Aw, Shucks: the Debate In Corn Country

After all these debates, what’s the point of another one? One word: Iowa.

Last night’s ABC News debate didn’t yield anything new in terms of policy. Nobody said anything they haven’t said before (for a mostly policy-oriented review of each debate leading up to last night’s, please see my Political Snark category). What last’s night debate did was usher in the latest phase of the campaign – the sort of Third Week of Political Advent: the run-up to the Iowa caucus, closely followed by the New Hampshire primary.

Jon Huntsman wasn’t at the debate. He’d been invited, but turned it down because he’s spending all his time and money on New Hampshire. With Herman Cain now out of the race, the stage was set for six: Santorum, Perry, Romney, Gingrich, Paul and Bachmann. ABC’s production of the debate was surprisingly unpolished; there were audio issues throughout and hiccups with “Rewind” portions that played in commercial breaks to re-show moments we’d just seen. And if Diane Sawyer was concerned about running out of time as she repeatedly stated, she should have considered taking less time to ask a question.

The moments that may have mattered, that stood out from other debates, were the awkward ones. I’m going to run with two of them: the $10,000 bet, and the Cheater Question.

As has happened in at least three debates before last night, Texas Gov. Rick Perry challenged former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney on whether he’s in favor of individual mandates for health insurance coverage. Once again, he attempted to quote Romney’s book. Once again, Romney laughed (he gets quite artificially, pompously amused when he finds someone’s statements about him to be particularly offensive) and then leveled a cold gaze while saying what Perry stated was simply wrong. And then… he held out a hand… and offered a $10,000 bet.

Huh. Interesting.

Perry, wisely, didn’t take it. After two beats during which everybody tried to figure out what the hell just happened, Gov. Perry simply said, “Well, I’m not in the betting business–” and Romney went on to make his own point, to Perry’s relief since he isn’t the quickest-witted and might have struggled to finish the moment.

What’s the big deal about the offered bet? It’s not such a shocking thing that someone says, “Wanna bet?” What’s a little shocking is when someone who’s known to be wealthy  offers to bet someone ten thousand smackers. Specifically.

“Wanna bet? What do you want to bet me?” Fine. “Ten thousand dollars?” What the hell, dude?

It’s not just that it’s tone-deaf to the fact that so many Americans are struggling to bet anybody ten bucks on anything, let alone ten thousand. It’s also that he left it dangling without ever explaining his reason.

The Romney campaign today says the bet was a rhetorical moment – a claim to which I call shenanigans, because Romney waited for Perry to accept or refuse the offer, and if it were rhetorical he would have just plowed on. Romney’s people also say that only Democrats are focusing on that moment of the event, and that proves that the Democrats are “obsessed” with Romney, and that proves he’s going to win the nomination.

Which doesn’t even really make sense.

If I’m Romney’s people, here’s what I say:

“The governor was prepared to seal the deal on his bet with Gov. Perry. What he unfortunately didn’t get a chance to say was that he would donate that money to a charity of the governor’s choice – though not the Perry campaign.”

— or —

“Ten thousand dollars is the maximum amount an individual is allowed to gift to someone without a tax imposed. In a time when so many people are hurting, wouldn’t it be better if the federal government didn’t try to take money away from those who need it most?”

I prefer the first one, frankly. Of course, they’re both complete bs and not at all what Romney intended, but nobody can prove it. Either way, they do something to backpedal a bit from making the guy look like a clueless rich man.

The other very uncomfortable moment in the debate was when ABC’s Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos – a former advisor to Pres. Bill Clinton – asked the candidates if marital fidelity should be considered in choosing a president.

Oh no they di-ihn!

Herman Cain’s campaign folded because of sexual harassment and marital infidelity allegations. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is an admitted philanderer. And he’s standing. Right. There.


I don’t remember who answered the question first. I think it was Rick Perry, who very firmly stated that if one cheats on one’s spouse, there’s no reason they wouldn’t cheat  their business partner or the American people. He bolstered his statement by saying that when he married his wife, he didn’t just promise her he’d be faithful; he promised God.

Then he said something dumb about how that’s stronger than a handshake in Texas and I yelled at him that he’s not Dan Rather.

