Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | October 27, 2011

These debates shouldn’t choose our candidate anyway

Since I wasn’t planning to watch the rest of the pre-primary debates, this won’t matter much.

(Note:  I didn’t realize until after writing this that Daniel Henninger had an opinion piece on a similar topic in today’s Wall Street Journal.  Great minds and all that.)

The other night, I watched a debate I’ve had on video for years: the PBS-hosted debate between early GOP candidates for the 1988 nomination.  (Many have forgotten now that H.W. Bush had quite a bit of competition.)  I wanted to see if my perception is correct that these debates have gotten much more stupid than they used to be.

And it is.  Boy, is it ever.  Bush was, of course, a “target” in that debate, as the sitting VP.  But the rest of the candidates weren’t out for blood.  There was no blood-in-the-water, feeding-like-sharks dynamic — nor did the moderator or questioners try to set the candidates up to go for each other’s throats, with cheap broadsides and one-liners that may draw laughs or applause, but fall apart on inspection.

The candidates talked – interestingly and intelligently – about a number of meaty topics.  They shoehorned way, way more substance into an hour and a half than the candidates for 2012 are able to get into 2 hours.  (There were 7 candidates in this 1988 debate; it wasn’t a narrow field.  It included blunt talkers like Al Haig, Jack Kemp, and Pat Robertson too.)

The differences between now and then?  Obviously, the behavior of the media is one.  The PBS organizers in 1988 weren’t trying to get a food fight going.

But the candidates’ behavior was equally important.  I’m not sure everyone has figured out that Romney could have refrained from being pugnacious and going into attack-dog mode in the first debate in which he and Perry faced each other.  The fact that he’s good at it doesn’t excuse doing it.  Perry, for his part, didn’t have to respond in kind.  He’s not good at it, and he shouldn’t have tried to match Romney cheap dart for cheap dart.  His strength is in talking policy and exuding a quietly tenacious benevolence.

These two were the field leaders, and they both whiffed at bat.  They didn’t have to take the bait and turn the debates into a mud-slinging contest.  I fault both of them – they’re both big boys – although the motive looks different for each one.  Romney comes off as cynical, willing to sling mud because it works for him, but then wipe himself off and pretend he didn’t start it.  Perry comes off as having had a bout of bad judgment:  thinking he was obliged to compete on the mud-slinging level, and getting mired up to his neck because that’s definitely not his area of strength.

But the most important difference between 1988 and today may be us.  If we didn’t let this contrived nonsense make our decisions for us, the first one who tried it – in the media or on the candidates’ stage – would get his comeuppance and have to scurry back into his hole.

We should know better than to think that debating abilities, in a content-deficient “gotcha” venue, are evidence of moral courage, constitutional vision, or strong leadership.   We should know better than to think that a president needs the ability to score points as Romney does (or as others did in the latest debate), in the artificial, closed-loop debating system designed to reward such point-scoring.

Leading the nation and dealing with global security threats don’t require that ability at all.

The president will never have to debate Hu Jintao or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a stage under the “gotcha” questioning of MSM anchor persons.  He will never have to debate the leaders of Congress in such a venue.  He won’t even have to debate the Democratic candidate in this manner: an attack-dog stance doesn’t work in that forum, as H.W. Bush demonstrated beautifully when he tried it in 1992, and Dukakis when he tried it in ‘88.  No matter what the “gotcha” question, in the post-convention match-ups, both candidates know whose side everyone is on – they’re not taking friendly fire anymore, and they focus most usefully on getting their own, positive message out.

Of course, the media and Democratic politicians will dog a GOP president’s every step seeking to trip him up and manufacture narratives that put him in a bad light.  But they’re going to do that to any Republican who wins in 2012, and none of the candidates has a magic pill that will immunize him or her against that process.

The president, however, doesn’t spend his time trying to score points against the news media or Democratic politicians.  He’s the president:  he states his case to the people.  Our media today are too numerous and varied for the old MSM to actually prevent the president’s message from getting out. He doesn’t have to shout them down, silence them, or make them look foolish or guilty or incoherent in order to reach the people.  He just has to speak.

