Last week, the current Republican Presidential candidates endured 90 minutes of televised question and answer on a stage of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum complex in Simi Valley, California. The MSNBC event was even less of a debate than the usual political debate. The 10 men lined up all in a row across the stage while Chris Matthews, Host of MSNBC’s Hardball television show grilled them. Who knew that Chris was a friend of the religious right? There he was, though, “looking out for us” covering Terri Schiavo, embryonic stem cells, abortion, enough conservative issues for every candidate to hang himself on something. Chris’ “gotcha” smile gave the debate a genial hardball tone rather than the dignified tone that characterized the Democratic debate moderated by Brian Williams.
The ten men tried their best to accomplish the impossible distance themselves from President Bush and his low approval ratings without appearing to reject the party’s leader (a tough tightrope act for them all) and cast themselves in the image of former President Ronald Reagan without sounding like a discordant echo of his pitch-perfect conservative stances on the issues.
There was little time for any candidate to develop an answer before the moderator jumped to another candidate. The situation was unwieldy and the procedure stilted. Chris jumped back and forth between candidates so at least there was minimum predictability regarding which candidate would be responding to the questions. Mitt Romney, by being first in line, got more airtime than other candidates. There was no on-screen identification of the men as they spoke so the little-known ones didn’t get much of a bounce in name recognition from the effort. Even the better-known candidates suffered from the jerky pace and haphazard questions. So, even though no one lost, nobody won either. Well, maybe Fred Thompson won by not being there!
The real success of the evening was that all of the candidates avoided political suicide in handling Chris Matthews’s radioactive questions on social conservative issues. In many respects political spin has taken the sheen off campaign debates; certainly spontaneity and authenticity are long gone. The one exception during this debate was when Romney responded to the Bill Clinton question by saying, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
All the candidates were carefully nuanced in their positions. Even on the Iraq war: while they support the troops and the president, they will reverse any mistakes that were made. Interestingly, immigration was a bigger issue than expected. Candidates differed, too, on whether it was necessary to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in order to win the war in Iraq. McCain declared that it was, but Romney indicated there would be other terrorists after bin Laden. All were against pork-barrel spending, of course, some were against evolution; all were against excessive spending and support the military, while only one admitted to wanting to get rid of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
The candidates were careful in their comments about the Republican Party’s recent public relations nightmares at the hands of the newly powerful leaders of the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill. The location of the debates meant that all the candidates were measured against former President Ronald Reagan’s image and legacy. Reagan’s name was mentioned nearly two dozen times during the evening, making his presence almost palpable during the debate.
The format made it impossible for any candidate to stand out or to dominate the event. To that extent, it was a successful debate that gave the lesser known candidates an opportunity to air their views on the issues on a par with those better known. Nobody committed a fatal blunder, though former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Guiliani came close when he admitted that he would be “OK” if Roe v. Wade were to be repealed, but also equally OK if judges upheld the current abortion legislation. His stumbling response is immortalized on YouTube and will, doubtless, haunt him throughout the rest of the campaign.
The ten white males contrasted with the Democratic candidates that included a woman and a black. The debates differed, too, in tone and substance as the moderators shaped the debates in very different directions. Brian Williams, Evening News Anchor for NBC, moderated the debate among the Democratic presidential candidates producing a more formal, substantive event than the free-wheeling, combative tone set for the Republican debate. But, the 2008 election is a long way away. This debate will have little effect on the election, having served its basic function of introducing the candidates to the public. It is probably just as well that Thompson wasn’t there; the television actor needs no introduction.