Are the Debates Cockfights?

Dear Belladonna Rogers,

I get nervous on the days leading up to the Republican debates. During the debates, I’m in a state of emotional turmoil.  I have high blood pressure, for which I take medication, but it doesn’t prevent me from getting jittery and frazzled watching the debates.

I think what causes me to get upset is that I don’t like shouting, goading, or “gotcha” moments.  I was in the debate club in high school and ours were nothing like these.  These just strike me as mean-spirited shouting matches.

I’ll vote for the Republican candidate, whoever he or she is.

I’m a 70-year-old former Democrat woman, and my former Democrat husband of 45 years encourages me not to watch since the debates upset me so much.  Is it my civic duty to see every one?  What is your view?

Nervous Wreck in Nebraska

Dear Nervous Wreck,

No, it’s not your duty to do something that makes you as anxious as watching the Republican debates, especially since the effort serves no useful purpose.

These so-called debates may evoke feelings in you comparable to those produced by watching a cockfight:


If you had written that it makes you anxious to drive to babysit for your grandchildren, I might have offered a different response, since that presumably serves an important purpose in the lives of your family members.

But why should you endure the stress of watching yet another debate? The fact is that whoever “wins” any particular debate may or may not be the Republican candidate a year from now. Anyway, the debates — like cockfights — are judged on who lost the most prestige — or plumage.

If you vote in your state’s Republican primary, it is a good idea to educate yourself on the candidates’ positions, but there are many ways of doing so without subjecting yourself to the shouting matches the debates have become.


Although many can watch a debate coolly without emotional involvement, for others it can be stressful.  Some people are better equipped than others to extract content from what they hear while remaining unaffected by the anger and nastiness of the delivery.

There are those who actively enjoy a variety of contests of belligerence and bellicosity: boxing, wrestling, bullfighting, dogfighting and cockfighting, to name just a few. Modern televised political debates, unlike the real debates in the golden era of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, have deteriorated into a combination of these five sports.

Many viewers find the attacks during the debates as agonizing as the screech of chalk on the blackboards of our minds.

Watching this gives new meaning to the expression “getting in your face”:



Much that can be gleaned from watching the debates is already clear. Governor Mitt Romney seems to have entered the latest one thinking it was a coronation rather than a competition.

One moment in the Las Vegas debate was worth seeing: the demolition of Romney as Mr. Calm, Cool, and Collected. When Governor Rick Perry rattled his cage by mentioning illegal aliens mowing his vast lawns, Romney’s ill-concealed contempt for the Texas governor soared into overdrive, revealing just how condescending, nasty, and obnoxious Romney can be.  Calling for help from Anderson Cooper, of all people, made Romney seem like a helpless child looking to his father or his older brother — and he has one, six years older, G. Scott Romney — to intervene in a schoolyard fracas.

Where will Anderson or Scott be if Romney has to face down North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il, or Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

Romney then made a statement that was a major blunder, saying he told his lawn-mowing contractor that he, Romney, couldn’t hire a company that employed illegal aliens because he was running for public office. Wrong. The reason should have been because it’s illegal, not because he can’t do it as a candidate for office, implying he’d have had no problem breaking the law if only it weren’t for the inconvenient truth that he wants to be president. Interesting how the truth comes out, particularly under stress.

If a perfectly fair question from a fellow Republican about his lawn service can infuriate Romney to this extent, how will he ever deal with Democrats, or America’s enemies abroad?

Not that most people don’t get resentful when their shortcomings are pointed out, but Romney behaved inappropriately when he invaded Perry’s space by placing his hand on Perry’s shoulder. Romney’s unpersuasive Mr. Nice Guy mask dropped to the Las Vegas floor with a mighty clang, leaving him standing there — self-righteous,  frazzled, and vainglorious — for all to see.

The American president must work well with Congress as well as with foreign leaders, and Romney’s testiness, rich kid hauteur, and thin skin won’t help in either arena. His Gore-like sighs and fake smiles whenever RomneyCare or his other policy lapses are criticized don’t help his cause, either.

