The Michigan Republican Debate
Why is there always so much to say about the Republican debates? It is because the plots may be boring or just about not there, even though commentators insist the debates are about plot: one or another candidate rising or dropping or challenging some other one of the candidates. Rather, the debates are fascinating because of the characters; each one of them is so perfectly realized and recognized, each a self-established type of character as well as an actual character. Rick Perry defines what it is to be a Rick Perry and Herman Cain defines what it is to be a Herman Cain even if we didnít know what such people were not so many months ago. That is a real aesthetic achievement.
The takeaway from the Michigan Republican debate a few days ago was the Rick Perry flub. He had a momentary memory lapse and the commentators are quick to say that this is the end of his presidential run. They acknowledge that memory lapses are common for everyone, but that Rick Perry has a track record with flubs and so this will be interpreted as one of those. Well, only because the commentators treat it that way, as an indication of a mental problem that they have in the previous sentence said it was not. So much for commentators making sense. All they do is run for the easiest interpretation rather than for the newsworthy one. The public would have been better served if the moderators had followed up his flub and asked Perry about the two departments he remembered he wanted to abolish. What is wrong with the Commerce Department that you want to abolish it? Do you want to abolish the U. S. Weather Service? Is it that you no longer want the government to try to foster overseas trade? That would lead Perry to provide his ignoramus look because I doubt that he knows enough about the Commerce Department to come up with a sentence or two about why he wants to abolish it. But the commentators allow any number of one line answers of no substance as replies to their queries.
Everybody expected a big dust up over Herman Cain. But he remained steadfast and eloquent in his denials. The commentators donít know what to do about that. They say that the moderators were booed for asking the question. The commentators want to get the goods on Cain. Cynthia Tucker, one of my favorite commentators on politics, offered that Herman Cain got caught out because his response was not as outraged as would have been those of her male friends if they had been similarly charged. That is true enough in that I daresay anyone I know would have been flabbergasted if a charge of sexual harassment had been raised against them. But that is an awfully weak reed on which to claim that you have somehow parsed something to be true about the goings on. I know a lot of women who think Cain is guilty because they know such things happen even though they donít have evidence of it having occurred in this case. Now, it is easy for Liberals to find Cain guilty asóCain. They donít have much use for him anyway. But go after him for being uninformed because he did not know the difference between a guaranteed benefits and a guaranteed contributions retirement account, something you would think as President of a trade association he would know about, not for a charge that has in the past few days faded into the woodwork because there is no corroboration for the charges. You would think that the ever vigilant press, in its interviews with hotel clerks and old employers and employees would have turned up something by now. Instead, people grasp at tea leaves: what does he give away by his tone or demeanor? It is not that easy to read a personís soul, to say whether he is a very accomplished liar or couldnít possibly be that good a liar to stand up there and declare to the world that he didnít do it. Even Bill Clinton had an out by quibbling that oral sex was not sex. That allowed him to deny having sex with that woman.
More important was how badly the question to Cain was phrased, as a rhetorical question about whether he would pick as a CEO someone charged with sexual harassment. It was easy for him to answer that he would not base a decision on unsubstantiated charges. Why not be a little bit more clever in the question? Ask Cain to comment on Joe Paterno. Introduce something from left field so that a canned answer is not easily introduced as a reply. Why not a policy question about sexual harassment? Does he think that charges are too easily made or too difficult to defend against? Should the government change its standards for such charges? What was his policy on sexual harassment at the National Restaurant Association?
The most important thing about the debate, however, was established even earlier than the interchanges with Cain and Perry. The first question was about the European sovereign debt crisis. What happens if European banks fail? What will the United States do about that? Now, that is a reasonable and very difficult question. As a Presidential candidate, you donít want to tip your hand and say how the United States would respond any more than you would want to say exactly what you would do in a hypothetical military confrontation with Iran or China. What you might do is review the bidding, as Bill Clinton was so good at doing: going over how we got into this spot and what were the alternative options and saying that only the particular circumstances would determine what American policy at that time should be. But most of the Republican candidates donít know enough to give a thoughtful response. Those might at least have trotted out a doctrinal response. I will be protectionist, let us say, or seek to reduce trade with unreliable trading partners just as I will seek to reduce oil dependency on hostile powers.
