Entry from October 20, 2011

Although I remain resolute in my determination, mentioned in this space the other day, not to watch the Republican candidates’ “debates,” I have only to look at the next day’s headlines to discover all that I might have learned by watching. Or all that I need to know about their real subject, which is the media. “A Fierce Clash for Romney and Perry as Republican Candidates Debate” headlined yesterday’s New York Times. To The Washington Post, on the other hand, the story was “Republican presidential debate puts Herman Cain to test.” Oh. So that’s what they were debating about.

But does anyone doubt that both of these headlines could have been written before this reality show, appropriately set in America’s reality capital of Las Vegas, ever took place? Although Mr Cain has surpassed Mr Perry in the polls and is now, psephologically speaking, the principal rival to Mr Romney, it is the Romney-Perry matchup that most appeals to the media: truly a battle of the Titans, even if one of them is only Titanic in the sense that he is sinking. That’s why today’s headlines in both papers — “Mitt Romney and Rick Perry’s longtime rivalry resurfaces at debate” in the Post and “Bad Blood Between Perry and Romney Is Longstanding” in the Times — continue to emphasize and hype it. Likewise, although his rivals were bound to go after Mr Cain after what the media call his “breakthrough” in the polls, their attacks on him were no less written into the debates’ script in advance, as the tendency of Anderson Cooper’s questioning (so I hear anyway) also demonstrated.

And then you have morons like Richard Cohen who don’t know there is a script — or who pretend not to know it — so that they can set themselves up as wise men and sages by treating reality TV as if it were reality indeed. Here’s how Mr Cohen blogged about the debate for the Post:

Right after the presidential debate last night, CNN turned to its usual panel of pundits, politicians and prognosticators to tell us who won (Obama, I think), who lost (Anderson Cooper), but what the network could have used was a psychoanalyst. He or she would have used the Freudian term “the narcissism of minor differences” to explain why so many like-minded Republicans turned on one another with such meanness. They needed the small stuff to differentiate themselves.

First the media command: “Differentiate yourselves! We must have conflict to make good TV.” And, lo, the candidates obediently differentiate themselves. Then the media wise men, ever smarter in their own conceit than the political talent in front of the camera, cry: see how they differentiate themselves! It must mean they are all the same conservative troglodytes under the surface — which, by the way, is what we have been telling you all along.

Though I am not otherwise a fan of Jon Huntsman — not least because he’s probably sincere even in attributing his boycott of the debate to the arcane matter of Nevada’s violation of Republican party rules by choosing too early a date for its caucuses next January — I can only applaud him for the decision to give it a miss. Maybe there is a glimmering of an awareness on his part that televised debates are a devil’s bargain for serious aspirants to high political office. They must agree to become the media’s performing seals in order to reach a nationwide audience who have been hyped up to watch for all the wrong reasons. The trouble is that, once you have become a performing seal for the TV debate, you find that you continue to be a performing seal through the rest of the campaign and even, assuming you are successful, once you are in office. There is certainly such a glimmering, and maybe more than a glimmering, in Newt Gingrich as he shows every time he scolds the media’s appointed inquisitors for their stupid or tendentious questions. Maybe, like Mr Huntsman, he figures he’s got nothing to lose.


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