In order to volley some tennis balls on Tuesday night, I missed the verbal volleys at the GOP presidential debate at Dartmouth. I'm glad I did. As it turns out, one can learn a lot by being forced to read a transcript rather than watching a debate live. The main thing I learned is that Mitt Romney is significantly less substantive, in terms of his words, than he appears to be when you watch him live.
Much of a debate's effect on a viewer is determined by body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. It's quite possible, for instance, that the superbly substantive Rick Santorum hasn't gained significant polling momentum despite an unbroken series of generally acclaimed debate performances because his youthfulness of both visage and body language makes it hard for him to project the mien of a chief executive. If so, it's a shame. With the exception of the equally well-schooled Newt Gingrich, nobody in these debates knows the substance of more issues more deeply, or articulates that substance more understandably, than Santorum does. (Santorum also has a deeper list of actual accomplishment in government than most of the others, but that's another subject.) If the debate moderators would stop giving him short shrift in terms of the numbers of opportunities to talk (and if he stops complaining in public about that unfairness, which doesn't help him project authority), maybe he'll still catch on.
Even fifty years after a pale Dick Nixon proved the importance of visuals and tonality, though, it's still hard to understand just how big a difference those intangibles make until you completely take them away. That's what reading a transcript, rather than watching or listening, allowed this observer to do.
Candidate by candidate alphabetically, then, here's how I thought they did just from reading their words on a page.
Michelle Bachmann: Readers may have noticed that for months I have been largely indifferent to Bachmann, neither criticizing nor praising her performances very much. But, as it turns out, when she knows a topic, she really knows it. Her answer on the causes of the financial meltdown was as good, and understandable, an exposition of an issue as compelling as any we've seen during the series of debates (with the exception of Herman Cain's explanation a few weeks back about exactly why Obamacare would have made it more difficult to recover from cancer): "It was the federal government that pushed the subprime loans. It was the federal government that pushed the Community Reinvestment Act. It was Congressman Barney Frank and also Senator Chris Dodd that continued to push government-directed housing goals. They pushed the banks to meet these rules. And if banks failed to meet those rules, then the federal government said we won't let you merge, we won't let you grow. There's a real problem, and it began with the federal government, and it began with Freddie and Fannie. If you look at these secondary mortgage companies which the federal government is essentially backing 100 percent, they put American mortgages in a very difficult place…."
When Bachmann isn't as well versed on an issue, it really shows, much to her detriment. But what she does know, she explains with great skill.
Herman Cain: For the past two days I've read rave reviews about how well he parried most of the attacks on 9-9-9. In print, he did far less well. He misstated the "scoring" for his own plan, wrongly calling it dynamic; he falsely repeated several times that his advisor Rich Lowrie is an economist; he repeatedly said he would surround himself with good people but couldn't name them; he cited Alan "Bubble" Greenspan as a great Federal Reserve chief; he misrepresented the vociferousness of his past statements belittling the idea of auditing the Fed; and of the three arguments he provided for why 9-9-9 wouldn't be subject to creeping higher rates, two of them were seriously dubious.
In every other debate, watching on TV, I've given Cain among the highest grades. On paper on Tuesday, he merited no better than a C-minus. But I'd enjoy him, more than anybody else on that stage, as my dinner guest, and I'd trust him in a heartbeat with investing my personal finances.
Newt Gingrich: He comes across as substantive when watching, substantive on paper. The man knows his stuff, and once upon a time he did a great job leading congressional Republicans out of the wilderness and, until he imploded, led them to serious legislative accomplishments. It's too bad that his whole career has proved him far less temperamentally steady in actual conduct than he has been throughout the summer and fall on stage. Right now he's play-acting as avuncular; in practice, for decades, he's been more like a volatile mob boss minus the criminality (fortunately) and (unfortunately) minus the insistence on covering the backs of his own men. (Ask Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, among many others.)
Jon Huntsman: On many things, he really is out of step with the Republican primary electorate. Viewed on TV, he is (to me at least) extraordinarily annoying, like a know-it-all with a petty streak. On paper, though, his advocacy of free markets/free trade comes across very well. Even if I were a trade warrior (which I'm decidedly not), I would respect how he explained his positions.
