videos, and he consistently delivered glowing reviews of the nutritional supplements. As a world-renowned surgeon, Carson’s opinion on health issues carries weight, and Mannatech has used Carson’s endorsement to its advantage.

“We rate Carson’s claim False.”

The idea of the gotcha question and gotcha journalism have decades-long roots, at least. In 1999, Calvin Trillin in Time Magazinecalled gotcha journalism, “campaign coverage dominated by attempts to reveal youthful misbehavior.” But the questions the Republican candidates received were not of that genre.

In a 1992 New York Times Magazine articleabout Barbara Walters, one of her producers told Bill Carter that Walters always went for the “gotcha question, the one that reveals the person.”

But the idea of the “gotcha question” gained new primacy in the 2008 election, whenWilliam Safire wrote in The Times of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews’s prediction that “The gotcha politics will begin,” and noted that “Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, used the word in defense of having the audience question candidates at a CNN/YouTube debate instead of allowing reporters to have at his party’s candidates. He preferred to ‘let the American people back in’ than endure questions ‘from a press corps that wants to play gotcha!’ ”

But perhaps it has its most resonance because of its use by the disastrously ill-equipped Republican vice presidential candidate, who repeatedly used the phase as an excuse for her train wreck interviews.

Gotcha questions have come to mean any question one doesn’t want to answer, any question whose answer would or could reveal something unflattering. In a way, a question is simply a question and only becomes a gotcha if you, the answerer, feel convicted and unsettled by it. Gotcha is in the mind — and spine — of the interviewee.

Carson simply wasn’t prepared for the Mannatech question and wasn’t completely honest in the answer. If that is gotcha journalism, I’m here for it “every day of the week and twice on Sunday,” to borrow a phrase from Mike Huckabee.

This is not to say that the debate wasn’t a bit of a mess. It was. Nor is it to say that some of the questions weren’t questionable. They were. But questions that seek clarification of a candidate’s past are fair.

Yet Republicans have decided that attacking the media makes good optics. Not only is the party considering overhauling the debate process, it has suspended an upcoming NBC debate because, according to the Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, “CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of ‘gotcha’ questions, petty and meanspirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates.”

But gotcha questions aren’t the Republicans’ problem. A frustration among Republican voters with political professionalism and a hodgepodge of fatally flawed candidates is. The more traditional portion of the Republican field is littered with candidates with strong résumés — I use the word strong here loosely, to mean the existence of governmental experience, not the quality of it — but relatively weak rhetorical skills.

Of the nontraditional lot, there is a former neurosurgeon whose strategy seems to be to appear barely awake while delivering word salads of outlandishness in a murmur, a real-estate mogul full of bluster and bawdiness, and a fired C.E.O. engaged in a breathtaking example of pink-slip revisionism.

Marco Rubio is thought to have won the last debate, not so much because he brilliantly articulated reasonable, or intellectually invigorating policy — “I’m against anything that’s bad for my mother” is a kindergarten truism, not a nuanced policy position — but because he remained relatively even and unperturbed.

And yet, it’s Carson who is now the front-runner, one of the candidates who spoke the least during the last debate and who seemed to want to say nothing at all. And that candidate is the one worrying about the precious few questions he will have to answer. That is the elephant party’s problem: They’re betting on someone who’s using ostrich logic.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen, writing from Istanbul:

For President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, violence made all the difference. It turned “stability” into the key word of an election that ushered his Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., to the decisive victory denied it in the June 7 vote. One-party rule is back in Turkey and one man pulls the strings.

Improbably, Erdogan was able to embody stability when the politics of instability have been his modus operandi over the past five months. Or perhaps not so improbably — Erdogan, in power now for a dozen years, understands the psychology of fear and the force of Sunni Turkish nationalism, especially when the old specter of the Kurdish conflict appears.

The president has played with fire. His stance toward the terror-wielding jihadis of the Islamic State has married symbolic opposition to benign negligence, enough anyway to produce two terrorist attacks, one near the Syrian border on July 20 and one last month in Ankara, that left about 130 people dead. Most of the victims were Kurds. Goaded and attacked on several fronts in recent months, inside and beyond Turkish borders, the militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or P.K.K., returned to violence, killing two Turkish policemen on July 22. The old war stirred. It allowed Erdogan to suggest that only he stood between Turkey and the mayhem in neighboring states.

That, in a nutshell, is what changed between June and now. Erdogan did not respect the will of the people, of which he likes to speak. The June result was not to his liking; he set out, by all means, to overturn it and secure a parliamentary majority. Fragility was his political ally.

The A.K.P., embodying the conservative Sunni nationalism of the Anatolian heartland against the republican secularism of the coast, leapt to 49.3 percent of the vote from 40.9 percent in June. It took 316 seats, enough to govern alone, against 258 five months ago. A far-right party and the Kurdish-dominated People’s Republic Party, or H.D.P., lost votes as extreme nationalists and conservative Kurds opted for Erdogan. The scale of the shift, in short order, was extraordinary.

Still, the H.D.P., the new kid on the Turkish political block, managed to pass — just — the 10 percent legal threshold to enter Parliament. That was critical. Without the H.D.P., the A.K.P. dominance would have been so crushing as to enable Erdogan to change the Constitution and create an executive presidency on a whim. He will still push for that, but there will be pushback. Turkey, long the best hope for a Middle Eastern Muslim democracy, has not yet disappeared entirely over the authoritarian brink, but it is close.

Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic leader of the H.D.P., said, “Maybe we lost one million votes but we are a party that managed to stand up against all massacre policies.” That, he suggested, was a “great victory.” Certainly, it was a significant one.

