Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tuesday Debate Leftovers

One of the things I've bee doing during debate season is tracking the types of questions that moderators ask. The Bloomberg/WaPo debate Tuesday night this week looked very different than the others, with far more basic policy questions -- indeed, basic policy questions dominated the debate. There were a few gotchas, but not many. As far as my preferences are concerned, the moderators did a great job.

The big exception was the segment in which candidates were required to ask questions of each other. Mostly what that segment reminded us is just how lousy a group of debaters this is, at least by conventional standards. What most of them did was to pick the candidate they were most interested in derailing and ask that candidate a "tough" question. For the most part, that did the questioner little good; it just gave the target a chance to talk for a while. For example, Newt Gingrich asked Romney a question about a specific detail that Newt didn't like in Romney's tax plan, and the Mittster responded by ignoring the detail and, instead, talking about what a terrific tax plan he had. Advantage: Romney.* No candidate attempted the mildly clever ploy of asking the question of an ally, not a target; that is, if Perry wanted to hit Romney, he could have asked Santorum to talk about the similarities of Romneycare and Obamacare, instead of asking Romney that question. At least Santorum managed to use his question time to make a speech attacking several candidates, although his debate skills have plenty of other problems.

On balance, I don't really mind the gimmicky ask-each-other rounds (which we've seen before, better executed, in previous cycles), and I was really happy overall with the questioning. I should mention: I do think that these debates are less useless when they focus on basic policy exposition, but I'm not really saying that one way is "right" or "wrong", and overall it's important to remember that the debates are a lot less important than they're made out to be (because they're a nationally visible signal in a period in which most of the action is either "invisible" courting of party actors or on-the-ground campaigning in early states). Still, if we're to have debates, they might as well perform the function of educating those voters who are interested enough to watch, and as much as I'm not one for issues politics I do accept that there's a place for it, and it's something that debates can do.

...or at least in theory it is. The other thing I should note about these debates is just how detached from reality the candidates remain. Whether it's Barney Frank causing the housing crisis (and if people took Newt seriously, which of course they shouldn't, they might notice that campaigning for the presidency by threatening to toss the other party's politicians in jail is, well, an interesting choice), or death panels, or mythical IRS agents, or Barack Obama's policies causing 30 year old income distribution patterns, it's just astonishing how little connection to fact there is in these debates. And while some exaggeration is standard for political rhetoric, it sure seems like something else with the current GOP. I'm fairly confident that if you go back to 2000 or 1996, you wouldn't find a comparable situation.

*Of course, it's not at all clear that Gingrich actually minded that, given that he presumably knows he's not going to be the nominee.


  1. The other thing I should note about these debates is just how detached from reality the candidates remain.

    As Andrew Sullivan is forever pointing out, it's not really a party, it's a theological movement. Theologians sit around debating things like whether the kerygma preceded the eschaton or vice-versa. Not a whole lot of reality in those debates either, at least as ordinary people conceive it.

    I think what all this portends is an interesting test of the political-science modeling that predicts elections based on "fundamentals" like economic conditions. We may well see those models predicting an incumbent loss, and yet have an out-party nominee who has just spent several months calling for things like an end to Medicare, a return to health-insurance discrimination, and (incredibly) higher taxes on the middle class -- see TPM's report today on this:

    Of course, we might also have a classic Dukakis-Gore-type Democratic campaign that just lets all this slide. I really don't know what Obama's capable of anymore. But if he actually spends his $$1 billion to advertise and run against Republican positions, he could probably make the GOP nominee all but unelectable by convention time. Romney's obviously trying to avoid that fate (the others seem to embrace it), but Perry has yet to come at him hard, and once he does, Romney will either (a) not be nominated or (b) survive by saying a bunch more radical-right things. Meanwhile the debates are all Democratic campaign commercials in the making.

  2. *Crickets.*

    Wow, nobody else wanted to talk about the GOP primary race? Did I somehow kill the whole discussion? Has everyone's attention shifted to the playoffs? Or do people just not read blog posts that have the word "leftovers" in the title?

  3. "Meanwhile the debates are all Democratic campaign commercials in the making."

    This being the second presidential election in which I can vote, and the first time that I'm paying close attention to the entire process, this is something that I absolutely agree with.

    I don't actually know if that's how it'll turn out, though. I hear what these GOP nominee's are saying and I keep doing double-takes, surprised that people I work with (and such) aren't more shocked by them. Then I remember most people aren't paying any attention yet. *sigh* I'll keep my fingers crossed no matter what!

  4. JAtheist, welcome to the club. I hope your voting years are more encouraging than mine have been. (My second election was 1980 and it's mostly been downhill from there.)


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