Ron Paul: In the words of an old traditional jazz tune, "Oh, Didn't He Ramble?" When one watches Dr. Paul, there's an oddly compelling nature about his high-pitched, semi-staccato delivery. On paper, there are times you want to tell him to just stop talking, because he digresses and meanders. To be fair, he's very good at defending the concept of freedom. But when he said that the way to accomplish things is "by building coalitions," one wonders if he's living in an alternate universe, considering that he's known in Congress as one of the two or three members out of all 435 who is least likely to work with others on anything, anywhere, anytime.
Rick Perry: Poor guy, now it's actually becoming hard to remember that he has been a mostly good governor of Texas. On paper his answers on Tuesday night were just as excruciatingly inept as the reviews have all said they looked live. When he tries to turn almost every single answer, regardless of the original topic, into a disquisition on oil, he gives the impression of a candidate running on fumes.
Mitt Romney: Does anybody remember the comic strip called "Bob Forehead"? He lives in the form of Mitt Romney. (Quoting the NYT: As Forehead finds out from his personal charismatician, '"When the going gets tough, the tough learn to fake it.") When Dustin Hoffman's character in The Graduate was given career advice to go into "plastics," Hoffman (if he had taken the advice) would have been creating a Romney. How much poll-tested blather can one man get away with saying, yet still sound like he's a man of substance? Elect him because he's a "leader"! (And then repeat "leader" several more times.) Elect him because he's for the "middle class"! (And then repeat "middle class" umpteen more times.) "Bring people together." "Both sides of the aisle." Again, "Listen to a leader who has the experience of leading."
Say that "if you think the entire financial system is going to collapse, you take action to keep that from happening" -- but, Lord forbid, don't let them catch you actually saying what action(s) you would take. But assure people that whatever you do, you would do so "very carefully." "Go after" China, but don't have a trade war. Pander to the "middle class" by setting a tax-cut threshold that excludes people making over $200,000 (credit to Gingrich for nailing Romney on that). Adopt the language of the Left, to the effect that money belongs to the government first: "If I'm going to use precious dollars to reduce taxes…"
Uh, Governor, those dollars aren't yours or the government's to "use," but rather only either to confiscate or not confiscate.
Okay, let me interrupt this criticism with a note that Romney gave good answers on how regulations harm community banks and on why "permanent changes to the tax code" are preferable to temporary and targeted tax breaks. But aside from those, he was nothing but platitudes -- wrapped, I'm sure, in his trademark coiffed hair, relaxed posture, and pleasant tones, and topped off at the end of each answer with an oh-so-earnest smile.
Lord, please save us from candidates who want to be president to either equal or out-do their presidential or near-presidential or considered-for presidential or national-military-leader fathers. Romney the father complained about being brainwashed; now Republicans are on the verge of being brainwashed by the son.
Rick Santorum: First, the criticism: No matter how justified it is for a candidate to resent, in debate after debate, being given only about one-third or one-fourth as many opportunities to speak as the front-running Forehead gets, don't, repeat don't, complain about the unfairness of it all. Whines don't age well.
Other than that, Santorum again was first-rate. He's right that his proposal for zero corporate income taxes on manufacturers would be an economic winner and, unlike 9-9-9, be likely to be passed by Congress. He's right that states without any sales taxes would howl at a national sales tax (and, he might add, states already with a sales tax over, say, 5 percent, would balk at being the collection agents for double-digit levies). He's right to go after specifically those regulations that "cost" more than $100 million. He's right to say that Romney's "waiver" approach to Obamacare would end up with red states subsidizing California and New York. He was right, unlike four of the others, to have opposed TARP. And he was both right, and eloquent, in insisting that "the breakdown of the American family" is not just a moral issue but an economic one, and that poverty is exacerbated by, and ever concurrent with, broken families. As the lead Senate sponsor of welfare reform in 1996, Santorum (along with Gingrich and several other House leaders) is as responsible as anybody for helping lessen the incidence of poverty, in part specifically through policies aimed at keeping families together.
Of course, in a competitive election, "presentation" does matter very significantly, and if Republicans want to rid the country of this disastrous president Obama, they have every right to want a candidate who "projects" himself well enough to win. The question is, why can't they get somebody who also has good substance to project?
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