His connection with foreign leaders is even simpler, because it’s one-on-one and doesn’t involve the media at all, except as incidental noise.  The media may be able to confuse at least some average Americans about the president’s character and intentions, but they can’t confuse Nicolas Sarkozy, Felipe Calderon, or Benjamin Netanyahu.  (Nor can Democratic politicians who make royal progresses to Damascus or Moscow, for that matter.)

President Obama is Exhibit A in the case that smooth rhetoric is not evidence of character or ability to lead.  Conversely, anyone – anyone – can be made to look stupid under the klieg lights.  You, me, Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill, John Wayne, George Washington, Pope John Paul II, Mother Theresa, Margaret Thatcher.  (Well, maybe not Thatcher.)  It’s the easiest thing in the world to frame a moment so that someone looks like a guilty, inarticulate fool, unable to explain himself or get that awful knife-throwing machine turned off.  It’s also cheap and meaningless.

Our character as Americans ought to cause a revulsion in us against this kind of cheap theater in our political process.  As recently as 1988, it was better understood – by the media and the candidates – that it did.

I have my concerns about Rick Perry.  I think it was a serious misstep for him to go into attack mode in the debates; I’d prefer him to have seen the dilemma coming and chosen differently.  It was just the wrong thing to do, not so much because it’s not a good tactic for him – that’s an ephemeral concern – but as a matter of tone and leadership.  The debates have provided no reason, however, for concluding that anyone else who’s running would be a better president.  (I say this as someone who would be reasonably satisfied with anyone in the race except Ron Paul.)

My own view is that Perry has learned from his mistake and decided that his best option is to cut his losses and focus elsewhere.  That’s something I respect.  There will always be naysayers baying at such an enterprise, but we all have to recover from mistakes and losses at one time or another.  We can let the naysayers rule our attitude, or not.

Perry’s move is a gamble, certainly, but one thing it demonstrates is a willingness to strategize independently, rather than having his boundaries set by the organizational dictates of others.  He’s a politician; he understands the gravity of this move, and isn’t making it lightly.  But I, for one, am not invested in these debates.  I’d rather hear the candidates give their stump speeches, and peruse the information about their records that is available from numerous sources, friendly and otherwise.

Others may disagree.  But no reference to the “appearance” of the candidates, based on their debate performance, is a convincing argument about their character or suitability for the Oval Office.  The debates have been too silly for that.  They are little more than a high school popularity forum, showcasing facile performance abilities and leaving the viewer feeling cynical and unsatisfied.  I am convinced that 2012 will be decided by whether we show that we have the chops, as an electorate, to look beyond these debates.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.



  1. Too many debates, famiiarity breeds contempt

  2. 1. These aren’t debates, they are shooting galleries for circular firing squads. Republicans are so easily maneuvered into these traps.

    2. The debates are neither substantive nor informative. They are in fact joint gotcha press conferences with too many participants, too many questions, and not anywhere near enough time to discuss the issues at hand.

    3. Yes, Jen, you are correct. Good on TV does not equal Good in anything else but being on TV. In fact, many of the “talents” necessary to for being telegenic are exactly the opposite of being serious. They are about grooming, window dressing, and glibness.

    Consequently these “debates” were worth something only to Mitt Romney and perhaps Newt Gingrich. Not one of the other candidates can get near either of them for this sort of “dog and pony” show. Both of them are crippled candidates that have enough flaws that an attack oriented negative campaign would marginalize either.

    The Democrats are using the media to “fix” the Republican field with an establishment candidate that they can beat like a drum.

    Romney is a Liberal Democrat with an “R” painted on a refrigerator magnet stuck over the D. His business experience is pure Wall Street Corporate Raider. His social flip-flops will make him a target, and too bitter a pill for most of the Republican Base… He failed as governor of Massachusetts. His re-elect internal poll numbers were probably so low that in order to maintain political viability so he bailed after one term. He is a professional self-promoter with little Conservative to recommend him for anything in any party but the Democrat Party. If the GOP nominates him, the loss in November, after a dirty campaign and a good 30% of the GOP vote staying home… will be stunning.

    Gingrich is brilliant but tragically flawed. He needed to remain penitent and in the private sector. He would have been a brilliant choice for a very senior policy slot at some conservative think tank, but as a re-minted candidate, the lines of the old coin are too distinct to pull off the forgery.