Rick Santorum, perhaps the most religiously unflagging candidate and a very proud Catholic, was gentler. He said that a candidate’s personal and professional life are both fair game and up for consideration as matters of character in a political campaign. But he said he doesn’t think infidelity disqualifies someone. “I believe people  make mistakes,” he said.

Rep. Michele Bachmann said fidelity is unquestionably important but didn’t convict cheaters of being bad people. Ron Paul made a similar point.

Newt Gingrich was the last person to get the question.

I think ABC did this for two reasons: 1. to give him time to figure out how to respond; and 2. to build the anticipation since everybody knows he’s cheated on two wives.

But Gingrich handled it beautifully and humbly, without even a hint of indignation, saying he had admitted that he has cheated, that he’s gone to God for forgiveness, that he’s tried to make amends, and that people absolutely do have the right to judge an unfaithful person and make their decision about how important that is to them in choosing a president.

After the lead-up, after the candidates somewhat uncomfortably, but still, to their credit, with conviction, answered the question, the guy the question was aimed at hit a home run, placing a bet of his own: that an honest cheat is better than a lying cheat.

You know, I can’t really argue with that.



8 thoughts on “Aw, Shucks: the Debate In Corn Country

  1. Three things. 1) Thank you for showing me how to spell di-ihn. I’ve been wondering. 2) Why do people who are obsessed with limited time inevitably waste even more time by talking about the time constrictions? 3) You nailed the problem with the bet: the amount. It rolled out so smoothly that you know it’s just his go-to amount, sort of like how I always seek out $2 blackjack tables. Sort of like that, but kind of opposite.

    • It is exactly like that, in that it is the minimal amount with which he’s comfortable either losing or winning. Dude’s walking around betting $10,000 on his golf swing, his pick for this week’s football games (should have taken Tebow), whether Iran really does have nukes, whether his hair gel will hold his style all day…

  2. Personally, I think the $10,000 bet is no big deal As you say, “You wanna bet?” is s standard way of showing how sure you are and a rich guy’s going to think bigger. It wouldn’t have meant much if he said, “You wanna bet $100?” Poor guys don’t run for president (Obama’s worth $10.5 million). But I’m probably in a minority … we seem to be in a “stick it to the rich” mentality.

    The Newt is clearly the brightest of the bunch so I’m not surprised he handled the fidelity question best. I think history shows that men can serve as able executives even as they cheat on their wives. We have an amazing ability to compartmentalize ourselves, I guess. What worries me is that revelations about a sitting president has the potential to paralyze his governance, making him essentially a lame duck … although it didn’t appear to slow down Clinton much. Given the choice, I’d prefer to vote for a man (or woman) who’s been faithful. But I don’t see that cheating on your spouse means you’ll cheat on your country and I base my vote on policy.

    • Forgive me for this clarification: it’s not that Gingrich handled the question best. The rest of the candidates got an N/A on it; to our knowledge, Gingrich is the only one on the stage to whom the question of infidelity was more than just a hypothetical. He has cheated on two wives, so for him, the question is a direct personal assessment, whereas to the others, the question forces them to judge Gingrich publicly. But I do give him credit for the way he answered in light of that. And I agree with you that one can be an excellent leader without being faithful to a spouse. I think the question played on the underpinnings of the GOP as the supposed party of family and religion. I think it also played on Gingrich being a cheating husband while pushing for Clinton’s impeachment (albeit for slightly different reasons, as Clinton’s offenses with Monica Lewinsky could clearly have been viewed as one of the most egregious sexual harassment situations of all time if she had been at all interested in pressing that)… and on the story of the end of the Cain campaign.

  3. I teach rhetoric and debate, and during election years students will ask if they should watch the presidential debates, and I tell them absolutely not. Not until we’re studying fallacies and bad debating. Then their task is to identify at least one of all the poor debate techniques in the debates. “But you don’t know what they’re going to say,” they say. “What if they don’t do them all?” I always tell them I’m not to concerned, and it always works out.

    • Aw, come on! It’s a great study in what to do and what not to do, rhetorically. They should watch them, chart them, figure out where candidates go wrong or get it right, predict the spin afterward. I think they’d learn a lot. Then again, I didn’t take rhetoric OR debate.

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