Rachel Masden has a column up lamenting how Rick Perry’s gaffe in last week’s debate demonstrates our obsessiveness with image over subtance:
As in real life, politicians, voters and the media all get caught up with entertaining but petty nonsense. Case in point: Rick Perry stuck his cowboy boot in his mouth during a recent debate performance, unable to recall one of the three agencies of government he’d euthanize if he were to become president. Turns out it was the Department of Energy — which for a Texas governor to forget about would be a bit like the prime minister of Great Britain forgetting about Buckingham Palace. OK, funny — but really, so what?
For at least 24 hours, the mishap represented arguably the single most globally widespread American news item. I even saw it broadcast and translated on French television in Paris. This is the media and political culture of today — all about stagecraft, showmanship and ratings.
As a political strategist, let me tell you a little secret: Debates are easy to fake. All you need to succeed is a good policy-prep team, a competent spin doctor to distill that policy material down to snappy bite-sized talking points, and the memory and delivery capabilities of a C-list Hollywood actor. Perry just didn’t remember his lines. That’s all.
But what about the other guys who lucked out and did remember all their lines this time? Isn’t it the job of media moderators to recognize boilerplate spin and slice through it on the fly? There’s one reliable way to do this, but it’s rarely seen: In response to a candidate’s prepared take, a media moderator need ask only one question: “What precise action in your background or experience illustrates this principle?” In other words, when a candidate says that he would do something, what has he previously done in his career to demonstrate that value through tangible action? Do you know who any of these candidates really is beyond what he or she claims to be? If not, then thank the style-over-substance media.
The column is timely because I’ve been having some second thoughts about the primary process. I’ve lamented the fact that the two leading GOP presidential candidates are: a moderate, squishy flip-flopper who resembles a used car salesman, and a charismatic business leader who doesn’t seem to have the first clue about any substantive issue, including fiscal matters. To me, a lot of Herman Cain’s support seems tied up in what I’d call the spite wing of the Republican party. There are those who only dig their heels in harder when conservatives are critiqued in the media. To them any attack is only a sign that their beloved candidate is an even better candidate deserving of our support. So the more dirt you throw at them, and the more you highlight their flaws (substantive and otherwise), the stronger the support for these candidates.
And yet we see Newt Gingrich climbing up the polls to the point where he is now the front-runner. How is this humanly possible? We all wrote off Newt months ago, figuring his baggage was too much to carry him through. Yet now he is the new conservative darling. How did he do it? Impressive performances in the debates. He is articulate, bright, and well-spoken. He has been deemed the winner or among the winners of every single debate. Even conservatives who haven’t exactly hopped aboard the Gingrich Express daydream about debate matchups between Newt and President Obama. On top of that, he’s done it all with some style. Unlike Santorum, who is probably his superior when it comes to substance during the debates, he doesn’t come off as whiny or overly aggressive. Also, unlike just about anyone else, he is absolutely committed to not attacking his fellow Republicans. He has deflected every opportunity to critique the other candidates, and like a laser he has focused on Barack Obama. So not only does he come across as the smartest candidate on stage, he has emerged clean from the mud slinging.
This got me thinking that far from being superficial ideologues, conservative primary voters are almost single-mindedly obsessed with the appearance of intelligence and sophistication. Rick Perry’s poll numbers dropped like a rock after several poor debate performances. Michelle Bachmann cannot get past the low single digits in part due to the feeling that she doesn’t have the intellectual gravitas to become president. Now Cain is sliding in the polls as well. Does that have to do with fallout from the harassment claims or is it a reflection that conservatives are turned off by his repeated mental gaffes? It’s possibly a bit of both, but polls indicated that the overwhelming majority of GOP primary voters didn’t really care about the harassment claims, which suggests that voters doubt Cain’s intellectual chops more than anything else.
So now that I’m feeling better about conservative voters this Masden column is forcing me to have second (third?) thoughts. Is our supposed fascination with intelligence really superficial in itself? After all, we’ve consistently heard what a brilliant orator Barack Obama is, but has he really indicated through his actions that he has used his supposed mighty intellect for much purpose? His speeches are frankly flat, and he seems incapable of speaking off teleprompter.
Even Newt is a little bit more of style over substance. Actually, in a way his substance is a style in and of itself. Newt is undoubtedly a brilliant man, and he’d be the first to tell you that. But so what? He has the mind of a technocrat, and technocrats have repeatedly proven to be failures in office. Even conservative technocrats wind up being proponents of big government simply because they always think there is some kind of government solution to any problem. What’s more, how much of Newt’s debate style is a carefully orchestrated attempt to ingratiate himself to conservatives who had written him off? Even I began rolling my eyes after yet another attack against the media during last week’s debate. He has become a conservative fire breather because otherwise he’s the guy who sat on the couch with Nancy Pelosi, endorsed Dede Scozafavva, and called Paul Ryan’s budget proposal right-wing social engineering.
Then there’s Mitt Romney. Even those who dislike him praise his smooth debate performances. But shut your eyes and listen to what the man is actually saying. He’s an empty vessel who sounds smart but doesn’t actually ever say anything – kind of like our current president. Sure, he doesn’t stumble with his words like Rick Perry and doesn’t ever commit a gaffe, but I’d rather have someone stumble out the right answer than flawlessly offer up meaningless platitudes.
I suppose it’s better for voters to mistakenly run after intellectual greatness rather than ideological purity, but this can be as superficial gambit as liking the charismatic, flashy guy.