    If Newt’s best move would be to bow out and pick one of the Conservative candidates who could actually beat Romney, back him, teach him, improve his foreign policy experience, and be the ideas guy for the campaign. That would be the GOOD CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICAN thing to do. Newt! Pick Perry, or Cain. Endorse one.. back one… help one…

    These debates were all about nominating Mr. Perfect Hair. Gucci loafer… Limousine Liberal disguised as a conservative Willard “Mitt” Romney…

    The time for choosing is nearing, and these phony traps were stupid, and are a series of traps designed to nominate the media’s favorite GOP Elite Establishment Candidate…..

    There have been no votes cast in any primary or caucus to date. Time for the Conservatives to choose one person to go up against Romney. Cain and Perry are the only two viable candidates.

    We are in for an ugly time in the next year and a week.


  3. Oh… just in case the Libs lurking want to shoot at Reagan. Reagan was the exception that proved the rule. He was telegenic, and an amazing communicator, but he had his issues in his debates, and wasn’t all smooth glass…

    But one thing Ronald Reagan was, he was substantive. He was both an accomplished presence, and an intellect. His hand written speeches, and commentary are proof of that. His success as President is absolute.

    I choose substantive conservatism and .operational acumen. The telegenic stuff is just icing on the Boston cream-pie


  4. The Republicans definitely shouldn’t use their debate to pick their candidate.
    Outside of Romney, none of these geeks have a shot to win the general.
    The best bet for the Rs is to run Hilary.

    • Northeastern Libs do tend to back their own don’t they, eh Fuster? If you can’t have a Democrat you can hit up for goodies, then you’ll pick a “Democrat”… wot?

      Well y’all are dragging this nation into the abyss with your renter class, dependency… Misery loves company…

      Time to cut the cord. The Republicans have to quit letting the Democrats choose the GOP Nominee…

      It’s also time to sell New York to Canada… we could get… maybe $50 cash for it… maybe $55 if we throw in Newark.

  5. Lib? I’m a moderately conservative independent kind of amphibian, Fah.

    you haven’t seen the rents that the rentier class in Newark now pay, I guess…either that or you’re just about only half as half-shrewd as you think

    • Sheesh Fuster… you could warn a guy when a spit gag might be on the way… I almost snorted out my coffee on that one…

      Moderately conservative? Fuster, the most conservative thought that has ever crossed your mind is to cross at the corner with the light instead of jaywalking…and that was a fleeting image just before you darted out into traffic.

      Romney is a Liberal Democrat, hence your interest in him being nominated by the Elite GOP…

      [he says leaving… remembering that a frog’s only defense is to pee in your hand when you pick them up… ]

    • Fuster ole buddy ” moderate conservative independent”. I always wondered why you are all over the place on your comments.
      Why not lighter vanilla with broad brushes of tan and just a hint of medium caramel. Follow that with possibly un-decided with a flash of absolute maybe and a dash of might have.
      The Uh-Oh squad needs a leader.
      You might fit the bill sometime or other under certain circumstances at a future date with non specific perameters to be decided by one of your future facets of un- knowing many splendid understanding algorithirms.
      By the way Palin for Pres and Mary Kaye Huntsman for vice. That would be a great team. That was fun.

    • Yeah, right, fuster. And I am moderately liberal.


  6. ‘ course, could be that you have only five fingers on each hand and 55 is as far as you get……

  7. I only watched one of the debates just to get a feel for how the candidates handled themselves. I have no intentions of watching another. Waste of time.

    But so long as the MSM has them, the candidates will sign up for them feeling they HAVE to in order to compete and get at least some face time and name recognition out there.

    And even if people like me or OC don’t watch, there will always be enough who do, so that won’t change things either.

    The only solution I see is for some group that is willing to at least try to be objective sponsor a series of real debates on specific topics, and then try to find a way to get it out there. It’s easier now with the internet then it used to be, but network tv and cable will still be hard.

    It might also be hard to get candidates themselves to sign up for real debates. “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt…”

  8. I think the debates are catering to the Sound Bite Generation. That there has been a deterioration in the level of public debate over the history of our Republic is unquestionable. Would anyone read (let alone write) the Federalist Papers today? But I perceive a loss in debate quality even since the 1970’s. It is unlikely that today’s logged on, tuned in, wireless generation could sit through a real debate.

