Entry from October 11, 2011

“Not another debate!” I groaned on learning that the ever-changing dramatis personae of the Republican presidential field would be coming together for the seventh time this evening. Or, if you can groan in quotation marks, it would be: “Not another ‘debate’!” For as a former debate coach, I am routinely outraged by this appalling misnomer that everyone else seems to take for granted. What, pray tell, have these media dog and pony shows got to do with debating? Much better to call them what they are, which is reality TV — a sort of political version of “Survivor,” but without the wit, charm and sophistication. Or, given the stakes involved, a better comparison might be with a demolition derby which can only be won by the last car capable of movement after everyone else has crashed into immobility. Whatever may be the case on TV, in politics such a victory is unlikely to be worth very much.

Writing in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard undertakes to explain “How TV Debates Have Changed the Race.” I think he is right in nearly everything he says, especially the part about how one big change wrought by the debates “has been to make the Republican race more combative than it might otherwise have been, at least this far ahead of election year. The media like conflict, encourage it, and have succeeded in generating it.”

The impact of the debates on the candidates has been palpable. After three poor debate performances last month, [Rick] Perry dropped out of first place in polls. He fell to 17% in the ABC News/Washington Post survey in late September, from 29%. He trailed [Mitt] Romney (25%) in that poll and was tied with businessman Herman Cain. The reverse is true for Mr. Cain. His conservative message and personal appeal in debates have increased his support to 17% in the ABC News/Washington Post poll in late September, from 3% in late August. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has risen, then plummeted, chiefly because of debates. With a strong performance in the June 11 debate on CNN, she was included for the first time in the Rasmussen presidential preference poll, getting 19%. Less impressive in more recent debates, she’s slipped in the Rasmussen poll to 8%. The rise and fall in poll numbers reflects the normal fickleness of voters in the early stages of a multicandidate presidential campaign. But the debates have reinforced the tendency to rotate from one candidate to another.

Among the other effects of the debates, he notes that they tend to keep the also-rans in the race much longer and that, as the candidates concentrate their fire on each other, “Mr Obama gets a pass.” More than that, indeed, his “strategists get an early glimpse of the vulnerabilities of the Republican candidates, their strengths and weaknesses on issues, and the attacks used most effectively against them.”

But I think that Mr Barnes leaves out what is perhaps the most important effect of the debates. Not only, as he says, do the questions posed to the candidates by the media set the agenda, within whose narrow confines they are often unable to squeeze their own talking points, but the whole thing is designed so that they will be forced to play the media’s game of scandal-hunt, rather than actually talking about anything of political substance. Take the example he cites of the exchange between Messrs Romney and Perry in Tampa last month. “Mr. Romney asked Mr. Perry. . . if he believed Social Security should be turned over to the states. ‘I think we ought to have a conversation,’ Mr. Perry responded, trying to brush the issue aside. ‘We”re having that right now, governor,’ Mr. Romney replied. ‘We’re running for president’.”

Here the former Massachusetts governor was being disingenuous, to say the least. Whatever else it was, this was not like any “conversation” most of us have ever taken part in. It was more like a boxing match in which each contestant was looking for a potential knock-out blow against the other. Could Mr Romney, egged on by the media, get something out of Mr Perry that looked, however vaguely, like an admission that he would break up social security as we know it? Both men had to know that if he could, this would be treated by the media — and by at least that considerable portion of the electorate who have been inveigled into participation in their never-ending gaffe game — as scandalous. It could well amount to a death-blow against the Perry campaign.

This is not a matter, just so we’re clear about it, of regarding any actual proposal as scandalous. That would be bad enough, as it would make impossible any wide-ranging discussion of a subject that must, sooner or later, be discussed. But the media’s scandal-hunting, together with their liberal bias, has already established that any proposed change whatsoever to the social security system as it is would be a political catastrophe for the proposer. As both men knew this as well as the media’s designated questioner, trying to lure one or the other of them into making this or any other faux pas, their fencing was all about avoiding the taint of scandal that would come with the advocacy of change, even if it were a change that everybody knows must come sooner or later anyway.

Under these circumstances, what good is listening to what any of the candidates say — unless it is simply for the intrinsic drama of watching for a mistake that could result in the self-destruction of one of them? The most deleterious effect of the “debate” culture is that it has elevated to the chief qualification for the presidency merely this: the ability to avoid saying anything that could possibly be represented as scandal — which means pretty much anything of substance.

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