The H.D.P. is wounded but not moribund, despite widespread arrests of its members. Its future may hinge on how far Demirtas, criticized for not condemning P.K.K. violence with sufficient stringency, is able to chart a new, inclusive and nonviolent Kurdish course. Its appeal to non-Kurdish voters, the surprising development of June, hinges on that.

But Demirtas is vulnerable to Erdogan’s machinations. It is unclear how far the turbulent downward spiral of the past five months can be contained. The president’s genie of violence is out of the bottle. He has attacked a free press, undermined the rule of law, polarized the country and instilled an atmosphere where any opponent is “anti-nation” and treasonous.

“Let’s work together toward a Turkey where conflict, tension and polarization are nonexistent,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, declared in victory. That, from Erdogan’s man, sounded like hypocrisy at best.

Turkey for now seems set on the intolerant path of the 21st century authoritarian democracies that owe much to President Vladimir Putin of Russia — societies where dominance of the media, manipulation of conflict, unbound nationalism and the trashing of the rule of law allow the creation of a democratic masquerade. This represents a betrayal of the fuller democracy, freed of the threat of military coups, Erdogan promised Turkey a dozen years ago and seemed for a moment to represent.

It is time to end that betrayal. The alternative is more violence. This was victory in a democracy undermined.

I spoke to Ahmet Hakan, a prominent journalist beaten up during the campaign by unknown assailants. Hakan comes from a background of A.K.P. sympathy but has become critical. “My biggest criticism is that they do not tolerate criticism,” he told me. “I am not categorically against the government but they are so intolerant they cannot tolerate this. I saw the A.K.P. as trying to democratize Turkey, but step by step it became a one-man party.”

I asked who attacked him. Government cronies? He declined to say. “But the political atmosphere under this government makes this possible.”

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Last week The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed article by Carly Fiorina titled “Hillary Clinton Flunks Economics,” ridiculing Mrs. Clinton’s assertions that the U.S. economy does better under Democrats. “America,” declared Ms. Fiorina, “needs someone in the White House who actually knows how the economy works.”

Well, we can agree on that much.

Partisan positioning on the economy is actually quite strange. Republicans talk about economic growth all the time. They attack Democrats for “job-killing” government regulations, they promise great things if elected, they predicate their tax plans on the assumption that growth will soar and raise revenues. Democrats are far more cautious. Yet Mrs. Clinton is completely right about the record: historically, the economy has indeed done better under Democrats.

This contrast raises two big questions. First, why has the economy performed better under Democrats? Second, given that record, why are Republicans so much more inclined than Democrats to boast about their ability to deliver growth?

Before I get to those questions, let’s talk about the facts.

The arithmetic on partisan differences is actually stunning. Last year the economists Alan Blinder and Mark Watson circulated a paper comparing economic performance under Democratic and Republican presidents since 1947. Under Democrats, the economy grew, on average, 4.35 percent per year; under Republicans, only 2.54 percent. Over the whole period, the economy was in recession for 49 quarters; Democrats held the White House during only eight of those quarters.

But isn’t the story different for the Obama years? Not as much as you think. Yes, the recovery from the Great Recession of 2007-2009 has been sluggish. Even so, the Obama record compares favorably on a number of indicators with that of George W. Bush. In particular, despite all the talk about job-killing policies, private-sector employment is eight millionhigher than it was when Barack Obama took office, twice the job gains achieved under his predecessor before the recession struck.

Why is the Democratic record so much better? The short answer is that we don’t know.

Mr. Blinder and Mr. Watson look at a variety of possible explanations, and find all of them wanting. There’s no indication that the Democratic advantage can be explained by better monetary and fiscal policies. Democrats seem, on average, to have had better luck than Republicans on oil prices and technological progress. Overall, however, the pattern remains mysterious. Certainly no Democratic candidate would be justified in promising dramatically higher growth if elected. And in fact, Democrats never do.

Republicans, however, always make such claims: Every candidate with a real chance of getting the G.O.P. nomination is claiming that his tax plan would produce a huge growth surge — a claim that has no basis in historical experience. Why?

Part of the answer is epistemic closure: modern conservatives generally live in a bubble into which inconvenient facts can’t penetrate. One constantly hears assertions that Ronald Reagan achieved economic and job growth never matched before or since, when the reality is that Bill Clinton surpassed him on both measures. Right-wing news media trumpet the economic disappointments of the Obama years, while hardly ever mentioning the good news. So the myth of conservative economic superiority goes unchallenged.

Beyond that, however, Republicans need to promise economic miracles as a way to sell policies that overwhelmingly favor the donor class.

It would be nice, for variety’s sake, if even one major G.O.P. candidate would come out against big tax cuts for the 1 percent. But none have, and all of the major players have called for cuts that would subtract trillions from revenue. To make up for this lost revenue, it would be necessary to make sharp cuts in big programs — that is, in Social Security and/or Medicare.

But Americans overwhelmingly believe that the wealthy pay less than their fair share of taxes, and even Republicans are closely divided on the issue. And the public wants to see Social Security expanded, not cut. So how can a politician sell the tax-cut agenda? The answer is, by promising those miracles, by insisting that tax cuts on high incomes would both pay for themselves and produce wonderful economic gains.

Hence the asymmetry between the parties. Democrats can afford to be cautious in their economic promises precisely because their policies can be sold on their merits. Republicans must sell an essentially unpopular agenda by confidently declaring that they have the ultimate recipe for prosperity — and hope that nobody points out their historically poor track record.

And if someone does point to that record, you know what they’ll do: Start yelling about media bias.

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