    I remember a PBS series called “The Advocates” which debated liberal and conservative positions on public policy issues. Such a program would never be considered today, even on PBS. Especially on PBS. Even if PBS could tolerate airing a conservative viewpoint, the audience would be minuscule. (If a liberal like Juan Williams strays a little bit off the reservation, they axe his ***. William Rusher would cause heart attacks in PBS-land.)

  9. As any good lawyer will tell you – you can coach a witness as to his demeanour, and even his evidence. But in the end (and subjected to a rigorous cross-examination by any half decent lawyer) the truth, and what sort of person the witness actually is, will out. That is why the debate process gives us, the electorate, such a valuable insight into the candidates. It is certainly an artificial environment, but so too is public office. Competitive examinations are also an artificial environment, but I would prefer my doctor to have passed his medical examinations. The entire process is a bit like running the gauntlet. But each bit of the jigsaw – the debates, the speeches, the imprompto gaffs, the unguarded comments – all give us an insight into the character and the true policies and views of the candidates.

    We are now well into the process. We are beginning to gauge the mettle of these people, and if the polls are correct, only Romneycare, the Democratic-Lite candidate, has a prayer of beating Obama. Media-celeb Palin had done what she does best – she has quit, having come to the realization that the American public has never considered her presidential material. The loud-mouthed extremocrat, Bachmann, is following her down the flusheroo for the same reason. Gingrich and Perry – both of whose manifest lack of character (in serial morals-offender Gringrich’s case, lack of basic human decency) are consistently registering disapproval figures which make them unelectable in a general election. The remainder of the cast in this freakshow are political dwarves.

    It looks that November 2013 will be a shoot-out between center-Democrat Obama, and center-Democrat-Lite Romney. Which is just about what it should be, because, even though the centre is often shouted down by the extremists who are increasingly dominating our media, the political center is where most Americans dwell. Of course, the Republicans could still make Obama’s day and get driven into making an extreme choice by its angry, resentful, and hate-driven ideological fringe. But I doubt it.

    • Generally yes but if this process functioned appropriately there would be several million people in front of the White House and teh Naval Obsrvatory demanding the immediate resignation of the current occupants.

      • Here Here !!!!!!

        • Why? Because you and a small embittered minority won’t accept the outcome of the presidential election?

          So, if I and a few others don’t like the outcome of the November 2017 election, we should have a right to have the elected president resign?

          What are you on?

          Is Charles Murray your doctor?

          • We don’t accept Mr. Smooths spectacular inabilty to organize and implement sane and effective fiscal policies.

  10. vinnie’s got a point——-

    it ain’t Lincoln and Douglas up on that podium.

  11. Talk is cheap- past accomplishments are the real measure of someone’s intentions and capabilities. If Romney is the nominee, I’ll be voting third party.

    • BR, I hear your likely to be voting 3P and I’m a moderately conservative independent kind of amphibian.

      very accomplished troublemaker and hoping to shrink Rush Limbaugh down to the size where we can fit him in a bathtub

  12. Oh, and I forgot about Cain. But he is a temporary phenomen. The idea of a 9% tax is a horrifying prospect for the plutocrats and bankers who bankroll the Republican Party. Most of them are able to avail of complex tax-avoidance shelters which means few of them actually pay anything approaching 9% tax on their income (The 9% rate is presaged on these shelters being abolished. Leaving the Bush-era shelters in place under a 9% regime would result in the deficit doubling in the next decade – even if you cut the bloated Pentagon budget in half). As soon as this percolates into the consciousness of the Republican Mandarins, Cain will go the way of Able (metaphorcally speaking, of course)

    • Or Charles Rangel. He only avails himself of poor memory on top of all the democrat created tax shelters.

      There are more crooks in the socialist/democrat party than anybody cares to talk about. From the top dog sitting in washington down to the hired help in Kalifornia and down to the poor excuses “taking over Wall Street”.

      In fact, and come to think of it as I write this, anyone that pretends to take somebody else’s money by force or intimidation, legally or illegally, is a crook at heart.


      • is pretending to take someone else’s money really indicative of a crooked heart ?

        isn’t it more a sign of a deceitful imagination?

