I haven’t seen all thirteen thousand Republican debates, but I admit I’ve seen more than a sentient being should want to see. I’ve not commented on them because I’m not interested in making this blog an endorsement for any party or candidate. But it’s hard not think about what the debates say about America, what they can teach us about ourselves, our values, and our political process.
Herewith, then, a few observations:
1. Communication matters. Some people decry the debates, like they did Obama, saying that being a good talker is not what the presidency is about. Presidents should do things, not just talk about things. And while it’s true that Presidents should do things, it’s also true that they should be good at saying things. In times of war or crisis, the President must reassure. In confusing times, he should be able to explain. In dark times, he should be able to connect to people through the power of words. Speaking is one of the most important things a modern President does. He will give speeches, talk with foreign leaders, do interviews, hold press conferences, and make grave announcements. Communication is key. It’s good for the debates to test this.
2. It’s unfortunate that the debates are covered almost entirely as a horse race. Style points are not irrelevant (see my previous point), but the winners and losers of these debates has almost nothing to do with how cogent a person’s arguments were. The postgame analysis is all about who looked nervous or pinched or confident or cocky. The commentary focuses on the minutia of debate tactics just like the general election coverage is obsessed with momentum and campaign strategy more than the substance of ideas. The debates are American Idol for people who sing worse, dress more respectably, and spend equal time on their hair. The candidates perform and then the judges on every channel discuss whether they should get a ticket to Hollywood (er, South Carolina).
3. People in this country value competence (see Rick Perry’s oops) and want someone to give voice to their emotions (see the rise of Newt). They want intelligence, but don’t try too hard (see Jon Huntsman’s Mandarin). They like plain spoken politicians (see Herman Cain), but don’t want their leaders to plain run out of knowledgeable answers (see also Herman Cain).
4. As always, Americans claim to dislike negative campaign attacks. And as always, they can be greatly swayed by them. We all say we want a candidate to stay above the fray and run a positive campaign. But we won’t in the end vote for him after he’s been beat up by everybody else. Presidential campaigning is like Owen’s dictum on sin: kill them or they’ll be killing you.
5. Americans will overlook almost any sin if they think you think you are a mess. They will overlook almost nothing if they think you think you have it all together. Mitt seems to care about his reputation as a man of integrity, which makes him more vulnerable to attacks of character. Newt has more baggage than the Orient Express so no one much cares when another potential scandal or inconsistency surfaces. Americans hate the smell of hypocrisy and flimflam.
6. The debates over the past months, and the election in general, exposes a number of inconsistencies about Americans.
- We want to be rich and want politicians who will promise to make us richer. But we don’t like our politicians themselves to be wealthy.
- We want candidates to give straight answers and not dodge hard questions. But when they give specific answers to hard questions their answers will be ridiculed as dull or will be held against them.
- We want our leaders to be super confident, super competent, and super intelligent. But we hate elites.
- We want the president to be one of us and above us and unlike us at the same time.
- We want someone to be an effective executive in the labyrinth of legislative, judicial, bureaucratic, military, and diplomatic tasks that face the modern President. But we also want him to be a complete outsider with no experience in how any of that works.
- We want politicians unsullied by the real life tradeoffs, lobbyists, and interest groups of politics. But what they are like in the rest of life doesn’t really concern us. They can compromise in everything but politics.
Politics is messy because it’s government by messy people for messy people. But at least in a democracy the people have a say. No matter who you like or don’t like this time around, the great thing about America is that we get the person most of us want.
And usually deserve.
P.S. There are a few things you don’t need to leave in the comments because I understand the sentiments are already out there: 1) How Obama has ruined our country. 2) How this field of Republican candidates is terrible. 3) How Ron Paul embodies every virtue and none of the vices mentioned in this post. 4) How we don’t always get the President we want because the electoral college is stupid. Just trying to rope in a few steers before they bolt out of the barn.