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To date, I’ve watched every minute of all eleven of those gatherings of the Republican candidates for the U.S. presidency that the various TV channels and other sponsoring entities call “debates.” With the possible exception of AMC’s “The Walking Dead”, these events have provided the best fall television my satellite provider has to offer. Typically, the substance of the candidates’ statements has been much less interesting than the cultural subtexts: the dramatic and unscripted participation of the different live audiences; the efforts of the questioners to get answers versus the candidates’ efforts to avoid answering; the candidates’ attempts to distinguish themselves from the group, to create individual personae; and, of course, the “gaffes”, those inadvertent revelations of ignorance or brain fade. So what have these events had to teach us?
First, it has to be said that they are valuable primarily as a consequence of their more or less complex and dynamic contexts. The varying sources of questions, the physical presence of rivals that affects how one criticizes them, the choice to play to the immediate audience or to the (not-quite-real) wider TV audience, the instances where the scripted response doesn’t quite fit the point at issue, whether and how to respond to unexpected audience reactions, all of these complexities make the “debate” format revelatory in ways that no candidate would necessarily choose. The result is sometimes an actual clash of ideas, but more often, and more importantly, a more comprehensive view of the persons seeking the job, a glimpse of the personalities behind the political facades.
Second, the relative hurly-burly suggested by the point above does tend to separate the sheep from the goats. We see that it does make a difference who gets selected. Particularly in the last gathering, nominally on foreign policy and national security, two of the candidates, Cain and Perry, often seemed lost, the way I felt watching the Q&A after one particular lecture at the 2010 edition of the international Toward A Science Of Consciousness conference. It was apparent, to me at least, that neither Cain nor Perry had the experiential/educational background to follow the flow of the discussion. This is not to make a moral judgment, but simply to note the obvious: just because you decide to run for president doesn’t mean you have the mental tools to do that job, even at the minimal level established by Bush II.
Third, the two candidates with the most apparent sexual anxieties, Santorum and Bachmann, seem quite normal when the discussion stays away from sex. Santorum still has that eager-puppy demeanor and Bachmann has her ever-present Obama fixation, but neither seems dim, like Cain and Perry. Indeed, Bachmann may be my surprise of the group. Early on I think many of us saw her as a Palin clonette or wannabe, but she is orders of magnitude less dim than that. The problem with either of these candidates as president is, of course, that the population to be presided over has all manner of sexual orientations and predilections that must be accommodated; squeamishness in this area can only complicate the job and misdirect executive attention.
Fourth, religious intolerance bubbles up only occasionally, but it always seems to be there, beneath the surface. After the Jeffress incident, and after some of the more fundamentalist candidates had done their shuck-and-jive to avoid opining on the (non)Christianity of Romney, there seemed to be a tacit group agreement to try to keep religious issues off the table. Fuzziness in this area is particularly beneficial to the candidates and particularly detrimental to those of us who are the governed. We want to know how we would fare under the hegemony of those who seem especially driven by their religious ideation – Santorum, Bachmann, Perry – and of those who seem guided but not driven – Cain, Paul, Romney – and even of those whose ideation seems wholly non-supernatural but willing to accommodate our pervasive cultural supernaturalism – Huntsman and Gingrich. So far, our ever-compliant media agents have avoided probing, for example in the latest event, how Bachmann’s apparent dominionist beliefs would affect her perception of, and responses to, certain threats to our national security.
Fifth, these gatherings could be so much more instructive for potential voters if the questions were asked by people who knew how to ask questions. The best efforts of media agents to date have fallen woefully short. Candidates will always want to repeat their so-called “talking points” and these are carefully crafted to insinuate the candidate’s similarity to the average listener while leaving “wiggle room” for later corrections. They do not reveal more about the candidates than a generic desire to be liked and they do not permit the listener to compare candidates substantively. An effective questioner can be polite, while firm and persistent. Every competent lawyer who has taken a deposition of an uncooperative witness has had to do this. The model of this sort of productive questioning of smart and important people is the brilliant Arthur R. Miller in his role as moderator of the Fred Friendly Seminars “The Constitution: That Delicate Balance.” (Available on DVD and/or tape should any future “debate moderator” want to learn something about how to do this.)
Sixth, our nation continues to be deeply split along tribal and subcultural lines and there is no popular overriding national perspective. Significantly, the only candidate to offer a bigger, nationally inclusive, picture from time to time has been Huntsman, the one mired firmly in last place. It is true that Gingrich has carved out an on-stage anti-divisiveness persona – I think he has said some variation of “Anyone of the candidates up here would be a better president than Barack Obama” at least once at every gathering – but this is always in the context of us (Republicans) versus them (Democrats). Even factoring in the constraints of the primary process, these events offer precious little evidence that any candidate understands that he or she will have to lead a national population, half of which disagrees with the beliefs and perspectives of the Republican base.
Seventh, this “debate” process obscures candidate brainpower by disproportionately rewarding glibness and punishing thoughtfulness. The job of presiding over a nation almost never requires an immediate, clever answer, and it almost always requires thoughtful consideration of voluminous data. Regardless of how desperately some voters want to elect “a strong man,” “a good Christian,” “a moral leader,” the hard truth is that the job requires an effective problem-solver, and that takes smarts. On the brainpower scale, the “debates” suggest Gingrich and Huntsman at the top, then Paul and Romney, then Santorum and Bachmann, with Cain and Perry at the bottom. When you add in a rational-worldview requirement, the nation could probably survive a presidency of, in descending probability order, Huntsman, Gingrich or Romney; with the other five, not so much.
I expect to watch the remaining “debates” also. We’ll see if they shed further light on candidate fitness.
ARC – 11/29/11
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