        • Could be a union contractor.

  13. I’ll take of this unique opportunity to say OC IS DEAD WRONG. Good debating skills, an ability to persuade and a telegenic presence are indispensable if insufficient requirements for the next president.

    Lest there be some mistake I am not endorsing Mitt Romney. Far from it I think he has close to 0 chance of beating Obama. Such debating skills as he has (and they are considerable and much improved) will be entirely vitiated by his inconsistencies and contortions. Debating skill are valuable when one has a substantive, factual and coherent argument to make and Mitt Romney does not. He cannot get to the left of Obama no matter how much he tries.

    My point is simply that none of these people wether the debates were or were not held, wether they were “damaged” or not has a chance to beat Obama. More significantly. I don’t think any one them has a chance to be the kind of president this country needs at this time.

    • Of the group I would guess that Rick Santorum would, probably, be the best by far but his chances of getting the nomination, much less winning are 0.

  14. And just so there is no confusion I absolutely think that pretty much all of them (including Huntsman – but not Ron Paul) would be dramatically better than the incumbent. All of them are people of far greater accomplishment and competence than Obama.

    Obama impresses with his ideological rigidity and astonishing mendacity. He is remarkable for his incompetence, his mind blowing cynicism, aggressive ignorance, his pretarnatural laziness, his lack of accomplishment. His impresses with the multiple defect in his character, his combination of thugishness and wimpiness, his very very thin skin and his arrogance, an arrogance as amazing as it is unfounded.

    Obama is remarkable for his lack of ability to persuade and his very mediocre debating skills. However, Obama is a hard left fanatic, the American people are what the polls tell us they are (to paraphrase Bill Parcells) and for these reasons the current Republican field stands little chance of winning.

    • Of and contra many infatuated conservatives, he is thoroughly unsophisticated, he is a sub mediocre athlete and he generally dresses like crap.

      Few. Now time to enjoy some football (though gotta say College Game Day’s been getting on my nerves for a while).

    • Problem is, C, that the US public doesn’t share the wisdom and insight that has prompted your evidence-lite string of invective. One would imagine that if a significant number of people had bought into your wisdom and insight virtually any Republican candidate would easily beat Obama. In fact, I would go further, given the parlous state of the economy which Obama inherited from Bush (himself a victim of the financial de-regulation which commenced under Reagan), and the understandable anger of the electorate at the slow pace of recovery, precedent would suggest Obama is doomed in November 2012. However, the clues as to what has happened lies in other opinion-polls. It was joyfully pointed out by the Republicans that the abysmal poll-ratings enjoyed by the pre-mid-terms House was a damning verdict on Democrat policies. Significantly, the post-mid-term Republican dominated House enjoys even lower approval ratings – and makes Obama appear wildly popular. Secondly, when push comes to shove, the core Republican primary voters look set to reject the hysterics, prima donnas, snake-oil salespersons, and extremeocrats thrown up by the Tea-Party and the ideological fringe. Those who bandy around the names of such icons as Reagan, Churchill, and Pope John Paul II (and try to import them as validation of their extreme agendas) seem to forget that Reagan governed as a charismatic centrist whom the then rightist fringe believed was a traitor to their views and all around disappointment. Winston Churchill was a lifelong social liberal on the left-wing of the British Conservative Party (He was the British equivalent of a Scoop Jackson Democrat). John Paul was a euro-socialist (who was conservative only on socio-sexual issues) who openly disapproved of most of the Neo-Con foreign-policy agenda, and practically every economic and foreign-policy objective espoused by the US far-right and fundamentalist (Christianity, a la carte) “Christian” sects. Americans, have always shunned absolutists, ideologues, and utopians when it comes to the crunch.

      Obama is actually quite popular when is comes to a comparison with the present shower of Republican wannabees. This relative popularity increases as you move righwards among his potential opponents. Obviously, the the electorate fails to share your insight and wisdom.

      Obama is now odds-on favourite for re-election. And if the Republicans have a last-minute brainstorm and give the extremists the candidate they wish for (Bachmann), it will be a massacre.

      • Problem is U.S. public is bombarded with pro-Obama fluff, anti-Obama and anti-Republican lies and invective. The public is too ignorant to realize recognize the many lies uttered by Barry and is unaware of the countless factual errors.

