The way we Americans conduct our presidential campaigns leaves much to be desired. We sell candidates with TV ads the way we sell Doritos, except that the company that makes Doritos takes out ads proclaiming the deliciousness of its product, not attacking the Lays potato chips as cancer-causing, un-tasty snacks. We sit through debates that often focus on soundbites and stupidities. And, our mainstream media, needing to convey complex issues in “TV time” (in “TV time” five minutes is an eternity), abets the superficiality with which the contemporary candidates are forced to confront issues.
Yet, there is one serious value in this often silly process: We do learn whether or not a candidate is easily flustered by a tough question and, more importantly, and more pertinently for the debate cycle, whether a candidate can be put off his game by his own success in the polls. After his apparent, narrow win in Iowa and large win in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney became the front runner and got crushed in the debates before South Carolina. After his impressive win in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich floundered in the following debates in Florida. And now, Rick Santorum, fresh from sweeping three states a fortnight ago and rising in the polls nationally, fell flat on his face last night. It is a good thing to know about a candidate you intend to send to the Oval Office whether or not the mere fact of becoming the frontrunner is enough to throw them off their game. Certainly, the pressures of the presidency are made of sterner stuff.
Really think about this for a moment. Most of us wake up with a mix of serious and unserious thoughts about the day that is dawning. I make the coffee and let the dogs out, wondering if I will have to run outside because a neighbor is walking her dog, and my border collie likes to jump the fence. I pick up the paper from the porch, wondering what it will contain that might be interesting and if the got the late score for the West Coast basketball game I could not stay up to watch. I wonder what I will blog about, visit the key morning websites – Vatican.va, Whispers, Politico – and check the calendar on the wall to make sure I am not forgetting a commitment. Will I make my morning walk before writing my morning blog post or after?
Think about the thoughts that greet a president when he wakes up. Of course, this president, like most parents, must think about his children and if they did their homework and the challenges that will face them in the day ahead. He must recall the conversation he had with his wife and whether or not there is more to discuss about their family life. But, then, as he rubs his eyes, he must wonder about the grave and complex issues he must face in the nation and the world: Has North Korea indicated a new willingness to negotiate with her neighbors or, instead, decided to embark upon some reckless policy that threatens the stability of the region? Did any rockets cross from Gaza into Israel last night? What is going on in Iran? How is the market going to react to the news from Greece? Will a hundred thousand different businesses decide to expand or retrench their hiring? Did he remember to call all the senators whose arms need twisting on an important forthcoming vote? And those are just the perennials. Think of the issues that one cannot predict: The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a terrorist plot is unearthed, an enterprising reporter has dug up dirt on a member of your staff.
If the current crop of GOP candidates can so easily be thrown off their game by the mere fact that they have risen to the front of the pack, how will they cope with the real challenges that face a president? If leading a nominating contest goes to their head, what will happen to their ego when they walk into the Oval Office each morning, surrounded by all the bowing and scraping that attend power? The performance of these candidates in the campaign so far does not inspire confidence.
Last night, Santorum was especially off his game. All of the charges that Mitt Romney threw at him were predictable, and instead of brushing them aside with one-liners, Santorum engaged in the kind of Washington double-speak that confirms the principal narrative Romney has launched: Only a “Washington insider” would confront a charge about Title X funding by discussing his commitment to Title XX. And, as happens when you are a frontrunner, Santorum got it from all sides: After defending himself from Romney’s charges about earmarks, he got it from Ron Paul on the same score. That, too, was predictable and it is beyond me why Santorum’s debate prep team had not coached him for that precise moment to reply: “If my moderate friend from Massachusetts and my libertarian friend from Texas both think I am wrong, my hunch is that I am right.”
To be sure, Romney did not shine. I especially liked the moment when he charged President Obama with an unprecedented government assault on religious liberty. You would think a Mormon would know his own history a little better than that. Newt Gingrich had a very strong performance, but it was too little and too late to stanch the bleeding in his dying campaign: He needs cash not a strong debate performance, and evidently the man supplying the cash, casino owner Sheldon Adelson, has stipulated that the money not go to attack ads aimed at Romney, which is the only way Gingrich could get back into the race.
Democrats must have watched last night’s debate with a large measure of satisfaction. To be sure, there are a host of things between now and November that could happen that could imperil the president’s re-election prospects: if the Straits of Hormuz are closed, or a terrorist pulls of an attack, or the economy in Europe falters, or hiring in the U.S. slows, Obama will be in trouble. But, looking at the four candidates for the GOP nod last night, it was difficult to escape the conclusion that should events conspire to raise one of them to the presidency, the nation would be in trouble.