Entry from November 15, 2011

Having been away for awhile in the land of Silvo Berlusconi, I have missed my chance to ignore the last two GOP debates, including the one in which (so I’m told) Rick Perry scuppered his chances of the nomination by forgetting the third of the three cabinet departments he wanted to abolish. Horrors! That’s him voted off the island, I guess. Unless, of course, he isn’t. For it is getting increasingly difficult to predict what will be the result of the candidates’ various performances. In particular, the media’s script for the campaign is having constantly to be rewritten, and its much-exaggerated gaffes and mini-scandals are not playing out quite as expected. Signor Berlusconi, we remember, survived and even thrived through numerous scandals before his recent exit — which had nothing obviously to do with them — and perhaps this was not only because he is also a media tycoon. Italy is not the USA, I know, but there are interesting indicators of change in our scandalology too.

What a piquant idea that now, maybe, scandal could even be a good thing! On the reality show stage that the debates have become, what passes for scandal these days makes a candidate stand out and wins him some sympathy. Thus a questioner of Herman Cain was booed and Mr Cain applauded when he denounced his questions about allegations of sexual harassment as “unfounded accusations” and “character assassination.” To some extent this can be dismissed because it is happening in what Peggy Noonan calls “Republo-world.” But I wonder if Republo-world can’t be expanded in this case to include a bigger world of people who are sick of media scandal-mongering — especially when it is founded on such flimsy ground as the Cain scandals — as the principal if not the only way in which we Americans now are allowed to “do” politics.

Miss Noonan herself writes of the Perry brain-freeze: “To me it was the first thing he’s done that was endearing.” Doubtless it is very cynical of me, but I can’t help thinking that Mr Perry might have been shrewd enough to have done it on purpose. Even if he didn’t, his moment of humanity and vulnerability certainly got him all the headlines the next day and overshadowed the Cain scandals in making him stand out from the crowd. Could he have been seeking some of Herman’s scandal magic? Scandal does what debates themselves do by diminishing the candidates and turning them from potential leaders and heroes, which American presidents once were expected to be, to mere TV “personalities.” The process, however, also tends to diminish the scandal to the level of an endearing foible. If that is the way the game is now played, that is the way people will play it.

It’s true that, in one recent poll, Newt Gingrich has suddenly taken the lead over Mr Cain, but for someone who is what the media love to call “scandal-plagued,” the latter is still a remarkably strong second. Moreover, Mr Gingrich was himself scandal-plagued until quite recently. He is now at a distance from his process-scandals of last May and at an even greater distance from the sex scandal of over a decade ago which caused him to resign the speakership. This makes them seem trivial and old news. When The Daily Caller asked “Just how did Newt overcome his problematic summer?” the communications director for the Gingrich campaign, R.C. Hammond, replied that “the public never even really cared about any of his boss’s alleged faux pas. ‘It never came up when it was a big deal,’ insisted Hammond. ‘The only people that ever cared about it were the reporters.’” That’s true, but maybe some people also cared that the reporters cared so much — and these are the ones now defiantly surging to Newt, at least partly to show that they don’t care themselves.

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