There were two presidential debates in New Hampshire in the span of about 14 hours. I couldn’t see or hear the one this morning. The one last night (the first in nearly a month) got a lead-in audience from “Wipeout.” Something tells me those two programs do not appeal to the same demographic. It might have been fun to see the candidates trying to clamor across giant bouncy balls covered in mud and getting socked in the head by humongous boxing gloves, but apparently that doesn’t happen until you’re elected.
You know who I wouldn’t have minded getting boxed in the ears? Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos.
The thing about debates that makes them debates, that makes them good, are good questions. But when they did get questions about potentially tension-mounting topics, the candidates didn’t seem to have the energy to go all-out, preferring instead to just say, “Yeah, I do stand by what I said about him being corrupt/a chicken hawk/a liar,” and letting it drop at that. (Summary: everybody stands by the nasty things they’ve said in the last few days.)
Here we are, days out of Iowa where Rick Santorum lost to Mitt Romney by eight votes and days before New Hampshire, which is where Jon Huntsman has spent all his time and effort. Rick Perry’s not even in the New Hampshire picture, but he was there for the debate. Michele Bachmann’s out of the race, Ron Paul pulled more than 20% in Iowa… shouldn’t these guys be firing on all cylinders?
But where everyone should have been trying to take down Romney, the effort seemed half-hearted. And where everyone should have been contrasting themselves to Rick Santorum – who stood next to Romney in the middle of the stage instead of out on the periphery like he’s always been – almost nobody did. There were random punches thrown at Jon Huntsman, who is a threat to exactly nobody including insects, and some anger lobbed at Paul from Gingrich. I’m not saying they weren’t honest critiques, but it appeared that nobody knew that it was time to marshal the forces against Romney and knock Santorum back to where he was before Iowa.
I think some of it was because the questions were so dumb.
Dumb Question #1: “Governor Romney, we just saw 200,000 new jobs created last month, and there are optimists who say this is the signal that this economy is finally turning around. Are you with those optimists?”
The question allowed Romney to say yeah, it’s nice that jobs are coming back, but it’s sure not because of President Obama. Only job losses are because of President Obama. But apart from that… it’s a stupid question. If you want to ask about the new job creation, frame the question better. Something like, “Why do you think the economy created 200,000 jobs last month? And how would your plan sustain or improve on it?”
Dumb Question #2: “Senator Santorum, you have said we don’t need a CEO, we don’t need a manager as president. What did you mean by that?”
I think this was supposed to pit Santorum against Romney vis-a-vis the latter man’s “taking care of business” approach to politics. I mean, isn’t that obviously the answer to the question? Why even bother to ask? It was followed with “were you talking about Mr. Romney?” and “Mr. Gingrich, a group supporting your run just put out a scathing attack… calling (Romney’s time at Bain Capital) ‘a story of greed,’ …saying that Bain made spectacular profits by… ‘stripping American businesses of assets, selling everything to the highest bidder and often killing jobs for big financial rewards.’ Do you agree with that characterization?”
Gingrich didn’t really answer the question. It was part of a series of eight questions about Romney’s time at Bain Capital, and because they were dumb questions, the candidates seemed unsure of why they were coming up. It’s not that records aren’t important. It’s not even that Romney’s highly touted business experience isn’t important vis-a-vis the economy. But if it takes eight questions and you still can’t get what you want out of the candidates, you’re doing it wrong. And these aren’t so-called “gotcha” questions. Sometimes questions like this do work. But with Sawyer and Stephanopoulos, they don’t. I can’t think of a reason other than a lack of gravitas.
Dumb Question #3: “Governor Huntsman… Tell us why you would be better as commander-in-chief than the other candidates on this stage?” Jeez, Diane. This is like asking him what he did on his summer vacation. (He still failed to answer it with any strength, sort of slipping into his economic plan, which is fine and all but isn’t about commanding the military. I mean it is, and I know he thinks it is because I’ve heard him talk about how having a strong economy helps the US militarily, but he didn’t articulate that this time.)
Over and over, the moderators belabored points people lost interest in after the opening question. And then there was this one:
“Governor Romney, do you believe that states have the right to ban contraception? Or is that trumped by a constitutional right to privacy?”
Okay. First of all, Santorum is the one who doesn’t like contraception. Before the question, that was explained a little bit. But… then ask Santorum the question. Ask him to clarify his position (ahem) on birth control. Ask him what action he would take, if any, on the federal level with respect to contraception. Don’t ask Mitt Romney if he thinks the states have the right to ban it. That doesn’t even make sense. It’s not even really something Santorum has asked for. Which Romney eventually sort of said. And yet they kept pestering him about the question. Somehow it ended up being about Roe v. Wade, which I think Romney just pulled out for the sake of having something he could answer and put the whole matter to rest, already.
This topic? Went on for like ten minutes. It’s a topic that doesn’t even exist, and Stephanopoulos couldn’t let it go. I get what he wanted to happen. But it wasn’t working. Part of being the moderator is knowing when to fold ’em. Ridiculous.
It wasn’t easy to pull out any gems from this debate. But (now I’m finally getting around to it) here are a couple of things you might want to keep in mind:
Ron Paul’s fight against Rick Santorum’s sudden rise is to question how conservative his spending principles are. Santorum countered with a litany of spending measures he voted against. “I’m a Republican, not a Libertarian. I believe in some government,” he said.
Rick Perry said Republicans need someone who can beat President Obama, get tea partiers behind them and stop spending. An interesting point. There are no candidates that can do all three… but Perry seems to think he can.
On the subject of gay marriage, which everyone on the stage is against, there are varying levels of acceptable legal partnership to the candidates, which I’ve outlined in previous posts. But this time, Gingrich went so far as to say “…There is a huge jump from being understanding and considerate and concerned to saying we will institute the sacrament of marriage as though it has no basis… ”
A sacrament? To my knowledge, only Catholics consider marriage a sacrament. A sacred thing, a blessed thing, a holy union – those are all Christian terms, but “sacrament” is decidedly Catholic. Interesting approach for the convert.
Ron Paul has no plans to run as an independent but hasn’t ruled it out. Diane Sawyer asked if everyone on the stage should rule it out. That’s both a dumb question and a completely unnecessary one; Paul is the only one who would have a shot if he ran as an independent. Unless you’re Mitt Romney and you don’t get the nomination. Then you run as an independent.
Gov. Rick Perry said he would send troops back into Iraq. This might have been the most stunning thing anybody said, and the moderators didn’t press him on it. I’m pretty sure that within 24 hours he’s going to explain that he didn’t mean it the way it sounded. For the debate, though, he circled and then settled in on the apparently foregone conclusion that the Iranians are going to take over Iraq. Which, so far, isn’t close to happening… but is a concern.
Sawyer wrapped up the debate by asking each candidate what they would be doing if they weren’t running for president on a Saturday night. Romney, Santorum and Gingrich said they’d be watching football. Paul said he’d be reading an economics textbook (I actually believe that). Perry said he’d be at the firing range (I believe that too). And Huntsman said he’d be talking with his two boys in the United States Navy. Which I don’t believe at all.
Then Sawyer and Stephanopoulos led the post-debate analysis from ABC. Which I have a huge problem with, because moderators shouldn’t lead analysis.
I think I might have enjoyed “Wipeout” more. And that’s really saying something.