        And to be honest, Americans tend to be people. For this reason the absurd nonsense about “The Rich” taking $, about “Peace”, about hiring “Teachers” about “Clean Energy” have some endemic appeal to the well meaning to the envious, the greedy, the clueless, those brainwashed by the U.S. education system, and those who just don’t have the time to pay attention.

        I don’t mean to give the American public too hard a time, I think highly enough of my fellow citizens to believe that if someone like Paul Ryan, someone with the complete command of facts and concepts, capable of using the most sound logic and explaining facts and policies with both sophistication and clarity, and someone with the patience and political skill attributed to Barry and so little in evidence would win this election going away.

        The depth of his knowledge, the superiority his political skills and his temperament and character to those of Barry is so overwhelming that were they to debate, I believe those debates would be decisive. Barry would be left a sniveling, petulant, screaming mess on the floor and would loose close to 400 electoral votes (aided, to be sure by the comprehensive and undeniable failure of Barrys magistracy). This in spite of the fact that a billion dollars and billions more in free media would be spent laying about him and despite the fact that what Barry offers so much to what appeals to what is worst and most contemptible in human beings, that is to say that which tends to most often guide their decisions.

        Paul Ryan, however, is not running, at least not yet, and that being the case its likely that Barry will, in light of all the advantages his posses, clear the very low bar that stands before him, though by a very close margin.

        I wish you a good weekend. I will now get back to the MSU/Nebraska game. Must take advantage today because I will be compelled to attend the Jonas Kaufmann concert at the Met tomorrow (really who schedules such things during football season – otherwise I wouldn’t mind). Lets hope it stops snowing by then. Global Warming!

        • The man is an empty suit. His cause is empty. If the progressive do gooders could simply dismiss the facts,history, and a wide trail of financial and family damage, the could simply click their heels together and everything would be as they wish.
          Boobus Americanus is alive and well in the US. They tend to run in herds, blinded by fantasy and wishing desperately to be told what to do with someone elses money.
          Oh yes, the press herd takes pictures of them running off the cliff, but the reporters have enough self awareness to let someone else die. They must go on to tell The True Story you see. Higher ideal for the cause.
          I am still waiting on Pat Leahys Truth Commission. You can’t make it up, unless your Orwell.

        • Just been browsing through RCP is a compendium of mainstream national comment on politics, economics, and foreign policy. More than two thirds of the commentary on RCP is sourced from right-wing publications and right-wing commentators. This perfectly reflects the current balance in the print media. The facts don’t really suit the right-wing narrative because the right loves to portray itself as the persecuted victim of a leftist media conspiracy. This self-pitying scenario goes hand in hand with the rightist conviction that the US public is too stupid to understand what’s good for it. Facts are, that in spite of (or because of?) all the hysterical invective coming from the Murdock and Moonie media, and the shock-jocks, and professional liars like Beck and O’Reilly, the US electorate is quite capable of sorting the drek from the truth. That is why Obama, a throughly centrist American, is preferred by ordinary decent Americans to any of the Republican contenders.

          • Paul, do you still live at home with your parents. That is to say no bills or responsiblities to speak of?
            Are you marching to have you tuition paid for by the rest of us so you can get a government job with lifetime benefits that the rest of us pay for.
            Being a progressive is never having to grow up.
            Just kidding Paul. I remember you whining about your overhead and expenses with your business. You were hoping the Govt. ( the rest of us) could pay some of your expenses so your bottom line would look better.
            Have you tried the Green sector?
            You have a lot of great ideas Paul, but you need someone elses hard work and success to pay for it.
            You are a Taker Paul, not a Maker. There are a lot more Takers and fewer Makers. You should hope the supply of mean,greedy capitalists doesn’t run too low or you will be sitting on the side of the road with a sign. “Will complain about my entitlements for food”

          • P: Balance in the media…? What balance in the media?

            wreed: “There are a lot more Takers and fewer Makers.” And that, in a nutshell, is the main problem/weakness/failure with our system of government.


    • Hell, cavalier, my fox terrier is more competent than Obama. At least he catches mice and rats instead of joining them.


      • Talented dog.

        Bet he knows more about politics than you too.

        • He’ll bite you if he sees you.


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