I hate the modern political campaign debate.
As I analyzed last night’s debate, I recognized that my strategic criticism revolved around questions of ethos, focusing on perception of the candidates and their capacity to successfully undermine each other through memorable attacks, often in the form of half-truths or lies. I don’t mean to dismiss the powerful role of ethos and doom us to long, boring technical roundtables. Clever phrasing and well-crafted attacks should be part of a debate. But these debates do not strive for argumentative balance — the substance of the answers (or indeed even answering the question posed) is a secondary concern. A format that encourages style and half-truths over substance and accuracy is a disservice to the country.
But here we are again. Using the lens of my debate preview from yesterday, here is my recap of who managed to accomplish the goals I set for them.
Mitt Romney – Understand Tone
Perhaps it was the format of sitting around a table rather than standing robotically, but whatever it was, Romney looked Presidential without looking robotic. Perhaps more importantly, he successfully accomplished the other objective I set for him, which was casting Santorum as a “creature of Washington.” His attacks were not particularly devastating (or even coherent in the case of his blaming Santorum for ObamaCare), but Santorum’s responses were, while accurate and sensible, riddled with political and procedural technicalities. I don’t know if the Romney campaign realized that Santorum would walk into this trap, but in any event Santorum did. Now, did viewers recognize that his long and convoluted answers reflected a Washington insider? I’m not sure. And if not, can Romney exploit those answers in an ad? I’m also not sure.
Rick Santorum – Punch Romney Fast
Rick Santorum did get a few jabs in on Romney, but by and large he held his fire and tried to play defense. I didn’t think he did poorly, but he failed to deliver the knockout punch he needed to. Santorum failed to understand that an attack is as successful as the weakness it exploits. To use the analogy of swordplay, an attack that strikes a vital organ is more important than leaving a flesh wound. Romney’s weakness in the GOP primaries is his inability to connect with middle and lower income conservatives. When Santorum tied Romney to the bank bailout, Romney calmly explained why a bank bailout was necessary. The Santorum retort that was never to arrive was to ignore Romney’s response and say “at the end of the day you wanted a bailout for your buddies on Wall Street but not one for the auto industry.” That’s it. It casts Romney as a “creature of Wall Street” (to use Romney’s strategy against Santorum as a template) and every possible Romney response sounds defensive. Santorum had some attacks, sure. Such as saying Romney didn’t do anything more in Massachusetts than Michael Dukakis. But these attacks were flesh wounds and will be forgotten.
Newt Gingrich – Target Romney
Once again Gingrich excelled in a debate where he was not the front-runner. In many ways he was more successful in defending Santorum than Santorum. Gingrich, who is no longer afraid of his Washington background, provided a succinct defense of earmarks as a tool for conservatives to battle Democratic Presidents. He bailed out Santorum on more than one occasion in the early going. Santorum should have recognized that Gingrich was willing to defend the political process and stayed out of his way — allowing Gingrich to don the mantle of career Washingtonian. But Santorum let his ego draw him into defending himself and kept Newt from unloading on Romney.
Ron Paul – Plan Comebacks
His comebacks in defense of his anti-Santorum ad and on foreign wars were snappy and memorable.
To bring this full circle, my final focus is on the moderation. John King seemed gun shy after his savaging from Newt Gingrich last month, and the candidates recognized the blood in the water, as evidenced by Mitt Romney’s dismissive response that he refused to answer the questions King asked. I don’t want to hold back King’s career, but unless he was prepared to stand up to that abuse, he should not have moderated another debate this cycle. When the moderator lacks the gravitas with the candidates to elicit even the illusion of respect, there is functionally no moderation. Time and time again questions were left unanswered and King allowed one or all of the candidates to duck the questions.
But the candidates are not the only ones to blame. The networks seem increasingly enamored with demeaning the moderator. Questions from the audience and submitted via Twitter are sold as increasing “participation” and “democracy” but they really introduce ill-crafted questions, often with built in inaccuracies or faulty assumptions, where the moderator has not performed the meticulous work of crafting a question to guarantee a meaningful answer from the candidate.
And this is a shame, because moderation is our only tool for reforming the political debate — our only mechanism for forcing candidates to answer questions and address specifics.