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.