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.
Unfortunately I missed the Lincoln-Douglas style debate the other night between Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich. It sounded like a fun* evening, and it’s refreshing to have something different than the painful two hour affairs involving all eight candidates offering one minute soundbites. Sadly, we’re scheduled to have 3,457** more of these standard debates. Joy.
Recently Rick Perry suggested that this debate overload might not be the best way to pick a candidate, and he even hinted at skipping a few. Had any of the other candidates said this he’d have been hailed a hero and carried off stage like Lincoln after the Jonesboro debate. But since Rick Perry has had, umm, less than stellar debate performances, it came off as a bit self-serving. Except he’s completely right.
If we must endure several more months of this debate hell, can’t we at least start thinning out the herd and allowing the candidates to go on for more than sixty seconds before some prissy debate moderator cuts them off?
One thing that we can do is start inviting only those candidates who actually have a shot at winning the nomination. Easy enough, except now we get into a debate about who should be allowed at the debate. This is the point where we have to pretend that Michelle Bachmann still might be the Republican nominee, so we can’t possibly shut out any candidate from the debate lest one of them gets hauled off in handcuffs protesting outside the debate hall due to his exclusion.*** In fact I can just imagine Rick Santorum breaking onto the stage bellowing “EXCUUUUUUUUSE ME” while yelling at Rick Perry that he was out of time. Sure it would be barrels of fun to watch Ron Paul’s fanbase immolate because the good doctor and only true constitutionalist (TM) was barred from the debate halls. But, in the interests of fairness, we probably can’t exclude any of these people. Except for Jon Hunstman. Seriously, I doubt Jon Hunstman views himself as a viable contender. No one noticed that he wasn’t at the last debate, including Jon Huntsman.
So what can we do to make these debates at least a bit more tolerable? Two changes might benefit both the candidates and the voters. First, we should have fewer candidates on stage. We can do this without eliminating candidates. If we’re really going to have two debates a week, just have different candidates at the debate. You can randomly assign candidates so that at the first debate you can have, say, Perry, Gingrich, Paul and Huntsman. Then, at the next debate, it will be Santorum, Bachmann, Cain and Romney. Then switch it up next week so that there are different pairings.
Second, discuss fewer topics and lengthen the time allotment. We don’t necessarily need Lincoln-Douglas essays, but let candidates spend three or four minutes expanding upon their answers. With four candidates you can still cover a lot of ground in ninety minutes or two hours, especially if we limit the moderators’ involvement in these affairs. Sure it won’t be as much fun as allowing a transgendered mutant space alien to ask a question about illegal immigration while forcing the candidates to answer in Esperanto, but it has the advantage of actually lending insight into the candidates’ thought processes.
Or we can just continue with the same exact format and grow dumber with each passing minute. The choice is yours.
*: Well, if you’re a political geek.
**: Number might be slightly exaggerated. Just slightly.
***: This actually happened in Atlanta in 1996 to Alan Keyes. I know because I was there supporting him and saw him get placed in the police cruiser. That was about as close as I have ever gotten to getting involved in an OWS-style protest. No justice for Keyes, no peace!
Peter Wehner’s getting all nervous because certain Republican candidates are saying things that he disapproves of:
One of the GOP presidential candidates (Ron Paul) believes the United States is responsible for triggering the 9/11 attacks. Another (Rick Santorum) has said he would use the presidential bully pulpit to speak out against the dangers of contraception and its role in the moral decline of America (“One of the things that I will talk about that no president has talked about before is I think the dangers of contraception in this country, the sexual liberty idea and many in the Christian faith have said, you know contraception is OK. It’s not OK because it’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”)
Yet another (Herman Cain), has dramatically shifted his positions on negotiating with terrorists and legalizing abortion within a matter of hours, after having said he would (contra the Constitution) impose a religious test on Muslim Americans. And nowGovernor Rick Perry has indicated he’s not quite sure whether Barack Obama was born in the USA, citing Donald Trump as an authority.
Some of this is correct, but the rest is a mess. For instance, Perry’s comments seem almost totally aimed at tweaking Obama and nothing more. Even Paul’s 9/11 theories are a bit more nuanced than Wehner suggests. As for Rick Santorum, I say good for him. As Mike Potemera points out, it’s rather unlikely that any conservative president will be “calling for the hiring of millions of contraception cops as a solution to joblessness.” Santorum would be using the office of president to discuss an important cultural issue. It’s nothing more than what Michelle Obama has done to encourage efforts to fight against obesity. There’s nothing wrong with using the bully pulpit to discuss social issues and raise awareness so long as you are not actually calling for legislation that impedes personal liberty.
Santorum continues to be one of the few candidates who gets it, in that he understands the nexus between social and economic issues. While others have concentrated on narrow technocratic solutions, Santorum has really been the only one to explain how the breakdown of the family is one of the contributing causes of our economic rot. That’s not to say, by the way, that certain tax and fiscal policies are wrong. In the end, you can’t quite dictate improved sexual mores through executive fiat , so we do need purely economic solutions to the current mess we’re in. But at least Santorum is willing to engage in conversation about social issues. Okay, so perhaps he does so in a manner that comes off as just a bit whiny, but that doesn’t dilute the importance of his message.
I have mixed emotions about Sarah Palin’s announcement that she won’t be running for the presidency. Though she would not have been my top choice had she entered the fray, she at least would have been in the portion of the field that I am still considering voting for (with Perry, Cain, Santorum and Gingrich). She would have provided a change of pace from the rest of the crop of candidates. And, frankly, I like her and think she’s a much more insightful and perceptive person than given credit for. But I am not convinced that her time is now, so it’s probably for the best that she is not part of the conversation for 2012.
One of the fascinating things in watching the conservative end of the blogosphere over the past few months is the intense reaction that Palin sparks. Of course there are her detractors, both right and left. Some of these individual – in particular the wannabe gynecologists – border on the pathological. There are valid criticisms to be levied against Palin, but I’ve seen otherwise reasonable people turn into irrational cranks when it comes to her. She may not have been the best candidate for president, but she is not quite the manipulative, dumb, vacuous or whatever adjective you want to throw out there individual that her most vocal critics have portrayed her as being.