When he’s disparaged by others onstage, Romney stares at the speaker with what he imagines is a saintly, patient smile as if he’s exuding serenity as he manfully endures the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. On the contrary, the irritating facial expression that he thinks looks like a benign smile in fact reveals his utter intolerance of anyone who dares to mention his failures. Bad sign. Obama-like.

In a transparent bid to pander to Jewish voters, Romney’s Las Vegas presentation included telling Herman Cain that he, Cain, had a lot of chutzpah — Yiddish for nerve or gallBut Romney, whose circle doesn’t appear to include anyone who actually uses the word, mispronounced and mangled it, not a good thing when you’re trying to pander — and pandering itself isn’t a good thing, either. Brings back memories of Slick Willie.

Here’s a song that sums up how Romney comes across to many voters:

While the majority of male candidates are fighting among themselves, they often make it difficult for the lone female.

What woman who has struggled to have her voice heard in meetings with male colleagues hasn’t been as frustrated as Michele Bachmann when her arguments are drowned out by the bellowing men against whom she’s running?

Even if one could live without hearing her proclaim for the 17-millionth time that she’s a tax attorney who’s given birth to five children and raised an additional 23 foster children, it’s still exasperating to see how little common courtesy the majority of her male opponents accord her.

Invariably, she has to shriek to be heard, and who among us yearns to hear the irritated shriek of an exasperated woman?

What she could use is a little of this:


Ron Paul’s demeanor — putting aside for the moment his actual “positions” and his too-large suits — is similarly jarring.  Through no fault of his own, he comes across as a bantam rooster, and failing, like Michele Bachmann and Rodney Dangerfield, to get any respect.


He’s easily excitable –in fact, he seems in a perpetual state of high dudgeon and indignation — and his frenzied agitation makes it difficult to listen to him for more than his 60 allotted seconds.

It’s hard to imagine him as an obstetrician in the delivery room bringing forth anything but even more tension and high drama in what’s already an emotional, hormonally charged situation. There’s more than a touch of Rumpelstiltskin in Dr. Paul.

His isolationist foreign policy can be summed up in this classic:

Rick Santorum, who apparently has serious anger-management issues, is, like Romney, another high-testosterone type who seems to have been placed on Earth to raise blood pressure and grate on nerves. From his cocksure, irrelevant bluster about his reproductive success to his short fuse, he’s a one-man stress-producer.  No one with hypertension should come within a mile of Santorum or even of a TV set transmitting his egotistical image.

Elvis could have been describing Santorum when he sang this:


Watching Governor Perry, the viewer’s anxiety comes from empathizing with his difficulty in the debate format, which doesn’t do him any favors. A man of action and decisiveness, his eleven years as a successful Texas governor have produced much that is good for Texas and the country, but haven’t required him to hone the skills necessary to excel in televised debates.

This is disappointing to his many admirers, especially those who’ve worked in presidential campaigns and know how well he’d have been served if only he’d been locked in a room with a group of four or five law professors and experienced litigators. In one wretched weekend they could have taught him exactly what he needed to know.

It’s not too late for Perry to do this. It’s not  pleasant, but it’s essential to his success that he undergo this grueling but invaluable experience to which all winning presidential candidates from Kennedy through the incumbent have subjected themselves.

Debate preparation isn’t only about getting enough sleep. Nor does it simply involve staffers stuffing the candidate with facts, statistics, and memorable talking points — although those are important in preparing for a debate.  Even more important is being in the hot seat for hours with a group of articulate, belligerent, pit-bull interlocutors who’ll raise every conceivable question and then critique the candidate’s responses until he — or she — is ready for prime time.

At his best, Perry evokes the genial, relaxed but decisive big screen cowboy heroes of yore:


And then there’s Newt Gingrich. He’s easy listening. He’s smart, although not — alas for his candidacy and his ex-wives — in his personal life.  An articulate speaker, he doesn’t create the anxiety in the audience that Romney, Bachmann, Santorum, Perry, and Paul do.

His debate stance of  leaning casually on the podium and his “been there, done that” manner do create a reassuring aura, suggesting he’s the voice of experience — until you peer beneath his genteel veneer and see the loathsome character within. Not presidential material — except for the Democrat attack machine.  For those purposes alone, he’s the ideal candidate.

