The League of Women Voters quit sponsoring presidential debates during the 1988 campaign, saying the events had devolved into “charades devoid of substance.” That was more than two decades before Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann took the stage, redefining “substance” and “devoid” and “charade.”
One remark you never hear this campaign season: “There just aren’t enough debates.” There have been about a dozen so far, with almost a dozen more promised by the time Florida holds its primary on Jan. 31. With news organizations tripping over one another to put on the best show, the charades have evolved into circuses, featuring bells, whistles, buzzers and visual effects to rival “Dancing With the Stars” (minus the rhinestones).
Audience participation is encouraged, enabling Republican crowds to register cheers for Governor Perry’s very busy death chamber in Texas (while sounding the Bronx variety for his vaccine policy to protect teenagers from cancer), boos for a gay soldier in Iraq, and some scattered “Yeahs” for the proposition that a comatose patient who’d refused to buy health insurance should be left to die.
PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer, who over the decades has moderated 11 presidential debates, predicts that if the networks keep ratcheting up the ratings pressure, we’ll be seeing a debate held underwater at 5 a.m. Yet by tarting up the beige League of Women Voters template, the networks have seen viewership soar. Fox News had 6.1 million viewers for its debate in September in Orlando, Florida -- almost twice as many as the most-watched presidential primary debate in 2007.
The spectacles have had an impact, extinguishing Perry’s shooting star while, in the latest plot twist, enabling former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to rise from his crypt, despite a decade of influence peddling in Washington. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, one of the more promising candidates, underperformed on “reality TV,” as he called the experience; that’s all it took for his show to be canceled.
Herman Cain is both a creation of the debates and their purest, most vapid expression -- a political Kim Kardashian. Campaigning is hard; putting on a show is fun. Instead of a platform, Cain had a podium, a smile and a slogan (“9-9-9”) that he swung at every softball. Hoping to find a sweet spot -- a boost in notoriety sufficient to double his speaking fees or land a TV show -- he overshot.
His Potemkin campaign’s one authentic claim -- amateurishness -- fed the Republican base’s strange cravings and catapulted him up the polls. When a video exposed that Cain didn’t know enough about Libya even to fake a semblance of an answer, he soldiered on without shame. His campaign might have persisted if not for the pileup of wronged women stranded behind Cain’s caravan. His essential cluelessness was in full relief as he “suspended” his campaign last weekend in front of a new office he was opening. It was like a ribbon-cutting at an eviction.
For all the exposure, the debates have told us little about former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. In the land of the lightly informed, Romney is king. The best student in class, he always seems to have sussed out what the professor is going to ask, acing the exam whether the topic is sovereign debt in Europe or explaining his own heresy in providing health care to the uninsured in Massachusetts.
With his rivals competing among themselves for the rich vein of Tea Party voters who, so far at least, have been immune to Romney’s charms, Romney has escaped the usual fate of the front-runner; he is rarely attacked. Moreover, he has used his regular turns on the debate circuit as one more excuse to dodge the media. You can see why. It took a single interview on Fox to reveal what 11 debates had not: that Romney can be a prickly, irritable and arrogant patrician given to speaking of himself as “we.”
Bankruptcy and Birtherism
Lehrer’s nightmare scenario, meanwhile, came a step closer to reality this week -- albeit at sea level. Donald Trump, the biggest clown under the Republicans’ big tent, a man who has flirted with bankruptcy and birtherism with equal recklessness, is scheduled to moderate a Dec. 27 debate with the cranky conservative website Newsmax and ION Television.
Texas Representative Ron Paul, proving that even presidential candidates are capable of dignity, declined to participate due to the “circus-like” atmosphere that accompanies everything Trump. Romney and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman similarly opted out of the show. The other candidates, continuing their quest for The Donald’s blessing and unwilling to diss him, appear set to play apprentice.
With the absent Romney, Huntsman and Paul creating space, perhaps Trump will invite Cain back onto the national stage. Cain continued his public appearances even after announcing his campaign suspension, speaking Dec. 5 at a fundraiser in Oklahoma. “Contrary to what some people think,” he said, “they are not going to shut me up.” Nor, apparently, will Trump be silenced. Neither can tolerate exiting the stage. This year’s Republican primary campaign was made for them.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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