Instead, what the candidates did, all of them, was to categorically deny that they would bail Europe out in any shape, form or manner. It was not our concern. They were not going to be concerned about European countries even those which Jim Cramer, whose tone of outrage was for once justified, said were too big to fail. The answer to that was that too big to fail meant too big to exist. That answer should have just flabbergasted the panel. So what are you going to do: abolish Greece or Italy as nations, and how would you do that? And what does that doctrine mean closer to home? Are you going to dissolve the big American banks before they failed? That is very left wing politics indeed, something contemplated only perhaps by some of the more thoughtful Occupy Wall Street people. The candidates may have merely meant that the American government would not bail out the next American banks that failed, but who is proposing doing that? The much maligned Dodd-Frank bill provides merely for a well organized bankruptcy procedure. Why are the Republican candidates against that portion of the bill, whatever their views on the provisions that regulate banks?
The answer, I am afraid, is that none of them have thought that far ahead, even those like Romney and Huntsman who might be capable of doing such a thing. Rather, the candidates want to supply readily canned answers that will not get them in trouble and that happens only if their answers do not disagree with whatever are the immediate and momentary sentiments of Tea Party people. The candidates are not interested in making news about policy issues. They do not want to differentiate themselves on that basis. Their tax reform plans are not that different from one another, deliberately so. They are all against the same agencies, even if Rick Perry has difficulty remembering the agreed upon list. It is a catechism question, not a thought question, and everyone smiles because Perry muffed even that. The candidates have adopted the Orwellian notion that the best way to proceed is to detach speech from the higher brain functions, which is not a difficult feat for most of them, lacking as they are in significant higher brain functions.
So how do the Republican candidates want to differentiate themselves from their competitors in a race, after all, that only one can win? I am inclined to think that there is some truth to the canard that Cain is trying out for a program on Fox News and Gingrich just wants to have a national platform on which to be heard and that Bachmann will be happy to go back to Congress, her resume burnished by an attempt at national office. They have nothing to lose. The ones who have something to lose are those who think they have a chance to win. Mitt does not want to compete on the issues because he has been on too many sides of them to turn that into a winning strategy. He just wants to be anti-Obama and win the nomination on personal charm, which he has a good deal of, if you think that what he has is charm rather than oiliness. Perry thought he had charm when he joined the race, and the more I think of it, the more I think that his ill appreciated New England speech was the result of trying to turn on the Perry charm, even if it is off putting because it is such a gay sort of charm.
As every teenager knows, it is charm, not brains nor sports ability nor dignity of character, that gets you everywhere, and so that is what the candidates put on display, and since different people have different amounts of this valuable commodity, it is not difficult to see how quickly Bachmannís charms faded, despite the fact that was all she showed from the first moment out, hardly a program or a vision, because she is just not all that charming, and that Mitt thinks his charm will outlast the charges against him of being a flip flop kind of person.
That may be true until he gets the nomination. But the Democrats have been better in the charm department ever since Ronald Reagan bottled his charm and glibness into a package that could win the White House. Obama has his short comings, as did Clinton, and Hillary must have found it outrageous that his charm beat out her experience and competence, but Obama is easy and relaxed with the public while Romneyís ease is forced. A campaign will bring that out, and that will settle the matter, never mind the economy and whatever foreign policy questions emerge over the course of the next year. It is just the way American politics operates: FDR could charm the birds out of the trees and Deweyís lack of charm was so clear that HSTís assertiveness had a charmless charm of its own. The American voter may know no history or economics, but the American voter knows what people it likes and doesnít like.