His character issues include his inability to fulfill his marital vows, which he’s taken three times so far — especially the “forsaking all others” and “in sickness as in health” clauses, as detailed here, here, and here.  In 1997, following a protracted House Ethics Committee investigation, the entire House of Representatives voted to reprimand him for ethical violations and levied an unprecedented $300,000 penalty on then-House Speaker Gingrich, in an overwhelming 395-28 vote.

For all his verbal virtuosity, any woman who looks at Newt knowing his history can’t help but think of this:

Last but far from least is Herman Cain, who’s enormously likable and has important similarities as a candidate and potential president to Ronald Reagan.  Reagan was once asked, “How can anyone who’s just a Hollywood actor be the president of the United States?”  to which he replied, “I don’t see how anyone can be president without having been a Hollywood actor.”

Reagan was the Great Communicator, and Cain is almost as good. They both had significant experience on radio, a major training ground for honing one’s communication skills in public. In addition to working as a mathematician in ballistics as a civilian for the United States Navy, and having had spectacular business success — and without Romney’s leg up as the Harvard-educated son of  the CEO of the American Motors Corporation and a powerful governor — Cain has also been a successful motivational speaker.  One might well ask, in the spirit of Reagan, “How can anyone be the president of the United States in an era as depressed as this without being a successful motivational speaker?”

Comfortable in his own skin, as was Reagan, Cain is the only one on the stage among the Republican debaters not to get into mud-slinging shouting matches with his fellow candidates. His feathers are never ruffled. He has enormous composure, a key trait in successful campaigners and presidents.

Cain exudes a well-earned sense of personal dignity and self-confidence, while most of the others project narcissism, pettiness, belligerence, and arrogance.

“My focus groups have consistently picked Herman Cain as the most likable candidate in the debates,” says GOP pollster Frank Luntz. “Don’t underestimate the power of likability, even in a Republican primary. The more likable the candidate, the greater the electoral potential.”

Herman Cain is not a new presence on the national scene, for those who’ve followed him since his extraordinary exchange with then-President Bill Clinton during one of his televised town hall meetings. If you haven’t seen it, it is well worth watching for what it shows of Cain’s impressive command of facts, as well as his unflappable demeanor, even when up against the president of the United States who was a former attorney general of Arkansas:

It’s crucial that we have a president with the capacity not only to communicate and lead, but also to act in cooperation with the co-equal branch of the federal government, the Congress.

A number of thoughtful pundits have noted Cain’s lack of familiarity with certain issues of public policy and international affairs that are needed in a candidate and a chief executive. He does require tutorials, but so has every single presidential candidate since Kennedy.

What Cain lacks in detailed knowledge of foreign policy, he can learn with a carefully selected group of experienced foreign policy authorities. It’s not rocket science. The same goes for domestic policy issues. Cain has proven repeatedly throughout his life that he’s an A-student and a quick learner. He has almost a year to prepare for a debate with the president, who’ll be without his external brain, his teleprompter.  Fortunately for Mr. Cain, his brain is firmly ensconced in his head.

If he puts his mind to it, there’s no doubt in my mind that Cain can master the requisite material.  But he does have to put his mind to it. What he lacks, he can learn.

What Romney lacks, no amount of tutoring can provide: composure, dignity, self-confidence as distinct from pomposity and narcissism, and the rare, God-given capacity for inspiring the best in people.

One of the many admirable qualities about Herman Cain is that he epitomizes this stirring view of our country:


By now, having heard what the candidates have to say and having seen how well (or how poorly) they get along with one another, you can stop watching the debates. What you don’t already know, you can read — a far calmer way of learning than watching the forthcoming debates.

Presidential debates have been a contact sport in the United States since at least 1960, with serious questions and the requisite time for in-depth answers in short supply. If you’re 70 and suffer from high blood pressure, even with medication, it’s your duty to yourself and your loved ones to do all you can to shield yourself from needless stress.

Your health comes first.

Like you, I, too, will support the Republican candidate. I’d like Obama to be a one-term president — which is precisely one more term than I hoped he’d get three years ago. As he’s amply demonstrated, one term is more than enough.

— Belladonna Rogers

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